Jennifer Lawrence returns to the role of Katniss Everdeen in director Francis Lawrence’s sequel to 2012’s The Hunger Games. Ryan Pollard takes a look…
The second part of The Hunger Games franchise, Catching Fire, picks up where the first film left off with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the survivor of the 74th Hunger Games, and saviour of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), whose life was spared by her feigning affection for him. Now, coming back from that, and suffering post-traumatic stress as a result, she’s attempting to keep her head down. However, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) realises that, even though the public’s and the media’s hearts were won over by this apparent love affair between two young heroes, he knows that she’s not just won the Games, but outsmarted it in a philosophical way.
So, for the 75th Hunger Games, he has organised a Quarter Quell, which happens every 25 years, where past champions fight each other to the death. Meanwhile, Katniss is also struggling with choosing whether she wants to be with either Peeta or Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and whether or not that is more important than the actual horror that is happening around her.
The first thing to say about The Hunger Games is that Katniss Everdeen is an extraordinary female heroine, and is wonderfully played by the magnetic Jennifer Lawrence who has a magnificent screen presence. Female role models usually come and go, but Lawrence’s Katniss is one of the better ones out there. Lawrence is a movie star who’s still believable as a tortured and conflicted girl who’s willing to sacrifice herself for either her friends or for the greater good. It’s magnificent to watch.
There’s a “love triangle” going on this film, but like the previous instalment, it has more or less taken second place in the structure, and is very much sidelined to the background. Whereas in Twilight, the moping was all done by Kristen Stewart’s Bella, in the case of The Hunger Games, that is pretty much done by the two main male roles with Peeta and Gale. Peeta’s the one who’s deeply in love with Katniss and wants their relationship to grow, but on the other hand you have Gale who appears to do nothing but scowl. But, the apocalyptic horror that’s happening around these characters is much more important to her than the romantic relationships.
Another interesting thing about the film is that, because this time round it’s returning champions, the most controversial subject matter of the first film which was children killing children is sidelined, as the returning contestants are much older and wiser. This becomes the key to the story because, whereas the first film owed an unacknowledged debt to Battle Royale, which was the comparison a lot of people had made, Catching Fire owes a much greater debt to Norman Jewison’s 1975 future fantasy Rollerball. Jewison’s effort also dealt with a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future that had gladiatorial games taking place in order to pacify and oppress the masses and that idea runs very strongly in Catching Fire. It’s much more about what the Games mean to everyone around them. At the beginning of the film there’s a tense confrontation between Katniss and President Snow where he says to her that he’s onto her and that she has to keep up this pretence of love because the public’s on her side. The film builds towards the fact that Katniss is becoming something else, this oncoming fire that is much bigger than the Games themselves. She’s transcended the Games, and therefore, she’s become dangerous and has to be beaten. That idea was the primal key to Rollerball, as James Caan’s Jonathan E. becomes bigger than the games and the evil Energy Corporation, led and run by Chairman Mr Bartholomew (clearly the inspiration for Hunger Games’ President Snow) decides to get rid of him. It’s a well-worn science fiction idea that is interesting: you create these games to oppress the population, and what happens is that the ordinary protagonist rises up through them and becomes a symbol of rebellion. So, all the way through the film Katniss does become this symbol of rebellion; a Joan of Arc rising against a totalitarian government to remove the shackles of oppression.
As with the rest of the characters, you have Philip Seymour Hoffman becoming the new designer for the Games, who is notable for not dressing as outrageously as the Capitol’s citizens, and his character does have an interesting trajectory towards the end of the film. You also have Stanley Tucci’s scenery chewing game show presenter with the extremely frightening white teeth, and is one of the creepiest things about The Hunger Games. His demonic smile draws huge inspiration from The Joker as he clearly represents the leering quality of the reality TV side of it. Elizabeth Banks’ character is much more interesting this time because, whereas in the first film she was the absolute epitome of the whole vacuous awfulness of the rich and over-privileged who see the whole thing as a glamour show, this time her vulnerable emotional side starts to come out from under the huge makeup and wig, making her more sympathetic.
If there is any criticism of the film it is that it’s undeniably long, and there is no two ways around that. You do get the sense here that the filmmakers didn’t want to leave anything out from the book but this is only a minor niggle. Also, whether the film series can still maintain the necessary narrative momentum for another two movies remains to be seen. The final book of The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay, has inevitably been split into two parts, and people who have read the novels claims that Mockingjay is the hardest one to like, receiving very mixed responses. This has been the case with Peter Jackson dividing The Hobbit into not two, but three films; a clear example of artistic integrity being side-stepped for financial gain. Inevitably, there’s an element of repetition evident in the second film, and although new helmsman Francis Lawrence has proved himself an efficient director and that there’s no doubt he’ll probably give Mockingjay Parts One and Two a stylistic flare, one cannot help but wonder whether Gary Ross bailed out partly because he didn’t want to repeat himself. Nor will co-writer Simon Beaufoy (whose credits include The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours) be returning for Mockingjay, with Danny Strong taking over script duties for the final films after having just recently wrestled the true-life tale of Eugene Allen into the fanciful fiction of The Butler.
Yet with a star turn as commanding, imposing and emotionally connecting as Jennifer Lawrence, front and centre, it may yet transpire that everything will fail to ignite except her. Just like Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence has become something that is bigger than the Games themselves, becoming something that makes her very powerful, very dangerous and rather inspirational. She’s the primal factor behind the franchise’s success, and that is a victory worth cheering for as Catching Fire proves to be a thoroughly compelling second instalment in the Hunger Games series.