The end of Hilary term was chaotic – just a few days ago I’d been worrying about essays and pre-ing with friends, fully immersed in that infamous Oxford bubble, and then suddenly the once-distant coronavirus felt very real. My parents rushed down to pick me up and all at once it was over – I was home. And that very first evening back in my childhood bedroom, when it felt like the world I’d spent the last eight weeks living in had all come crashing down (okay, maybe a bit dramatic, but you get the point), there was no doubt in my mind about what to watch to self-soothe: I opened my laptop and sat back as the familiar opening of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire started to play.

This is not the first time I’ve found myself turning to Catching Fire as a “comfort film” – I’ve had it on repeat throughout exam seasons, went for it whenever the stress of sixth form started to be too much, and even put it on the evening after the death of a grandparent. Whenever the all too familiar ache of exhaustion starts to set in, when everything is spinning out of control, I know that a couple of hours set aside to rewatch the film will always bring me back to some sense of normality. And I realise how strange this sounds – how can a dystopian world of murderous spectator sports have any relevance to “normality”, let alone be comforting? Why, out of all the films out there, do I keep coming back to Catching Fire?

The answer lies in-between the gruesome action sequences and convoluted love triangles – that is, in the characters themselves. Because despite everything thrown at them, this film makes sure to stress that the characters are, at the end of the day, people. It offers a frank depiction of human emotion, of love and pain and anger and apathy. Despite their situation, these people don’t feel that different from us. They deal with their experiences and start to make it out the other side. Their struggle through difficulty offers hope, and it is that hope that keeps me returning time and time again.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling overwhelmed the last thing I want to watch is something that pretends that the world is perfect. Catching Fire doesn’t do that. There’s something surprisingly relatable about the internal struggles laid out in this film – sure, its characters live lives worlds away from ours, but they undergo human experiences not too dissimilar from our own. When we watch Katniss paralysed by flashbacks, see her and Peeta endure the same recurring nightmare, or observe Haymitch drawn back to alcoholism, we see our world reflected back at us. And isn’t that the most comforting thing of all – to connect, to be reminded that we aren’t alone? 

It’s this relatability that also makes their later recovery all the more impactful – sure their romance is cheesy, but watching Katniss and Peeta fall in love despite the odds is not only delightfully heart-warming, but also reminds us that, even in a game designed to kill you, there’s always the chance for love, always a way through. A moment that will forever stick in my mind is when Peeta cuts open an oyster in the arena and finds a pearl, and hands that pearl to Katniss. In the midst of all the chaos, their love is growing – in even the darkest of places, there are these small moments of happiness, these pearls. If they can find a pearl in the arena, we too can pick ourselves up from rock bottom, no matter where we find ourselves.

You might be wondering why I’ve specifically chosen the second film in the series – it’s precisely because of its position in the storyline that I find it so comforting. This film marks the start of something bigger – something beyond the games. If the series is ultimately a story of revolution, then Catching Fire sees the people’s struggle properly begin, capturing the moment when the Districts start to come together, when the people stop accepting the existing state of affairs and start doing something about it. It shows ordinary people slowly realising that they have the power to enact something of huge significance. In a world where so much is beyond our control, to be reminded that things can and will get better, that our actions matter, is deeply reassuring. The film ends with Katniss slowly lifted up out of the arena – disorientated and exhausted yes, but on the way up nonetheless. Things are starting to change, and in those first murmurings of revolution, the overriding mood is one of hope.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into it – maybe the comfort of this film comes purely from its connection to my childhood, from the personal memories interwoven with the scenes over years of rewatching. The Hunger Games was certainly a childhood staple for many of us, and it now serves as a reminder of a time when we could lose ourselves in a story. Whatever it is, I always close my laptop with a sense of quiet calm, safe in the knowledge that time will keep on ticking just like the arena clock, and in that time new loves and new hopes will develop, pearls and promises of a better future.