2. The Hunger Games (2012)
The first movie in the series, and the first time we encountered Katniss Everdeen on screen, The Hunger Games set itself apart from others in its genre from the start. We meet Katniss comforting her younger sister Primrose, on the morning of the reaping where she volunteers as tribute when Prim’s name is called.
From there we see the gross process of the Games unravel. The tributes travel to the Capitol, where they’re scrubbed up, shoved in front of cameras and treated as animals in a zoo, made to fight for the entertainment of the upper classes. Katniss and Peeta, with the help of their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), realise that feigning a ‘star-crossed lovers’ storyline will move the odds marginally in their favour, and use their growing connection to stay alive, play the system and force the Capitol to allow them both to emerge as victors.
The only film in the franchise directed by Gary Ross, the tone is sombre from the outset. The muted grey palette of District 12 is made all the more stark and upsetting when it rubs up against the outlandish colours and excess of the Capitol, and the swinging camera style gives an almost found-footage feel.
The Hunger Games introduced Katniss as a thoroughly engaging but unlikely heroine, mostly because being the hero is the exact opposite of what she wants. She doesn’t want a love story. She doesn’t want to be remarkable. Most of the time, she’s operating purely in the interest of keeping herself and her family alive. But, there are cracks where her light shines through; tucking in her sister’s shirt, her panic at the thought of Peeta in danger.
Lawrence plays Katniss with such complexity, restraint and vulnerability that she carries the film and the franchise effortlessly, and her performance in this first film lays the groundwork for the real gem in the series…
1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Catching Fire begins with an insight into Katniss’s life as a victor. She still hunts, she’s suffering from extreme PTSD, and her and Peeta are awkwardly continuing their romance – but only for the cameras. They’re forced into the spotlight once again as they travel throughout the districts on their victory tour and get a glimpse at the first rumblings of the rebellion that they sparked by both surviving the first Games.
Upon their return, they realise that Snow isn’t done with them yet. It’s the Quarter Quell – a special version of the Games that happens every 25 years – and this time, the tributes from each district are to be reaped from the existing pool of victors. With Katniss being the only female victor from 12, she knows she’s doomed, and despite her best efforts to ensure Peeta doesn’t end up back in there, he volunteers when Haymitch’s name is called.
It may seem surprising that this sequel is the best in the bunch when it so closely repeats the formula of the first, but Catching Fire manages to hit all the milestones of its predecessor in a new and more meaningful way. Here is where Francis Lawrence stepped into the director’s chair, and he does a masterful job of maintaining the look and feel set out by Gary Ross whilst simultaneously stepping it up a gear.
The new arena – made up of beach, jungle and water – makes for beautifully cinematic moments, and the silhouette of Katniss and Peeta against his favourite kind of sunset orange is a shot that sticks in the mind. The other tributes in the first film were, aside from Rue, fairly one-dimensional; in Catching Fire, we get the iconic Jena Malone as the troubled but snarky Johanna Mason, Sam Claflin charms as Finnick Odair and Jeffrey Wright plays tech genius Beetee, giving the film a fully fleshed out ensemble.
As well as an improvement in storytelling, Catching Fire doubles down on the inherently horrifying concept of the books to move the series from a teen-centred, dystopian action adventure, into a full blown piece of social commentary. The crass gluttony of the wealthy in the Capitol is further explored, and as the revolution gathers momentum outside the arena, we see the rage of the tributes on the inside. Our current society may not have gotten to the stage where we televise a fight to the death amongst our most vulnerable, but, sadly, it feels more possible than it should.
A stellar cast, pitch-perfect performances, intensely engaging action and a story of epic proportions make the Hunger Games franchise one of the best of the decade, and Catching Fire brings all the very best elements of the series together to earn the top spot in our ranking.
Do you agree with our ranking? What’s your favourite slice of the Mockingjay saga? Let us know in the comments!