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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

November 22, 2013
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Despite a number of would-be contenders, there’s only one winner right now when it comes to big-screen adaptations of young-adult genre fiction, and that’s The Hunger Games. The first installment was a blockbuster that naturally didn’t quite live up to its source. The second one, Catching Fire, mostly follows suit, while falling a little further behind the second of Suzanne Collins’ novels.

We pick up the story shortly after the end of the last movie: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have been declared the unprecedented dual victors of the 74th Hunger Games after playing star-crossed lovers in the arena. When the cameras are off they barely say two words to each other; Katniss is really hung up on her childhood friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). But as victors Katniss and Peeta will be spending the rest of their lives in the spotlight, forced to relive their romance over and over again, so they’re forced to play the part.

That life might not be all that long, anyway; President Snow (Donald Sutherland) clues Katniss in that some of the District populations saw her acting not out of desperation or love, but in defiance of the Capitol, and he obviously can’t have that. It was easy enough to force the old gamemaster to resign his position — not to mention his life — and replace him with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but victors in the public eye are harder to disappear. So Katniss and Peeta must play the good, Capitol-supporting victors to help stem the tide of revolution, or they and all their families may be executed, consequences be damned. And yet even an impending victor wedding is not enough to calm the Districts.

Conveniently for President Snow, the rules of the games are always tweaked for the 25-year “Quarter Quells”, the third of which is approaching. Even more conveniently, this time the tributes are to be taken from the existing pool of victors. And, as the only living female victor in District 12, that means Katniss is going back in, along with Peeta and a bunch of other victors: the vicious, axe-wielding Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) from the forested District 7; the young heartbreaker Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) from the fisheries of District 4; the eccentric inventors Wiress and Beetee (Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright) — dubbed “Nuts and Volts” — from District 3; and a host of others ranging from the harmless morphling addicts of District 6 to the menacing brother and sister team from District 1.

The big failing is, as in the first movie, the difficulty in adapting Collins’ use of internal monologue to the screen. In The Hunger Games the major use was for world-building, so this could be shifted off onto outside commentators like Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), but much of Catching Fire‘s plot hinges on what Katniss personally does and does not know, and this cannot be transferred so easily to any character’s dialogue. On top of that, this is where the books dive more deeply into Katniss’ emotional state, not just in relation to her relationships with Gale and Peeta, but also with respect to the society and her own role within it, not to mention her ambivalent feelings towards the sexuality that seems to drive so much of it. All this can be hinted at — Lawrence is a gifted, Oscar-winning actress, after all — but there’s really nothing that can compare with a young woman’s own thoughts, expressed directly as Collins does.

Like the novel, the film spends much more time out in the Districts this time before the eventual turn towards the Capitol and the arena, and we do manage to hit pretty much all the high points. Unfortunately, the calmer sections have been dropped. I understand the need to trim things out in the adaptation, but it felt at times like a rush to check off one memorable scene after another. Since the quieter stretches are where Collins lays a lot of the contextual groundwork for the more spectacular scenes, some of what remains felt unmotivated within the film itself. That said, a companion who has not yet read the second book didn’t feel particularly lost, so it may only feel so threadbare to those who already know what’s about to happen.

But the point of making the movie out of popular novels like these isn’t so much to tell the story well as it is to add spectacular visuals to the written word, and here the series’ new director Francis Lawrence does a fine job. When Katniss moves to the arena the screen opens up from 35mm to full 70mm IMAX, expertly captured by Limitless cinematographer Jo Willems. The tropical arena comes alive with traps and hazards from lightning storms and tidal waves to blood rains and poison fog; from killer baboons to insanity-provoking jabberjays. We don’t actually see any rodents of unusual size, but personally I don’t think they exist.

If what you want from a sequel is the first movie over again, but more so, then Catching Fire delivers. The dresses are flashier, the weapons are deadlier, and the stakes are higher. It fits as a typical middle installment in the Empire Strikes Back mode, taking us neatly from the introductory stand-alone story of The Hunger Games and setting us up for the climactic story in Mockingjay — to be split into two parts, naturally — but without reaching a satisfactory conclusion of its own. Since Lawrence is also directing the next two movies this gives us an exciting taste of what’s to come, even if the story is at best an adequate bridge.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: I’ll pass it based on a quick exchange between Katniss and her sister, Prim, but this is much thinner than the huge interactions between Katniss and Rue, or even facing off directly against Clove in the first movie.

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