The rules have changed. This is true not only of the story of Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, which takes its battle-to-the-death conceit to bleak new territory, but also for the structure of Francis Lawrence’s sequel.
Where The Hunger Games was a character study, Catching Fire is an ensemble piece, with the expanded supporting cast threatening to dwarf Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as she once dwarfed wet-blanket love-interests Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Where Katniss was previously an unstoppable narrative force, she’s now barely a participant in her own story.
As franchise-building goes, this is no bad thing. With upcoming finale Mockingjay being stretched into two parts, it’s essential for director Lawrence’s world to feel rich and layered enough to sustain another four-odd hours of drama after this chapter, and that was unlikely to happen with a continuation of the first film’s character study tone.
So, many of Catching Fire’s most compelling moments come from the supporting players – Woody Harrelson’s reluctant mentor Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks’ softened Capitol lackey Effie, and new recruits Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Johanna (Jena Malone), whose presence as tributes make for a more high stakes Games this time around. The trade-off, though, is a watered-down Katniss, who Lawrence seems at times to be struggling to unpick.
Having emerged victorious from the first Games, Katniss and Peeta are now living in relative luxury and preparing to embark on a Victors Tour, forced to continue their showmance in the public eye. But their victory has stirred rebellion in the districts, and Donald Sutherland’s baleful President Snow has bigger and darker plans for the pair than simply showboating for the cameras.
A cruel twist of the rules sees them forced to return to the arena for a special All-Stars edition of the televised fight, in which the tributes are all former victors. Despite scriptwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt’s best efforts, the genuine deepening connection between Katniss and Peeta never rings true – J-Law and Hutcherson still generate as much spark as a damp log pile, and Peeta has so little inner life that it’s impossible to root for him, despite his much-discussed inherent goodness.
The love triangle’s other corner, Gale, fares better this time around; with more time spent in District 12 their connection has more room to breathe, but convincing romance remains the series’ Achilles heel.
Where the first film’s Katniss was a fierce, single-minded survivalist, determined to stay alive and get home to her family at all costs, here her self-preservation instinct has been replaced by sentiment. “Peeta has to survive”, she tells Haymitch, faced with the prospect of returning to combat, and we’re left to fill in the vast gap in emotional logic for ourselves.
Catching Fire is all about the group dynamics, first among District 12’s foursome and later the new tributes. Katniss’s stronger bond with Haymitch, and the gradual humanising of Effie are spotlit in the first 90 minutes – Effie tearfully telling Katniss and Peeta, “You both deserved so much better” is an unexpected emotional highlight.
Even stronger is the spiky, ambivalent relationships that emerge with Claflin’s seductive, curiously vulnerable Finnick and Malone’s firecracker, Johanna. Katniss and Johanna’s is the kind of complex, prickly, not-easily-defined relationship you seldom see between women in this genre; without needing to put it to the Bechdel test, it feels new and significant.
The Games themselves account for less than 40 per cent of the running time, yet the breadth and dimension of the cast – including colourful smaller turns from Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer and Lynn Cohen, as fellow allies – give them weight.
The dystopian world of Panem, already expanded in The Hunger Games beyond what was on the page, is even more fully realised in the ominous interactions between Snow and mysterious Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (a new addition, from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). As the pair watch surveillance footage of everyday life in District 12 together, exchanging offhand murderous one-liners, it’s clear just how omniscient the Capitol has become and how dangerous the potential revolution is.
Jennifer Lawrence’s central performance remains grounded and compassionate, and her scenes with Harrelson and Malone in particular bring out new, more adult shadings in Katniss. But one scene – in which Peeta comes close to death – stands out as a melodramatic false note for her, and feels like a consequence of the character’s motivation getting lost in the noise.
Even with the power of its protagonist compromised, The Hunger Games is still the most intelligent and immediate blockbuster franchise in action today, and director Lawrence’s detailed emotional shading and sharp world building bodes very well for Mockingjay.
Bonus features are hefty, including a two-hour plus Making Of documentary covering every aspect of the production from casting to set design, and an insightful chat track with Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson.
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