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Nov 30 2013

Catching Fire straightwashes its stars

Catching Fire, the Hunger Games follow-up, ranks among this year’s best films, achieving the rare status of a sequel better than its predecessor. Praise for Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from Oscar success and giving one of her best performances, justifiably saturates reviews, but the real revelation is director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who draws magnetic work from the whole cast while dropping the shaky cameras and muffled sound that dulled the first film’s violent edge. Returning actors up their game without exception, none more than Donald Sutherland (whose scenery-chewing villain graduates here from standard beard-of-evil scowler to frame-filling, scene-stealing menace) and Elizabeth Banks, comic and tragic by equal turns as effete mistress of ceremonies Effie; newcomers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright impress as gamemaker Plutarch and tech-savvy Beetee, winning me over despite clashing with my vision of their characters, and Jena Malone embodies deadpan, axe-wielding Johanna Mason to a tee. The film’s fidelity as an almost scene-for-scene dramatisation of Suzanne Collins’ novel is its greatest pleasure, hunks of dialogue lifted directly from the page – it’s a shame, then, that the book’s occasional homoerotic frissons are quashed by Hollywood.

Finnick Odair, the trident-wielding, frequently naked victor from District 4 emerges the one character the film gets wrong in my eyes. In the book, he’s described as follows on first meeting Katniss:

Finnick Odair’s famous sea-green eyes are only centimetres from mine. He pops a sugar cube in his mouth and leans against my horse.

. . .

Finnick Odair is something of a living legend in Panem. . . . [H]e was a Career, so the odds were already in his favour, but what no trainer could claim to have given him was his extraordinary beauty. Tall, athletic, with golden skin and bronze-coloured hair and those incredible eyes. While other tributes [his] year were hard-pressed to get a handful of grain or some matches for a gift, Finnick never wanted for anything, not food or medicine or weapons. . . .

The citizens of the Capitol have been drooling over him ever since.

Because of his youth, they couldn’t really touch him for the first year or two. But ever since he turned sixteen, he’s spent his time at the Games being dogged by those desperately in love with him. No one retains his favour for long. He can go through four or five in his annual visit. Old or young, lovely or plain, rich or very rich, he’ll keep them company and take their extravagant gifts, but he never stays, and once he’s gone he never comes back.

I can’t argue that Finnick isn’t one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet. But I can honestly say he’s never been attractive to me. Maybe he’s too pretty, or maybe he’s too easy to get, or maybe it’s really that he’d just be too easy to lose.

Note the determined absence of references to gender: ‘citizens’, not ‘women’ of the Capitol; ‘those’, not ‘girls’, who are in love with him; ‘four or five’ per visit, with no appended noun. Finnick, the text seems to imply, courts male and female desire as indiscriminately as ‘old [and] young, lovely [and] plain, rich [and] very rich’. In the third book, Mockingjay, he reveals just as non-specifically his sale by authorities as a sex slave:

‘President Snow used to … sell me … my body, that is,’ Finnick begins in a flat, removed tone. ‘I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. . . . To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewellery[.]‘

On film, Sam Claflin’s Finnick seemed to me a womaniser in the classic sense, cocky, objectifying and chauvinistic, another of American celluloid’s preppy, athletic playboys. In a word, he seemed distinctly straight. The sugar cube scene in which he first meets Katniss plays as if he’s making Conneryesque overtures, but Finnick is no Sean Connery. He’s ‘pretty’, as much a sex object as she is if not more, seductive rather than entitled, coquettish rather than just coarse, wooing seemingly both men and women. (Beyond how his public appeal is described, it’s notable that almost all Panem’s higher-up movers and shakers, among whom Finnick is sold around, seem to be men.)

One of Catching Fire‘s more comic moments comes in the book as Peeta is electrocuted striking a force field. Katniss, with next to no knowledge of CPR, outlines Finnick’s attempts at first aid thus:

Finnick props Mags against a tree and pushes me out of the way. ‘Let me.’ His fingers touch points at Peeta’s neck, run over the bones in his ribs and spine. . . . I pull an arrow, whip the notch into place, and am about to let it fly when I’m stopped by the sight of Finnick kissing Peeta. . . . Then Finnick unzips the top of Peeta’s jumpsuit and begins to pump the spot over his heart with the heels of his hands.

Lawrence’s film not only fails to capitalise on this, but crops it conspicuously from the frame, no mouth-to-mouth contact left visibly in shot – something of a slap in the face, it must be said, for fans who enjoyed this moment’s ambiguity. (The pretext is medical, of course, but isn’t Finnick’s every action a double entendre of some kind?) It’s odd to say the least if public floggings, executions and fights to the death were deemed suitable for audiences but even ostensibly non-sexual male lip-locking got cut.

Similar comments could be made of Johanna, whose textual self like Finnick seemed coated in bisexuality. Unlike his, her personality remains intact in the adaptation, but various tense moments between her and Katniss are altered or left out. In Collins’ pages, their first exchange regards sartorial style. ‘That strapless number you wore in District Two?’, Johanna asks her. ‘So gorgeous I wanted to reach through the screen and tear it right off your back.’ The film, on the other hand, skips this line, bringing Johanna in moments afterward as she disrobes before Katniss and Peeta and playing up the safely heterosexual side of this encounter: as she has Peeta undo her zip and winks raunchily at wizened Haymitch, we’re invited simply to think she plans on psyching Katniss out by flirting with her man, where in fact the book’s both the earlier line and Peeta’s dialogue afterward suggest her stripping down, like Finnick’s teasing with the sugar cubes and another tribute’s unexpected kiss, is a come-on intended to fluster.

We’ve seen this kind of straightwashing in Hollywood before, of course – in GatsbyFried Green TomatoesThe Color Purple. I only wish The Hunger Games could have avoided it, since its characters lose out as a result.

10 comments

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    To be clear I’m not defending this at all — but I think part of the reason for this may be that the nature of prose vs. film makes it “safer” to leave this ambiguity, with the comforting knowledge that the sort of person who can’t even conceive of a bisexual character won’t catch on. In a book, you can conspicuously not mention the gender of the people courting Finnick; but in a film, if you show it, the genders are right there plain to see.

    A book let’s you do ambiguity in a way that will slip under the radar of the very people most likely to be offended by it, but it’s harder to get away with that in a film. Not that that makes it okay… but it may at least partially explain it.

  2. 2
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Well, they whitewashed Katniss in Part 1, so I didn’t get my hopes too high for 2…
    Let’s see how they’ll do with the more prominent gender equality in part 3 and district 13.

  3. 3
    alltheworld

    You’re right to point out Collins’s ambiguous language when it comes to the genders of Finnick’s sex partners. But the fact that Finnick is forced to have sex with both men and women doesn’t make him gay or bisexual; it makes him a sex slave. All of our (and Katniss’s) preconceptions about Finnick’s sexuality are revealed to be incorrect when Joanna tells Katniss about Annie. (It’s likely that Katniss’s misinterpretation of CPR as kissing is rooted in her incorrect assumptions about Finnick’s sexuality, as well as being an important plot point for raising Katniss’s suspicions about an alliance.) It reinforces Collins’s theme about “real and not real” and how the Capitol makes those things so difficult to distinguish. Finnick’s sex slavery also illustrates the Capitol’s simultaneous exploitation and fetishization of youth, as shown in the violence of the Games and characters like Caesar Flickerman and Snow himself. To explain Finnick’s multiple sex partners as evidence of his homosexuality only serves to perpetuate a dangerous stereotype of homosexuals as promiscuous and indiscriminate (not to mention manipulative and wily). Identifying Finnick as gay would also carry with it the implication that victims of sexual exploitation and rape both choose it and enjoy it–clearly not what your analysis intends. Joanna is a bit more ambiguous, but her striptease is likely meant to show her adeptness at playing mind games and manipulating the male gaze (both of which hearken back to her own Games) rather than being an actual come-on to any character. A deeper analysis might look at Katniss’s possible asexuality and why, even when she is purportedly free to make her own decisions, she enters into a heteronormative existence (marriage, children) that she isn’t sure she wants.

  4. 4
    Alex Gabriel

    @alltheworld (#3)

    I don’t identify Finnick as gay, but anyway, I don’t think my analysis implies what you say it does. Finnick obviously does court the affection and desire of citizens belonging to all genders. Is he coerced into this with limited choice by his situation as a tribute? Certainly, but I don’t think one should conclude from that his capacity for erotic engagement with his own gender is therefore inauthentic. Katniss and Peeta’s relationship is initially a fauxmance based on similarly limited choice, and plenty of real-world relationships (particularly between men and women) have been based on material necessity and/or social coercion. Does this stop them being ‘real’?

  5. 5
    M can help you with that.

    The alterations in the film seem to me to be about straightness in terms of gender performance as much as in terms of sexuality. Not that they’re separated, especially here — but as you point out, the difference between page and screen is in terms of making him a “preppy, athletic playboy” or a Sean Connery as James Bond type. While this has the effect of presenting the character as more safely heterosexual, it also plays to a very narrow model of what maleness — and sexy maleness — can be. While definitely in the novels it’s supposed to be a problematic performance (complete with fetishization of youth, sexual exploitation and lack of consent), the movie erases even the possibility of a range of performances of male sexual agency. It’s creepier, though in a less deliberate way.

  6. 6
    Alex Gabriel

    @M can help you with that (#5)

    Word.

  7. 7
    Gregory in Seattle

    Spot on, with only one quibble: the movie straightwashes the characters, not the stars.

  8. 8
    sc_8f33ff6bd4640c342da2c2a6e4c1de2f

    The straightwashing, although reprehensible could be an attempt to attain the PG-13 rating. With a book, controlling parents may not see the references to “teh gay” (won’t somebody think of the children?). in a film the ratings board could be more restrictive, thus reducing the box office. Just a thought.

  9. 9
    juice

    Why would there be citizens of a Capitol? Capitol is a building.

  10. 10
    Alex Gabriel

    @juice (#9)

    In reality, yes. In the fictional world of The Hunger Games, alternative spellings from contemporary English are common.

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