With Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci. Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language. 146 minutes.
People who have enjoyed The Hunger Games books and/or the first movie will find CATCHING FIRE a satisfying return to this world. In many ways it’s a better film than the first one. It keeps the strengths of the first film––the brilliant casting, the striking art direction––and does a much better job telling the story. As a film based on a middle book in a trilogy, you need to know what came before and you need to understand that it will be not resolved at film’s end.
Without giving too much away, “Catching Fire” is a con game or a bit of sleight of hand. Viewers will do well not to pay too much attention to the plot and instead focus on Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). What she sees and her reactions to them is the real point of the story. The movie picks up where the last one left off. Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), having won the 74th annual Hunger Games, are now expected to tour the various districts, playing the roles set for them by the dictatorial President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
However Katniss, who saved herself and Peeta by threatening suicide if they didn’t both “win,” has become a symbol of defiance. Worse, in Snow’s eyes, she’s become a symbol of hope. Snow believes she must be destroyed and the new Game Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has just the thing: the 75th Hunger Games will be a special edition consisting of past champions. Out of necessity, the movie spends time recapitulating the pre-game ceremonies and the game itself, but those wanting to see more spectacle or more violence (many of the deaths occur off-screen) are missing the point. They are like the decadent denizens of Capitol City––the 1%, if you will––whose lives of luxury and indolence are built on the suffering of everyone else.
As with the first film, the performances are strong. Lawrence manages to convey both ferocity and insecurity as Katniss, try to make sense of and survive in a world she can’t control. (On one level the series is a metaphor for adolescence, which explains the phenomenal appeal of the YA novels.) Stanley Tucci steals every scene he’s in as the over-the-top TV host Caesar Flickerman, while Elizabeth Banks manages to convey that Effie––who chaperones Katniss and Peeta––has a human heart beneath the outrageous clothes and makeup. Credit also goes to Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, an elder champion who mentors Katniss whenever he sobers up. He underplays the role befitting someone who has not bought into the mythology pushed by the central government. New cast members including Hoffman, and Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright as two of the past champions. She’s crazy and he’s an eccentric inventor who get nicknamed “Nuts and Volts.”
Rather than focusing on the brutality of the games this time, we get much more of the brutality of the regime, from the execution of a man for a simple act of defiance to the public whipping of Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the other young man in Katniss’s life. For the viewer, as for the reader, we are trapped in Katniss’s point of view. Unable to do anything about Snow’s threats and violence, she focuses on surviving and protecting those who are important to her, like her mother and sister. It is in the third book, Mockingjay, that she dramatically decides to stop being the pawn of others and take control of her own destiny.
The success of “Catching Fire” makes one hopeful they will get “Mockingjay” right, except they’ve already made one bad choice: it’s going to be made in two movies. This was done with the last “Harry Potter” adaptation and it was appropriate there because Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a sprawling book that needed two films. Since then it was done with “Twilight” series and currently with the bloated rendering of “The Hobbit.”
So here’s a plea to Lionsgate: congratulations on getting “Catching Fire” right. Now do the right thing and do “Mockingjay” as a single film. The only people who agree that making two films is a good idea are the residents of Capitol City.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.