Bottomline: Hunger Games Part Two really catches fire

It’s no accident that the country suffering under a brutal authoritarian regime is called Panem, in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy of young-adult novels. It’s a direct acknowledgement of the cynical political philosophy that “Panem et circenses” — i.e. “bread and circuses” — is an excellent measure to keep the masses distracted and submissive.

Panem’s totalitarian government quells rebellion and instils fear through a yearly spectacle viewed nationally on live television: children from Panem’s provinces are forced to fight to the death in a specially constructed games arena.

The trilogy’s first book was easily the best: the premise was shocking, the plotting ingenuous and Katniss, a formidable heroine. Books two and three — though bestsellers — didn’t carry as much weight; it upped the ante but was more of the same, without the redemptive grace of the first.

A real achievement then, that Catching Fire — the trilogy’s second book newly released as a film — manages to better its source material.

Director Francis Lawrence, working from a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn, sets the scene with richly realised and sharply contrasting visuals of the story’s three locations — bleak District 12 where Katniss has grown up, the vulgar excesses of the Capitol and the menacing arena of the Games.

Satisfyingly, there’s a strong arc of awakening emotional and political awareness in Katniss, played with a focussed intensity by Jennifer Lawrence.

Catching Fire continues from where the first — book and film — finish. As successful survivors of the 74th annual Hunger Games competition, Katniss Everdeen and her supposed lover, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are the people’s favourites. The Capitol is forced to outwardly fete the telegenic pair and parade them in a victor’s tour across Panem.

As the menacing President Snow (Donald Sutherland) observes, Katniss is motivated by simple motives of survival — of herself and her loved ones. However, in a nicely ironical twist, her success is misinterpreted by Panem’s brutalised masses as a call to rebellion.

President Snow threatens to exterminate all whom she loves unless she convinces him — and the people — that her actions are motivated by love for Peeta rather than rebellion. As the plan doesn’t seem to work, President Snow and his new games designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decide to, literally, change the playing field.

An aptly-titled Quarter Quell is announced — a once-every-25-years version of the Games, in which past winners compete to the death. The ruthless President sees this as a way of crushing the unrest, and eroding Katniss’ appeal by showing her as a killer onscreen.

Catching Fire’s cast is an effective and thoughtfully mustered group: Woody Harrelson as the hard-drinking Haymitch, Katniss’ unlikely mentor; Jena Malone as Johanna, and Sam Claflin as Finnick, former champions participating in the Quarter Quell; purple-eye browed Stanley Tucci as Caesar, the TV host; brooding Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ costume designer; Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, the airhead with a heart; and Liam Hemsworth as Gale, the third angle of the Katniss love triangle.

Catching Fire is a competent action film with memorable set pieces — not least when fashion serves a political cause: Katniss’ dreamy wedding gown burns and morphs into a spectacular black dress that references the Mockingjay bird, the symbol of rebellion. The film is given depth by its social commentary — the parodying of reality television and capitalism — and compelling ferocity by Lawrence as its central totem.

Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci

Storyline: Katniss and Peeta are forced to participate in a deadly game of survival both in the Hunger Games arena and real life

Bottomline: Hunger Games Part Two really catches fire