Cinematic adaptations of popular young adult fantasy series may be guaranteed to rake in the profits, but they’re also guaranteed to bring in the same exact complaints from the fandom every damn time. Specifically, rabid fans of the original novels – whether it’s Twilight, Lord of the Rings or The Hunger Games – always take strident issue with the sections excised from the book in translation, however minor the omission. Many franchises have used the opportunity to justify stretching their stories out across two (Harry Potter, Twilight) or even three (The Hobbit) films.
While The Hunger Games series will do the same with its final instalment, breaking up Mockingjay into two films, Catching Fire stands as evidence that sometimes brevity makes for strong storytelling – in this case, even stronger than on the page. Suzanne Collins’ second book in the series picks up after the first book left off, with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) living in District 12 as victors, and she uses the opportunity to flesh out the world around them, sending the two off on a “Victory Tour” that provides a fuller insight into their neighbouring Districts and simultaneously evokes the growing mood of rebellion within these Districts, with Katniss finding herself the focus of a budding revolution.
The book’s first half is overlong and repetitious, and has the unfortunate habit of having important events occur around Katniss (often while she’s asleep/passed out) rather than to her. Director Francis Lawrence demonstrates the power of film as a visual medium to tell stories with motifs and imagery, rendering the majority of the Victory Tour through montage and deleting significant chunks from the narrative. Oppression is conveyed with an enfilade of military vehicles, laden with soldiers, rumbling into District 12, or bone-white stormtroopers encircling impoverished black faces in District 11. The inequality between the Capital and the poorer Districts is explicitly outlined in the dialogue, but is best captured by the distinction between the skeletal, dirty whites and greys of District 12 and the neon blues and bright pinks and purples of District 1. Even the inequality within the Capital is made apparent by the way senior leaders like President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) eschew the gaudy, dandified fashions of their wealthy devotees.
The story finds – in a twist already exhaustively spoiled by the film’s marketing – Katniss and Peeta returning to the Arena for the 75th Hunger Games – the “third Quarter Quell” – among two dozen former victors. The sense of media scrutiny surrounding the event and the deep resentment amongst the “tributes” is deftly expressed, although Francis Lawrence is less comfortable when the Hunger Games begin and the movie moves into action mode; an early confrontation with rapacious baboons is too visually incoherent and reliant on CGI to succeed. Thankfully this is only a minor hiccup, with the film regaining momentum as the focus shifts to the socio-political maelstrom swirling around Katniss.
As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence shoulders the weight of the film, and her performance is consistently absorbing – she may have only won an Oscar last year for playing a mid-twenties widow in Silver Linings Playbook, but she’s completely believable as a seventeen year old girl. In early scenes, she combines steely resolve with the jittery nervousness that comes both from her age and the awareness that her family is at mortal risk if she makes a false move in front of the cameras. Interestingly, that nervousness evaporates once the Quarter Quell is announced; her life may be in peril, but Katniss clearly is more comfortable with the single goal of surviving than the moral complexity inherent with being a symbol of rebellion. Catching Fire often asks whether one’s own survival can be prioritised over the needs of a community, and it’s a question Katniss isn’t truly prepared to answer – “How to survive the night?” is a brutal question, but it’s easier for her to face.
Other standouts in the cast are newcomers to the franchise Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone, each as victors shanghaied back into the competition. Each creates a full, believable character with limited screentime. Less successful is the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Perhaps I’m just too old to appreciate a good old-fashioned teenage romance, but I found Peeta simply too good to be an interesting character (though NPR has an interesting take on the character) and found no chemistry between Hemsworth and Lawrence, despite their best efforts.
The core selling points of Hunger Games to its market – fantastical violence and teenage romance – turn out to be the weakest elements of Catching Fire, but it doesn’t prevent the film from eclipsing both the film that preceded it and the novel it was adapted from. Catching Fire is a versatile film – it’s not hard to read it as a commentary on modern marketing and reality television, for example – but it’s strongest at capturing the sense of rebellion in the face of overwhelming subjugation. The film’s most powerful moment isn’t when Gale takes Katniss in his arms, nor when she draws her bow in combat, but a goosebump-inducing scene where the citizens of District 11 raise their arms as one to salute Katniss as a beacon of impossible, intangible hope.