Young women and the dystopian future on film: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire and How I Live Now

It seems to be some sort of obscure Hollywood law:  by some strange turn of our collective unconscious, two films with virtually identical themes are released at the same time.

The latest proof of this theorem is the almost simultaneous openings of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “How I Live Now”, both of them futuristic dystopian films with reluctant female heroes.

This is not a case of shared screenwriter dreams, as I wrote a year ago, comparing “The Sessions” and “The Intouchables”, as well as eight other “paired” films. Both of these new films arise from popular books – “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (published 2009), and “How I Live Now” by Meg Rosoff (published 2004).  Both are “young adult novels” and take a traditional male-style action story, turning it into one aimed at young women.

I adored this second film of “The Hunger Games” (Jennifer Lawrence is a true star and I look forward to following her career for years to come), although “Catching Fire” did not have the same elements of surprise that the first film had.  It’s a crowd-pleaser and I am not surprised at its worldwide success (see below).

Of the two books, Rosoff’s is much better literature (it won a swag of awards).  But in many ways, the film version of “How I Live Now” is actually a superior movie to Hunger Games 2.  Dramatically, it is understated, and use of “off-screen action” makes for a chilling drama.

The plot in brief: Daisy, a young American woman (played by Saoirse Ronan) travels to Britain to spend the summer with her aunt and first cousins.  Her mother is dead, and she is increasingly estranged from her father, who has remarried and has a new child.  Her arrival at the British airport is filled with scenes of high security – a bit like all major airports now, but just more so, more tense, more guns.  Young Daisy seems unaware of all of this, and is picked up by one of her young cousins, who parks illegally outside the airport (an indication of things to come).  When she arrives are the country house, she finds her cousins living a carefree life while their mother (the aunt) is mostly away travelling on what appears to be international relations peace business.  Many small things foreshadow something big coming, but Daisy – slowly falling in love with her oldest cousin (George Mackay) – misses all the cues.

One day, when the cousins are all swimming while their mother/aunt is travelling, they experience what turns out to be a nuclear blast at London many miles away.  And here is where the film truly comes into its own – we do not see the devastation of “tens or hundreds of thousands”, but we see the fierce wind, hear the dull but immense blast and then watch the gray dust.  After a short delay, despite their mother’s absence, the cousins regain their good humour … until the electricity fails and the army comes to round them up and move them out, as battles are soon to be fought in the area.  Who is the enemy?  What is the war about?  We never know.  Remember, it’s all from Daisy’s 17 year old point of view, so what is missing is equally important as what is there.

And a note to fans of the book: the film does not include the final scenes of the book, which does change the dramatic arc, leaving it much more fluid and much less settled.  Probably a good narrative choice, but I was looking forward to the epilogue.

At its best, “How I Live Now” approaches the intensity of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece “The Road”. (Even now, almost four years later, both the book and the film – directed by John Hillcoat – still haunt me.)  It is alternately creepy, scary and thrilling.  What a shame that fewer than 3600 people have seen “How I Live Now” here in Australia – compared to almost 2.5 million who have seen “Hunger Games 2”.

In Australia, after two weeks of release, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” had grossed a whopping Aus$24,814,266 and was still sitting in the number one box office position, playing in 578 cinemas.  By contrast, in its first week of Australian release, “How I Live Now” did not even crack the top 20 in box office – meaning that it grossed less than Aus$36,000 that week.  As of Monday 9 December, it was only playing in a few scattered cinemas around Australia at odd hours.  I could have predicted that result:  the evening session I attended at Event Cinemas Macquarie Centre had five (yes, five) patrons, including me.  By contrast, “Hunger Games” was packed.

Internationally, “The Hunger Games” set a new Thanksgiving weekend box office record in North America, and has already grossed almost US$600 million worldwide.  “How I Live Now” has grossed $60,000 in North America, and a modest – but much better – $746,000 in the United Kingdom.

There is no simple explanation for why “Hunger Games” is so popular and “How I Live Now” so forgotten.  Part of it is production budgets (sure Hunger Games is much bigger), part marketing budgets, part stardom (Lawrence), part Hollywood film versus British film, and part what is sometimes called “The Matthew Effect” – the rich get richer, and the differences between “good” and “great” can be enormous (also see my favourite author Malcolm Gladwell).

It’s a popular culture mystery not easily explained.  Seek out the film of “How I Live Now” and see what you think.  Here’s the official trailer (viewed by at least ten times more people than who have seen the film):

And an image from The Hunger Games – Catching Fire:

Hunger Games catching fire

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