I’ll start this by noting that I am a big fan of this franchise, as a whole. With that said, my bias towards this series isn’t as strong as it is towards, say, Harry Potter, where I’ll basically go apeshit for anything HP-related even if it’s not that great (I’m looking at you, entire Harry Potter film series). The first Hunger Games movie was exciting and felt great when I watched it at midnight, but upon multiple viewings, it became pretty apparent that the movie didn’t really have the appropriate gravitas when we’re talking about a nation of starving families and slaughtered children. Plus, the shaky-cam was absolutely unbearable and the CGI was definitely lacking (remember those cheesy-looking muttations at the climax of the Games?). While it had its moments, Hunger Games just fell short, both as an adaptation and as an overall film.
Spoilers ahead, obviously!
Catching Fire, I’m happy to say, is an enormous step up. This is partly due to a complete change of director – Gary Ross, who directed the first film, stepped down in favor of Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend/no relation to J.Law), who brought a great sense of darkness and a far more somber tone to the second film. In case you’re unfamiliar with the basic plot details, here they are: Katniss Everdeen (the sublime Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the staged star-crossed lovers, are fresh off their victory in last year’s Hunger Games and are trying to figure out where they go from here – not only after surviving the harrowing arena, but in their strained personal relationship. The latter is complicated by Gale (yum, Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’ childhood friend, who is definitely in love with her, even though she now has to publicly pretend that they’re cousins. See, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), Panem’s leader, isn’t convinced by Katniss’ love affair, and is concerned that her bad attitude is going to bring an uprising from the starving districts. Peeta and Katniss get engaged and put on a great show, but Snow’s not convinced and uprisings are beginning, so for the 3rd Quarter Quell of the Games (every 25 years, the Games have an extra sadistic twist to them), Snow decides to reap tributes from the living former victors of the Games themselves. Naturally, Peeta and Katniss find themself back in the arena, only escaping when the rebellion forcibly removes them – well, Katniss, anyway. We’ll get to Peeta when we get to Mockingjay.
From an adaptation standpoint, this movie was a pretty ambitious undertaking. The second book in this series has an absolute crapload of information and plot development – the tributes don’t even get to the arena until about two-thirds of the way in. The movie does an excellent job of pacing this, since the film is frontloaded with heavy emotional moments and the set-up for not only the rest of the movie, but the finale of the series itself. We spend the majority of our time with Katniss, but we get a few secluded moments with President Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, an extremely welcome addition to the series) as they plan to “eliminate” Katniss one way or the other – though we do learn by the end that Plutarch is helping to lead the rebellion and needs to keep Katniss alive. (Hoffman will be sticking around – Plutarch remains an incredibly important character for the rest of the series.) Unlike in the first movie, where the severity of all of the awful situations was lessened by rushing and a Cloverfield-style shooting style, you feel the full weight of everything here – the tyranny exacted over the districts (made worse, thanks to Katniss, with a sadistic new Peacekeeper for District 12 whose first victim is Gale), the disgusting excess of the Capitol, and the daily struggles Katniss has to suffer through, from keeping her family safe to dealing with her own PTSD.
Though we deal with all of the slower action right at the beginning of the movie, it doesn’t drag or feel particularly slow. Lawrence does an excellent job of keeping things moving while hitting every note that he needs to. Add to that that the movie is beautifully shot, with excellent attention to detail, particularly in the Capitol scenes. The costumes and makeup are sublime, from Effie Trinket’s straight-from-the-runway Alexander McQueen butterfly print dress to Katniss’ Mockingjay wedding gown to, frankly, the details of every extra visible onscreen. This was no easy feat to make sure that literally everything in the Capitol was visually stimulating, but Lawrence accomplished it here.
We have a whole host of new characters to deal with in this movie, and they’re pretty well-cast. There are a lot of recognizable faces besides Hoffman, and more to come (Julianne Moore has signed on for the last two movies, and I wish I’d made a “more/Moore” pun in that sentence). Among the other tributes, all former victors, we have hardcore Johanna (a striking, snarling Jena Malone), quiet genius Beetee (the excellent Jeffrey Wright), the literally silent Mags (extremely endearing Lynn Cohen), the eccentric Wiress (the always thrilling Amanda Plummer), and the Adonis himself, Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin, who’s pretty great, even though I was really holding out for Jesse Williams myself). There’s really not a dead weight in the bunch, and our resident Capitol weirdos, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) are standouts once again (totally unsurprising, since Banks and Tucci tend to be delightful in basically everything). Woody Harrelson’s surly Haymitch and Lenny Kravitz’s quiet Cinna still hit all the right notes as well. I don’t really think I need to talk about how good Jennifer Lawrence is at acting. She’s a 23 year old Oscar winner with two major franchises under her belt. Still, the movie spends a lot of time closing in on her face, and for good reason – she doesn’t need to say much of anything at all to give you every single feeling, clear as day.
There is one character issue – it’s there in the books, but the movie made it worse. Peeta is clearly funny, smart, and as Haymitch puts it to Katniss, “you could live a thousand lifetimes and not deserve him.” We know that he’s not particularly amazing in the arena, since he doesn’t have a clear skill besides, um, painting. This movie made Peeta out to be SUCH a damsel in distress that it became borderline unbearable. Every single roadblock in the arena, from poison fog to vicious monkeys, had Peeta sprawled on the ground or getting his ass kicked while the athletically superior Katniss or Finnick had to stop fending for themselves and come to his aid. I’m not really sure why this was played up as much as it was, but it did feel a little relentless.
Overall, Catching Fire is a sharp, bold, and tightly directed step up from Hunger Games. It’s rare with a book-to-film adaptation to end up with a product that is both a good film and a good adaptation. Thanks to dead-on casting, excellent CGI work, a good pace and the two very talented Lawrences, this movie passes both tests with flying colors.