The Movie Date is a weekly feature where we discuss movies that may appeal to YA readers. Andrew is The Reading Date’s resident movie critic and this week he discusses The Hunger Games: Catching Fire directed by Francis Lawrence, based on the book by Suzanne Collins, and adapted by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt.
I went into this movie wondering, “Will it be as good as Hunger Games?” and by the end I was pondering, “Will it be so much better than Hunger Games that I’ll wind up disliking the first film?.” I was a huge fan of the original movie (released only nineteen months ago) and enjoyed rewatching it recently, but much to my surprise this film felt smarter, stronger, deeper in every way.
When I tore through the book trilogy two years ago, Catching Fire was my least favorite: I felt the story was merely “Katniss sulks, and then we do the Games again for some reason.” Though Catching Fire may lack the clean simplicity of the first book, the movie shows me how much richer the material is here: far from sulking, Katniss is torn and anguished between fueling the uprising that she’s already started and playing nice to spare her family the wrath of President Snow. Nobody likes to be a stooge but the girl’s got no choice. She’s also furious at herself for enjoying fame derived from killing innocent people.
On top of this she’s saddled with a staged romance to Peeta, a nice guy who knows he hasn’t got a chance with fiery Katniss. When they consider getting married to further the ruse, the choice is heartbreakingly casual, as if they were deciding to get pizza instead of Chinese. The romantic triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale (her hunting buddy from back home) sketched in the first film is drawn more boldly here; Katniss shows strong affection for both of her very different suitors, planting a solid smooch or two on each of ‘em.
Like the first film, this is two movies in one: the first half is dystopian fascist-state sci-fi and the second is two-fisted survival adventure in a wilderness setting. Here the dystopia is rather dazzling as we get a better look at the gauche yet glamorous Capitol and glimpse a few of the other districts.
After this, the Games take place in a tropical jungle setting, and this part of the film reminded me of the TV series Lost for a couple reasons. One, the threats (floods, noxious gases, animal attacks) are largely supplied by the Gamesmaker and the Capitol rather than by the fellow players. Both the gas attack and the flood reminded me of the Smoke Monster’s attacks in Lost. Second, the tributes bond together in teams made up of diverse and likeable characters, a bit like the Lost crash survivors. (This being the Quarter Quell edition of the Games, the tributes are made up of former winners of all ages, few of whom are happy to be—or even capable of—playing again.)
As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence is even better here than in the first film; it feels like she’s really grown into the role. I was struck by the ironic similarity between the character’s plight and that of the Oscar-winning actress: just as the Capitol forces Katniss to play the shallow role of the happy, loving victor, Hollywood might wish to turn Lawrence into a sweetly overacting romantic lead. (Her demure poses and smiles for the Capitol cameras exactly match Lawrence’s own for the Oscar press.) But as Katniss refuses to snooze through her appearances, so does Lawrence, and this is one of her toughest, most nuanced performances to date.
Lawrence’s presence here is huge and, amazingly, holds its own against the film’s epic visual spectacle. Where most action films offer a sweeping, “riding into the sunset” final shot, this one closes on a tight shot of Katniss’ face as her expression changes from bewilderment into resolve and then rage. Cut to black. The next film in the franchise, Mockingjay – Part 1, opens exactly a year from today. Too soon to line up?
Catching Fire is in theaters now! Check the official movie site to find out when it’s playing in your area. Catching Fire is rated PG-13 and runs 146 minutes.