The second Hunger Games movie builds on the emotional intensity of the first, telling a harrowing story of what happens when you win a deadly game by playing dirty. Catching Fire is the rare film that's better than the original book. Even if you've memorized Suzanne Collins' text, you'll get something new out of it.

Minor spoilers ahead...

In The Hunger Games, young Katniss Everdeen took her sister's place in a deadly gladitorial contest organized by the oppressive rulers of a ravaged future United States. Winning the Games required not just raw cunning, but the ability to win over enough wealthy patrons to gain life-saving supplies, by faking a love story with the fellow contestant from her hometown, Peeta. And in the end, Katniss not only won but saved Peeta's life, by threatening to eat some poison berries.


In Catching Fire, Katniss' self-sacrifice has come to be seen as an act of defiance against the totalitarian Capitol — depending on how you view her motives. If she tried to kill herself out of love for Peeta, then there was no political subtext to her action. But if she wasn't suicidally in love, then the berry-eating can only be viewed as a kind of gustatory samizdat.

In any case, you might wonder why one tiny act of dissent could inspire such a huge furor. (And in fact, I wondered that a lot while reading the book version.) Part of it has to do with the way the Capitol turned Katniss into a celebrity, in its bloody reality-TV show. But also, the dystopian Panem is a place where even the slightest dissent is unheard of — and yet, where the social order is so fragile that even a tiny challenge can bring the whole thing down.


So in this new movie, the dystopian regime is trying to neutralize the threat of Katniss, by changing what she symbolizes, tarnishing her, or just destroying her outright. And Katniss, meanwhile, is just trying to protect her family and figure out what to do with her newfound status as Victor and as revolutionary symbol.

Night sweats and public appearances

Katniss has a really strong emotional arc in this film — in some ways, stronger than the book, even though we can't see inside her head the way we can in the book.


As a result of winning the games, she's been elevated to a new status as a Victor, who lives in a fancy house and gets pampered while everyone around her continues to struggle to get by. (The people in her District get a little extra for her victory, but not enough.) And meanwhile, she has a hellacious case of PTSD, which makes her wake up screaming and look for danger out of the corner of her eye.

Both of these things isolate Katniss (never a people person to begin with) and make her unable to relate to other people. Even before she's on the road doing public appearances where she's trying to project the right image of optimism (and romance with Peeta), she's already living in public, and trapped.


The relationship between Katniss' trauma and her elevated social position is fascinating — and the big revelation in this movie is that neither thing makes her more powerful. Instead, she's scarred and ripe for more manipulation. Jennifer Lawrence, who was a raw nerve in the first movie, is even more intense this time around and she absolutely sells Katniss' alienation.

There's one particularly revealing scene, where Katniss tries to use her exalted status to intercede with a Capitol thug who's brutalizing people in her town — and that gets her a whip in the face. She gets no special treatment when it counts, just when they need to trot her out in front of a crowd or the cameras.

And every nuance of her public appearances is scrutinized for its political meaning — something that terrorizes her, until she learns to start using it for her own ends.


Later in the film, when Katniss meets a bunch of her fellow Victors, there's a strange sort of cameraderie between them — they've all been through hell and reaped the dubious reward of being coddled puppets afterwards. We soon learn that you never really leave the Hunger Games, even if you win — the trauma stays with you, while you graduate to the arena of fame and politics.

So if Katniss doesn't gain empowerment from being a survivor or from being famous and notionally wealthy, what does she draw strength from? Over the course of the film, the answer becomes clear: by fighting back against the real enemy.


"She's one of us now"

The core of Katniss' privilege is that she gets to leave her social class behind, and get what almost nobody in this dystopian world has: upward mobility.

The people attempting to shape Katniss' new public image include President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and a new addition, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Every scene involving either one or both of those men is electrifying to watch, and they carry the bulk of the movie's political storyline between them. (And as with the first movie, this is a major advantage over the book, which couldn't show any events that Katniss doesn't personally witness.)


Sutherland, in particular, plays a smarmy creep with total conviction — and manages to convince you totally that President Snow is quietly terrified of a social collapse, and that Snow will commit any horrific act to keep his grip. Snow's scenes with the sly Hoffman are delightful, but so are his moments with his granddaughter, who turns out to be a Katniss fan.

And the one scene between Katniss and Snow early in the film — which plays out much the same as the book — is amazingly intense on screen, as Lawrence and Sutherland both stiffen and square off like practised killers in a gilded cage match. This sets up the rest of the film as a kind of dance between the two of them, in which Sutherland tries to control Katniss and she tries to survive his patronage.


And Snow's opening gambits consist of trying to coopt Katniss — to pull on the strings attached to her new privilege. Even later, when his early gambits fail, he and Hoffman cook up a scheme aimed at convincing the (they hope) gullible people of Panem that Katniss is "one of us now."

You stop wondering, at some point, why Katniss' mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, fantastic again) is an alcoholic wreck.


The landscape is hostile even when it's not trying to kill you

Director Francis Lawrence was responsible for those haunting early shots of a deserted Manhattan in I Am Legend (i.e., the good part of that film). And here, he turns the wintry land of Appalachia into a character in the film, an unforgiving rocky country that will eat you alive. He sets the tone at the start of the film with a stark aerial view of the wilderness, which descends to visit Katniss, alone in the woods with her demons.

Later, Lawrence takes on a tour of Panem, in which industrial trainyards and rustbelt squalor give off a certain Orwellian hostility. If Gary Ross gave a 1930s, dustbowl aesthetic to the first movie, this time around, Lawrence is fixated on showing us un-nurturing vistas. Even the Capitol, which was so glam-rock in the first movie, feels more like a terrifying shopping mall this time around. The whole world around Katniss feels more expansive and real this time, but also even less comforting.


By the time we visit another actual Hunger Games arena — not really a major spoiler, it's in the trailer — Lawrence has already used visual cues to drive home the idea that every place Katniss goes is an arena. Especially since the Arena can be a different kind of environs every time (desert, island, mountains, or whatever), the central lesson of the Hunger Games is that arenas come in all shapes and sizes.

This fits very well with the nature of the second Hunger Games that our heroes spend time in, where it's the landscape rather than the other contestants that poses the biggest dangers. Katniss' trauma already has her looking for threats out of the corner of her eye everywhere she goes, until she reaches an environs where that becomes, once again, the only sensible response.


The other thing Lawrence does differently from Ross: in the first film, Ross uses lots of camera tricks, from static medium close-ups to shakey-cam, to convey the feeling of reality TV and turn the movie-goers into spectators watching a kind of TV show. Lawrence replaces this approach with a broadened frame and clever use of sound, to reinforce the idea that Katniss is constantly on the alert for danger around her.

A love triangle as political metaphor

And finally, just as Katniss' self-sacrifice for Peeta is either a romantic gesture or a political one, so too does her love triangle become highly politicized in this film. She and Peeta share in common the twin challenges of PTSD and celebrity, while her other suitor Gale represents the roots she's being taken away from, and the people who are ready to rise up. In her love triangle, she's choosing between two different versions of herself, but in neither of them can she be authentic.


One crucial scene between Katniss and Gale is changed pretty drastically from the book, to make it less about their possible romance and more about the revolution. In general, everything about Katniss' love triangle winds up being about her uneasy roles as survivor and contested symbol.

Because that's what both fortune-and-fame and post-traumatic stress do to you: Turn your relationships into things mediated by your status and your pain.