Adaptations of books are often difficult to pull off, but 2012’s The Hunger Games (my review), based on Susanne Collins’ 2008 book of the same name, managed to be both a decent adaptation of the source material and a pretty good film, though it was certainly not without its shortcomings. When director Gary Ross was replaced by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), the question arose: will this new director be able to improve on Ross’ film, or will he make the same mistakes? I can happily answer that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is an improvement over the original film in every possible way.
The events in this film pick up shortly after where we left off at the end of its predecessor. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have returned to District 12 as the victors of the 74th Hunger Games. Since the Games, Peeta has learned that Katniss’ apparent feelings for him were merely an act in order to survive, and, as a result, interactions between the pair have grown cold. However, in a surprise visit from President Snow (Donald Sutherland) before the two leave on a tour of the districts, Katniss is told that her actions have incited rebellion in the other districts. She must convince everyone that her actions were of love for Peeta, not defiance against the Capitol, or the lives of her family, Peeta’s family, and her best friend/real love interest, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), will be at stake. When she fails to pacify the districts, Snow and the new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), come up with a plan to not only get rid of Katniss, but to get rid of all of the other victors as well.
Perhaps this film’s greatest strength is in its character development. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson as Katniss and Peeta, respectively, bring out the conflict of their characters’ relationship so well that it is sometimes even difficult for the audience to tell whether Katniss’ apparent affection for Peeta is genuine or merely an act. Katniss’ reactions to her sort of post-traumatic stress, to learning that she would be competing in the Hunger Games once again, and to Peeta’s near-death experience are all heartbreaking and incredibly intimate; it’s a true testament to Lawrence’s abilities as an actress. Her feelings for Gale seem more believable in this film because more time is spent displaying them. Liam Hemsworth does a fine job of displaying the hurt his character feels for having been betrayed by the girl he loves, and his defiance to leave and determination to fight the Peacekeepers to protect his district make the character more likable and make the question of “Peeta or Gale?” much more of a difficult question for both the audience and Katniss to answer.
All of the familiar faces are also excellent, with my favorite performances coming from Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, and Donald Sutherland as President Snow. Haymitch has a great duality as both occasional antagonist and father figure to Katniss, and Effie is elevated above her role as comedic relief in the first film to a mother-like figure; when she bursts into tears to tell Katniss and Peeta how sorry she is that this is happening to them again, you just might shed a tear or two yourself. President Snow is, perhaps even more intimidating this time around as he threatens Katniss and the people she loves, or plots with Plutarch to kill Katniss in a new twisted iteration of the Hunger Games. Speaking of Plutarch, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays him perfectly; his dry voice and cruel plans set the character up for a solid twist…one that I won’t reveal here. And, of course, all of the new faces are perfect fits for their roles. Sam Claflin as Finnick Odair, Jena Malone as Johanna Mason, Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, Amanda Plummer as Wiress, and Lynn Cohen as Mags all have their moments to shine and are all likable in their own ways. There are no weak performances in this film, which not every film can boast.
The higher stakes of this film are introduced and dealt with extremely well. The themes of government control, independence vs. teamwork, and excess vs. deprivation are all explored and dealt with in their own ways. Katniss struggles with her desire to be independent, when in reality she needs to be interdependent on others – Peeta, Haymitch, Finnick, Joanna, Beetee – in order to survive. What we see in the Capitol versus what we see in the districts provide the contrast for excess vs. deprivation – colorful vs. colorless, joy vs. depression, stuffed vs. starved. It’s a powerful juxtaposition that really shows the extent of what President Snow and the Capitol will do to stay in control. The filmmakers don’t shy away from these deep themes, and they also don’t shy away from the same cliffhanger ending that the book leaves us with.
There is much more to talk about here, but all would involve spoilers, so I’ll refrain for now. The point of the matter is that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire manages to take what was already a great film and improve on it to make a truly excellent film. In fact, I might even say that this is one of the only instances of me enjoying a film adaptation over its source material; while the book is great in its own respect, parts of it, like the excessively long beginning, worked better for me on the big screen. What Francis Lawrence has done here is, for lack of a better word, awesome, and it has me even more excited for the two-part adaptation of the third book in Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay.
Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language