There are very few adaptations that manage to not only do justice to their source material and enhance it. The Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire is just one of those films. With an especially good performance from leading lady Jennifer Lawrence, Catching Fire is (not unexpectedly) a decent action flick, but it sets itself apart by doing equal justice to the emotional beats of the story.
At least half of the film’s running time is spent outside the arena, finding victor Katniss Everdeen back in her home district of 12 coping with the aftereffects of her survival of the Games. The weakest part of the film are the first twenty or so minutes, in which the film scurries to explain the differences in Katniss’ life, particularly her relationships with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). After Peeta realized his and Katniss’ romance was only for show, they distanced themselves and their interactions became frosty but polite. Because the last film skipped over Peeta’s realization of his one-sided affection and subsequent heartbreak, their change in status had a bit of a question mark lingering over it.
The same issue was had with Gale and Katniss who’ve interacted so little that it’s almost impossible to see how they’ve gone from friends to something more. Their rushed liplock appeared as less genuine and more rushed, a means to bolster up President Snow’s threat. To be fair, the books had the same issue in giving Gale and Katniss’ love story equal attention. With the bulk of the story taking place in the arena and far away from Gale, that was to be expected, but the novels had the benefit of Katniss’ thoughts where Gale showed up plenty of times and it was easy to understand her complicated feelings for him.
After these stumblings were put in the rearview, however, Catching Fire hit its stride, building all the necessary tension as Katniss and Peeta went on their Victory Tour. With President Snow’s threat of killing Katniss’ loved ones hanging overhead, the two embarked on a rigid, scripted speaking tour where they spoke before an increasingly agitated public. After Katniss’ inadvertently triggered a public execution with her heartfelt words about fallen tribute Rue, they were locked within the confines of generic words celebrating Panem and urging unity beneath the corrupt government. Whereas first film was unable to explore the dystopia created by Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire made a point to do so. The glitzy, glittery glamour of the Capitol had been seen before, but the gray-hued existences of the districts had only been glimpsed in District 12 to be expanded upon in the followup. Though the series included all of this, its presentation was much more straightforward and almost bare, lacking the flair and explicit emotional weight of the film.
Unlike the previous competition, the Quarter Quell picked its competitors from the pool of victors, what anyone (but the government) could probably tell was a big mistake. If avoiding revolution was the goal, why would anyone want to condemn the most beloved people in the country to death and risk the vocal complaints of the people the competition is meant to entertain? Even Effie (Elizabeth Banks) routinely vapid and insensitive, was deeply affected by Katniss and Peeta’s return to the arena and the certainty of one of their deaths. The Districts itching for an uprising is one thing, but why would the Capitol risk one in their own backyard?
Well, what’s done is done, and the victors becoming tributes once again opened up the doors to the moral questions that mostly evaded the first film. All the victors had been there once before. If Peeta’s and Katniss’ nightmares and Haymitch’s drinking are any indication, the victors are dealing with similar trauma after their wins. Under different circumstances they would be able to bond over the horror they survived. Instead they were forced back into their nightmares, some resigned to their impending doom and others determined to try their hardest to make it out, or at least help someone they love make it out. The first film featured multiple sequences of the Career Pack excitedly stalking their prey, eager and bloodthirsty. This time no one was happy to be there, and no one looked forward to the killing. If the first film was all about the Games being well, games – however gruesome and horrifying – the second was about the desire to survive and see loved ones survive even if it meant picking off former friends and acquaintances which was why the scene of all the victors holding hands was so vital particularly the understanding that their alliance wouldn’t last within the arena.
For casual viewers of the films (like the friend I saw the movie with) the ending of Katniss being informed of District 12’s destruction, would grate as cliffhangers are prone to do. Catching Fire built up a load of tension that kept building until the film ended and left that tension untouched with a multitude of unanswered questions. But unlike the novels, which cut off with Gale’s somber message, the film allowed us to see the effect of this information on Katniss without waiting a year for the next film. Lawrence closed the film with a stellar bit of acting as Katniss went from disbelieving and distressed to resolute with a darkly determined look in her eye that made sure there would be no question about her intention to take down Snow and the Capitol.
After spending much of the film just trying to ensure her own survival and that of her loved ones, willing to give in to whatever demands President Snow had of her, Katniss was finally angry enough to want the revolution she’d become a reluctant symbol of. Part of the appeal of Katniss is her imperfection as a heroine, one who isn’t obviously altruistic but primarily concerned with herself and those close to her. Though Katniss is certainly kind to other people and horrified at the treatment heaped on those in the Districts due to her actions, she wasn’t hoping for a rebellion with the stunt with the berries; her intention was to save herself and Peeta. So the Katniss the film closes with, one who’s brimming with at least vengeance if not yet justice, is an important image to lead into the final films of the series.