When The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes comes out this week, it’ll have some pretty big shoes to fill. Not only does it have to overcome the massive hole left behind by Jennifer Lawrence, whose performance in the original Hunger Games series catapulted the actress to superstardom practically overnight, but the new film must also figure out how to top the action and spectacle of Catching Fire — the best entry in the franchise. Otherwise, what’s the point?
That’s the problem with prequels. They must cling to previous installments while presenting something new and not overshadowing significant events from later films. Otherwise, you risk diminishing the impact of iconic characters. In this case, Katniss Everdeen, whose immense sacrifices brought about the end of the titular Hunger Games.
I commend anyone brave enough to tackle such an impossible task and hasten to point out other filmmakers who tried and failed to succeed on the same path, namely George Lucas, Peter Jackson, and Ridley Scott, among others. Sure, crafting a solid prequel is a possible — see The Godfather Part II — but just not likely.
Especially when the picture you’re trying to match is as good as Catching Fire. I mean that. Catching Fire, the second installment in The Hunger Games, is incredible. Taut, well-acted, beautifully paced, and bleak as hell, Francis Lawrence’s epic does what every great sequel needs to do — expand the world and its inhabitants, up the stakes established in the original, and leave the audience begging for more.
Check. Check. Check.
I’m typically no fan of the “young adult novel” genre. Films like Percy Jackson, The Maze Runner, and Divergent are predictable ventures that rely on well-worn tropes, silly love triangles, and a gimmicky hook to dazzle fans. While Hunger Games certainly leans on all these traits, author Suzanne Collins uses the formula to explore headier themes about war, PTSD, and the cyclical nature of violence. Sometimes, she toys with audience expectations, zigging when everyone expects her to zag — like Katniss. That’s what made Mockingjay (and its film adaptations) such a treat. Rather than deliver a paint-by-numbers finale, Collins skirted past the expected happy ending and allowed the psychological trauma experienced by Katniss and Peeta to linger like a disease.
Catching Fire works because it refuses to give audiences what we expect. The first act touches on the positive and negative impact of Katniss’ actions in the Hunger Games and presents her as a flawed woman overwhelmed with fame and increasing responsibility. All she did was survive and act like a decent human being. Now, suddenly, she’s the symbol of a rebellion she wants nothing to do with. Everyone strives to keep her alive, not because they care about her, but because they need her.
Imagine if Dumbledore used Harry Potter to sell wizarding war bonds.
Eventually, characters like Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and Johanna Mason (a feisty Jena Malone) respect Katniss. Yet, as Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) points out, she’s the least likable person in the room — she just happens to be braver than Davy Crockett. I mean, she spends 85% of Catching Fire in a suicidal rage, urging anyone who will listen to save poor, helpless Peeta.
She’s far from perfect. At one point, she begs Gale (Liam Hemsworth) to run away with her, hoping to bypass the war altogether. She even obeys President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and goes on tour, hoping a faux romance with Peeta will stop the violence. In Katniss’ eyes, all that matters are those closest to her, which ironically kick-starts the worldwide revolution.
Long story short: I like Katniss, not just because Jennifer Lawrence plays her. The character endears because, well, she’s a normal, relatable human being. (Captain Marvel should take notes.) Catching Fire pushes Katniss straight into Hell, dragging her through an endless array of trauma, violence, and psychological torture. She narrowly survives, even with the help of others, and is left broken, like Luke Skywalker at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. I respect the struggle.
Then there are the games. Right off the bat, you can tell Catching Fire’s production received a massive pay raise based on the slick designs of the hovercrafts zipping over District 12. When we finally reach the games, Francis Lawrence pulls out all the stops with intense set pieces that get weirder each minute. Mutt monkeys? Giant waves? Birds that mimic the voices of loved ones? Blood rain? Killer smog? A giant rotating clock that spins every thirty minutes? Lawrence allows us to feel the shock and pain of each Tribute’s death by giving these moments time to breathe. His slow, meticulous direction, aided by Jo Willems’ sharp cinematography, slowly ratchets the tension, building towards a shocking cliffhanger that naturally makes you want to jump into the next chapter.
Surprises abound, twists are, uh, twisted, and alliances form. While Catching Fire is mainly a bridge to Mockingjay, the sequel still manages to captivate with its grandiose set pieces and introspective character development. The sprawling cast — Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman (in his final role), Jeffrey Wright, and Stanley Tucci — only adds to the flavor, resulting in a rather tasty Thanksgiving blockbuster.
Look, I hope Ballads of Songbirds & Snakes knocks it out of the park. The trailers look great, the cast seems fine, and President Snow’s backstory presents a compelling enough reason to lure us back into the violent world of Panem. I’m intrigued, but everyone involved should have left well enough alone.
Despite its imperfections, The Hunger Games series and Catching Fire are captivating character studies that stand out from other young adult adaptations. Its gripping storyline and characters have yet to find an equal. Ballad of Songs & Snakes might come close and surpass the original Hunger Games and Mockingjay in terms of entertainment value, but it’ll be hard to top Catching Fire. As the embers of the Mockingjay continue to burn in the hearts of fans, the second chapter remains a powerful testament to the enduring impact of this dystopian saga on the cinematic landscape.