The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2013)

by Christopher B. Barnett

In my review of The Hunger Games — the predecessor of Catching Fire and the first of four films based on Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of novels — I mentioned my surprise at the film’s dense cultural and religious significance. It’s rare that a movie marketed at such a wide audience evokes themes found in thinkers such as Dostoevsky and Girard, not to mention the Bible. Unfortunately, however, Catching Fire does not build on this foundation and begins to resemble a typical, if well-made, Hollywood blockbuster.

The movie picks up in media res. After surviving the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return to their home district, where life under the ruthless President Snow (a pitch-perfect Donald Sutherland) remains nasty, brutish, and short. But change is on the horizon. The bond between Katniss and Peeta — which, in effect, halted the Games and so undermined Snow’s means of pacifying his populace — has given the citizens of Panem hope for a society based on love, rather than on fear. Protests break out, and Snow realizes that Peeta and, above all, Katniss have become symbols, signifying the possibility of a world beyond the present one. Thus they must be eliminated. Snow reasons that the best way to achieve this end is to call another Hunger Games, this time pitting past winners against one another. Under such circumstances, Katniss will either kill or be killed or, preferably, kill and be killed. In turn, her image will be altered from that of self-sacrificing lover to that of self-preserving murderer.

To this point, Catching Fire juxtaposes a deep skepticism regarding the Civitas Terrena with a palpable, albeit inchoate longing for the Civitas Dei. And yet, once the Games resume, the film quickly becomes formulaic. Not only are many of the same personalities and scenarios reprised, but a new theme emerges, namely, that of Katniss as a leader of a military rebellion against Snow’s regime. Whereas the first film positions love itself — peaceable, patient, and disinterested in all but the good of the other — as the answer to winner-take-all politics, the second one can’t resist the pull of an ostensibly more practical solution. Violence must be met with violence.

In the end, then, Catching Fire comes to bear a notable resemblance Star Wars: its religious motifs are put in service to a far less interesting war-cum-political story. (Remember just how bad it got in the Star Wars prequels, with all of the talk about “alliances,” “the senate,” and the “Galactic Republic”?) One might well conclude, à la St. Paul, that the New Testament’s emphasis on self-emptying love is just too foolish in the eyes of the world (1 Cor. 1:18). One might also wonder if, sadly, the joke is on us.