The Dark Knight. The Empire Strikes Back. The Godfather, Part II. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. These movies belong in a rarified class of movie sequels that actually surpass the original film. This doesn’t happen often; for most movie franchises, there is usually a case of diminishing returns as more movies are made. What is fresh and original in the first film begins to feel stale and contrived as time marches on and sequels continue to be churned out. It’s hard to recapture the magic of the original film; most sequels are serviceable and some are terrible, but it is only a handful of sequels that are actually more beloved than the original film.
You can now add The Hunger Games: Catching Fire to the list.
While I liked the original The Hunger Games film just fine and thought it was a generally solid adaptation of the Suzanne Collins book, I did think that it had some flaws. Catching Fire does a lot to remedy the issues I had as well as doing a nice job of introducing and developing all the new supporting characters that are brought in during the second book. I may have liked The Hunger Games, but I loved Catching Fire.
Both films are lucky to boast such a great cast; the franchise really hit the jackpot when they were able to land Jennifer Lawrence as the lead. As Katniss, she is once again fantastic. Time in the role has only bread familiarity for Lawrence and she seems to be more comfortable and assured as the film’s heroine. Lawrence is a great actress – that has been evident since she was 17 – but the material of the second film lines up more with her talents. Katniss is now a little bit older and a whole lot wiser in this film and Lawrence flawlessly depicts the world weariness and defiance of this girl who is now a pawn in a much larger game. I don’t know if this franchise would be half as good as it is without Lawrence.
The rest of the supporting cast does a nice job; Josh Hutcherson (Peeta), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Stanley Tucci (Caesar) and Lenny Kravitz (Cinna) all reprise their roles and continue the solid job that they did in the first film. Donald Sutherland continues to be awesome and evil as President Snow. Liam Hemsworth (Gale) really didn’t have much to do in the first film and gets to grow a bit in the second film as Gale becomes slightly more prominent. Newcomers Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee), Sam Claflin (Finnick), Jena Malone (Johanna) and Jeffrey Wright (Beetee) all step seamlessly into the second film and quickly and easily establish their characters and their roles in Panem.
Catching Fire picks up not long after the events of The Hunger Games. Katniss’ actions during the Hunger Games have made her an inspiration to the oppressed people of the districts and placed her on President Snow’s radar. He wants this rebellion squashed and expects Katniss to do her part to end the dissidence that she inadvertently started. When she is unable to do so, Katniss and the other winners of past Hunger Games are sent back for another battle to the death in what I like to think of as The Hunger Games: All-Star edition. If President Snow can’t eliminate the budding rebellion, he’ll eliminate their symbol.
The biggest fault that I found with the original The Hunger Games film was that I didn’t think it spent enough time world building and establishing just how horrible and oppressive the Capitol and President Snow really were. The games in in and of themselves are barbaric – children are, after all, randomly sent to kill other children until there is a sole survivor – but that was just the biggest and showiest method of terror employed by the Capitol. The day to day life in the districts was no picnic either and I think Catching Fire does a much better job of setting the context. The second film slows down a bit and takes the time to examine the political reality that these people are living in and why the actions of one young girl could give them hope for change. When Katniss beat the system, she opened the door for the idea that the Captiol couldn’t control everything and that perhaps things could be different. By flushing this story out more, it benefits the rest of the movie.
Catching Fire is a PG-13 movie, but apparently just missed receiving an R rating. This was a smart move, as this is a very violent world and the first film felt very toned down; it frequently would cut away from any real bloodshed. Catching Fire is more unwavering; it isn’t gratuitous, but pushing the envelope more in the violence department is a critical component of Katniss’ evolution and is needed to show that the Captiol and President Snow mean business. If your kids read the books, I don’t think that there is anything in the movie that they won’t be able to handle or process, but know that this is a very hard PG-13.
While there are many improvements from the original film, the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale is still not 100% convincing. Part of the problem is that readers are aware of Katniss’ conflicted feelings in the book from her internal monologues and thoughts. Those are difficult to convey on film unless Katniss articulates them to another person and that simply wouldn’t be keeping with her character. In a world of the Hunger Games and food shortages, there isn’t a lot of time for slumber parties and gossiping about boys (not that Katniss really has any friends anyway). The larger hurdle is simply that we don’t spend a lot of time with Gale, so he is never presented as much of a viable option. Hemsworth definitely is dreamy (those Hemsworth’s have incredible genes), but he’s a little too stoic and withdrawn. It’s hard to root for him when we know and spend so much more time with Peeta. I felt the same way when I read the books, so I am solidly #TeamPeeta. Plus Josh Hutcherson is just adorable.
There also isn’t that much that the film can do about the climax as orchestrated in the book; Catching Fire and Mockingjay (the third and final book) really flow pretty seamlessly into each other, so I remember feeling like Catching Fire ended just when things got really interesting. The same can be said for the film, whose third act is probably the weakest part of the movie. If you haven’t read the books, you may be surprised with when the film ends; there really isn’t a big epic action sequence. The upside is that you are definitely left wanting more. The downside is that they have split Mockingjay into two films in order to milk this cash cow as much as possible, so there is going to be quite a wait for the final resolution of this story.
Some other thoughts:
- I haven’t read Catching Fire in quite some time so it was less fresh in my mind going into the film. Therefore I can’t say how loyal of an adaptation it was. It hit all of the points that I remembered, but I’m sure that there were some subplots and details that were cut. I will say that anyone hoping for Finnick’s fishing net costume is going to be disappointed.
- Proof that I don’t remember the book all that well: I did pretty terrible on this Catching Fire Superfan Quiz (it labeled me Haymitch and implied I’d been drinking).
- I was once again one of the only people at my screening who could rent a car in most states. It was me and a bunch of teenagers hanging out. They were generally well behaved and quiet, though someone was crying pretty loudly at one point. I’m also guessing not everyone had read the books, since there were some surprised utterances at events that wouldn’t have been at all surprising if you were familiar with Catching Fire.
- Rue gets me every.single.time. When Katniss and Peeta visit District 11, it got a little dusty in the theater. And sorry racists – Rue is still Black.
- I am probably the only person who cares about this, but Buttercup the cat gets another cameo in the film.
- Per usual, I didn’t opt for IMAX and I am skeptical that it would add much.
- Stanely Tucci as Caesar is just the best and inserts some much needed levity into the film.
- Fair warning – this is a long movie. With all the previews beforehand, I was in the theater for almost 3 hours. The film in no way feels long –it actually flew by in my opinion – but be aware going in that you are making something of a time commitment.
- The first movie will always have a special place in my heart since it was that review that helped jump start the popularity of this blog. That was the first time a lot of people came to visit the blog and I recorded the most number of hits that I’d had in a single day up to that point. Those numbers seem small now, but at the time it was a big deal and reinforced the idea that people were actually reading what I wrote.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was the first film that I’ve walked out of in a long time where I have thought about going back to the theater to see it again. If you liked the original film, I don’t see how you won’t enjoy Catching Fire even more. Jennifer Lawrence deserves a lot of credit for that, as does the new director. The film has inspired me to re-read the books and I’m now looking more forward to the eventual release of Mockingjay, my least favorite of the bunch. Catching Fire is an improvement over its predecessor and is an important transitional movie for Katniss as she grows from a survivor to a leader. Given the current political climate, the idea of sticking it to the government may be very appealing to some people. The books are still better, but Catching Fire makes a compelling argument in favor of the films.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens nationwide today.