Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy rode the post-Potter young-adult fiction boom to become an international blockbuster, selling more copies on Amazon than any other series, even Harry Potter itself. A major reason for its success is Collins’ refusal to resort to the blackand- white moral spectrum that any other writer woul employ when writing about children facing down a cruel empire.
The relationship between the two protagonists, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), is a case in point. Forced into the televised Lord of the Flies-meets-Big Brother carnage of the Games, the two realised that the best way to survive was to be popular. They accomplished this by creating the fiction of being star-crossed lovers. It was a convenient act that got them sponsors — who send contestants vital gifts like medicine — and, in a dramatic climax to the first book and movie, allowed both of them to survive the arena, winning as a couple.
The second instalment of the series begins with the two having to confront the real-world consequences of this fiction. Pretending to be in love with Peeta helped Katniss survive, but now she must live the rest of her life. That involves convincing her actual boyfriend Gale (Hensworth) that it was just an act. But she must also contend with the wrath of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who isn’t quite convinced by the Romeo and Juliet act and sees Katniss’ defiance of his authority for what it is. To prevent recriminations against her family, Katniss must keep up the pantomime as she and Peeta embark on a whistlestop victory tour through the 12 districts of Panem.
The tour immediately turns ugly; Snow isn’t the only one who recognised that the romance was an act. Unwittingly, and somewhat unwillingly, Katniss finds herself the catalyst for a popular revolt. Again, afraid of Snow’s wrath, Katniss and Peeta decide to double down and announce their engagement.
It doesn’t work. Fearing that the other victors will follow Katniss’ example, Snow institutes a special All-Stars edition of the Games with the express purpose of eliminating as many of them, especially Katniss, as possible.
It is once the Games begin that one realises the impact of changing directors after the first film. Gary Ross’ first instalment was roundly criticised for being too tame, for looking too much like a film that compromised its soul in the interests of commercial returns. Obviously, getting a U/A certificate for a film built on the premise of children killing other children would mean going easy on the violence, but Ross’ solution of dizzy, handheldcamera sequences looked especially fake. In this second film, most of the killing takes place off-screen, but Francis Lawrence introduces real danger into the arena. Unlike the first film, where the Games seemed just that, a game, this edition seems a battle. Not just to survive, but to survive with the integrity of one’s soul intact. Again, unlike the first film, where Snow and his cohorts seemed cartoon villains made to be thwarted, Sutherland and the new gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman at his understated best) provide truly menacing performances.
As a second film in a trilogy, Catching Fire has a transitory feel to it that can seem plodding to some. But the film proves that the franchise is in very good hands.