‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’: What to know about the Quarter Quell

Maggie Furlong

Special to CNN

(CNN) — If you’ve read Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy, then the odds are ever in your favor when it comes to cocktail party conversations about Katniss, the Mockingjay and the Quarter Quell.

If you haven’t, then that was all gibberish … but it doesn’t have to be.

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As “Catching Fire,” the second movie in the series, comes to theaters November 22 we’ve got all the information you need to dazzle friends with your talk of Effie Trinket and Caesar Flickerman in our “HG 101” — as well as some insider facts about the movie that’ll make even the most hardcore fans feel a little more informed before heading into the arena.

Happy “Hunger Games”!

The games

HG 101: Every year in post-apocalyptic Panem, two tributes, aka children, from each district are selected in a public reaping to compete in the win-or-die Hunger Games. But every 25 years, there’s a Quarter Quell, where a dark twist makes the games even more treacherous. As punishment to heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) — who not only outwitted the Hunger Games, but also ensured her partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) survived too (unprecedented!) — the Quarter Quell finds them back in the arena, competing against other past winners.

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As if that weren’t enough, there’s also a love triangle, family drama, a score to settle, several districts to save and an uprising that can’t be quieted. With evil monkeys and even more evil victors from previous games to battle, it’s a lot for one movie to tackle, but the tributes in “Catching Fire” are more fully-formed characters, and they help set the story apart and keep the conflict interesting.

Expert tip: These games are getting darker and sexier. Yes, the very premise of kids fighting to the death for the public’s amusement ensures that there’s a dark thread throughout the entire story, but the look and feel of “Fire” is darker as well, with new director Francis Lawrence amping up the action and suspense. And while costume designer Trish Summerville didn’t allow tributes to be nearly nude as in the books, she did pull some form-fitting designer duds for them to wear. The fandom is growing up, and the movies are following suit.

The big question: With several big names joining the cast, are there any new standouts? Sam Claflin shines as cocky tribute Finnick Odair, and Jenna Malone makes an equally splashy (and equally clothing-free) entrance as Johanna, who’s good with an axe, but takes a bit to warm up to. Both have great moments with Katniss.

The love triangle

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HG 101: So there’s this girl Katniss and she’s a total badass, and she’s basically best buds with the male version of her, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but she gets sent off to the Hunger Games with Peeta, saves his life a million times and now all the viewers want them to be an item. So they sort of are. Besides fighting for basic survival, the Quarter Quell gives them more time together to explore their relationship, for real and for the cameras. The love triangle is what grounds the entire series in reality, and it ain’t over until it’s over, so don’t expect anything to be decided halfway through the series’ four-movie run.

Expert take: Peeta might not be such a bad option for Katniss after all! Fans of the books were outraged that — spoiler alert! — Katniss ended up with Peeta after so clearly having a stronger connection with Gale. Peeta always seemed like too much of a damsel in distress for our Katniss, but in “Catching Fire,” Peeta is stronger and more independent — and he can swim, so thankfully you won’t have to see a near-drowning when they enter the water-filled arena. We wish he’d get a skill a little more exciting than painting his body with mud to be camouflaged, but we’ll take any improvement on the character we can get.

The big question: What about Gale? While Gale is once again on the sidelines for most of the movie, he does have a particularly haunting scene in “Catching Fire” that stays somewhat true to the book. The big difference? This time the changes leave the door open for Gale to really make his presence (and his intentions with Katniss) known in the two-part “Mockingjay” final installments. They’ve got Hemsworth — they’re going to use him!

The Capitol

HG 101: While the tributes from the districts must compete to take their next breath, residents of the Capitol are the 1%. Their excess knows no bounds, but they’re still human. While they felt like caricatures in the first movie, “Catching Fire” reveals some chinks in the otherwise bedazzled armor, all thanks to Katniss and her act of rebellion that’s now sparked a revolution.

Expert tip: Yes, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) is still the most stylish tribute sympathizer, but Effie Trinket is more lovable than ever. In “The Hunger Games,” Effie (Elizabeth Banks) epitomized everything the Capitol stood for: fashion, material things, excess and an obliviousness to the real issues in the districts around them. But as the stakes of the games are raised, so are Effie’s concerns, and seeing cracks in her very colorful façade helps make her more than a one-note character. We saw glimpses of her conscience in the books but, onscreen, Banks takes her from unemotional escort to compassionate cog in the wheel.

The big question: Who’s the new big bad? After the execution of “Hunger Games” gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), who ignored orders and let both Katniss and Peeta win, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) steps in — and he’s not going to make the same weak mistakes as his predecessor. With direct orders from President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to make sure Katniss doesn’t survive the 75th Games, he becomes the scariest new villain in the Capitol and the biggest potential threat. The role feels tailor-made for Hoffman.

With the Panem rebellion in full swing, and Katniss as their poster child, there’s more to prove in this 75th Hunger Games than ever before. Alliances will be tested and monkey mutts and Jabberjays will terrorize the returning victors, all while the clock is ticking to save their families, their districts and themselves.