‘Catching Fire’ ignites an already fascinating story

| TV Editor

It’s hard to critique a movie adaptation of a beloved book objectively. Naturally, we fans want to nitpick over every tiny change and lament how such-and-such character doesn’t look the same way we imagined. In the best-case scenario, though, having read the book will bias our opinion of the movie positively since the film tells the same story that we know and love. In the case of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” my thoughts tended more toward the latter. “Catching Fire,” based on the second book in Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy, is an intense and visually spectacular film that gives new life to an already fantastic story.

At the beginning of “Catching Fire,” we find recent Hunger Games victors Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) preparing for their victory tour of Panem. Their relationship has been icy ever since Katniss acknowledged that her love for Peeta was basically an act, and Katniss has been drifting back toward her old life with Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Just before leaving, Katniss gets a surprise visit from Panem’s menacing leader, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who warns her that her stunt in the Games has inspired uprisings throughout the nation. Suddenly, keeping up the star-crossed lovers act becomes a matter of life or death as Katniss and Peeta visit each of Panem’s increasingly agitated and repressed districts. But even a marriage proposal isn’t enough to pacify the districts and appease Snow. Instead, the Capitol decides to solve the problem by announcing that the 75th Hunger Games will pull from the existing pool of victors—meaning that Katniss and Peeta will be tossed right back into the arena.

If you haven’t read the book, “Catching Fire” might sound like a rehashing of the first “Hunger Games” story, but it’s definitely not. In “Catching Fire,” the stakes are much higher as the Capitol pulls out all the stops to squelch any hint of rebellion in Panem. The focus isn’t so much on the Games itself as it is on the fledgling revolution, with Katniss as its figurehead.

Director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) captures the grim, foreboding tone of the story perfectly. Panem has become a full-blown police state, with Peacekeepers flogging and killing people left and right. You really start to see the gravity of the situation when Katniss and Peeta’s train pulls into District 11 for the first stop on their victory tour: security has been ramped up since the last Games, and the district’s border now looks like a military zone. Even the color palettes are bleak, with everything in the districts a gloomy shade of brown, gray or blue. This desolation stands in stark contrast to the opulence of the Capitol, which now appears even more spectacular thanks to the movie’s improved visual effects.

There are still moments of levity, though, mostly thanks to the ridiculous characters in the Capitol. TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) seems even more over-the-top, and District 12 escort Effie Trinket’s (Elizabeth Banks) fussiness is always good for some laughs. “Catching Fire” also brings a little more depth to these otherwise one-note characters. For instance, Banks does a great job humanizing Effie, who is genuinely heartbroken to see Katniss and Peeta head back into the Games. Meanwhile, the pair’s mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), plays a more instrumental role in the Games than you might expect from an angry old drunkard.

Of course, Katniss and Peeta are still the stars of the show. Although Katniss is quite the hero, it’s interesting seeing her in a position in which she has much less control over her own destiny. Meanwhile, Peeta is still kind of a bland character, but he appears stronger and more tenacious than he did in the last movie. There’s also less of an emphasis on the Katniss-Peeta romance in this film. This is really for the best since the love story would just distract from the more compelling tale of government oppression and revolution.

One place where the movie struggles a little is with its pacing, but this is more the fault of the author than the filmmakers. Some critics have complained that the real action—the Games—doesn’t start until more than halfway through the film, but I’d argue that the Games are more like the climax of the film. Everything leading up to the Games—the victory tour, the reaping, the training—is what’s really important, yet it still feels like the movie glosses over so many key parts for the sake of time.

The few times when the movie adds onto the already dense story, it’s worthwhile. For instance, one of the biggest strengths of the films is that they show us what the Gamemakers are doing behind the scenes. Plus, this year’s games come with a new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is a fascinating character with lots of tricks up his sleeve.

“Catching Fire” isn’t perfect, but most of its problems are inherent to the story itself rather than the film. With its compelling characters, beautiful art direction and intense storyline, “Catching Fire” will grip you from the beginning and leave you hungry (no pun intended) for the next film.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening at Washington University and beyond.