Even though I haven’t read the books, I quite enjoyed the adaptation of the first ‘Hunger Games’ novel. Sure, the story felt like a teen-friendly ‘Battle Royale‘ knock-off, but it established a grim dystopian world with some great action sequences. My biggest complaints were the random, unnecessary use of shaky-cam and a lack of characterization and emotion. Luckily, those gripes are addressed in the second installment, the new and improved ‘Hunger Games 2.0′.
‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ picks up six months after Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) became the first couple to jointly win the titular kill-all competition. The duo has returned to their impoverished District 12, but things are no longer as they once were. Katniss and her best buddy Gale (Liam Hemsworth) still sneak into the No-Man Zone for wilderness hunting, but she’s hardly the person that she used to be. Katniss suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She can’t let an arrow hurl towards her next meal without her mind seeing it pierce the flesh of someone that she killed in the games. Sleep offers no escape from her horrors, as her dreams are plagued with nightmares. The public romance with Peeta has withered away. Was it real? Or was it simply for survival? Whichever it was, it forces Gale to push Katniss away, and Katniss in return pushes Peeta away. The only happy constant that she has is her income, her new home and her family.
The movie almost immediately introduces us to a new aspect of the world. Six months after the end of the games, the victor – or in this case, victors – travel to each of the Districts for public appearances, like a press tour. As Katniss and Peeta are forced to take their made-up relationship on the road, they notice that there’s a lot of unrest throughout the Districts, including riots and rebellion with brutal/deadly consequences. To ease the uprising, the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) threatens Katniss. If she and Peeta don’t genuinely sell their relationship and make the Capital look better, her family, Gale and everyone she cares for will be killed.
Of course, Snow’s a genuine bad guy, so no matter the result of their pretend romance, he has a plan to finally remove Katniss from the equation. The Tributes of the upcoming 75th annual Hunger Games will be victors from each of the Districts. Basically, it’s a best-of the Hunger Games. With Katniss being the only female victor from District 12, she has to play.
The first ‘Hunger Games’ movie was written by Suzanne Collins (author of the novels), director Gary Ross (writer/director of ‘Pleasantville‘) and Billy Ray (writer of ‘Captain Phillips’). Their screenplay was decent, but Ross’ direction was lacking. Jennifer Lawrence can act her ass off, but Ross couldn’t pull the necessary performance out of her. To the advantage of the series, ‘Catching Fire’ was adapted by two Oscar winners: Simon Beaufoy (‘Slumdog Millionaire‘) and Michael Arndt (‘Little Miss Sunshine‘) – and it shows. Not only has their screenplay won me, a guy who’s never read the books, over, but it pleased my wife, whos’ a die-hard fan. According to her, the screenplay is almost completely faithful to the second book, the only omissions being small, non-consequential elements.
New director Francis Lawrence (‘I Am Legend‘) keeps the non-game moments interesting and entertaining, as well as breathing life into the intense action. Most importantly, he achieves a strong level of emotion throughout the whole picture. A great deal of this comes from his actors. Lawrence gives a much stronger performance than she did in the first movie. For the first time in this series, I could empathize with the characters – their despair, sadness and fear. ‘Catching Fire’ works on a much higher emotional level than the first movie.
I remember hearing lots of complaints about the first movie from parents disgruntled by the story. They didn’t want their ‘tweens and teens to see a film about kids forced to kill other kids in an arena death-match. If that bugged you about the first film, rest assured that no children participate in the ‘Catching Fire’ games. Sure, Katniss and Peeta are supposed to be teenagers, but who’s really buying twenty-something Lawrence and Hutcherson as teens?
If you enjoy any aspect of ‘The Hunger Games’ – the first movie or the books –you ought to enjoy ‘Catching Fire’ too. It has all of the elements for a mega-hit blockbuster, as well as the technical merits of simply being a well-made film.