To regular readers of this blog it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of The Hunger Games Trilogy, the hugely successful young adult dystopian series by Suzanne Collins. So of course I had to see the movie adaption of the second book, Catching Fire, the very first weekend of its release.
I’m going to say right up front that it’s amazing. Not in a “I’m a fangirl and it followed the book closely enough to please my fangirl heart, so it’s amazing” kind of way. I mean, as a movie, it’s amazing, period.
There was a lot of angst among fans leading up to this movie. The director of The Hunger Games, Gary Ross, dropped out because he claimed there was not enough time to prepare for the release date set by the studio. Fans and non-fans alike weighed in with replacement suggestions, including Joss Whedon (a pie-in-the-sky choice, as he was about to go on a promotional tour for The Avengers), Duncan Jones (Moon), J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay, James Cameron, etc., etc., etc.
When Francis Lawrence (Water For Elephants) was chosen, some (O.K., I) felt he was a leftover choice, someone picked because he was the only one with free time in his schedule. An also-ran, a B-lister, someone who was going to phone it in.
Holy monkey mutts, were we wrong.
In anticipation of seeing The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I re-watched the first movie the other night. I liked it the first time I saw it and still do, but it has problems, mainly due to a too-low budget because the studio did not expect it to become a big enough hit to justify a larger one.
About 80% of the story is just fine without any major special effects, but the 20% that needs them suffers from sub-par effects. The scenes of Katniss’ dress shooting flames and the “muttations” (genetically engineered animals)—well, there’s no kind way to put it. They’re really meh. The muttations are supposed to be terrifying but look like blobby pit bulls.
While Ve Neill’s make-up is brilliant (she does it for the second movie as well) the costumes are an issue in the first movie. I liked the choice to give the clothes in District 12 a retro 1930s look, but the Capitol clothes look like someone ran through both K-Mart and Frederick’s of Hollywood, grabbing random stuff off the bargain tables. The sets in the Capitol have a similar psychotic look, and not in a good way.
That’s not the case now. Huge box office take for the last movie meant an upgrade in budget for the new movie. And, boy, does it show.
Everything—in the Capitol, the districts, the arena—feels bigger, more epic. The difference is stunning, and it’s not just visual. The movie now fits the story. The dystopian world is grimmer, the danger feels more immediate.
It’s not just because of an increased budget. It’s Lawrence’s style, which has more of a larger-than-life vibe than Ross’. He brings a lot more into the frame so the world feels complete. He also for the most part dispenses with the shaky cam that drove so many audience members bonkers in the first movie.
New costume designer Trish Summerville manages to find the right note between Capitol excess and actual fashion sense. The sets have also been retooled. In the Capitol, they look more futuristic. In contrast, District 12, even the Victor’s Village, has a Dickensian look.
This time around the story has been adapted by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (for some reason credited as Michael deBruyn). They get deeper into the political aspects of the society and the issue of post-traumatic stress syndrome (author Collins’ veteran father suffered from it, which partially inspired the story). They also delve more into the characters and their relationships, something sometimes missing in the first movie. For instance, the development of the relationship between Katniss and Peeta was puzzling to many who had not read the book. I think with this movie it will become much clearer to them.
In the first film, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteered to take the place of her sister, Prim (Willow Shields), as tribute in The Hunger Games. An annual fight to the death featuring adolescent children, Katniss and the male tribute from her district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), managed to become the first dual winners by playing to the audience as star-crossed lovers.
For Peeta, it wasn’t an act. For Katniss, who has been focused on supporting her mother and sister since her father’s death, and who has never dared examine her feelings for her hunting partner Gale (Liam Hemsworth), it was an act—or, at least, she thinks it was.
As Catching Fire opens, Katniss and Peeta are supposedly living the good life in the Victors Village (the rest of the district is filled with horrendous poverty). But forgetting their time in the games is not so simple, as both suffer from flashbacks and nightmares. As victors, they must go on a “Victors Tour”—visit each district and mouth inane platitudes while the families of the fallen tributes are forced to listen and applaud them. They must also eventually serve as mentors to the tributes in all future games.
Visited by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) Katniss is informed that her trick to stay alive in the games has incited rebellion in the districts. During the tour she must calm the unrest, or she and everyone she loves will be killed.
With their mentor the drunken Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and Capitol escort Effie (Elizabeth Banks) they depart on their tour and do their best to keep up the narrative of the star-crossed lovers. But it’s not easy to extinguish the spark of rebellion, and after the tour Snow and the new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plot ways to crush it for good—and to crush Katniss. They start by sending a sadistic new Head Peacekeeper named Romulus Thread to District 12, who singles out Gale for his first victim. Katniss’ attempt to save Gale only inflames things more.
Snow’s solution to get rid of her is to make the next games, a “Quarter Quell” (every 25 years of the games is a “quell,” with a special twist) an “all-star” event, with tributes reaped from past winners. As Katniss is the only female victor of District 12, she is automatically in the games. Peeta insists on volunteering to accompany her. Katniss accepts her imminent death. She decides the one thing left for her to do is to keep Peeta alive because she believes he is the one who can truly lead and inspire people.
All the victors/tributes are damaged, mentally and/or physically, because of their time in the arena, which makes the Quarter Quell as horrific as the regular games. Worse, many of them have become close friends over the years. Being forced to kill each other is yet another example of Snow’s and the Capitol’s unending cruelty.
The arena is far different from the one in the first movie and the action from the moment the tributes enter it is heart-stopping. Unlike the first movie, which had Katniss alone and avoiding confrontation much of the time, she is forced into alliances and the action comes more quickly and more often. There are confrontations with more “mutts” that I guarantee will NOT disappoint this time around.
New to the cast as tributes/former victors are Jeffrey Wright (Angels in America, Boardwalk Empire) as Beetee, a brilliant technician, Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction) as Wiress, his equally brilliant but mentally fragile district counterpart, Jena Malone (Sucker Punch) as Johanna Mason, who wields an axe as well as Katniss wields her bow and arrows, Lynn Cohen as Mags (Sex and the City) an elderly volunteer and Sam Claflin as golden boy Finnick Odair.
The standouts are Claflin and Malone. Claflin gives Finnick the sexy charm he needs, but where he really shines is in the emotional scenes. Malone is fierce as Johanna, her anger at being back in the games almost jumping off the screen.
Former director Gary Ross’ greatest gift to the franchise was Jennifer Lawrence. She gives Katniss not only strength, but fear and desperation as well, not only for herself, but for those she loves. She is not afraid to highlight her flaws, which gives Katniss the humanity so many identify with.
One thing Francis Lawrence (no relation) does not do is ignore the first movie. He expands on it. Everything feels bigger but is still consistent with the world established by Ross. He also never lets you forget the fallen of either movie.
This is important. Because the part that takes place in the arena is a heart-thumping action movie of the best kind, and it would be easy to get so caught up in that you forget this is a story about how war permanently damages the survivors.
He does not let you forget.
Not even for a minute.
Bring lots of tissues.
Then start counting down the days to Mockingjay Part 1.
- Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (popculturallyinformed.com)
- ‘Catching Fire’ is Sure to Light Up the Box Office (seaholmhighlander.wordpress.com)
- The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) (thegrandshuckett.com)