...shining light on the media, one review at a time
What happens when the government controls everything? How long can people silently live in a country where freedom is stripped away, privacy is nonexistent, and fear of death or torture is a daily reality? Sadly, such a situation is not just the stuff of fiction. The residents of many countries, particularly Christians in areas hostile to their faith, find themselves in exactly that scenario, while even countries like our own are seeing freedoms rapidly slip away.
The fictional world of Penam in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an archetype of government control gone wild. While the first installment of The Hunger Games films showed a helpless people, weakly cowering under the tyranny, Catching Fire picks up with the small changes sparked by the bold refusal of Katniss Everdeen to do what she knew was wrong, even when facing death.
But Katniss never asked to be a role model or a hero. She simply wants to survive and save her loved ones in the process. Nevertheless, she becomes a symbol for her people, just as the character becomes a symbol and role model for young moviegoers everywhere. While these viewers will see several strong positive messages in Catching Fire, they will also absorb enough violence and dangerous views of sexuality to put them at more serious risk than if they participated in The Hunger Games themselves.
[Note: Consider The Hunger Games as a prerequisite for watching Catching Fire and understanding this review.]
Katniss Everdeen is a survivor. According to the Capitol, the controlling center of the world she lives in, Katniss is a Tribute, a victor of The Hunger Games. She is also a lover of Peeta, the young man who she risked her own life to save as they appeared to fall in love while struggling to survive The Hunger Games.
But the truth behind the public façade is far different. Trying to hang on to her childhood sweetheart at home, Katniss repeatedly tells her closest friends and family, as well as Peeta, that the romance with Peeta was fabricated to make sure they both made it out of The Hunger Games alive. The public, on the other hand, believes the romance, and Katniss is told by none other than the President of Penam himself, that she must convince the people that her love for Peeta is real.
On a publicity tour to all of the Districts, Katniss and Peeta do their best to put on the show the public wants. Yet they can’t help themselves from being more sincere at least about the deaths of the other Tributes who were killed in the Games. Expressing true remorse, however, causes only trouble when the people start to recognize the injustice of those deaths.
The government of the Capitol sees Katniss as much more than a surviving Tribute—they, with the President at the helm—see her as a threat. While some people who watched the Games saw only the romance between Katniss and Peeta, others understood that something bigger was happening. They saw that Katniss had the courage to defy the Capitol. They saw that she won, at least in part, against the tyranny.
The President recognizes that his hold on the Districts is threatened by the rise of hope that Katniss inspires. Realizing that “Fear does not work as long as they have hope,” the President trusts his new Game Master to come up with a way to eliminate the threat of Katniss and all the Tributes like her.
With fear and danger at every turn, and the confusion of trying to distinguish what is real in a world of deception, Katniss is no longer playing a “Game.” She finds herself in the middle of a war.
War is often where heroes are made, and, despite several flaws, Katniss comes through when heroism is most needed. As in the first installment of this series, Katniss remains true to her dislike of killing. In fact, her experience in The Hunger Games has given her PTSD-like symptoms, as she is haunted by visions and nightmares of the people she had to slay to save others and herself in the competition.
In the strongest moral and ethical stance of Catching Fire, this sequel keeps the positive record of the film series going with a resounding condemnation of killing and murder. When someone says that Katniss has “earned” the right to enjoy her luxuries of winning, Katniss counters the comment with a sharp, obviously disapproving, “By killing people.”
[MILD SPOILER WARNING] Some of the other victorious Tributes of the past that Katniss has to face in this story are called “killing machines,” and theyare shown as strange and untrustworthy. In contrast, the gentler Tributes who compete in The Hunger Games only because they are forced are the people Katniss gravitates toward and chooses to trust.
Yet even several of the characters who appear bloodthirsty at first eventually turn out to be more sympathetic and human than Katniss realized. At the very least they emerge as people who have their own tragic pasts and motivations for their behavior, however evil it may be. Thorough, nuanced characterizations of characters that could be villains serve to help the filmmakers further communicate that no one should be killed.
Thanks to the fear mongering government, Katniss and others who are also nonviolent find themselves in situations that are defined by violence. What do real heroes do when in such a situation? They sacrifice. And sacrifice these characters do, time and time again. Catching Fire is replete with moving examples of sacrifice, as characters jeopardize or willingly lay down their lives for others.
Initially, Katniss appears to have lost her inclination to self-sacrifice, as she instead focuses on self-preservation and her own happiness more than she did in the past. Even in the midst of her selfish desires, Katniss never intentionally puts her own safety above others’, and as her character grows during this film, so returns her willingness to sacrifice her own life for others.
However, despite the glories of sacrifice and the laudability of a nonviolent stance, Catching Fire ironically gains its excitement and perhaps much of its box office success from violent content. While Katniss and Peeta only kill people to defend themselves or each other, they do so several times onscreen, and other characters are not so discriminating. Several stabbings are shown and Katniss shoots two or three people with arrows.
Simulated disasters, caused by the watching Capitol, account for the more unpleasant moments, as the damage they wreak kills some characters, while making others scream in agony from the pain. A character is also shown bloodied from a violent cut, another is beaten until blood streaks his face, and another is shown being whipped, leaving deep cuts striping his back.
Offensive language also makes an appearance with several misuses of God’s name, along with about one each of “b--ch,” “d--n,” and “h---.” Two f-words are bleeped out on a television show and the s-word is heard once.
Given that the objectionable language is not extensive compared to some and the fact that this story works hard to condemn violence, the damage done by these moments would perhaps not be enough on its own to damage the redemptive themes of this film. The real killing blow comes from the sexual, sensual, and risky relationship content that burns up Catching Fire’s positives with the kind of childlike, unnecessary match-playing that starts a forest fire.
While a worthy heroine in some respects, Katniss fails when she comes to relationships. On the one hand, there’s Gale, the childhood friend who loves Katniss and watched from home as she supposedly fell in love with Peeta in the Games. Reunited with Gale at home, Katniss tries to convince Gale that the relationship with Peeta was all an act and that she likes Gale instead. But even with Gale, Katniss won’t actually say that she loves him when he asks.
She’s plenty ready to kiss Gale, however, and does so several times. Yet, she’s just as willing to kiss Peeta later on when the situation arises. Again, she won’t admit to loving Peeta, but she readily kisses him (for show and on her own), holds hands, and even treats the idea of marriage as nothing more than a casual publicity stunt.
Katniss continues to play with fire when she asks Peeta to stay with her after she has a nightmare one evening. He joins her in the bed, and they are shown sharing a bed on subsequent evenings, apparently doing so as a nightly pattern. While no physical intimacy beyond comforting embraces transpires, Katniss sets an extremely dangerous example for the young viewers watching this film, since these scenes condone the idea of casually sharing a bed and sleeping in close physical contact with someone out of wedlock.
Katniss, however, is not guilty of setting the forest afire. That disaster is left to another character—a female Tribute who inexplicably undresses in an elevator with Peeta, Katniss, and their male mentor present. The scene is supposed to be comedic, and many audience members will no doubt laugh as they watch this young woman intentionally face Peeta while she completely strips out of her costume and asks Peeta what he thinks now that “the whole world wants to sleep” with him.
Viewers are spared from seeing anything more than the image of the young woman’s upper back and a slight glimpse of her naked profile, but the looks of amusement and enjoyment on the men’s faces as they take in the nude sight are what viewers are left to watch. Katniss is the only one of the elevator’s occupants who at least looks disturbed, but her reaction is more one of disgust and disbelief, rather than the condemnation this moment deserves.
Particularly since many of this film’s viewers and fans will be teens and preteens, the ramifications of teaching such youths that a female devaluing herself and flaunting her sexuality in such an appalling way is right, while also encouraging men and boys to elicit and enjoy such interactions are frightening.
The dangerous, flippant mode of relating to opposite sexes that is exemplified in Catching Fire cheapens a screenplay that otherwise presents a layered story filled with complex issues and highly developed characters. Katniss is a nuanced, mysterious lead brought beautifully to life by Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence. Each of the supporting characters are so unusually realized that they, and the skillful actors called upon to portray them, vie with Lawrence, at times, for the audience’s attention.
The cinematography and special effects also serve this film well. As in the first film, the setting and the trials the characters undergo are depicted with such gritty realism that the world of Panem, which would otherwise seem too sci-fi to be believable, is rendered painfully undeniable. Futuristic elements—technologies, ships, and the like—are kept to a minimum and are only ever present to further the action, thereby serving the reality of the story.
That reality is this: though populated by positive messages of mercy, sacrifice, compassion, courage, and freedom, this film does indeed catch fire, but not the kind that motivates for good or brings about positive change. This is the destructive type of fire that starts as a small flame and explodes into a moving force that destroys everything in its path.
Whether by bringing a fire extinguisher of discernment or staying home and not playing with matches in the first place, make sure you and your children are not among this fire’s victims.
Check out these movies instead:
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Lucasfilm, 1977)
The Hiding Place (World Wide Pictures, 1975)
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 2009)