Although it burned fast and bright between 2012 and 2015, The Hunger Games film series was hugely impactful. Not only did it usher in a new era of young adult adaptations and imitators, but it’s filled with iconic characters, dialogue, and moments that have seeped into the public consciousness. Lines like “May the odds be ever in your favor” and “I volunteer as tribute” have morphed beyond their original context and still hold meaning for even the most casual filmgoer. And of course, it catapulted Jennifer Lawrence from an indie darling to a global superstar.
Based on the books by Suzanne Collins, the films tell an epic tale of a dystopian world called Panem that, after a violent war decades prior, has settled into a dictatorial state made up of twelve oppressed districts, lorded over by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who resides in the powerful Capitol. As punishment for their uprising, the districts are forced to send two young “tributes” to fight in the Hunger Games, an annual fight to the death that’s broadcast for all of Panem to see. As depicted in the first film, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, who’s initially chosen as the female tribute for District 12, the poorest of all districts. Along with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the male representative for their district, she fights to survive in the vicious arena, inadvertently reigniting a spark of rebellion in Panem thanks to her refusal to let the games rob her of her humanity.
Now, audiences are being invited back to Panem with The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, based on Collins’s prequel novel, which hits theaters November 17. In honor of this latest adventure, here’s our ranking of every film in The Hunger Games series, from worst to best.
5. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)
The grand finale of the initial Hunger Games film series unfortunately ends things on an unceremonious note. Director Francis Lawrence shepherds the franchise to its conclusion and his gifts and weaknesses as a director are both on full display. The film is at its best when focusing on individual humans dealing with the tense realities of war and the unsavory compromises that must be made in battle. But a large portion of the film follows Katniss and her compatriots as they navigate their way through the war-torn, booby-trapped Capitol, often in bland, dimly lit tunnels, and things quickly become monotonous. This shouldn’t be too surprising as the actual Hunger Games section of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which is the most action-packed segment of any of Lawrence’s movies up to this point, is by far the least interesting part of his films. Things aren’t helped by uninspired interpersonal dynamics, including a limp love triangle between Katniss, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and Peeta, coupled with an often inscrutable subplot about a brainwashed Peeta. Overall, it’s a disappointing final chapter for what’s otherwise a solid film series.
4. The Hunger Games (2012)
Watching The Hunger Games far removed from the hype that surrounded it at the time of its release, it’s almost surprising that it became such a hit. It’s a violent, sad film with complex world building, and yet, it captured an entire generation’s attention. Gary Ross’s direction is a bit uneven; he tries to give the film a gritty, grounded feeling with his constantly shaking handheld camera, but it’s mostly just distracting. But still, the movie works – it’s constantly absorbing and it’s impossible to not root for the main character, Katniss. Of course, it can’t be overstated how important Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as the central heroine is not just to this individual film’s achievements, but to its ability to spawn such a successful franchise. She’s rarely not onscreen and she holds the camera’s attention the entire time, easily winning the audience’s sympathy with her determination. This was a huge year for Lawrence, beginning with this blockbuster opening in March 2012 and ending with her winning her first Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook almost a year later. She proved that she could impress both audiences and critics, which led to her being the dominant face of Hollywood for the next few years.
3. The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023)
Before it was even released, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – a prequel novel from Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games – was already being developed as a film. Director Francis Lawrence returns to the series with a film that focuses on the early days of Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), the man who would go on to be President during the events of the original Hunger Games stories. However, instead of portraying him as a maniac from the start, this prequel shows him to be a sensitive young man, struggling to keep himself and his family fed, clothed, and safe while living in the Capitol. On the eve of the 10th annual Hunger Games, he’s assigned to be mentor to Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), the young female tribute from District 12. They quickly form a bond, defying the very power structure of Panem. It’s definitely odd, and sometimes even off-putting, to depict the youthful days of the man who would become a bloodthirsty dictator in a romantic adventure, but the story is consistently engaging and surprising. Zegler in particular shines as the defiant young songstress who refuses to let the Capitol crush her free spirit. Lucy Gray’s not-so-secret weapon is her stunning singing voice, which she uses to win favor from those watching the violent games. The character gives a perfectly-cast Zegler an incredible opportunity to showcase her flawless musical gifts.
2. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)
The decision to split the final book into two parts was obviously a ploy to double potential box office earnings, especially considering the source novel is virtually the same length as the previous two books. Still, this increased runtime allowed the screenwriters to include much more of Mockingjay into the two films it inspired. Thus, the first part is a shockingly understated film that essentially lays the groundwork for the grand finale to come in Mockingjay – Part 2. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is a patient film that takes its time exploring the effects of the rebellious ending of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. It’s slow and comparatively uneventful, fully submerging audiences into the dark world of Panem in wartime. Unlike the previous two films, there are no moments of levity to be found here. The eventual fate of the world and our beloved characters is unknown and potentially hopeless, and this sorrowful tone permeates the film. The action sequences are few, which allows them to have maximum impact. In particular, the most memorable scene follows the Capitol’s cruel bombing of a hospital – a shocking moment of brutality which allows Katniss to deliver an impassioned speech, which just might be Lawrence’s greatest single scene as an actress in the entire film series. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is divisive, even amongst the loyal fanbase, but its mature energy and deliberate pacing serves as an unexpected, and effective, pivot for the franchise.
1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
The first sequel to the zeitgeist-igniting The Hunger Games had a tough act to follow, and it achieves something seemingly impossible: it’s even better than the previous film. With The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the filmmaking team somehow manages to take the least exciting book in the series and turn it into the best film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s novels. The plot choices that bog down the book – namely, the obvious decision to have Katniss and Peeta thrown back into the titular games’ arena – are somehow the very traits that raise the stakes in the film version. Director Francis Lawrence (who would go on to helm all of the subsequent films in the series) builds upon the foundation established by Gary Ross in the first movie and makes it even better. The film’s budget increase to nearly double that of the previous movie is certainly a beneficial factor, as the fictional world of Panem looks and feels larger, and thus, more is at risk if our heroes fail in their revolutionary quest. And of course, Lawrence turns in an even better performance in her second go at bat. She’s headstrong, authoritative, and even shockingly hilarious. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire still stands as the greatest of all young adult adaptations and a model for cinematic fantasy world building.