[Spoiler alert: This review reveals key plot elements from Hunger Games: Catching Fire.]
The first Hunger Games film (see “The Serious Games of Life and Death”, CWR; March 28, 2012) ended with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as Victors of the 74th Hunger Games, a brutal live television show in which two dozen Tributes—a boy and a girl from each of the twelve Districts of Panem—are forced to fight to the death. The Capitol of Panem uses the Games every year as a punishment to the Districts for a rebellion that occurred almost 75 years ago. 24 Tributes go in, but only one comes out a Victor. But Katniss and Peeta decide they will not kill each other for the sake of the Capitol, but instead attempt to kill themselves in order to rob The Capitol of their much needed Victor. However, the Capitol, in desperation, stops them and declares both of them Victors.
The second film, Catching Fire has Katniss facing new obstacles that challenge both her person and her morality. Her love life becomes more complicated, and there is an ever-present tension of unrest bubbling to the surface amongst the Districts. Like the first film, the violence is relatively tame, but many of the themes are mature. This is a tale meant to show the importance of human dignity and freedom—that even in the worst circumstances, people still have the ability to choose the good, even if that means sacrificing their own lives.
President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the dictator of Panem and the Capitol, realizes that Katniss and Peeta have transcended the Games and that the Capitol has lost part of its tyrannical influence. A potential gateway of rebellion could open wide and Snow must make an effort to regain complete control. Katniss has unwittingly become a symbol of hope, and President Snow must stop that flame from spreading. He warns her that her performance at the last Hunger Games was seen to some as an act of defiance which has incited minor uprisings in some of the other districts. If Katniss, while on her Victory Tour, cannot convince the districts that she is a part of the Capitol and calm the rebellious tension, her family and everyone she loves will be killed.
Katniss is desperate to convince President Snow that she does not want a war, but simply wishes to protect her family. However, when the Victory Tour only further aggravates the situation, the plot takes on a new twist. Advised by the new head Game Maker, Plutarch Heavensbee (played brilliantly by Philip Seymour Hoffman), President Snow is convinced that Katniss and her message can be silenced by the Hunger Games—the very message that she weakened in the first place. So, to show that “even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol” President Snow declares that the tributes will be chosen from the existing pool of Victors. Katniss must go back into the arena.
Katniss’s reluctance to fight the Capitol grows into an acceptance of what moral duty demands of her, even in the an apparently impossible circumstance. Snow’s plan is to force her to kill friends and Victors that the people of Panem know and love—in this way, she’ll be seen as part of the Capitol and not a defiant Victor. But even as she is training for the Games, the Capitol still cannot break her moral compass. She chooses the weakest and most unpopular of the Victors as allies and even shows them compassion. Her kindness and bravery help gain the trust of half the Tributes, even some of the most brutal, who also see her symbolic potential.
President Snow’s plan continues to backfire in the arena when Katniss will not kill except in self-defense or when defending others. Viewers will certainly find the new arena’s challenges simultaneously horrifying and entertaining, but the real battle is not between the Tributes. As her mentor, Haymitch, and fellow Victor, Finnick remind her, she must “remember who the real enemy is.” Katniss must come to the conclusion that the creators of the Games, and not those in the arena, are the real adversary. To President Snow’s chagrin, this very morality is what makes her a beacon of strength even in the face of tyranny.
President Snow’s attempt to corrupt her very person not only fails, but his desperate need to regain control blinds him to the people’s hunger for a true Victor. As President Snow tightens his grip, the more the citizens yearn for justice and true freedom. Katniss’s unfailing resistance to the hand that insists on playing her gives the rest of the Districts hope, so much so that the fear meant to quell the flame of hope actually fuels the fire. Katniss’s Mockingjay pin, which was at first a simple gold pin from Katniss’s younger sister Prim, is now transformed into a revolutionary image.
Katniss’s choices in Catching Fire teach the lesson that even if we stand to lose everything, including those we love, our freedom to choose the good and reject the control of the enemy can never be taken from us. It is only when we give in to tyranny that we are weak. But when we stand up for life and liberty, even if we die, we live the true heroism that humanity strives for. In my opinion, this revelation for both Katniss and the people of Panem creates a more distinct line on the battlefield between good and evil in this second film. Panem is falling apart under the Capitol, but its people are being reunited under the banners of hope and freedom. I hope that the third film, Mockingjay, due out in late 2014, will be as meaningful as the first two.