This post discusses the events of Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy and the plot of the movie Catching Fire.
I’m a long-standing champion of young adult fiction as a space where authors create genuinely indelible characters and explore truly important issues with real sensitivity and nuance. But much of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a reminder of what the franchise might have been if Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) point of view was a jumping off point from which the books and films expanded outward, rather than remaining narrowly confined to her experiences.
In the first movie, Katniss, a talented hunter from a desperately poor district in a post-apocalyptic and radically inequitable country, volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games, an annual fight to the death between twenty-four competitors, a man and a woman from each of the twelve districts. Katniss expects to be killed after she takes her much younger sister Prim’s (Willow Shields) place, but she becomes a favorite in the Games, thanks in part to her willingness to pretend to be falling in love with the other competitor from her district, a boy named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Ultimately, they both survive the games.
In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta have returned to their home district, where they live in isolated comfort in Victor’s Village, a housing complex reserved for winners of the Hunger Games, while the repressive government of the Capitol sets curfews, cuts down on black markets, and whips Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’ childhood friend and real love interest, for defiance. Katniss and Peeta are forced to go on tour in the other districts, playing out their romance in an attempt to quash rebellions that are clearly brewing in the poorer communities. But their facade fails, and they get a dreadful shock at the end of their tour: while victors of the Hunger Games are supposed to be exempt from returning to the arena, a special edition of the tournament will send them back to risk their lives a second year in a row.
There’s no question that Katniss is a fascinating character, a teenager with Arya Stark’s fighting skills, but who’s old enough to know that sometimes she has to make like Sansa Stark and act like a feminine ornament of the Capitol if she wants to survive. And it’s absolutely important to delve into what happens to someone who becomes a political symbol without realizing what’s happening to her, and is carried along on a flash flood of enthusiasm that leaves her with a sense that she has little choice but to opt in to the status and role she’s acquired unwittingly. But there are other kinds of courage than the impulses of teenagers. And if someone is going to become a symbol, especially someone who’s emotional, deeply tied to her family, and not necessarily prepared for the moral compliments of politics, it’s interesting to see why she’s chosen–and why she needs to be deceived to serve her purpose.
Much of the action of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire happens out of Katniss’ line of sight, and it requires different kinds of courage than Katniss’ stoicism and flares of rage. Katniss may believe that her mentor in battle, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is still a sullen drunk, trying to obliterate his PTSD and accumulated years of loneliness from living by himself in Victor’s Village. But he’s one of the few astute observers of her character–“You are a strangely dislikable person, but you do have your virtues,” he informs Katniss towards the beginning of the movie. And over the course of the action in the Arena, it becomes clear that Haymitch has overcome Katniss’ less than sunny personality and the enormous risks involved in joining a revolution to negotiate a complex set of alliances that will help keep his Tributes alive. It would have been fascinating to see some of those conversations take place, and to see more of the effort it must have taken for Haymitch to reign in his addiction while preserving the illusion of it, and to dare to hope again after years of being crushed. One of the advantages of splitting Mockingjay, the third book in the series, into two films–a practice I think is normally exceptionally crash–is that some of that extra screen time could be devoted to building out Haymitch’s backstory and revisiting his work during the events of Catching Fire.
This movie does a bit better with Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss’ stylist. Cinna’s always been the person with whom Katniss has had some of her frankest discussions about politics, and fashion has been the area outside of the Arena where Katniss has always felt most comfortable tweaking the Capitol, and taking affirmative political action. The moment where Cinna is beaten by Capitol police while Katniss is sealed away from him in the vacuum tube that will raise her up to the arena does excellent work at capturing a complex range of emotions: Katniss’s desire to act to protect someone she loves, if not to rebel, the Capitol’s pleasure in demonstrating her powerlessness to her, Cinna’s relative calmn in the face of the consequences he always knew would come to him, even if Katniss did not.
And Catching Fire steps outside of Katniss’s perspective to give us a series of exchanges between Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the new head gammaker–and, as it turns out, a leading rebel–and President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) that capture the tensions of managing the despotic leader’s whims, even if they don’t reveal Heavensbee’s private thoughts. Heavensbee promises Snow that punishing ordinary citizens while putting Katniss’ wedding planning on display will serve to make her look shallow and disengaged. “What’s the dress going to look like? Floggings,” Plutarch suggests. “What’s the cake going to be? Executions…They’re going to hate her so much, they might kill her for you.” But one of the marks of a terrific political production (or a cultural one) is that it can slip messages to those who know where to look for them, and past the prying eyes of people, like Snow, whose thinking has become sclerotic. And watching Heavensbee tell Snow in a perfect deadpan that he’s telling one story while quietly orchestrating another is one of the quiet, tense highlights of the movie–and it’s more revealing than watching Katniss stumble from agony to agony in the Arena.
There’s one revealing addition to Catching Fire. In the novels, President Snow’s granddaughter is discussed as a possible Tribute in a post-rebellion Hunger Games, though she doesn’t appear as a character. But in Catching Fire, she’s present, watching the festivities with her grandfather. “Everyone wears it like this now, Grandpa,” she tells President Snow when the old man notices she’s styling her hair like Katniss’. Later, the little girl signs over Katniss and Peeta’s love, telling her grandfather “Some day, I want to love someone that much,” much to his consternation. It’s a meta reminder that even when the little children aren’t quite leading us, their tastes still blaze a trail forward.