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01 November 2013

When the smoke clears

When the smoke clears

The last time we saw Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she had just achieved the impossible: surviving a brutal televised fight to the death, and bringing her friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) safely out of the arena with her...

The Hunger Games (2012) saw the characters pushed to their limits as they battled for their lives, finding their eventual triumph tainted by the awful things they'd had to see and do. But worse is yet to come.

In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (in cinemas from 21 November), Katniss finds that her actions in the arena have had far-reaching consequences in the outside world. Something about her unconventional actions during the Games has resonated with the oppressed people of Panem. In this futuristic nation where the corrupt government is all-powerful, no defiance goes unnoticed or unpunished – but Katniss's victory in the Games has lit a spark of hope.

As dastardly President Snow (Donald Sutherland) mused in the first film, a little hope is necessary, but too much can become a dangerous thing. Revolution is in the air, and the powers that be need away to control Katniss and her growing legend. Their solution turns out to be a characteristic combination of violent threats and shrewd public relations. Katniss can either become a celebrity they'll parade in front of the people for their own ends, or she can watch her family and friends suffer. 


The first part of The Hunger Games series offered a commentary on a media-obsessed culture, and the role that entertainment can play in numbing us to grim realities.In the second instalment, the focus shifts to Katniss's struggles with her own identity and integrity. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, she must choose between overturning an unjust order, and preserving the safety of the people she loves. Whichever way she turns, compromise and the suffering of others seem inevitable. In a deeply broken world, the story suggests, there's no simple path to 'just being yourself' and 'just doing the right thing'.

It's this complexity which perhaps sets The Hunger Games series apart from other tales aimed at young adults. Katniss is an appropriate heroine for a generation growing up in a culture where appearance is everything – where it's a constant battle to distinguish between the way things look and the way things actually are. As with many dystopias, both real and fictional, control over information and even language matters in Panem. Everything is warped and moulded into propaganda. The government doesn't just want to exert violent physical power, but to colonise hearts and minds with its ideas.

Because of this, the journey towards freedom must be about throwing off mental shackles, as much as anything. It's a fraught process for Katniss, whose emotions are entangled in the government's lies. Does she really love her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), or Peeta, with whom she's playing out a relationship for the cameras? The truth, when it finally emerges, may just surprise her.


Catching Fire and the final two instalments of the series (due 2014 and 2015) ask whether ultimately we become what we pretend to be. Katniss feels herself to be no more a figurehead for the rebellion than she does a government puppet, but necessity dictates that she plays the part. Will anything be left of the real her when the smoke clears and the propaganda ends? 

Peeta's words from the first film, on the night before entering the Hunger Games arena, offer a guiding light: "I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don't own me. If I'm going to die, I want to still be me." Our own world, like Panem, is a place where the deepest truth about who we are sometimes seems lost amid the performance and the power games. Identities, and all the values tied up in them, can become fluid at best, hopelessly fragmented at worst. Perhaps the only route to authenticity, and to wholeness, is to root our identity in something that the world can't reach.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is released in cinemas on 21 November. Sophie Lister  is a writer with Damaris which provides free resources for Damaris Film Clubs as well as the Damaris Film Blog.

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