Film Review: The Hunger Games – Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second instalment in the Hunger Games series, based on the very successful book trilogy by Suzanne Collins and featuring everybody’s secret best friend, Jennifer Lawrence. Full disclosure at this point: I am a big fan of the books and so may be a tad biased with this one…

Catch up with the plot of the first film here

In Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen is living in the sad, empty ‘Victor’s Village’ of District 12, trying to forget the trauma of the games and her own guilt, both at living where friends died and for now having so much compared to the rest of her community. She is avoiding her joint District 12 winner, Peeta Mellark, embarrassed at ‘tricking him’ into believing she returned his feelings for her. Just before embarking on a victory tour across the nation, Katniss learns that President Snow is watching her. Her victory has incited flames of rebellion and he is counting on her to stamp them out – or he will permanently eliminate her and her family. Katniss and Peeta try to calm the districts while on the tour, but their natural instincts to reach out to others seem to win out and they make the situation worse. In order to punish Katniss and eliminate her in as discreet a way as possible, President Snow announces that this year’s 75th Hunger Games will feature only former victors as tributes, sending Katniss back into the arena to fight for her life once again…

Catching Fire has been widely praised,  and cited as an improvement on first film (which was very good). Despite clocking in at over two hours, the film doesn’t feel long – in fact it seems very well paced. It is beautiful to look at, with the Capitol realised in spectacular technicolour, contrasting perfectly with the endless grey of the districts. Our leads look different, too. Both Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have had their wardrobes subtly upgraded. They dress very closely to the way they did before, but there’s a warmth and richness to their clothing this time round, to indicate their uncomfortable (and hard won) new positions of privilege. The brutality of the violence occuring in the districts is effectively realised – demonstrated in short, sharp bursts, the effect all the more shocking for being glimpsed at, rather than laid out for us. The audience, like Katniss, can feel something is happening, but the truth is always kept just out of reach. We are left as frustrated as she is.

The arena was brought to life in all it’s menacing glory; each fresh horror inflicted upon our tributes was smartly designed and played and it seemed to me to be very close to the book’s descriptions. Interestingly, the arena also felt more vulnerable this time, its fabricated setting more obvious. Perhaps that was due to the tributes having been through this experince before. They are wise to the Capitol’s tricks and they know it’s a game, in a way that was harder to feel in the first film. The constant rumblings of discontent and rebellion echo throughout the film; graffiti glimpsed through a train window, tributes openly complaining about being sent back to the arena, confused, frenetic TV footage and peaceful (and not so peaceful) protests being squashed. The books are undeniably political and it was good to see that the filmmakers are not shying away from that aspect of the story. I suspect it will be watered down, but the social, economic and politcial ideas running through the book trilogy are interesting and relevant to the viewing audience.

Much of the success of the film is due to Jennifer Lawrence’s engaging and fierce performance as Katniss, giving us a tough, interesting heroine to root for. Lawrence manages to play Katniss as guarded with the other characters, while simultaneously allowing the audience to glimpse some of her inner monologue. In an impressive final shot, we see multiple emotions and questions running across Lawrence’s face, which she conveys with the slightest of movements. It is an impressive, nuanced performance which anchors and grounds the film. I also really enjoyed the performances of newcomers Sam Claflin as Finnick, Jena Malone as Johanna and (one of my favourites) Jefferey Wright as Beetee.

I have a lot of time for Josh Hutcherson and enjoy his performance as Peeta, but I think he was badly served by this film. His character is a far more prominent part of the story than was represented and I did feel he was offscreen more than he was on. I didn’t feel like much time was spent developing his and Katniss’ relationship, making it hard for those that haven’t read the books to understand why she makes such a fuss about protecting him. It may also lessen the impact of certain events in the third film, which would be a real shame. I was also a little disappointed by the amping up of the ‘love triangle’ aspect of the story – a more minor plotpoint in the book.

Those minor niggles aside though, this was a very enjoyable film. It was well paced, full of action and provided us with a really interesting female lead in a major blockbuster – something we could always use more of.

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