The Hunger Games had a “first episode in a trilogy” kind of feel to it (which makes sense, being the first episode in a trilogy and all). By that, I mean that while the story is left on a questioning note, it also stands nicely on its own, the way that Star Wars or The Matrix ended with a future of possibility, but if that was the last you saw of that world, you would have still been happy with it (in the case of The Matrix, you would have been much happier, in fact). The point is, second books/movies in trilogies often have a tough time: they are the bridges between the often self-contained story of book/movie #1 and the conflict resolution of book/movie #3. The worst episode #2 books feel like filler material, killing time until we get to the climax of episode #3. The good ones feel bigger than episode #1, drive the story forward, and build excitement for the final installment. Catching Fire is a great second episode.
Catching Fire feels much bigger than The Hunger Games. While politics served as a backdrop in The Hunger Games, the true state of Panem and the oppression of the people in the districts comes to the forefront in Catching Fire. For the first time we get to witness a confrontation between Katniss and President Snow, a conversation which reveals the true depth of the danger Katniss has put herself and her family in by defying the Capitol at the end of book one. We get more insight into the Peace Keepers and their relationship with the people of the district, and how brutally citizens can be treated. During the Victory Tour, we get to see how life is even harder for some of the other districts than it is for District 12. When the tributes gather on stage the night before the games start, talk is nearly treasonous as the victors try to turn the audience against the games. It’s an exciting time to be a revolutionary, certainly!
We also get more of the “love triangle,” although I think that phrase is selling the relationships between the characters short. Katniss is certainly a conflicted individual who has feelings for both Gale and Peeta, but are any of those feelings romantic in nature? She has too much at stake to allow herself to even explore that question and she doesn’t expect to live long enough for it to matter. But in not facing it, she reveals as much about her character and her feelings as she would if she were to wear her heart on her sleeve.
While The Hunger Games took us into the brutal world of a regime that would force its citizens to murder each other, Catching Fire pulls back and gives us a larger view of that regime and the citizens that live there. True to its name, Catching Fire sets the spark of anticipation, preparing us for the final battles that episode three is sure to bring.