NB: this article contains massive spoilers for Catching Fire, and a shadow of a spoiler for Mockingjay. It also assumes some familiarity with the Hunger Games universe and characters.
Jennifer Lawrence is the star of The Hunger Games. I mean, obviously: she’s playing the main character, and she’s widely acknowledged to be amazing, in Catching Fire as well as everything else she’s ever done. But while J-Law is indisputably fantastic, there are moments when even she gets overshadowed by Jena Malone’s portrayal of District 7 Victor Johanna Mason.
Okay, so Johanna isn’t in many scenes, and Catching Fire is still very much Katniss’s story. But for such a minor character, it’s striking how much she leaps off the screen. Johanna doesn’t have many lines, and yet every single one lands. It’s her dialogue you’ll remember when you’re walking out of the cinema. She gets most of the film’s (rare) laughs, but at the same time, she’s one of the film’s most poignant new characters.
Her most quotable line is destined to be turned into a thousand animated gifs: it’s her baffled, mildly wistful “love is weird”, sitting on the beach with Katniss, watching Finnick sitting in the surf. It’s a gorgeous moment, invented entirely by the filmmakers. The line doesn’t exist in the book, and that conversation should’ve been between Katniss and Peeta. Giving it to Johanna makes sense, though, because it lets the film underline one of its key themes. No one wins the Hunger Games, but there are survivors. It’s just that they’re all damaged, in different ways.
After all, that moment comes straight after Johanna’s horrible admission that there’s no one left in the world she loves. Katniss and Finnick are both tired and upset, having just faced an assault by the Gamemakers that involved using ‘jabberjay’ birds to bombard them with the tortured screams of their loved ones back home; both of them have people beyond the Games they care about, and want to get home to. Johanna doesn’t.
No wonder, then, that up until that point she’s seemed so spiky and unpleasant. When she’s first introduced, she’s aggressive, arrogant, and a little bit frightening. She’s a Victor, so obviously she’s killed other Tributes, and she seems to have taken it all in her stride. Someone so blasé about murder isn’t someone Katniss would ever want as an ally, especially since Katniss herself is still suffering from horrendous flashbacks to the few Tributes she was forced to kill. But Johanna isn’t like the Careers. She wasn’t brought up to consider competing in the Games an honour; she just got reaped, like so many others. But she had enough of a survival instinct to triumph, and now she wants what’s supposed to be hers, as a Victor.
Now, though, whatever benefits Johanna had been enjoying have been ripped away, and she’s being thrown back into the arena. The other Victors seem to have responded with fear, or resignation, but not Johanna. Johanna’s the first to get angry. Really, really angry. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t have any family or friends left to worry about that she can afford to show that anger, but it’s Johanna who’s the first to really speak out against the Capitol.
Anger fuels her. While the tributes from other Districts cry or make veiled comments hinting at rebellion, during her pre-Games interview, on a televised broadcast that’s being watched across the country, Johanna says exactly what’s on her mind. It’s not fair that she has to go back into the arena. Johanna played by the rules, she did what she was supposed to do, and the Capitol screwed her over. She’s angry on her own behalf, obviously, but she’s also clever enough to use herself as an example to the other Districts – obedience isn’t good enough anymore. It’s time for revolution. (She even gets to swear, though both the Capitol and the film bleep it out, because after all this is good clean family entertainment.)
Maybe Katniss didn’t want Johanna as an ally at first, but she was acting like one long before they got inside the arena. It’s Johanna who gives Katniss the push she needs, before going on stage to talk to Caesar Flickerman, to fight back. Until then, Katniss has been focusing on pleasing President Snow, on doing well enough at the task he’s set her that he won’t kill her (or anyone else). It’s Johanna who first encourages her to stop trying to win him over and fight back. It’s a brief moment they share, but it’s an important one.
And, yeah, it’s not possible to talk about Johanna Mason’s role in Catching Fire without addressing her very first scene, when she gets into the lift with the District 12 Victors and promptly strips naked. It’s an amazing entrance, and it’s kind of surprising that it made it into the film. If anything, Johanna’s even more provocative on screen than she was on the page, getting Peeta to unzip her costume and winking cheekily at Haymitch. The display might be mostly for Katniss’s benefit – Johanna’s trying to intimidate her – but it also gives us a good idea, right off the bat, of what Johanna’s like. The Capitol might try to dress her up, make her pretty so they can ogle her, but she’s not having it. She’s desperate to cast all of that off, to fight back, and reclaim what’s hers.
She’s pretty awesome, in short. Partly, that’s down to the way the character’s written, both in the book and in the film adaptation, but it’s also because Jena Malone is fantastic. She’s not a massively well-known actress, though most people reading this site will probably recognise her from Richard Kelly’s weird sci-fi masterpiece Donnie Darko. She’s been acting since she was a child, but she’s tended to take unexpected roles in indie productions – if you’ve seen her in anything other than Donnie Darko, it was probably as Christian jewel Mary in Saved!, as stroppy plant food in The Ruins, or as dancer Rocket in Sucker Punch.
Obviously The Hunger Games: Catching Fire isn’t a film that’s going to fly under anyone’s radar. Jena, like Jennifer Lawrence, must have seen something in the role, and the character, that made her want to be part of a massive teen franchise. Johanna’s an outspoken, outwardly hard character with a deeply wounded side to her; looking at her past credits, it’s pretty much a no-brainer than Jena Malone could pull it off. She’s got the right kind of energy, that cocky, snarky air of cool that makes you fear her and envy her at the same time, but she can also seem so vulnerable she’ll completely steal your heart. (She even has the right initials, but, er, that’s presumably just a coincidence.)
None of the characters in the Hunger Games universe escapes the experience unscarred, and at the end of Catching Fire, Johanna had been captured by the Capitol after aiding the rebels in their rescue mission. Anyone who’s read Mockingjay can tell you that that doesn’t end well. It’s both a blessing and a curse that the filmmakers made Johanna such a strikingly brilliant character in this film – it means we’re going to really feel what happens to her next. I’m packing my tissues already.
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