Full disclosure: Last spring, I read the entire Hunger Games trilogy in one go (okay, I listened to the unabridged audio version) while passing the long hours slogging to Everest Base Camp. I was intrigued by the series in part because it was the popular book everyone seemed to be talking about. But I was also crushing on the female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, because she was kind of the ultimate outdoor babe, a cross between Lara Croft and Becky Thatcher, who earned bonus points for being a bow hunter.
In the new film, Catching Fire, the second of the books to be adapted to film, and which opens nationwide today, we find Katniss, (Jennifer Lawrence), living comfortably in the Victors’ Village alongside Peeta Mellark. The two—having won the previous year’s Hunger Games, a kind of dystopian Survivor in which contestants use primitive weapons to kill each other on live television—are expecting the well-fed life of peace and comfort that’s the prize of victory. Instead, the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is worried that the two pose an existential threat to the imperial Capital of Panem by giving hope to the 12 subjugated Districts that are responsible for producing the raw material for their conquerors’ opulent lifestyles. So back into the arena the victors must go for some more Lord of the Flies–style bloodletting.
As with the first movie, success in the arena relies on a mix of fighting and survival skill. Katniss’s prowess with a bow is legendary—so much so that archery ranges across the country are seeing a serious uptick in young female participation. (At the Archery Shoppe in Albuquerque, where I sometimes shoot, it seems like there are always a handful of 14-year-old girls on the line shoulder to shoulder with goateed guys in camo.) In Catching Fire, Katniss has upgraded from her homemade hardwood bow to an Olympic-style carbon-fiber recurve model. Unfortunately, no actual Olympian—even the South Korean women, who are unbeatable in competition—comes close to her skill. Katniss never picks up her arrows, and never runs out. She hits moving targets at all distances and shoots faster than a Wayne LaPierre wet dream. Her skill comes from shooting small game and turkeys back home in District 12, which looks a lot like mid-Atlantic coal country.
And she’s a survivor, though less so in Catching Fire than in the first Hunger Games movie, in which Katniss builds a mountain lair worthy of Eric Rudolph. Save for a training session in which Katniss expertly instructs two allies from District 3 on their hand-drill fire making technique—you’ve got to move your hands down the spindle as you turn to produce enough friction—the woodsmanship in installment seems a bit hokey. To make fresh water, Katniss and her allies rely on a spile. That’s the metal tree tap that should be familiar to any Vermonter; pound the little spigot into a tree and out comes the sap. Typically a spile works only when sap is flowing freely during the late fall and early spring when temps are below freezing at night and warmer during the day. The jungle trees in Catching Fire quickly produced a stream of water more like a garden hose.
But machine-gun archery and silly survival tactics have long been a staple of science fiction and fantasy. We won’t even get into the physics of force fields and hovercraft. Chances are you’re not in the theater because Bear Grylls’s show got cancelled. More likely, you’ll watch this one because you loved the books, even if you claim that it’s just your kids who are into them.
While the second installment of the trilogy is bigger and flashier than the first movie, which had the same hard-scrabble indie vibe that made Jennifer Lawrence a star in Winter’s Bone, director Francis Lawrence stayed utterly true to the book for two-and-a-half hours. As middle movies in a series go, Catching fire is more Breaking Dawn than Empire Strikes Back, but it’s still entertaining. There’s plenty of eye candy here, from the special effects to the actors, but for those of us who wax too critical whenever we see a big budget film blow details—like every Hollywood climbing movie that’s ever been made—it’s refreshing when directors like Francis Lawrence invest the effort to get it right.
Catching Fire may be less about overcoming the oppressive regime than about whether Katniss ends up with Peeta or her childhood sweetheart-cum-coal miner Gale. Fans of the books will love it. And they may even tolerate the fact that our benevolent Hollywood overlords are squeezing not one but two movies out of Mockingjay, the final book in the series.