There are no easy decisions in the dystopian future. Everything comes at a price; If you want to run away with the man you love, the government might squash the neighboring district of starving grain harvesters, putting the blood on your hands. If you appeal to the oppressive forces, you’ll wind up marrying a platonic friend and feel horrible every time the two of you kiss, which is all the time because you’re the world’s cutest couple. Oh, and no matter what you choose, you have to fight in a country-wide deathmatch. And you thought your life was hard?
This week sees the release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a sequel to the hit young adult fiction adaptation from 2012. In the film, Hunger Games champion Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is faced with a romantic Sophie’s Choice while a revolution brews in the background. The “love triangle” is a staple of the young adult fantasy/sci-fi genre, but tropes are what Hunger Games does well, twisting them with a mature sophistication.
But not so much with the love stuff, a weak point that undercuts just how awesome Katniss is as an ass-kicking woman. In Catching Fire, she’s forced to choose between Team Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her in-tournament BF, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her studly BFF from back home, who she’s visibly hankering for whenever they’re together. Though the books provide a clear ending to the conflict, the end of Catching Fire had me dreaming of a scenario where our leading lady ditches both of her male counterpart options.
Here’s the truth: Neither of these men are good enough for Katniss.
There’s a reality to the heightened relationship situations in Catching Fire. To survive the gauntlet of the first movie, Katniss faked a relationship with Peeta to gain the sympathy vote. Now she has to continue the facade on the Victory Tour, where the “celebrity couple” parades around the Districts smooching and thanking everyone for their support. Katniss has the President of Panem breathing down her neck, pressuring her to stick with the picture perfect relationship for the good of the people. Katniss and Peeta are good friends and it doesn’t pain them when they have to put on their couple faces. But there’s no spark, just strong friendship. That’s not a way for a person to live.
The stakes are higher, but Katniss is suffering from relatable social pressures: the parents who insist their son/daughter to consider marriage, the boyfriend/girlfriend who insist a relationship will work out despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, the disaster scenarios we dream up that keep us locked into our current martial situations. The alternative to dumping a guy and following the heart can look horrifying — in the case of Catching Fire, Katniss risks the deaths of innocent people — but sticking with something that’s not working, living a lie, is equally crippling. Katniss lets herself slip into a romantic relationship with Peeta out of circumstance, not out of love. It’s ultimately destructive.
Gale isn’t a better option. Katniss has genuine affection for her longtime friend — its’ clear that they both wish their casual bunny-hunting dates would blossom into something more. But Katniss has other priorities that trump romance: She has a family, she has the people of Panem, and she has a quarrelsome relationship with the government to crack. Gale could be a great boyfriend to Katniss if he was able to escape his own headspace for two seconds. Instead, he plays games, perhaps unknowingly (but that’s still a problem).
In Catching Fire, a distraught Gale finally locks lips with Katniss (spoiler alert!) in order to contend with everything that went on between her and Peeta at the Hunger Games. It works. She’s completely frazzled by the moment of intimacy, creating immediate tension with Peeta. After the kiss, Gale does nothing to comfort Katniss, preferring to walk off like a brute instead of telling her how maybe, just maybe, their relationship could develop inside the framework of the “on-screen” romance she has with Peeta.
But no, as Katniss juggles being an icon of revolution and the violent repercussions of pissing off President Snow, both of her men are playing games of jealousy. Katniss isn’t to blame for her indecision. It’s the men in her life who can’t admit to themselves that they’re torturing this young woman. Katniss later tells Gale that she wants to run away with him into the woods, to completely disappear from the chaos of the Districts. He insists that it’s not possible. The world needs her (code for: “I’m still not happy that you had to kiss another boy during the equivalent of a school play”). He’s not wrong that the Districts need a hero like Katniss, but he’s not expressing that emotionally. He has tunnel vision for his own wants. This is pyschological mistreatment 101 and no one — fictional or real — should have to put up with it.
And then there’s Finnick, the new character in Catching Fire who joins Katniss and Peeta in the ring for their second go at Hunger Games glory. Contextually in movie two, he’s a prime example of what the world has to offer Katniss in terms of intelligent, responsible, Panem men. He’s a fighter, he’s a dreamer, he’s a loyal ally who spends half the Hunger Games carrying a 70-year-old woman on his back because she volunteered to take his girlfriend’s place in the competition (oh yeah, he’s also taken, so there’s no hope for Katniss on that front). Instead of moping like sad sack Peeta or stewing like Gale, Finnick wrestles with his serious emotional issues while elevating the spirits of those around him. How Katniss could still be deciding between the two men in her life after meeting a beacon of hope like Finnick is a dramatic failure of the Hunger Games series. She’s too smart, too strong, too driven by true love to waste time with Peeta or Gale.
Next year, we’ll see the first of two adaptations of the third book in the series, Mockingjay (they’re splitting it in two to make room for all of Gale’s brooding). Those who have read the novel know that Katniss resolves her relationship issues, for better or worse. But in the context of this second installment, there’s still a glimmer of hope for The Girl on Fire. Katniss is an amazing role model, Catching Fire is an often-exhilarating movie, but in the end, the series is a sad portrayal of love in the real world.
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter living in New York City. His work has been featured on Vulture, Time Out New York, and The Hollywood Reporter. He is the host of the pop culture podcast Operation Kino.