I reviewed the original “Hunger Games” movie for College Magazine in 2012, saying it was the best fans could have asked for in adapting Suzanne Collins’ rich and complex world.
Turns out I was wrong. “Catching Fire” is the rare book-to-film adaptation that gets everything right. I walked out of that Thursday night screening with a smile on my face and zero complaints. That’s the mark of a great film-going experience.
For the uninitiated, “The Hunger Games” is a sprawling teenage epic full of post-apocalyptic tyranny, political intrigue and romance (but nothing “Twilight”-esque). It is all centered on a yearly gladiator-like contest held by the decadent and oppressive Capitol where young people are forced to systematically kill each other until one is left. Fun stuff, right?
The inherently evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is not happy about how Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) defied his game in the last movie and has decided to make it his mission in life to destroy Katniss. Soon her life becomes an exercise in playing up her fake/real romance with Peeta and hiding her real/fake romance with life-long friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
Of course, it wouldn’t be a “Hunger Games” story without a hunger games (“Mockingjay" notwithstanding). Katniss and other past victors – including the hunky Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and the tough as nails Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) – are thrust back into the arena and forced to find a way to get everyone they care about out alive.
That’s a lot of exposition for one review, but the film is mostly action with a few quiet moments here and there to break things up and add the necessary emotional weight. The themes here – doing what it takes to survive, beating the odds, the power of hope, etc. – are all more pronounced and carry more of an oomph factor this time.
New Director Francis Lawrence wisely left the basic look of the last film alone while playing up the dichotomies in Panem. District 12’s snow-covered and grimy exterior masks a place full of good people, the Quarter Quell arena looks idyllic but is a death trap and The Capitol is a wonder to behold but full of corruption and questionable morals.
As usual, Jennifer Lawrence absolutely kills it as Katniss. She has the character down to a science, going from hardened to fragile in an instant and wielding her signature bow and arrow like a pro. I would join a revolution with her as its face.
Peeta continues to be the most useless character in literature and cinema, always getting himself hurt or into danger. He’s lucky he has Katniss around to constantly nurse him back to health. Credit goes to Josh Hutcherson for making him sweet enough that we still care about him even when he is doing something stupid, which he usually is.
Special shout outs go to newbies Claflin, Malone and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the enigmatic gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee (which is still the worst name in the history of names). All three nailed their respective characters, especially Malone. Johanna is my favorite character in the series, and Malone gets her blunt, sassy personality across perfectly.
Speaking of sass, this film is surprisingly funny. Most of the credit for that goes to Malone, Woody Harrelson as alcoholic revolutionary Haymitch and, especially, Elizabeth Banks as Capitol liaison Effie White. The humor does not distract from the overall somber tone and serves as a pleasant distraction most of the time.
Honestly, I could not have asked for more from “Catching Fire” then what I got. If I had to nitpick, I might say that Claflin slipped into his natural British accent a few times by mistake and it would have been nice to see video of Haymitch’s hunger games victory as presented in the book.
Otherwise, “Catching Fire” got everything right. Fans will love every second of it and everyone else can enjoy the spectacle and themes. The odds are definitely in this one’s favor.