When I first saw The Hunger Games last year, the books were extremely fresh in my mind, as I had read them only a few months before and was really excited to see how the filmmakers would interpret the story. It seems, though, that because my anticipation was so high, it’s easy to say that I was a little disappointed in the translation. The whole thing felt a bit too forced, the editing was choppy, and the story didn’t flow as easily as it should have. On second viewing, though, after stripping away the comparisons to the book and looking at it as its own entity, I found it to be a pretty solid film. I’m happy to say that with the sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I didn’t need a second viewing to come to that determination.
I’m not sure if it’s because the books have faded from my memory somewhat or if it was because of the change in directors (from Gary Ross to Frances Lawrence), but everything in Catching Fire was bigger and better. For instance, The Capitol was far more lavish and surreal than in the original, really showcasing what the book wanted it to represent. There was also far more emotion throughout and the story had a much more fluid feel (allowing us to be a part of their story rather than simply being a viewer).
After the 74th Hunger Games have ended, winners Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, respectively) return to their new lives in District 12, having to continue the ruse of their romantic relationship for the cameras as they go on a victory tour throughout the rest of the districts. Both Lawrence and Hutcherson emanate their struggles during this trip with great chemistry—a love for each other that both of them know can’t go anywhere beyond friendship and fiction, even though Peeta is clearly in love.
Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks join them on the trip as returning mentors Haymitch and Effie, respectively. Both deliver pitch-perfect comic performances to balance out the drama in the victors’ turmoil. When Katniss and Peeta start offering to give part of their winnings to those players that had to die in the arena (and going way off Effie’s manufactured script), Harrelson and Banks’ reactions tell us everything we need to know about who they are and where they fit in the scheme of things.
After President Snow (a formidable Donald Sutherland) discovers Katniss can’t convince everyone they did what they did in the games because of love and not animus, he sends out his troops to force the districts to behave. When that still doesn’t subdue Katniss’ defiance, he steps out to introduce the theme of the 75th Hunger Games (or the third Quarter Quell, signifying the third quarter-century mark of the end of the rebellion). In this, it’s announced that all players will be reaped from existing winners, putting Katniss back into the games where Snow can legally destroy her and the unintentional hope that she’s bringing to so many.
Each one the returning cast members are able to take their characters to a much deeper level than they were able to do in the original. Except maybe for Liam Hemsworth’s Gale, who remains as dry and as emotionless as ever. Katniss is supposed to be torn between him and Peeta—the love she wants versus the love she’s fighting against—but because Hemsworth and Lawrence fall far short of having any real chemistry (especially when Lawrence displays such incredible passion in her scenes with Hutcherson), it’s hard to believe that she would have any question whatsoever in her mind.
Aside from that, it’s the addition of a brand new crop of tributes (and one seething Philip Seymour Hoffman) that ultimately makes the film rise above its predecessor. The choices the producers made for each new character couldn’t have been better. The best of the bunch, though, are Sam Claflin as Finnick and Jena Malone as Johanna Mason.
Claflin makes every scene he’s in count by being friendly, arrogant and reserved all at the same time. You’re never really sure what side he’s actually on, but he is so likable, you just don’t care. Add to that Malone’s incensed (and snarky) Johanna, and you’ve got yourself a one-two-punch of powerful and captivating flair. It doesn’t hurt that Lawrence and Hutcherson play off both of them with spirited and magnetic fervor (especially Lawrence and Claflin).
Where the film, I feel, falls just a bit short is in the pacing of the two distinct halves of the film. A lot of events happen between the 74th Hunger Games and the Quarter Quell that need to be presented in order to set up the last chapter of the series. But where that information was intriguing and held your interest quite well in the book, the film doesn’t seem to be able to capture that same intensity. At times, you just want to get to games already. But when you finally do, they’re over.
If only the first half moved more quickly and the second half had slowed down a bit (to add more character development), the balance would have been much better. Instead, we get a setup for the next two films at the expense of some of the more minor characters (who, I believe, were far more developed in the book). Everyone is still given at least one special moment, but I would have liked to have seen them given a little more depth, allowing us to care for them as people, not just props to help the main protagonists move further in the story.
Overall, the film is a much better adaptation than the original film was, with much better effects, better costumes and a much more intense conflict. It’s definitely a very good second chapter (one that does succeed on the level of “better than the original”), however, it still hasn’t reached the level that I feel it could have if given the absolute love for the subject (much like Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings franchise). If you’re up for a good entertaining, and interesting film, though, this is definitely a good time at the movies.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Frozen, Oldboy and Black Nativity. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.