Relying on Outside Knowledge to Tell a Story

One of the biggest traps of sequels is that they rely on knowledge of the previous movie. If you look at “Aliens” and “Terminator 2,” you can see that although it’s nice to know about the previous movie, the sequels aren’t dependent on the earlier movie to make sense. You can watch “Aliens” without knowing much about “Alien,” and you can watch “Terminator 2” without really knowing the back story of “The Terminator.” Both of these sequels are complete by offering information that sets up the story later on.

In “Catching Fire,” the sequel to “The Hunger Games,” you can see this glaring flaw. In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss has to demonstrate her talent in front of the judges who will rate her chances of success on a scale of 1 to 12. When Katniss walks in, the judges are mildly interested. When she misses with her first arrow, they lose interest altogether. Although she hits the target with her second arrow, nobody’s paying attention so they don’t care. That spurs her into aiming for the apple in the pig’s mouth and shooting the apple with her arrow. Now suddenly the judges are paying attention to her.

That’s a great scene that shows a problem, lets us experience the frustration of Katniss over the judges not paying attention to her, and then she takes clear action to get back at the judges by shooting the apple and bowing before leaving.

Now look at his this same scene plays out in “Catching Fire.” Katniss walks into the room for the judges to evaluate her. Peeta gives her a strange look and when she gets into the room, she sees that Peeta has drawn a picture of Rue, the little girl that Katniss tried to save in “The Hunger Games.” So far, so good.

When the judges ask to see her talent, Katniss rushes about the room, gathering parts that we don’t quite understand. Then she bows and leaves, revealing a dummy hanging by a noose with the name Seneca Crane written across it.

Here’s the first flaw. Unless you read the book, you might forget that Seneca Crane was the first game keeper who committed suicide at the end of “The Hunger Games.” Otherwise the name Seneca Crane means absolutely nothing.

Second, watching Katniss rush around building the dummy and the noose is kind of boring. In “The Hunger Games,” we could see the judges’ indifference so we understood her motivation to shoot the apple to get the judges’ attention. In “Catching Fire,” we don’t feel any motivation for why Katniss created a Seneca Crane dummy dangling from a noose. One moment we see her building something and the next we see the dummy dangling from the noose. There’s no set up for why she would be motivated to do this so her final action is far less emotionally satisfying when she bows and walks away. All we see is a rush of action and a dummy hanging from a noose. We’re no longer emotionally feeling Katniss’s frustration as in “The Hunger Games.” Instead, we’re simply outside observers who watch her create the dummy and then feel mystified as to the importance of Seneca Crane’s name on the dummy.

Of course, if you read the book, this all makes sense, but nobody in the theater was passing out Cliff Notes of the book for audience members to read before watching the movie. As a result, “Catching Fire” creates another less emotionally engaging scene than “The Hunger Games” and leaves us mystified and distant instead of engaged and empathetic with Katniss.

The lesson is that each scene has to make us feel emotionally engaged by letting us understand the hero’s motivation. In “The Hunger Games,” we can see why Katniss is frustrated with the judges ignoring her. In “Catching Fire,” we barely see the judges at all, and we never see their reaction to the Seneca Crane dummy dangling from a noose. “The Hunger Games” makes us feel we’re experiencing Katniss’s life. “Catching Fire” makes us feel like we’re watching a documentary about Katniss’s life as less involved, emotionally distant observers, and that makes “Catching Fire” less interesting.

You want your audience to feel as if they’re experiencing what your hero goes through. When Katniss causes Seneca to be locked in a room with poison berries in “The Hunger Games,” we feel that we’ve also survived Katniss’s journey and Seneca Crane’s death makes us feel satisfied that Katniss has won. When Katniss builds the Seneca Crane dummy hanging from a noose in “Catching Fire,” we’re simply watching with no understanding of her motivation and no reaction from the judges of her, so we don’t even get the satisfaction of seeing the shocked looks on the judges’ faces.

If you didn’t know about Seneca Crane from the first movie, “Catching Fire” doesn’t help you understand this information or scene one bit. That follows the book, but it makes for an incomplete movie. A movie needs to tell a complete story without requiring audiences to have outside knowledge to understand what’s going on. The more your story relies on outside knowledge, the less engaging your story will be, and the more likely it won’t be a very good story in the end.

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