This is Part 2 of a 4 part series leading up to the release of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part II, each looking at an individual film in the series and it’s legacy. Read Part 1 here.
Catching Fire is better than The Hunger Games. It did better than its predecessor both with critics and at the box office. It’s a thrilling experience for its entire run-time, and it is one which drew comparisons to the best sequel of all time, The Empire Strikes Back.
This is not to say that The Hunger Games is a failure. It’s not even close to one. It succeeds in establishing the world of Panem, and creates fascinating characters that succeed in developing as realistic human beings. Its depictions of violence are of particular note, as they force the audience to recognize the situation created by The Hunger Games as the horror that it is. Catching Fire continues much of what The Hunger Games did right. Complex characters continue to inhabit the world, one which is still incredibly rich. Catching Fire takes enormous advantage of the tone established in The Hunger Games and brings even more verve and beauty to the mix.
What really makes Catching Fire a distinct accomplishment though is its sense of consequence. The film does not just acknowledge the events of The Hunger Games for plot purposes. It’s interested in what the experience of The Hunger Games has done to the world, and more importantly to its characters. They are not the same people they were before.
We get this right from the start. The first shots of Catching Fire are truly cinematic. They establish the film’s pervading tone, one of sorrow and loss. As we see the sun rise over the woods of District 12, we notice its beauty, and its inability to light the woods around it, which are still a terrible gray. We then catch Katniss from behind, staring up at the sun in anticipation of a day that she has been dreading for months. The third shot is of her face. It doesn’t look hopeful, or even neutral. She looks horrified. This is the face of a girl who has been traumatized. It’s the face of someone who can’t appreciate what’s right in front of her face, because her mind is overwhelmed with terror.
The woods of Catching Fire are not the green, beautiful places that they were for Katniss in The Hunger Games. They are no longer a place of escape or freedom. Even they have been tainted by the games. As Gale and Katniss hunt, much like they did at the beginning of The Hunger Games, it’s clear that things have changed. This change is crystallized in a single moment, as Katniss attempts to shoot a turkey. In a single instant, the turkey turns into Marvel, the male tribute from District 1 in Katniss’s Hunger Games, and she breaks down. As Gale calms her down, we understand what she’s just gone through. The Hunger Games have colored her entire life, whether it’s lived inside the arena or not.
If The Hunger Games is interested in representations of violence, Catching Fire is interested in its consequences. No longer are these characters youthful in any substantial way. They are now much closer to war vets than 16-year olds. As a result, this film becomes much more reliant on its actors. Jennifer Lawrence created the stolid, pragmatic character of Katniss in The Hunger Games, and she is now forced to complicate her. Much has already been said about how incredible she has been in these films, but less has been said about Francis Lawrence’s use of this in his direction. The camera loves her face, and uses it to express inner turmoil that does not ever require vocalization.
Peeta experienced this horror as well. He now understands Katniss better than anyone else can. Peeta’s comfort means more to her than anyone else’s, because he understands where her terror comes from. The development of the feelings between Peeta and Katniss is logical, no matter how much you might want to roll your eyes at it.
Peeta’s presence in the film is not simply one which responds to Katniss’s trauma. His actions are his own, and more importantly, they are always decent. When the third Quarter Quell is announced, and it is clear that Katniss and either Peeta or Haymitch will have to go back into the arena, we see all three react. Katniss is horrified at the prospect of facing the games again, and is distraught enough to disappear into the gray woods that were once her only refuge. Haymitch is angry; he throws his bottle at the screen. Peeta seems horrified as well, but he does not wallow. We don’t see it, but he goes to Haymitch and begs to be allowed back in to the games. He’s not interested in self-preservation. He’s immediately ready to die for Katniss.
It takes her longer, but Katniss eventually reaches the same conclusion with regard to Peeta. She goes to Haymitch, who immediately points out that Peeta was there 45 minutes ago. “You could live 1,000 life times and never deserve that boy,” he says. She seems incredulous, “nobody decent ever wins the games.” But Peeta is decent. He works for Katniss’s survival over his own, and he hates the idea of losing his humanity at the hands of the Capitol. Peeta is a good person precisely because he didn’t really win the games. Katniss did. He just happened to be there. That’s not to say that he’s not strong or brave to get the job done. He’s just too good to do it.
If Katniss is a beacon of hope for the rebellion, as Snow suggests early on in the film, then Peeta is Katniss’s beacon. Peeta is good in spite of everything that has happened to him. His trauma does not change him, it does not make him suspicious of everything around him. He does not let what has happened to him change who he is, or how he behaves. Peeta represents the actual idea of goodness. His is a world where doing your best is enough, one where doing what is right is courageous. He’s gentle, kind, and decent, and that makes him a fish out of water in this world.
Catching Fire marvels at Peeta’s decency the same way Katniss does. The film is fascinated by him, and highlights the oddness of his existence by surrounding him with victors. These victors, most notably Finnick and Johanna, are not bad people. Neither is Katniss for that matter. They don’t trust each other, though, and are willing to break alliances if it means their own survival. The victors are all scarred by their games. Finnick has created a confident persona to deal with his fame, one which hides the sensitive man underneath. Johanna has lost everything. She’s capable of being so colorful and rebellious because the Capitol has no one left to punish her with. As Haymitch puts it, “there’s no winners, just survivors.” Peeta may be the only true winner, because he has not allowed his past to destroy his future.
Catching Fire is uninterested in a happy ending. The tone of its final minutes is consistent with that of the whole film. As Katniss realizes that Peeta is gone, that the rebellion has started, and that District 12 has been obliterated, the feeling conveyed to the audience is not one of triumph. This is a world without triumph, one where vengeance is the only real goal. It’s a gray world, one where trauma destroys those who experience it. It’s a world where violence is unchecked and its effects are acutely felt. Beacons of hope do exist in this world, but not for long. If Catching Fire tells us anything, it’s that even rebellion has its costs. In this world, as in ours, every action has a consequence.
These consequences are at the core of Catching Fire. In most films, especially ones with budgets like Catching Fire’s, every character is some version of Peeta. They acknowledge their pasts, but are only rarely affected by it. Katniss would be the anomaly in most films. Her emotional scars are so real and visceral that they are usually impossible to consider. Catching Fire considers them, though, and is fascinated by the ways in which she deals with them. Its depiction of her pain is real, and that’s why it feels so rare.