My last blog post was about Movies with Mikey, a film review series that deep dives into a film. So, I decided to do a homage. Enjoy.
Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), is the second instalment of the Hunger Games games quadrilogy of films, based on the books by Suzanne Collins. The film was adapted by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, and directed by Francis Lawrence. Oh, and it’s a film worth watching. Please, don’t dismiss the film because it came out in the myriad of Young Adult adaptations in the early 2010s. Catching Fire treats the themes it’s portraying, and the audience, with respect something a lot of its contemporaries don’t do.
But first a recap on the first film. The Hunger Games are an annual event where children kill each other for the entertainment of the population, and to serve as a reminder of the totalitarian government of Panem called the Capital. Katniss Everdeen volunteers as District 12s—the most impoverished district—tribute in place of her little sister who was originally picked. Katniss is catapulted into the limelight with her male tribute counterpart Peeta. They’re paraded around like show ponies until they’re forced to battle against 22 other children from districts 1 through 11. Katniss and Peeta are the last surviving tributes and survive by threatening to eat poison berries at the same time and leave the 74th Hunger games without a victor. They are ‘allowed’ to return home to District 12 having ‘won’ wealth for them and their families.
Catching Fire picks up a year after the first film. Katniss is suffering from PTSD and is haunted by her time in the arena. It’s not just Katniss though, Peter is also suffering, although he doesn’t overtly show it, and Haymitch, a previous victor and mentor to the tributes, has turned to alcoholism to cope with what happened to him. It’s a subject that is handled with grace and the respect it deserves and is never brushed under the table. The film also explores capitalism and the injustice that happens because of systems that are set up to profit the few. The Capital is a totalitarian government ruled by President Snow, played brilliantly by Donald Sutherland. He as the rest of the government uses fear—in the form of the hunger games—to manipulate the population of Panem. It’s a tough topic and one that is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society. But it tackles the themes without being obvious. Well mostly, President Snow is always one step away from manically laughing.
The second film of the franchise is a lot more restrained than the first instalment. The first Hunger Games had a bad case of the shakey-cams, especially once in the arena. That has all but disappeared, and it has been replaced by cinematography that is deliberate and sometimes breathtaking. What’s even better is that Catching Fire takes its time. It explores the interpersonal relationships between all the characters and makes you care about new characters, even if we’re supposed to mistrust them. It’s not until 1 hour and 23 minutes of a 2 and a half hour movie that Katniss is thrust into the arena. Some may call the first half slow, but it gives itself time to ask bigger questions and moves to action just before the audience becomes bored. It’s something that the two sequels, which split the last book in two, did not do well as the source material was stretched out. Catching Fire felt right, and knew exactly how to tell the story.
Something you may not have noticed is the aspect ratio changes when Katniss ascends into the arena. It goes from the classical 2.35:1 aspect ratio used by many films, to a 16:9 ratio shot using IMAX cameras. This gives the action more scope and feels like the world has been opened up. It also makes for some amazing cinematography with wide shots that show off the landscapes.
But what stands out in Catching Fire is the performances. Jennifer Laurence who plays Katniss treats her role with as much gravitas as her Oscar-winning performances. Katniss is nuanced, with the signs of PTSD seeping through the cracks of her tough exterior. The other stand-out performance is from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. He has a presence on screen that is restrained yet dangerous, and on multi viewings, you can see the rebel underneath. He’s playing the two characters perfectly, the fake Games Director who has to put these children through so much, and the rebel who plans to break Katniss out. It’s a marvellous performance and shows just how much of a talent Seymour Hoffman was. The aforementioned Donald Sutherland snarls on screen as a President Snow, giving you a classic villain to root against. Stanley Tucci as the eccentric TV presenter Caesar is delightful, and Elizabeth Banks makes a return as Effie, the culpable tribute PR manager there to guide the children to be the best portrayal of themselves before their deaths. There are two many great actors in this film to do all the cast justice, from Woody Harrelson as the alcoholic Haymitch, Jeffrey Wright as the brain box Beetee, to Jena Malone as the slightly unhinged Johanna. There is just so much amazing on-screen talent in this film!
The film should not have worked as well as it did. Although the first film was financially successful, it did not see critical success. But it goes to prove that a franchise is not lost because of a weak chapter. If the filmmakers treat the audience with respect, a film can rise above the crop and be a truly powerful piece of art. It’s a shame that the film is in the middle of the saga, it makes it hard to jump in without seeing the first film, and the cliffhanger at the end leaves you wanting more. I’m not saying you can’t watch the chapter on its own, but you might miss some key details of the world and the systems that are set up in the first movie.
Catching Fire should be on your watch list. The themes that this film presents are powerful and more relevant now than at release, the performances are stellar, and the cinematography is breathtaking. Can I say anymore to convince you?