Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I will preface this post with a disclaimer: I am a huge fan of The Hunger Games trilogy. I was introduced to the series back in 2010, a bit before the trilogy concluded with the third novel, Mockingjay, and a while before the first film went into production. I love how strong and flawed Katniss is, the themes of sacrifice and love, the political and social commentary-drenched plot, and of course, Team Peeta. Like so many others, I was thrilled when Lionsgate announced its plans to adapt the series, and was even more ecstatic at the fact that they did a great job with the first film.

But I have been waiting a very long time for its sequel to make it to the big screen. Catching Fire was always my favourite book in the trilogy, mainly because of how author Suzanne Collins twisted the plot to (spoiler alert) take the reader back into the games, but also because of Katniss’ character development and the intensity of the developing rebellion. To me, it had all of the elements to make a great film.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will finally be out in theatres across North America this Friday, November 22nd, with a few advance screenings taking place tonight, but I was lucky enough to get the chance to watch the film during its Canadian premiere at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto this past Tuesday (scroll ahead to see a small gallery of photos from the premiere), courtesy of eOne Films. Now that I have seen it, I can  confirm that those elements that made Catching Fire so good translated well onto the big screen, even making the film better than its predecessor, and should please both fans of the books and the movies.

Warning: Light spoilers ahead, heavy spoilers where indicated. Skip ahead to the bottom for a condensed, spoiler-free summary of my thoughts.

On a hunt for a mini version of this poster.

On a hunt for a mini version of this poster.

The Plot
Catching Fire finds Katniss and Peeta back in District 12, endowed with a new, wealthier lifestyle but suffering with the memories of the games. As champions they are required to embark on a “Victory Tour”, a series of visits and celebrations to every district in Panem to acknowledge the sacrifices their representatives made during The Hunger Games. Katniss witnesses the beginnings of a rebellion over the course of the tour, the consequences of which fall on her shoulders to bear, and the Capitol to control. In order to maintain his hold on Panem, President Snow prepares the 75th annual Hunger Games, a tournament that will change the fate of Panem forever.

What I Loved
One of the most important sticking points for any fan of a book being adapted into a film is how well it is actually adapted. YA book adaptations specifically tend to fail to string together plot points in a way that makes sense for viewers who are not familiar with the source material. Academy Award-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, with the assistance of author Suzanne Collins, impressively strike a balance between respecting the source material in their screenplay and developing a story that is fluid and cohesive without isolating audience members.

Part of the reason why the first film was so successful was because of how appealing and accessible the plot was to people who had not read the books. Beaufoy, Arndt, and Collins replicate this achievement and in many ways improve the efforts made in the first film because they figured out ways to include more plot points from the book without dragging the story down by the details. For example, they inserted a number of scenes between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymor-Hoffman) to explain the justification for certain actions, ideas which were only guessed by Katniss in the books. These types of moves are necessary when you do not have the same narrative voice guiding you like you do in the book.

It helps that they have a stellar cast that can guide the audience through the story as well. While they all did a good job in the first film, there is a significant improvement in all their performances, partially due to scripting, but also because of the subtleties in their physical performances. I really enjoyed the fact that in some way or another, both major and minor characters demonstrated some understanding that things have really changed since Katniss and Peeta’s defiant berry act at the end of the first movie, impressing the weight of these consequences onto the audience. You particularly felt them when you watched Effie Trinket painfully walk across the reaping stage or reaching out to Katniss and Peeta, allowing actress Elizabeth Banks to add more depth to the character whose role is otherwise restricted to one of comic-relief.

CF3

It’s also worth noting what a difference it makes when an actor really becomes comfortable with the character they are playing. This is the case with Josh Hutcherson’s portrayal of Peeta Mellark. In the first film I thought Peeta was just…meh. I found some of his “romantic” gestures to be a little cringe-worthy at times and I didn’t feel as if there was much about the character to care about (like I did while reading the books.) This time around, however, Hutcherson managed to bring a maturity and a strength to Peeta which made you feel more invested in the character. His chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence has improved tremendously as well, and I found myself rooting for the pair more than I did during the first movie.

On the note of Ms.Lawrence, you can expect the same level of quality in her performance. That’s a good thing, because she really has Katniss down. She does get a chance to play around with a wider range of emotions this time, and pretty much nails it. I found that any growth in her performance is primarily attributed to her physicality. There is this one great scene between her and Sam Claflin (a newcomer to the cast who plays fan favourite Finnick Odair) in the jungle where you can literally read Katniss’ uncertainty and distrust just by Jennifer simply cocking her head to the side. It’s through this and other similar movements that Lawrence really increases the brevity and complexity of Katniss as a character. Although J.Law absolutely shines in her scenes with Claflin, who sets up Odair as an extremely attractive but also very layered, traumatized character, and though she fares well with Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, it’s nice to see her go up against Jena Malone in many scenes. Malone’s take on the cheeky, confident, and often gutsy Johanna Mason serves up a worthy female lead companion to Lawrence’s Katniss, and is a great addition to the cast.

Of course, none of this means anything without me explaining what a difference director Francis Lawrence makes by being on this film, replacing The Hunger Games director Gary Ross. Gone are the days of shaky cameras, replaced with steady wide and medium angle shots that capture the precise physical movements of the various characters, particularly in the **SPOILER ALERT** new arena with a group of experienced, lethal Hunger Games participants whose actions deserve to be shown off in such a way **END SPOILER ALERT**. Furthermore, Francis Lawrence, whose previous credits include Constantine and I Am Legend, nailed the CGI for the sci-fi laden jungle concept, one which I was particularly excited to see executed on the big screen. I was happy to see that he was not afraid to jump into the plot, themes, and characterization found in Catching Fire immediately, and also tied these elements to keep the narrative consistently clear. I am very much looking forward to Mockingjay Part I and II simply because of his grasp on well-paced plots and continuity, but I also think he has the chops to handle the action that Mockingjay brings with it.

What I Didn’t Love
With so much praise, it’s hard to imagine that I would have any criticism for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but there were a few things that bothered me a bit while I was watching the film. While the characters do deliver several indications of potential impending doom, thereby demonstrating the impact of the games we experienced in the first film, I wish there was more time spent on the actual emotional trauma that Katniss and Peeta experience from the Games themselves. Yes, we know that they carry the consequences of their actions, but we don’t really get to see much of them going through the psychological effects, save for a few moments in the first half hour. If they spent more time on this, I think the audience would have experienced a different set of reasons demonstrating why the system in Panem is so flawed.

You may notice that I keep mentioning Katniss and Peeta throughout this review, but nothing about Gale (Liam Hemsworth.) That’s because once again, Gale is nowhere to be found for a great deal of the movie. While I think the entire production team really honed in the plot and only put across what was absolutely necessary to maintain the momentum of the story, they also accidentally push the audience towards Peeta and Katniss rather than giving the other angle in this love story much support at all. Although Gale’s presence in the film is critical to portraying some of the political and socioeconomic undertones to the plot, it would have been great to see more characterization, and probably would justify all of the promotion for the love triangle in this series.

The same goes for Haymitch, who has a very interesting background discussed in the books but fades back into the mentor role very quickly in this film. I understand that, besides continuity, focusing on one character’s story rather than several others is more marketable, but it would have been nice for the audience to gather more insight into his character so that he wouldn’t be so easily cast aside. Woody Harrelson, despite that awful wig of his, is so accurate in his portrayal of Haymitch, and I wish he could get more to demonstrate his range.

Finally, I just don’t understand how you can go two films that prominently feature a mockingjay image without explaining what a mockingjay actually is in The Hunger Games world. They just keep skipping over it and use the symbol strictly based on aesthetic appearance. It won’t complicate matters completely if there is no explanation, but it would add another layer to the symbol, and probably increase its importance.

I am obsessed with the costume and make-up work in this film.

I am obsessed with the costume and make-up work in this film.

Little Detail Nitpicking (Good and Bad) (BIG SPOILER ALERT)
The Good: The grey, blue and white film filtering during the Victory Tour is absolutely gorgeous work. I also really appreciated that these colours translated into Jennifer Lawrence’s costumes. Did I mention that I loved the costume and make-up work in Catching Fire? So much so that after seeing the film I just kept reading many, many articles on it. I know I did not discuss this in depth, but I wanted to mention that Philip Seymor-Hoffman is an excellent addition to the cast. I am really looking forward to his role expanding in the last two films.

The So-So: A common piece of criticism that I’ve read online is that there is not enough of the arena in the movie. On one hand I agree, because I think a lot of people expect that everything this story expresses sort of culminates in the brutal conditions of the arena. This arena in particular has such a cool concept, very much worthy of more screen time. On the other hand, the length of time spent in the arena is very true to the book. I reread most of Catching Fire before seeing the film, only to rediscover that the Quarter Quell is only the last third of the book. I was really surprised by this because I remembered it being much longer, but it wasn’t.

The Bad: Introducing the pregnancy plot point without ever bringing it up again is pretty silly. Mentioning District 13 just a two or three times is also silly, given it’s importance in the future.

In Conclusion

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire falls into the rarely used category of sequels being better than its predecessor. The action is bigger, the plot is fast-paced but well-developed, and the actors really drive their characters to new places which increases the audience’s investment in the story. Although there are some elements that are really underplayed and, if enhanced, could have emphasized certain plot points better, I think that this film is cohesive, has a straight forward narrative, and sets up the plot and action in the final two films very well.

PS: I am still obsessed with Coldplay’s Atlas and Sia, The Weeknd, and Diplo’s collaboration on “Elastic Heart“, both of which are from the Catching Fire OST. So great.

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