Birds Suck, But We Love a Dress with Wingspan

catching fire coverDo we really need to begin with a plot summary? Everyone has either read this book or seen the movie or both. Catching Fire is the second story in the frighteningly popular Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, which is labeled as “Young Adult” fiction (misnomer?). Last year, we stepped out of our Snotty shoes and looked at the first book and watched the movie too. This year, we continued with Catching Fire, AND we saw the movie. Gosh, it is good! And even though everyone has read/seen it by now, we aren’t spilling the ending which is AhhhhSOME!

It looks like there are three pressing questions: What does Suzanne Collins have that literary fiction writers don’t have? Would you let your kid read this? And what happens to Cinna?

Lara: I think we are officially full-on Hunger Games addicts. Not only did we just literally see the movie this morning, but we are also wearing unofficial, non-licensed Hunger Games merchandise. The ticket seller was all, “Let me guess what movie you are here to see…” Yuck, yuck. I think this is what Trekkies, Comic-Connies and the like would refer to as “fan-girls.”

Jennifer: Stop it, Lara. You’re hurting me.

Lara: Is this where we stop referring to each other by our birth-names and go back to our Hunger Games names, Clytemnestra?

Jennifer: Oh, that’s right! Who were you again?

photoLara: I was Mistral.

Clytemnestra/Jennifer: Yes, Mistral. Okay, so, the book. Let me get started. We said it last time, I think. This is “book crack.” The book is thoroughly engaging. It’s great. I loved it. But there are two things I understood at the onset. First, this plot-centric—as opposed to character-driven. Second, this kind of reading is good, in the same way potato chips or sit-com TV is good. I think there’s value. I really, truly do. But the moment I finished, I picked up Donna Tartt—which I’ll be reading for the rest of the month—and I breathed in relief. The difference is tangible; it’s aesthetic, rhythmic, and personal. It’s the difference between passive reading and active reading, between a delicious slice of cheesecake and Babette’s Feast, if you know what I mean.

Mistral/Lara: I totally get it, even though I haven’t seen Babette’s Feast. And I think we can get away from this argument. We know it’s Pop Candy; there’s a place for Pop Candy and we are eating it up. So to go back to your question of what Suzanne Collins has that literary fiction writers don’t? She’s a master at plot and she has a way of wrapping up each chapter with a cliffhanger or a tease to keep you turning the pages. There’s an element of thrill in reading these books. Translate that to the screen and you have folks on the edges of their seats. At least, I was.

Clytemnestra/Jennifer: Me too. I really don’t read too much “genre fiction” (more plot-centric stuff), so I don’t have a lot to compare it to. I remember The DaVinci Code, which sucked (Did. Not. Like.), but it also had the cliffhanger/tease thang. I do remember thinking that pacing had a lot to do with the appeal of that book. This book has a super fast-paced, suspenseful plot, combined with some other winning features: a notably chaste romance (no actual sex!) and apocalyptic anxiety. Here I go, Mistral. I was talking to some of my students about why this book appeals to young people, especially. When I look at the books my little girls like, they’re all princess/fairy shit-oriented. When I look at the adult literary fiction audience, the books are all unresolved sorrows of life. But when I look at the teen audience, it’s all apocalyptic. Why are young adults so into the end of civilization as we know it? Basically, Suzanne Collins takes our contemporary attention span and combines it with teen anxiety. She wins. She’s meeting a need. I’m not sure the contemporary literary fiction scene is meeting this need—not that it should. Would you let your thirteen-year-old read this?

Mistral/Lara: Well, my 10-year old son has been begging to read the series and see the movies. Since he’s too young and I will make him read the books before he sees the movie, the answer right now is no. But at 13, I probably will. It is interesting that there is no actual sex, and yet there’s a huge love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale. I actually think it comes to life better in the movie (gasp!) than in the book. If you would read some of the YA I keep asking you to read (When You Reach Me, If Jack’s In Love, Eleanor & Park, etc.) you would see that there is character-driven YA out there that is actually really good and there’s nothing about impending world doom, just normal adolescent anxiety over puberty, love, fitting in and all the things that will probably still terrify you for your girls. Maybe you shouldn’t read any of that and our next foray into YA should be Divergent…

Clytemnestra/Jennifer: Let me be honest, Lara. No desire for more YA. But I’ll do Divergent later in the year—more out of a desire to get a national preoccupation than anything else—if you let me pick a book for a future time. Deal? I really am interested in this philosophical need to worry the apocalypse, but we can leave it at that. I really don’t know where my own kids will be in terms of maturity at thirteen, so I won’t make any calls on it at this point—but I do want to say that Collins has also captured something appealing to young girls. Tell me if I’m wrong. Young, innocent, newly-aware-of-human-sexuality girls really want nothing more—NOTHING MORE—than to be held—HELD—in a warm, cuddly bed by a hot guy. Collins knows this. She knows the young female audience just wants this chaste sensuality. There are, however, big problems with this. Young guys—even the innocent, newly-aware ones—rarely want this chaste arrangement. So Katniss has this good, wholly unrealistic thing going. The perfect fantasy. Katniss doesn’t have to worry about the messiness of sex. She just gets to be held. By a hot guy. Though, in the movie, Gale is hotter. Even Haymitch is hotter. Though not as hot as Lenny, who is hottest.

Mistral/Lara: If you want to read dystopian, we don’t have to read YA. To be honest, I would rather read character-driven, literary YA than all this fantasy stuff. Check out The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (not YA, but post-apoplyptic, easier to manage than Cormac McCarthy–or so I am told). I read it earlier this year and it’s really good. In fact, I need to write a review for it.

Anywhoo, Peeta is the hottest. I love that boy with the bread. And if Suzanne Collins is showing that they can cuddle rather than have sex during and after an uprising, then good for her.

Clytemnestra/Jennifer: Don’t you think it’s fascinating Collins opts out of the sex?

Mistral/Lara: It isn’t fascinating; it’s smart. Collins knows that sexual tension is a much better storyline than actual sex. Add a love triangle in and you have hit pay dirt. She’s pretty brilliant.

Clytemnestra/Jennifer: World, Lara thinks I’m a big prude and I just don’t want anyone to have sex ever. This isn’t true. (One of my favorite books, by the way, is Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being.) Collins knows this: once there’s sex, it’s over. Think of soap operas. Think of “Moonlighting” with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd. Think of Ross and Rachel. Plus, young girls are often just not ready for the complications of sex, but cuddling with a hot guy works. Smart move. Less is more. Moving on. Cinna. I hope he comes back somehow, and I hope it’s Lenny. Why they refuse to have him in dreads, I do not know. Moving still further. The movie. I guess, as weird as it sounds, I liked the movie better than the book! I felt like it revealed the emotional weight of the characters better. I felt the pain, so to speak. The actors really did justice to the characters. I actually thought that the most interesting character—in the second book, too—was Haymitch, played well by Woody Harrelson. Haymitch is complex. Plus, he resembles Kurt Cobain in this movie, which lends all kinds of nuances to his performance as a rebel and alcoholic and survivor.

Mistral/Lara: I liked the movie better too! We can’t tell our children this or other reluctant readers. Seeing Peeta and Katniss engulfed in flames as they entered the start of the Quarter Quell and then her wedding dress burn away into that glorious Mockingjay creation by Cinna was more stunning on the screen than it could ever be in the book. Birds freak me out and I wanted that damn dress.

Clytemnestra/Jennifer: Birds suck.

Mistral/Lara: Except the cute little chickadee that is the logo for my website. That bird doesn’t suck.

The entire movie was well cast. Obvs, the leads with JLaw, Joshie and Miley’s former fiancé, but allies Sam “Hottie” Claflin as Finnik Odair, Jeffrey Wright as Betee, Jena Malone as Johanna Mason and the always perfect lunatic Amanda Plummer as Wiress were really pitch perfect.

Clytemnestra/Jennifer:  Lara, I don’t know who any of those young people are or what you’re even saying, and that hottie? I don’t find Woody Harrelson attractive in the least bit, but I like him better.

Mistral/Lara: That’s because you like dirty bad boys.

Clytemnestra/Jennifer: True. Plus, there’s this subtle Generation X/Grunge/Nirvana/Angst undercurrent made real with Woody as Haymitch. I do love Amanda Plummer—who you should remember from such classics as Pulp Fiction. And I thought Jennifer Lawrence was fabulous in Winter’s Bone. Jeffrey Wright is always good. Oh, and Stanley Tucci was great. The whole movie was pretty awesome, folks!

Mistral/Lara: I was a heartbroken to see Philip Seymour Hoffman grace the screen. Of course he’s good in it, but nothing like The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Master, Capote, or The Savages (the latter was my favorite).

Clytemnestra/Jennifer: I’m sure his presence added to the power of the film. Really, I felt the film was pretty powerful. If I were to add anything to my take on the film, I’d say the film did something the book didn’t quite do: it painted a fuller, deeper picture of the burdens carried by the characters. The love triangle felt a little too fantastical to me. Haymitch was the draw. Woody! But you alluded to this fact. There’s one more book left in the series, and they’re splitting it into two movies. And, yeah, we’re hooked. So we’ll see you next year.

Mistral/Lara: Wait! You sound like we are signing off for 12 months. Dear readers: We will be back in a year to discuss Mockingjay. Don’t expect the shirts again, though.

Our book column continues in another month with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, followed by B.J. Novak’s One More Thing. Until then, may the odds be ever in your favor!

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