Around the time Catching Fire was released news broke that the film based on the final book of the series, by Suzanne Collins, Mocking Jay will be split into two films. Not entirely surprising as the idea worked well (financially at least) for the Harry Potter and the Twilight franchises. It has become the norm for Hollywood to do this because of the immensely packed nature of each of the final books. Splitting the films into two 2-hour segments rather than a three hour + trek is far easier on the audience’s bladders and their supposed inpatient minds. It also boosts revenues considerably (but with Hollywood being an institution that is all about original ideas and not containing a greedy bone between them money was an afterthought).
Catching Fire follows on from events in The Hunger Games with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) now a famous celebrity throughout the twelve districts and the capital itself. Her status has made her a potentially powerful symbol of hope of the anarchists and their revolution against the totalitarian government led by the absolute President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Snow realises Everdeen’s status and potential in the revolution and decides to keep Katniss in check demanding that she toe the line and do as the government ask or face the slaughtering of her family.
However, it is understood that Katniss is a popular figure, killing her or her family will create further discontent among the people thus the quarter games are staged. The quarter games are games hosted every twenty-five years in which winners from each district undergo battle once again. Being the only female winner of District twelve Katniss is selected (a rather funny scene mocking reality TV’s long pauses before announcing and oh so obvious winner) along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who volunteers as tribute. This edition of the Quarter games was designed to squash the last remaining hope the revolution had by killing Katniss.
One of the main criticisms of The Hunger Games was there was too much games and not enough hunger, in other words viewers were too quickly thrown into the games rather than analysing the themes of the novel. The same can’t be said for Catching Fire which spends a longer duration of its running time in the districts analysing the themes of totalitarian government and use of reality TV to distract the masses away from the real problems of the world. The iron fist of President Snow, his ruthless means of controlling the people and rising discontent is plain to see. What is most interesting is the use of celebrity status and reality TV to keep the people’s minds away from anger at the rich 1% living lavishly in grand, extravagant homes that play host to huge parties whilst the poor slave away in the mines for very little food.
Like the Harry Potter franchise, The Hunger Games franchise is getting darker as it progresses, the conditions inside the districts more brutal, the actions of the law enforcers more violent and the themes darker and better discussed. The immorality and emotion of the games themselves is also improved upon and the engagement with the central characters is far greater than it was previously. Whilst discussion of the themes of totalitarianism isn’t new as it has been discussed brilliantly in the works of George Orwell and Terry Gilliam (Brazil), it is intelligently and interestingly discussed here. The government’s main means of survival is the spreading of fear (like every totalitarian government from Hitler to Stalin), it is in a precarious position once the people’s hope overcome that fear hence why the government has such a strong desire to squash any hope that remains.
The idea of the games themselves owes a debt to the likes of The Running Man and Battle Royale who, in the case of Battle Royale, owe a debt to William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. Owning a debt to other previous works is by no means a bad thing as great literacy works can be built on the works of others. Anyway, it is a while before the viewer is thrust into an arena featuring hostile monkeys, poison gas and so on. Some of the traps are like the ones found in the previous film, but isn’t every reality TV series the same as the one before? Take X-Factor, for example, as in every season we get the same sob story, the same decent, yet unexceptional singers, and the same clowns who provide us with someone to mock. The games themselves feature small improvements to draw viewers in despite these new changes hardly changing anything at all.
Once inside the games the action is tense and exciting. The immorality of such a barbaric game adds to the feeling of danger in the hot, sweaty forests. Even though the 12A rating tames the violence considerably there still is an element of shock and horror about a world that sees kids killing kids as entertainment. What is also noteworthy about the action scenes, and the film in general, is the lack of shaky cam which plagued the first film as director Francis Lawrence has a better eye for action sequences than his predecessor Gary Ross. Jennifer Lawrence, who has become a positive role model, plays as strong heroine, of which is lacking in Hollywood, superbly. Katniss is certainly the emotional centre of the film (Katniss’ PTSD is good), but her love triangle remains a rather boring aspect of the story. Many supporting performances are also impressive, most notably Donald Sutherland who beneath his character’s calm demeanour lies an unmatched evil.
Catching Fire is one of those rare sequels that improve upon the first one with critics claiming that Catching Fire is The Empire Strikes Back of the Hunger Games franchise. Catching Fire is terrific stuff, though the ending feels abrupt.