'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' Review: President Snow Is Ready to Tell, the Deadly Twist that Is the Quarter Quell

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'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' Review: President Snow Is Ready to Tell, the Deadly Twist that Is the Quarter Quell

By Dustin Rowles | Film Reviews | November 22, 2013 | Comments ()


It says something morbidly fascinating about The Hunger Games that Suzanne Collins’ book series, and now the movies, would be such huge successes with the Young Adult market. Essentially a more palatable Running Man with kids, one wonders what the psychology behind the success might be? Is it popular for the same reason that The Walking Dead is, because — as one study suggests — people turn to it during high levels of cultural dissatisfaction and economic upheaval? Or are we simply fascinated with survivalist stories? Or is the draw Jennifer Lawrence alone?

I can’t explain my own fascination with The Hunger Games, much less that of a 15-year-old eager to watch a movie where she sees a character her own age kill other kids. But where the original Hunger Games was mostly a story of survival, Catching Fire transforms the series into a tale about political upheaval. The gimmick is still there — a group of tributes are selected by the one percent to kill each other off in an elaborate games course — but in Catching Fire, the gimmick has graduated to the next level. The tributes are experienced adults, all of whom have tasted the other side of the socioeconomic spectrum, and unwillingly give that up to once again face extermination.

How that all fits into our current economic climate is difficult to say, though I suspect that Russell Brand could find a lot of echoes, none of which really explains why teenagers might be so enamored with the concept.

Catching Fire is not a movie that can be completely judged on its own. More than any other franchise, really, The Hunger Games is episodic. It’s more like a ten-hour miniseries released on the big screen over the course of five years than it is four separate and distinct movies. If The Hunger Games was the pilot, Catching Fire is episode two, which is where an already impressive series begins to hit its stride. Still, it’s just a part of a whole, and it’s difficult to judge the overall narrative until we’ve seen it all play out (and hopefully that means straying from the source material, which weakened as it neared its completion).

Francis Lawrence’s Catching Fire, however, manages to be more mature, more impressive, and darker than Gary Ross’ Hunger Games and better than the book upon which it was based, which has a lot to do with a bleaker tone, a better roster of actors, the maturation of Jennifer Lawrence, and the burgeoning rebellion, which provides an actual point to the series, other than to watch one woman outlast the massacre of her peers. In Catching Fire, it’s not children versus children, it’s the poor masses versus the wealthy, and Katiness Everdeen and her Mockinjay are the symbols of the coming revolution.

Granted, Francis Lawrence’s film often hews too closely to Collins’ source material, and through much of the slower first half of the film, Catching Fire feels hemmed in by the events of the book. Katness returns home and reunites ever so briefly with Gale before she’s thrown back into the political mix. Her victory — and the way in which she was able to save Peeta — have provided hope to the 12 increasingly impoverished districts, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is left to contend with the restless masses. How does he quell a growing rebellion knowing that killing Katniss would only make a martyr of her and hasten the revolution?

Snow, along with his Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a strategy meant to quell the riot and rid themselves of Katniss at the same time. She, along with 23 other previous victors (including Peeta) will return to the Hunger Games for an all-star edition, and once the masses see Katness turn on her fellow victors, they assume the hope she inspired will fade behind the ugliness of her actions.

It doesn’t quite work out that way, however, and in Catching Fire, instead of tribute vs. tribute, it’s victor against the games course. Plutarch’s course is a wicked thing to behold, and it allows Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) to show off his talent for special effects and often breathtaking action scenes. There are a several superbly impressive sequences in Catching Fire, most especially the one involving the apes that elicited an embarrassing jump shriek out of me that had me peering over my shoulder to ensure I was not alone in that reaction.

But none of this would work without Jennifer Lawrence, who ties the room together, so to speak, from the action sequences, to the love triangle, to the political themes. The romantic triage itself is actually the weakest element of Catching Fire: Liam Hemsorth’s Gale and Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta feel like the YA vestiges of the less mature The Hunger Games, outmatched by everyone else onscreen, including Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks’ Effie, and even Jenna Malone and Sam Claflin, who impressively grows into his role as Finnick — one of the other victors — over the course of the film (and by the end, many may suggest Katniss dump both Gale and Peete for Finnick).

Catching Fire is not without its faults, however. The first half often feels rote, Katniss too often resorts to meltdowns and freak-outs that bely the strength of her character, and Gale and Peeta really do seem almost extraneous to the more important political story being told. Moreover, as a stand-alone movie, the ending is something of a narrative cheat, unless it is viewed in the broader context of the series as a whole. There are slight hints of what’s to come, but even less than in the book, the groundwork is not properly laid for it.

Still, those are minor quibbles for what is a more layered, more intense, and bleaker chapter in an overall series. Ultimately, Catching Fire excellently manages its most important task: To make us crave the next chapter in the franchise.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Littlejon2001

    This movie was clearly better than the first Hunger Games and actually made me want to read the book again. I thought Catching Fire's source material was good and all elements of the movie were improved. If they are splitting up the 3rd book into 2 movies than it makes sense that they didn't set up that much at the end of Catching Fire.

  • Uriah_Creep

    She, along with 23 other previous victors (including Peeta) will return to the Hunger Games for an all-star edition

    So it's like The Celebrity Apprentice All-Stars? Please tell me squirrel-fur-wearing Trump isn't hosting the games alongside Effie.

  • BlackRabbit

    Not your strongest article title, Dustin, but an excellent review.

  • pajiba

    But it rhymes!

  • MJ

    Teenagers are simple and narcissistic. They like it because it's about them. That's about it.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    You have a photo of Stanley Tucci in a wisteria-colored ponytail and you don't understand this series' appeal....?

  • bastich

    The guy in the header pic looks like Scott Thompson playing Buddy Cole.

  • "Plutarch Heavensbee"

    LOL wut? This is a person's name?

    I think about this from time to time: would Hunger Games be a huge hit if it wasn't for the built-in book audience? Or, more accurately, do the movies stand on their own? I haven't read any of the books and walked out of the first Hunger Games wondering how this became a massive hit. The movie just wasn't very good. So this review has me encouraged about the franchise's future.

  • grr arrgh

    I think reading the books would help your enjoyment. I've read the entire series and it seemed to me that they didn't give full explanations for a couple things in the film that were fully explained in the books. I can easily see how some things would be confusing without having read the series. That said, I think they're doing a better than average job of adapting them. My only real problem is that they make the love triangle seem like Katniss can't choose between Gale or Peeta and to an extent, that's true, however, she mostly uses Peeta as a means to an end. If she pretends to love and care for him, as she does in the first film, she'll be able to protect her sister. Her entire motivation is her love for her sister, not "I like Peeta but Gale has nice qualities too. Oh, who should I choose?".

  • Maddy

    Exactly - this isn't Twilight!

  • chanohack

    I think the movies are way better. (And the second is way better than the first.) But you might get it a little more if you read the books.

  • Naye

    Read the books. I was meh about the movie myself.

  • iamuhura

    The best description of The Hunger Games I've ever heard was that the series is about PTSD. This completely explains Katniss' declining mental state over the course of Catching Fire and makes perfect sense in Mockingjay (the first book sets up how ill equipped she is in the first place due to her family issues and extreme poverty). I think the reason people feel that the final book is "weaker" is because it is far less about the actions and more about the mental, emotional, and political consequences of said actions - and even though everyone "wins" in the end, the book does not feel as celebratory as Americans are used to feeling (or being told to feel) at the end of a long struggle. I really enjoyed Mockingjay because it very much conveys that even when you fight for something that's right, and even if you win, there is still plenty of loss to go around and those battles and losses change you.

  • Naye

    I liked it, and I understand what you are saying about the mentality being presented throughout the book, but I think it was really rushed. They did kill a bunch of important people unceremoniously, and wrapped up the end easy peezy, without even having Katniss truly deal with all of those issues. It was like "i still have nightmares, and thanks for watching" The biggest resolution was her choosing to let go of Gale because of what he represented but I still feel like that was done so easily, Collins gave like one page to that.

  • iamuhura

    I'd have to read it again to properly address these concerns, but I feel like the unceremonious deaths made sense. At this point, to Katniss, all deaths are equal. She can't possibly process them more deeply right now because she isn't emotionally or mentally capable. She's suffered too many mental breaks by then already.

    As for Gale, I dunno. I think Gale was given exactly the amount of importance he'd come to have to Katniss by the end. At first, he was all she had that wasn't a burden and someone she could count on. As things changed, that bond was loosened then broken. She learned that he wasn't her whole world anymore. He world became bigger, and she finally realized what she needed for herself: stability and room to be vulnerable and to heal.

  • Jenn TheYellowDart

    I'm in brain-book-analysis-love with you.
    *Immediately starts to re-read the trilogy*

  • Snath

    Yeah, this made me pull the trilogy out again. Sorry, The Republic of Thieves, I'll be back in a couple days.

  • Jenn TheYellowDart

    ^Wow. *This*.
    I could never explain to people why I've re-read Mockingjay more than the first 2 books combined…I liked it better BECAUSE it showed that people are allowed to break down but still be viewed as 'victors'.

    I didn't express myself nearly as well as you did, clearly. And I want to up vote this a hundred damn times.

  • iamuhura

    Thanks! I remember having a tough time with Mockingjay until towards the very end when I realized that Katniss was super duper totes off her rocker, and HAD BEEN for like the entire time. Basically adrenaline was keeping her from shutting down during the fighting, escaping, etc but otherwise she was clearly not all there or capable of being this pillar of strength, guidance, and leadership everyone was leaning on her to be. A lightbulb went off in my head and I was like dannnnnng this explains *so* much of my earlier frustrations while reading because I was thinking, "Uh, what the hell is she thinking? And what is she doing?!" Yup - totally had to read it twice more. Mockingjay does mental breakdown shockingly well. So well that most people didn't even see it - which is why I'm really hoping they don't stray too much from the source material. For Katniss to be "happily ever after" really doesn't work and goes against the very serious themes of the book.

    My bf's mom recommended them to us initially and we really love talking with her about the themes of the books as well as the movies. She's a librarian and schoolteacher who usually stays away from material with violence but has nothing but praise for The Hunger Games.

  • This is exactly why I was happy Lawrence was cast after her stunning debut in Winters Bone. You have to still be with Katniss emotionally by the end to get the full impact of Mockingjay and a lesser actress will not be able to garner sympathy while conveying a total breakdown. Incidentally, my favorite part of the book Catching Fire isn't going to be in the movie I think. It's when she learns via the TV that she has to go back in and literally runs screaming in to the night. That scene was devastating.

  • Maddy

    Looking forward to seeing this! It seems that Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson have not improved but the whole love triangle thing was never really the reason I liked the books anyway, although movie Peeta in particular disappointed me in the first movie because I always found him an interesting character. Nice to hear that Finnick is done well, was a bit concerned about that.

  • Naye

    Peeta is a really interesting character and they need to sell that story line in Catching Fire in order to understand Katniss in Mockingjay. Of course Mockingjay wasn't that great, but a lot of her drive in Mockingjay has to do with Peeta. The first movie to me was weak. It didnt shock me, it didnt make me feel any type of emotion, it was just interesting to watch. I didnt know if that was due to me having read the book, but it's really nice to hear that Catching Fire picks up the slack.

  • Maddy

    I don't know, I liked some of the stuff they did in the first movie better than the book, but some of the stuff I didn't really like either, and it didn't help that the special effects were pretty average. It really annoyed me in the first movie that Peeta came off as this pathetic loser so I hope that is somewhat rectified in Catching Fire so it as least somewhat plausible that Katniss starts to care about him.

  • sjfromsj

    I think it's unfair to complain about Katniss having too many breakdowns. I admit that I was annoyed and disappointed in that when I read the book as well, but then I took a step back to assess the situation: She's a teenager who grew up poor and had to fend for her family, and all of a sudden she is thrust into the spotlight and unwillingly made the symbolic leader of a social uprising after having to kill her peers for someone else's fodder. I have dealt with significantly less in my life and had roughly the same amount of breakdowns in a day at my worst.

  • Naye

    This. As i was reading I'd be all "o stop your whining already" but Collins explains, though not in enough detail, that all the victors live with the horrors of the ring, and all have borne consequences from winning.

  • Maddy

    Yeah, and even though reading at the time I got super annoyed with and starting to really dislike Katniss, I appreciate that she was meant to be somewhat difficult and hard to like because her experiences made her that way, rather than this perfect Mary Sue heroine figure, and I liked that it wasn't just the good people from the rebellion versus the evil Capitol and it was a bit more complex than that. Katniss becomes a political symbol because of expedient circumstances not because she's inherently the best person for the job and I appreciated the realism of that.

  • bcarter3

    "...and hopefully that means straying from the source material, which weakened as it neared its completion...."

    So agree w/this. I've always wondered if "Mockingjay" was written under serious deadline pressure--It read like a first draft. The rhythm was off--the first part was slow, and the second was way too fast, w/important characters disappearing or, worse, killed off w/o any detail, ceremony, or consequences.

    I hope the 2 final movies can fix the flaws.

  • Maguita NYC

    That book needs to be rewritten.

  • Maddy

    I wouldn't mind them exploring other characters backstories more, like Finnick and Haymitch and broadening out the material beyond what is constrained by the Katniss POV in the book. Even giving a more sophisticated and sympathetic view of people like her mother, President Coin, President Snow etc. I like Katniss at all, but I liked in the first movie that they went behind the curtain to look at some of the more political stuff so I hope they continue to do that rather than focus on Gale/Peeta because I am not invested in their characters at all in the films (although to be fair I never really liked Gale that much in the books either)

  • Maddy

    Agree, Catching Fire was my favourite but Mockingjay was so disappointing, and splitting it into 2 movies is so clearly a money grab but that seems to be the way of it these days. I think they should definitely make some significant changes to the book material, and this is coming from someone who is normally biased to dislike adaptional changes

  • I actually think Mockingjay should have been two books, so I'm hoping that splitting it into two movies will improve the flow.

  • chanohack

    I think for a lot of the kids, the allure is in the love triangle and the angsty rebellion.

    For me, as an adult, it's almost 100% Jennifer Lawrence. Obviously.

    I completely agree with your reveiw! Better than the book, but almost TOO true to it, wow Finnick! and Jennifer wins all the things. Movie Katniss has a lot of freakouts, but fewer than Book Katniss, so at least there's that.

  • Krissy

    Yes! Book Katniss' inner monologue made me want to jump off of a cliff for 75% of my book reading experience. She is much more palatable in the movies because we don't have to hear all that BS

  • chanohack

    Yes! Book Katniss is maddeningly clueless-- and I SORT of get why Collins did that, because the books are told from her perspective, and if she knew everything that was going on, there would be no "surprises" (not that any of us reading the book were surprised that Plutarch Heavensbee was "secretly" on her side, right? Does he need to draw you a picture, Katniss? Shit, I'm ranting). The distance created between us and Katniss in the movies is much-needed and a HUGE improvement.

  • JenVegas

    I disagree. Or rather, I will agree but add that I'm sure part of why this series is so popular is that The Kids These Days aren't as dumb as they look and probably understand more about the world around them than we sometimes give them credit for. These issues of the 99% vs the 1% aren't invisible to teenagers. In fact, I'm sure that The Kids These Days are way more in tune with social issues than I ever was at that age.

  • chanohack

    I don't know. "The Kids These Days" that were at the theater last night were all pretty "Team Gale," "Team Peeta," and "Team Finnick," and they cheered and laughed in ALL the inappropriate places (cheered when Katniss gets on stage for her interview, completely missing the point-- laughed hysterically when Katniss and Peeta scream in agony in the water after the acid fog scene, WTF, kids?) and my sister and I surmised by the number of gasps and cries that at LEAST half of them hadn't even read the book. We were absolutely sitting within earshot of several that repeated, "Wait... WHAT?" many times. There was a huge amount of "ooh"ing and "ahh"ing at any love-triangle moment from the girls in the crowd. I'm glad you've got awesome kids in your life, but based on my latest immersion with youths, I'm gonna stick by my synopsis.

  • Maddy

    I dunno as a 'youth' who read all the Harry Potter books multiple times, I still gasped and cheered along with everyone else at certain moments even though I knew what was coming, for me that's half the fun of seeing something with an audience of obsessive fans. I can see how it can get obnoxious though.

  • chanohack

    It wasn't obnoxious enough to spoil it. And by no means do I have more noble reasons to see and enjoy the movie-- like I said, I pretty much went to see JLaw wear pretty things. Adults these days, so shallow, amirite? :)

  • linnyloo

    Our theater had a mixed-age crowd, and broke into spontaneous applause during the climactic archery sequence. I found it a bit refreshing, actually.

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