Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark both won. Or so they thought.
They were declared victors of the Hunger Games—the highest achievement someone from one of Panem’s outlying districts could ever hope for. They both survived, marking the first time in the Games’ bloody 74-year-history that two people walked out of the arena alive. They became national celebrities. The Capitol, they’re promised, will take care of them for the rest of their lives.
But it is the hollowest of victories, they soon find. They have been forced to kill for their crowns, and the pain and guilt of the blood on their hands eats at them. Their stardom has done little to ease the suffering in their home district 12. Their beautiful state-provided houses feel like mausoleums—stasis cells for the near dead. And every so often, they’re trotted out for the cameras like 4-H cattle, propaganda tools for the Capitol. They begin to understand why their mentor, Haymitch, drinks himself to oblivion; why other past champions have retreated behind a haze of medication or insanity.
Katniss and Peeta survived, but no one wins the Hunger Games. They may have walked out of the arena, but the Capitol took their lives from them all the same.
And now President Snow wants even more.
When Katniss and Peeta nearly committed suicide in the Games to keep from killing each other, most viewed it as an act of true love. But for some, it was defiance—a finger in the eye of the all-power Capitol. Rebellion is brewing, and Snow, Panem’s oppressor in chief, feels there’s only one way to quell it: Bring Katniss to heel or eliminate her for good.
Thus, Snow abruptly announces a change for the upcoming 75th Hunger Games, in honor, ostensibly, of the third “Quarter Quell.” For the first time ever, former victors—those supposedly safe for life—will return to the arena to kill again. Katniss and Peeta are, of course, selected to be among their number.
Panem’s Hunger Games is predicated on one central trait we humans all share: a will to live. For three-quarters of a century, the Games has played on that inborn instinct of its contestants, and often its victors are those with the most honed survival skills. They are the ones who are the most ruthless, the ones who will do anything—lie, cheat, kill—to make it out alive.
“Nobody decent ever wins the Games,” Katniss admits. Good souls, like Peeta, are often the first to be slaughtered.
But what if that instinct was shrugged off, like a coat? What if tributes decided to not kill one another? To work together?
As another Hunger Games commences, that’s exactly what happens. These honed killers—many of them, anyway—fight not one another, but the common enemy that oppresses them, and sometimes sacrifice themselves in the process.
Katniss is the first to offer herself for another. She makes Haymitch promise that he’ll help Peeta survive at the expense of her own life. And Peeta, being the decent guy he is, forces Haymitch to make the exact same promise to him. He fully plans to sacrifice himself to keep Katniss alive. Then, as the “game” trundles on, we see tribute after tribute standing firm in the gap and dying in others’ stead—usually dying for Katniss and Peeta. They know that Katniss has become a symbol of resistance. And if Panem will ever be free of tyranny, she will have to survive and escape.
Such sacrifice is not seen in just the arena. Everywhere people sacrifice their own safety and risk life and limb to support Panem’s burgeoning rebellion: Cinna designs for Katniss a politically provocative dress and is targeted by the government. Gale leaps to the defense of a fellow District 12 citizen and is brutally whipped. Katniss’ own mother and sister—the two people who Katniss most wants to protect—tell her, in their own way, that Kat can’t worry about them: What’s happening in Panem is bigger and more important than any one person, they say.
The premise and plot of The Hunger Games can recall for some the Church’s earliest martyrs—those who took part in another bloody spectacle on the floor of the Roman Colosseum. Sure, those early Christians never marched their way toward outright rebellion. They were just trying to be true to their God. But their courage and sacrifice arguably paved the way for huge change within the Roman world. A century or two later, the entire Empire—a land that shares some commonalities with fictional Panem—became a Christian one.
Katniss has a complicated love life. She has romantic feelings for her childhood hunting partner, Gale, and the two share several kisses in this movie. But she’s come to care deeply for Peeta, too—and the conflict inside her seems to grow ever stronger. Katniss and Peeta share a passionate kiss on a beach, one quite different than the smooches they sometimes placate the cameras with. They sleep together, too—not sexually, but to help them ward off nightmares.
For the public, they remain Panem’s most popular lovers. And right before the Games begin, Peeta tells their audience that he and Katniss actually got married in secret and that Katniss is now carrying their baby. (He’s lying.)
A fellow tribute, Joanna, asks Peeta what if feels like now that “the whole world wants to sleep with you.” She strips off her clothes in an elevator carrying Peeta, Katniss and Haymitch. (We see her bare back.) Other tributes flirt with Katniss, one kissing her square on the mouth. Dresses and outfits can be slinky.
The Hunger Games are many things to the Capitol: an entertainment tool to distract the masses, a machine to create docile celebrities, a weapon of intimidation to subjugate a restless populace. But it is, above all, a meat grinder, churning through blood and grist and hope to nourish a monstrous beast.
That means the violence we see can be brutal, but it is rarely frivolous. Here, we’re brought face-to-face with the horrific nature of the Games. We feel the violence viscerally and personally, and we’re supposed to be repelled by it, not enamored with it.
One tribute is shot in the chest with an arrow, and another goes down with an ax. A third is bitten ferociously and killed by genetically modified mandrills. A fourth is stabbed in the gut with a knife. A fifth runs into a poisonous mist that causes horrifically blistered skin before it kills. (Others also suffer from its contact, and the cure—water—is painful when applied, judging from the screams.) A sixth drowns. Etcetera.
Blood pours down from the sky. Tributes are zapped by lightning and force fields. Katniss’ arm is cut open. Along with the people, primates and birds are skewered by arrows and tridents.
A civilian who dares to make even the smallest sign of rebellion is dragged to the front of a crowd and shot in the head. (We see a hint of the blood the blast produces before doors close on the scene.) Gale is whipped until his back is torn to ribbons. Katniss, when she lunges between Gale and his assailant, is in turn hit in the face. Government “peacekeepers” flood into District 12 and torch parts of it, beating just about everyone they see. (Katniss tends to one of the victims, who is bleeding profusely.)
Crude or Profane Language
While being interviewed, Joanna shouts obscenities (presumably f-words) that are bleeped for the television audience. The s-word is fully heard once, as are “b‑‑ch” (twice) “d‑‑n” (once) and “h‑‑‑” (once). God’s name is misused a half-dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Haymitch is always either drunk or on his way to getting there. He even drinks rubbing alcohol, desperate for something to dull the pain he always carries with him. So when Katniss barges into his home and announces she came for a drink, he says, “Finally, something I can help you with.” (And she does drink.)
Other victors have also taken to self-medicating, and we see at least one of these lost souls in the arena. Gale is injected with a pain-killer after his whipping. Katniss uses a syringe to attack a man, then ends up on the receiving end of the sedative it contains. Champagne is served at a party and sipped by President Snow.
Other Negative Elements
We see one of the tributes throw up on the floor. At a dinner party, vials of purgatives are served so the revelers can continue to stuff themselves.
To live in a country like Panem would stink. Really. It’s a horrible place, and lots of horrible things go on in this story about it.
But it’s a dystopian country that serves as a backdrop for both sacrifice and heroism. None of our favorite characters want to live in Panem any more than we would. But in such circumstances, it’s not about regretting the times in which we live. To quote Gandolf the Gray, it’s about deciding “what to do with the time that is given to us.”
Time is indeed a huge element in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. We see that everyone—and not just the tributes—is living on borrowed amounts of it. Few outside the Capitol can really be sure they’ll survive to the next sunrise. And so the movie becomes a study of what people will do with the next few moments that they do know they have.
Katniss is built to survive. She wants to live. She wants the people around her to live. And when she realizes that things for the ones she loves could go south in a hurry, she pleads with Gale to run away with her—her and everyone in his, her and Peeta’s family. They’ll be safe, she says.
“Safe for what?!” Gale says. “To starve?” For Gale, this growing struggle isn’t about safety anymore. It’s about doing the right thing—about making things better, even if he’s not around to enjoy those fruits himself. And after Gale’s whipped so mercilessly, Katniss comes to understand. “I’m gonna stay right here—cause all kinds of trouble,” she tells him.
Boy, she’s not kidding.
Katniss, Peeta and others grow to understand that it’s not really possible to save their own lives—not by kowtowing to President Snow, anyway. Their struggle is about deciding how best to use their lives while they still have them.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is more grim and heated than its predecessor, The Hunger Games. It’s a film filled with desperate people doing desperate things in desperate times. Even if we never saw a drop of blood onscreen (and we do), the thematic elements alone demand that we approach with caution.
But burning through the bleakness are those outrageous acts of selflessness and courage, perhaps inspiring us to also make more of the time we’re given.