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.