There’s something that every Hunger Games fan goes through (besides numbing pain of everyone you love suffering horrible PTSD and/or dying), and that is people who’ve never really read the series saying, “Oh, it’s just a Battle Royale ripoff.”
Now, I like Battle Royale, but I have to say that I’m more than pleased to send those people to this film and tell them to can it. Because if anything, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire lives up to the book it’s based on by showing that surviving the Games doesn’t just end when you win, and that one person’s actions can be the spark of revolution, whether that was the intention or not.
I have to say that my rating of the film is probably closer to a 4.5 than 5 stars. Much like the first film, Catching Fire sort of suffers from being a companion piece to the book rather than just a straight up adaptation. Which is great for fans like me who consider the books among their favorites. It’s super faithful to the book and all the changes are actually pretty reasonable. For example, Katniss finds out about the rebellions in other districts seeing video that the train conductors are watching instead of seeing a news broadcast at the Mayor’s house and Gale is flogged for trying to protect someone at the Hob instead of being caught hunting. It condenses the plot, but keeps the film moving while still making sense within the universe.
However, there are several things that might be a little lost on casual viewers if they haven’t read the series. Mutts still aren’t explained and neither is the significance of the Mockingjay as a symbol of revolution besides the fact Katniss wore the pin during her first Games. It probably could have stood to have a few interludes from Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith much like the first movie did after Katniss entered the arena for exposition purposes.
(Also, there was way too much of Katniss macking on Gale. I know I’m already biased against him, but I don’t remember her kissing him as much as she does in this movie.)
Still, with that weakness, the second film also shares the two greatest strengths of the first movie: it manages to be in Katniss’ head without having her there to narrate it, and it isn’t afraid to step outside of her POV to show us what else is happening. There aren’t as many outside of the arena scenes as the first movie, but the scenes of President Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee are delicious. Meanwhile, while Francis Lawrence’s style is less docudrama than Gary Ross, there are still these moments of quiet focus on Katniss where we can feel her fear and see the gears turning in her head. There are also more moments of Katniss crying in this one, so if you broke down watching her cry after Rue’s death in the first film, be prepared to bawl multiple times in this movie.
I was a little worried that some of the growth of the side characters would be cut in favor of focus on the Quarter Quell, but luckily, that wasn’t the case. Prim starts to come into her own as a character, Effie starts to show some emotion and care for her victors, and Haymitch shows himself as a mentor by helping Katniss and Peeta survive after the games. Which makes it even more tragic that his backstory of how he won his games was cut from the film. I’m not even going to get into Cinna. It hurts too much still. And while his character doesn’t really grow, Stanley Tucci gets to ham it up even more as Caesar Flickerman and I feel like my life is better for it.
Along with the character growth, Catching Fire sees plenty of fan-favorite characters joining the cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman is fantastic as the stoically slimy Plutarch Heavensbee and all his scenes of plotting with Donald Southerland’s President Snow make the outcome of his character that much sweeter in the end. Jeffrey Wright as Beetee is so wonderfully smart and snarky that I felt myself gaining a new appreciation for the technical genius from District 3. Plus, in absence of Haymitch’s backstory, he does a good job setting up for the climax of the film. Not to mention the short and sweet portrayals of Mags (Lynn Cohen) and Wiress (Amanda Plummer). Seriously, they’re so beautiful and they hurt so much in the end.
Really though, this film is all about the introduction of Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason. I was kind of skeptical of Sam Claflin as Finnick since he didn’t quite match how I saw the pretty boy of District 4, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt because I liked his character in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. I’m glad I did because even if he doesn’t match how I thought he should look, he still manages to be the charming and complicated dreamboat with a trident that we all love. The sugar cube scene made me squeal with delight in both how true it was to the character and how it ends up setting up for Mockingjay in a very subtle way.
The runaway star of the movie though is Jena Malone as District 7’s Johanna Mason. While they don’t talk about how she won her games by pretending she was weak and surprising everyone in the end, you see a lot of that in her character. She’s blunt to the point where she curses out the Capitol on national TV and asks Peeta what it’s like to have everyone wanting to sleep with him, but we do get to see the parts of her that are broken that will be elaborated on in the next set of movies. They could have easily made Johanna just the bitch character to simplify it for movie goers, but I’m glad that they left in the complexities that make her great.
Well, that, and the one scene that I dubbed “just another Friday night at DragonCon” because I’m certain have ridden in that elevator. You can’t fool me, movie makers. I know the Atlanta Marriott Marquis when I see it. That was one thing that took me out of the movie was noticing the filming location shift from North Carolina to Georgia. If I didn’t live here, it wouldn’t be an issue, but there’s a certain thrill in knowing that Hunger Games cosplayers are going to have a lot of fun taking pictures at DragonCon next year.
If you’re a fan of The Hunger Games series, you’re probably going to love Catching Fire. Even with some details left on the cutting room floor or swapped around, it’s a very faithful adaptation that brings life to probably the strongest book in the franchise. There is even some dialogue lifted directly from the book that made me squee inside the theater and details added that make the implications of the universe even more terrifying. For people that haven’t read the book, some of it might be a little lost, but it’s still well acted with amazing action scenes that kept me on the edge of my seat, even though I knew everything that was about to happen. Which, by the way, didn’t make it any less emotional. If anything, see it just for Jennifer Lawrence and Jena Malone’s performances. Especially in the training center elevator.