Chips falling as they did, the odds of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” equaling its predecessor were not exactly ever in its favor. Director and adaptor Gary Ross left the burgeoning film franchise, Suzanne Collins’ series undoubtedly lost a little luster with its increased exposure and “Catching Fire” takes on a much larger scope than the first book as revolution threatens the dystopia of Panem.
Well, with Francis Lawrence at the helm (“I Am Legend”) and a screenplay from two Oscar winners in Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and Michael Arndt (“Oblivion,” “Toy Story 3”), “Catching Fire” makes adapting mega-popular book series look easy. The sequel builds on the tone Ross set for the series while improving upon the action, tension and drama.
Beaufoy and Arndt perfectly convey the pressures upon Hunger Games victors Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Their act of defiance masquerading as true love allowed them to survive the Games together, but now they must sell it to the districts of Panem in order to fan down the flames of revolution they’ve kindled, or risk President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capitol hurting the ones they love.
“Catching Fire,” like its predecessor but in a whole other way, is a tale of two parts: the first being Katniss and Peeta’s “Victory Tour” during which it becomes clear the districts’ defiance of the Capitol has gone too far to stop now, and the second being the 75th Hunger Games, which has been manipulated this year to snuff out Katniss for good. Although these parts look and feel totally different, the strong narrative binding them together makes the movie impressively cohesive and doing justice to metaphor in the film’s title and at the heart of its story.
The biggest difference between the two “Hunger Games” films is the stylistic approach of directors Lawrence versus Ross. Ross used a lot of hand-held camera-work whereas Lawrence uses a more standard approach and picks his angles. The action scenes of “Catching Fire” are therefore a lot crisper, with no shaky-cam to blur the violence down to PG-13. Lawrence opts to leave a lot of the violence to the viewer’s imagination and it’s much more effective.
On the other hand, Lawrence doesn’t seem to have quite the same rapport with the other Lawrence, his star. Ross had a way of capturing Katniss’ emotion in a real, deeply introspective way. He made Katniss his focal point, boxing out the supporting characters; Lawrence is more inclusive, sacrificing a little of our lens into Katniss to account for the many new characters in “Catching Fire.” Some of Jennifer Lawrence’s facial expressions don’t have the same effective intensity as they did during, for example, the slow-building Reaping scene in the first movie. Katniss has lots of moments in which she emotionally snaps, which puts the pressure on Lawrence to sell us on the emotions, but she’s a little limited with how effective she can be.
Instead, characters such as Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks), President Snow and newcomers Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) get a little more of a spotlight and make “Catching Fire” feel more like an ensemble film. The script also supports them with some good lines and moments. Considering “Catching Fire” moves the story in a direction that is bigger than Katniss, it’s a smart decision that could pay dividends in the two-part conclusion, “Mockingjay,” which underwhelmed as a book.
“Catching Fire” works from start to finish and doesn’t waste much screen time in all of its 156 minutes. There’s very little action in the first half too, but the trap in which Katniss is ensnared provides the high stakes and the suspense to get the ball rolling. Considering the trailers didn’t bother to hide that Katniss returns to the Hunger Games arena once again, it’s testament to the work Arndt and Beaufoy have done that the moment when President Snow reveals that information has a heavy and harrowing effect in spite of its inevitability.
Adaptations of major book series or multi-film franchises often struggle when the scale of the story grows so large that there’s so much more to take account of, but hiring these ace writers and a director with some experience reining in big genre films helped “Catching Fire” take a major step forward in a way that can only be compared to the “Harry Potter” franchise. If they can make “Mockingjay” work despite splitting the tiny and very different book into two parts, that’ll be another success entirely.
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt, Suzanne Collins (novel)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland