If I didn’t already know coming in that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was adapted from an established literary trilogy, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. At first glance, the follow-up to Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games (2012) has got all the markings of a perfunctory Hollywood sequel: the story rehashes all the same beats as the original; the stakes and the violence (or at least the threat of it) are escalated; and the sense of discovery exclusive to the first entry of any series is replaced by a sort of comic self-awareness. If you look deeper, though, you’ll find the film contributes more to the franchise’s central theme of cultural oppression and defiance than its formula would lead you to believe.
True, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire devotes the first half of its runtime to the nitty-gritty of throwing our heroine back into the Hunger Games arena. However, director Francis Lawrence approaches President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) political machinations as the main event rather than a plot device to get us to the action. The dynamic between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is simply too interesting for them to be treated like the supporting cast of Thor: The Dark World (2013).
I love, for instance, Katniss and Peeta’s respective speeches to District Eleven on their imposed propaganda tour. A born diplomat, the latter uses his newfound fame to provide the suffering populace with more supplies, bending the Capitol’s will all the while praising it. This, in turn, inspires our heroine to indulge in some ill-advised sincerity and, in so doing, get a few people killed. “You could go through a hundred lifetimes and never deserve that boy,” muses Haymitch, perhaps resentful that she’s the one to have stumbled on the role of figurehead for the impending revolution.
True, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire generates most of its tension in the second act from the introduction of the Quarter Quell: an all-stars edition of the Hunger Games in which Katniss will have to face experienced adults instead of terrified children. However, things take an unexpected turn when the contestants start voicing their own discontent with the current regime, revealing that they have more in common with our heroes than with the trained District Two killers from the previous film.
“Remember who the true enemy is,” advises Haymitch, encouraging his charge to team up with some of her competitors. That means we get to learn a lot more about the other districts’ tributes in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, be it the flamboyantly arrogant Fennick (Sam Claflin), the scientifically minded Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), or my favourite: the “this is bulls–t and I’ve stopped giving a f–k” Johanna (Jena Malone). Each displays new dimensions as they try to beat a rigged system, and it occurs to me that I know more about these new characters than I do about Katniss’ paramour, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who’s been moping about for two movies now.
True, all these colourful voices give The Hunger Games: Catching Fire a lighter tone, forgoing the previous instalment’s onerous sense of paranoia in favour of a more knowing, satirical edge. However, that’s what happens when persecution is met with a healthy dose of defiance. Consider how Peeta (I adore this guy) veers the Capitol audience against their government during his pre-game interview. I nearly fell off my chair laughing, not because anything he said could be construed as a joke but because of the ingenious way he uses his oppressors’ lies to turn the tables on them.
As the new games master, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), explains, “It’s all about moves and counter moves.” You see, if The Hunger Games: Catching Fire seems to retread old territory, it’s only because the heads of Panem’s crumbling dictatorship lack imagination; if the cruelty to which they subject Katniss and her entourage seems abnormally high, it’s only because President Snow has grown desperate; and if our heroes can wade through it all with their humour intact, it’s only because they know the revolution is coming.