Catching Fire

Only one of them was supposed to survive the Hunger Games, but Katniss and Peeta have outwitted the Capitol and forced the leaders of Panem to change the rules so that both of them can be declared winners. Of course, such flagrant disobedience – not to mention the widespread popular appeal that lets them get away with it (or at least appear to) – can’t go unpunished. Katniss has become a symbol to the twelve Districts that the Capitol can be challenged, so the Capitol determines to make an example of her to show what happens to those who question their authority.

But they need to be smart about it. They can’t just kill her, and she knows it. Going along with the traditional victors’ tour of the Capitol and the Districts, Katniss and Peeta know the Capitol will find a way to kill them that will be politically acceptable. That politically acceptable execution involves staging a special Hunger Games in which all the contestants are previous winners, nominally to determine who is the greatest of them all. But revolutionary whispers are spreading through the Districts, and not all of the other contestants are Katniss and Peeta’s enemies. The problem is telling who is really an ally, and whether the people who claim District 13 wasn’t obliterated can be trusted either.

Whilst never less than a good read (better than that, really), the second book in the trilogy suffers for much of its length from a distinct sense of being setup for the third book, complete with multiple cliffhangers. For the first two thirds of the novel Katniss is a largely passive character who has thoughts about running away and going into hiding, but doesn’t act on them. Meanwhile many of the events that happen around her show how Panem has changed (for better and for worse) since her victory in the Hunger Games, but she is not the driver of the story, she is just a passenger. That may have been Suzanne Collins’ point, seeing as Katniss has become this symbol for rebellion completely unwittingly, and much of Katniss’s thoughts are about dealing with becoming this icon.

The special Hunger Games is squeezed into the final third of the book, and feels a little rushed as a result. Obviously Collins can’t repeat herself, so sensibly focuses on the suspense derived from the fact that not everybody is out to kill Katniss this time but she doesn’t know who. Less graphically brutal than the first book, this one makes a lot of promises about what Mockingjay will deliver (and as I’m now reading it, it’s fair to say it is – so far – succeeding). Catching Fire is not a weak book, it’s just not as good as The Hunger Games.

Les Miserables (blog 2)

At the end of my review of the original novel, I smugly scoffed at and happily dismissed this year’s film adaptation of Les Mis, without actually having seen it. I now have, and I think it’s only fair to recant (to a certain extent). I have also watched the 1998 straight adaptation of the novel starring Liam Neeson, which I thought would be more up my street. Funnily enough, I preferred the musical.

My main concerns with the musical were what from the 600,000-word novel it would leave out of its two and a half hour running time, and just how miscast it could manage to be, even if it didn’t feature Sofia Coppola. Yes, Jean Valjean is too young and Madame Thenardier is too thin, but apart from that, the only castmember that doesn’t rise to the occasion is Amanda Seyfried, playing Cosette. And that was mainly down to the fact that she has a shrill singing voice, like a goat being gelded.

Hugh Jackman has exactly the right presence for Jean Valjean, though his savagery in the early part of the film can be as much credited to the make-up artist as the script. Russell Crowe might not be the strongest singer in the piece (though he’s better than the gelded goat), but his Inspector Javert is preternaturally angry and self-important. Even Eddie Redmayne manages not to disappear behind his lips for once, and captures the romantic and idealistic side of Marius perfectly.

All in all, the musical is faithful to the novel, in spirit if not always in terms of what makes it from page to stage (or screen, in this case). Fantine is dispensed with in barely half an hour, but that’s enough time for Anne Hathaway to earn her Oscar. Pretty much the entire middle third of the novel has gone, so that Marius and Cosette meet only a few minutes before the revolution. This is the Hollywood idea of instant, magical love. But to be fair, Victor Hugo didn’t do much better – he had Marius and Cosette just looking at each other from afar for over 100,000 words, whilst he got distracted with rants about monastic life and describing the Battle of Waterloo. And the musical makes the final revelation of who saves Marius a lot less convoluted than Hugo managed to do, it must be said.

The 1998 straight adaptation fails on so many levels. It is a largely monotonous, po faced film written by someone who clearly didn’t read the novel until they were hired to adapt it. It veers from slavishly following every story beat in the novel (the first third of the novel comprises almost half the running time of the film) to audaciously rewriting key scenes for no discernible reason whatsoever. The result is uneven and top heavy, rushing the revolution whilst plodding through Jean Valjean’s years since leaving prison but before meeting Fantine. The Thenardiers, so important to both the novel and the musical, are basically reduced to a single-scene cameo.

The only castmember who hasn’t been miscast is Geoffrey Rush, who makes a splendid Javert. He is officious and vindictive, a different interpretation to Russell Crowe’s, but probably closer to how I imagined the character. Liam Neeson plays Jean Valjean like Qui Gon Schindler, rushing around to save the world’s wounded with a grave look on his face, and cursed with some truly appalling dialogue that would have made Victor Hugo’s teeth fall out. Marius and Cosette (here played by Claire Danes) are reduced to whiny spoilt brats. And whilst Uma Thurman can’t be blamed for staying in the film too long, she can be blamed for a one-note performance that goes from lethargic to weary and back again.

My biggest problem was with how the scene where Jean Valjean and Javert confront each other for the final time was rewritten. Pretty much everything the novel has to say culminates in that scene, but here it is completely changed to make it more theatrically dramatic. But the result is quite the opposite. As such it typifies everything that is wrong with the adaptation. It is a superficial film made by people with only a superficial understanding of the novel. Even though it doesn’t have any songs, it’s still more of a pantomime than the musical.

The Hunger Games

American civilisation has crumbled. Some sort of global catastrophe has reduced the population of the US by a couple of hundred million, and a new civil war between fourteen different regions has seen the country reform into an oppressive dictatorship called Panem. One region, the Capitol (though not Washington DC), holds sway over the other 12 (the thirteenth having been obliterated completely). As collective punishment – and to keep the different regions busy fighting each other rather than their masters in the Capitol – each year the 12 regions must send two young people to an arena to fight all the others to the death. Only one is allowed to survive.

District 12 – a rural mining region knocked back into an almost pre-industrial state – selects its two tributes by a ballot. Every time a starving family opt to receive the extra rations they need to survive, one of their children’s names goes into the ballot an additional time. Hence why the fight in the arena is known as the Hunger Games. This year the girl selected is Prim Everdeen, who is only 12. Her older sister Katniss knows Prim can’t possibly win, so volunteers to go in her stead. Unfortunately the boy selected to go with her, who she must kill if she is to ever to return home, is Peeta Mellark, who she already owes a debt. Unbeknown to her, however, he is secretly in love with her.

I saw the movie adaptation of this one last year, which generally isn’t the best way round to do it. I enjoyed the film, but I preferred the book. Whilst the film was able to show things the first-person narrative of the book was unable to (such as how the Hunger Games were being perceived by those watching it on television), it also lost a lot that the novel provided from Katniss’s perspective. Indeed, Suzanne Collins breaks all the rules with her first chapter, in which very little happens, but Katniss gives a devastating account of how her dystopian world operates. The Capitol of the novel seems a lot more sinister and manipulative than the more simplistically villainous regime of the film.

The novel is also a lot more graphically violent than the film, which would have garnered an 18 rating had it not toned down scenes where someone receives an arrow in the face, and someone else is stung by a genetically modified bug which causes their body to swell up until it begins to disintegrate (which may or may not be a toxin-induced hallucination). Most deaths occur off the page, and those that don’t aren’t allowed to pass without comment. This is a novel about a society which forces people to kill, nominally in the name of entertainment, but insidiously in the name of oppression. But it is also about people rebelling against that society, trying to win the Hunger Games without losing their soul.

The film may have coloured my view of some things in the novel, such as the depiction of the Capitol, a day-glo metropolis like Tokyo on acid that comes across cartoonish in the novel as well as the movie. But perhaps that was the point.

Layered, thoughtful and thrilling all at the same time, this is one of the best YA novels I’ve read in quite a while. In fact, I started reading the second book, Catching Fire, only a few minutes after finishing the first.