The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Finally Shows Us the Dark Side of Killing

Yesterday, I spent about 13 hours on planes and in airports, which sucked. On the bright side though, I had time to re-read Catching Fire before seeing the movie (and I’m not kidding when I say I went straight from the airport to the theater). I love re-reading books before I go see their film adaptations. Not because I want to moan and groan about how they’re nothing like the books (It’s stupid to think something created for a print medium would translate the same in a visual medium). I just like seeing how things get interpreted. But I know some people care about the films staying true to the books. So, just for good measure, this movie is about 75-80% accurate, which is pretty good by Hollywood standards.

For those of you who haven’t read the books (You really should), I’ll give you a quick rundown of the plot. After surviving the previous year’s Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) begin their Victory Tour in the 12 districts of Panem. As uprisings against the Capitol start to break out among the districts, however, Katniss finds her life in danger yet again, as well as the lives of the people she cares about most. To make matters worse, this year’s Hunger Games celebrates 75 years, which means the rules are changed for the occasion. For this event, known as the Quarter Quell, tributes are reaped from the existing pool of victors, forcing Katniss and Peeta to return to the arena and fight some of the best killers in all of the districts. But when alliances between the victors begin to form, Katniss remembers who the true enemy is.

I’m sure the big question on everyone’s mind is how does the sequel respond to its good but not great predecessor. Well, I have good news. But you’ll have to dive into the spoilers section to get it.

Where The Hunger Games went wrong for me (though it was still a pretty good movie) was that it trivialized the Games in the same way that the Games were entertaining for Capitol (Oh, the irony). The point of Suzanne Collins’ books was to show the violence and sadism of humans under pressure—in this case, a battle to the death. Remember, these kids were forced to kill other kids for the pleasure of the Capitol and to help the government keep the districts from revolting. It’s a sick and twisted concept, and the first film made me want Katniss to kill the “Careers” (tributes from districts 1 & 2), which is absolutely not what Collins was going for.

Catching Fire, however, made up for that. The overall tone was darker and more depressing, and I felt bad for all of the characters (except Donald Sutherland’s creepy President Snow). For once, we got some insight into the misery of the Panem citizens and just how terrible the living conditions were in the districts, which was emphasized even more by the grayish-blue lighting filter and well-crafted sets chosen by the filmmakers. Not to mention, the entire movie has this feeling of unrest (as it should since there’s an impending revolution).

To lend more to the gravitas of this story, we see Katniss and Peeta suffering from PTSD after their time in the arena, an experience that only mentor and fellow District 12 victor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) understands. Also, uprisings (essentially in Katniss’ name) were starting against the Capitol, and Katniss had to watch people get beaten and killed because of her actions. Then, of course, there’s the reaping for the Quarter Quell. Imagine surviving one Hunger Games as a child and being told that you’re safe from reaping forever only to have that rule revoked and your life put in danger yet again as an adult. Everything about this movie’s plot shows the cruelty of Panem’s government and the Games, and it’s so much more effective this time around.

I think that’s why Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was even more impressive in this movie than in the last. She was great in The Hunger Games, don’t get me wrong. But Katniss really grows in Catching Fire when she’s torn between protecting her loved ones, getting revenge against the Capitol, and just trying to live a normal life without people watching her and judging her every move. It’s nice to see Lawrence have the chance to express emotions beyond stubbornness as well. Special kudos to Lawrence’s scenes when Katniss learns she’s returning to the Games and when she thinks Peeta has died after running into a force field in the Games.

The other thing that I love about this movie is that even the supporting characters get their chance to shine, too. Obviously, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta and Liam Hemsworth as Gale are good, but I don’t think they’re nearly as good as some of the smaller roles. Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, who I like to think of as the Capitol’s Ryan Seacrest (You see it, don’t you?), is always hilarious and manages to add some lightness to a movie with an already heavy topic. Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket is still a love-to-hate, hate-to-love character, but she has a few really sweet moments with Katniss and Peeta that made me feel mushy. Woody Harrelson was undoubtedly born to play the wise but drunken Haymitch Abernathy, and I wouldn’t wish to see anyone else in this role. I really wish I could cover everyone, but there are so many, so I’ll just add that Jena Malone as Johanna Mason was probably my favorite. And that’s weird because I didn’t like the idea of her in that role at first.

One last quick comment. You can tell the budget for this movie, as well as its director, were much better.

Overall, Catching Fire is how production companies should make sequels in successful young adult franchises. Rather than riding on the coattails of the first film, the sequel should show growth in both the characters and story. Okay, and it should look better as well. Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer Lawrence, I checked) gave us just that. Catching Fire was The Hunger Games trilogy’s Empire Strikes Back, if that makes any sense. It had better graphics, a mature yet entertaining screenplay, and great performances from the actors, lead and supporting.

Oh, yeah. And it ends on a cliffhanger that will lead us into the third part of the trilogy (Dun dun dun!). I, for one, was especially happy that people could finally see Jennifer Lawrence’s range of emotions in this movie. After all, Katniss is so much more than a stubborn girl whose quick thinking kept her alive in the first Games; she has become a compassionate leader for the revolution against the Capitol.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire: A

For my radio review of Catching Fire on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 18:32 mark).

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