Catching Fire is fundamentally the story of a teenage girl sacrificing herself to save her younger sister, and the spiralling consequences of that one small decision. Already, we have a pretty good basis for a feminist movie. Add in the fact that it’s a female-led action blockbuster about murder and war, and you’ve got something that movie experts would say would never work… and which broke opening weekend records when it came out, beaten only on the “all time” records list by a couple of superhero movies and Deathly Hallows Part 2.
And does it live up to the hype? I’d say yes.
I’m one of the few people who considers Catching Fire to be the best book in the Hunger Games Trilogy, and the new movie captured all that I love about the book. It hurtles along at a gripping pace, without forgetting to include the little character moments that break your heart. It’s abandoned the shaky cam of the first movie to instead allow the action to speak for itself, and the introduction of alliances inside the arena make for a more compelling and entertaining movie experience, while also increasing the tension, as Katniss worries about betrayal.
Plus we meet Finnick, and that always makes things fun.
The movie changes the dynamic of the Katniss-Peeta-Gale love triangle, and I’m torn about whether this is a positive thing. Suzanne Collins has said before that she didn’t want the love triangle in The Hunger Games, and that Katniss’s feelings for Gale were originally meant to be platonic, but perhaps I’m one of the rare people who thinks that a love triangle really works in this case, as Peeta and Gale represent two very different things to Katniss, and the dilemma always comes back to Katniss herself. Peeta is a kind and sweet boy, but she’s basically forced to be with him, and that creates some resentment and a desire to reject her true feelings when they do develop for him. Gale, meanwhile, is much harsher and more revolutionary, a choice that could be entirely Katniss’s own and that could represent the rebellion and escape that Gale fights for. In the movie, however, Katniss’s feelings for Gale are strengthened, to create more drama over the Peeta issue (she would choose Gale if she could), and then her feelings for Peeta are developed slowly over the course of the story. Your milage may vary on whether or not this is a good thing.
But luckily, I feel like “Team Peeta vs Team Gale” has received a lot less media attention this time around. The love triangle only matters as a reflection of Katniss’s more important struggles, as she fights to protect her family, to deal with being a poster girl for a regime she hates and a rebellion she’s not sure she wants, and to understand what she wants from this potential new world. And so it feels right that romance takes a back seat in this movie, adding color but not hogging the limelight from the horrors of the regime, the growing revolution, and the introduction of the other Victors in the Quarter Quell. We get kisses between Katniss and Peeta and Katniss and Gale, but we also get Mags’ sweetness and self-sacrificing bravery, Johanna’s burning anger and “fuck you” defiance, and Finnick’s facade of careless flirtation and deeper struggles, and the latter story arcs are the ones that really make an impact.
And that’s another of Catching Fire‘s strengths: it presents a wide range for compelling, flawed female (and male) characters, all struggling for different things. Katniss is determined, stubborn, adaptable and a skilled hunter, but she’s not good at reading people or understanding their motives, and her suspicious nature does not always help her in the end. Her little sister Prim, meanwhile, is more soft and feminine, but she’s also growing into a skilled healer who can deal with injuries and blood without the slightest flinch. Johanna is confident and brutal and full of anger, Mags is sweet and brave, and Effie steals the show in her scenes as a woman who finally sees the cost of the Hunger Games and is heartbroken by the loss of her tributes. She might appear superficial at times, but she knows her stuff with PR and image, and she’s got a heart as well. The gender dynamic still skews male, but for an action/war movie, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.