Last year The Hunger Games surprised a lot of people. It was based on a fairly popular book series, but for most people was something of an unknown. It featured a handful of familiar faces but no true stars, was directed by a man with only two moderate successes on his resume, and told a story that some found to be conceptually off-putting. However, all of those potential negatives combined to create something of a phenomenon. The low-budget aesthetic, gritty storyline and strong performances generated strong word of mouth and the result was one of the biggest success stories of 2012 and nearly $700 million in box office receipts.
For the sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, things have definitely changed. The budget was almost doubled from the first outing, there’s a new director, a new tropical setting and a more complex storyline, not to mention the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is now coming off a Best Actress Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook. In fact, much like Katniss and Peeta, the Hunger Games films are no longer unproved Tributes, but Victors returning to the arena with much higher expectations and facing bigger stakes.
Following the events of the 74th Hunger Games, from which Katniss and Peeta emerged as the first dual Victors in history after defying the Capital and President Snow, the pair has returned to their home of District 12, but things have changed. Katniss and Peeta now have new, nice houses in the Victors Village, have their movements watched both by the public who idolizes them and the government who wants to keep track of them, and have a new slate of public duties to perform as winners of the Hunger Games. But beyond all of that is an issue more personal: what are their feelings towards each other? They were both allowed to survive the Games only because the love story they had manufactured caught the passion of the public, but the reality that the feelings are only one sided weighs on the pair, who are forced to keep up appearances on the Victory Tour they’re required as winners to take through the twelve Districts.
Before they depart for the Tour, President Snow pays Katniss a surprise visit to let her know that her act of rebellion in the arena has lit a fire among the districts, some of which are starting to follow her example and fight against the Capital. He tasks her with selling them on the star-crossed lovers story in the hopes that the deception will calm the people, and with the promise that if she fails there will be dire consequences for her and her family and friends. As they travel Panem, they see firsthand the cruelty of Capital troops, and witness the violence with which all acts of rebellion and solidarity are met. It becomes clear that their attempt has failed as the violent crackdown escalates and the new rules for the 75th Hunger Games are announced, which state that the Tributes from each District will be made of former winners.
Before they know it, Katniss and Peeta are once again training for the games, but this time instead of facing other frightened children they will compete against adults who have proven themselves capable of killing to survive. The change from The Hunger Games to Catching Fire is in some ways minimal and in others drastic. In many ways, Catching Fire has a very similar story to the first film, following Katniss and Peeta as they deal with their everyday lives before being chosen for the games, training and finally competing in those games, so in a way it does feel a bit like a repeat instead of a sequel. On the other hand, the style, mood and emotion of the story have changed.
By removing the child-on-child violence of the first film, Catching Fire feels much more like an action film. It’s a lot easier to root for Katniss when she doesn’t have to win by murdering kids. While the first film showed the horrors of a system of government that would allow the Hunger Games to exist, this second shows the variety of reactions to that system, from open violence to symbolic gestures. The emotion of the Tributes in the first film was mostly one of fear, but this time around defiance is the prevailing attitude. The changes are often subtle but they define Catching Fire and make it feel very different from its predecessor.
The characters have changed too. Katniss is now haunted by the events of her first Hunger Games, and the lives she took, even if they were in self defense. Jennifer Lawrence is in top form as Katniss, really making us feel her fear in the face of Snow or her motivation to fight back in the only ways she can. Josh Hutcherson is haunted as Peeta as well, having to play at love for the cameras while knowing that his true feelings are not returned by Katniss. Peeta is the only truly “good” person in the games, which means a lot to Katniss even if she is not in love with him. The rest of the returning cast shines as well, from Woody Harrelson as drunken Haymitch who has a much better idea of what is going on that anyone else, to vain Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) who has come to realize the cost of the system she works so hard to support. Donald Sutherland is suitably menacing as Snow, who sees his precious country starting to fray at the edges, Lenny Kravitz is perfectly soulful as Cinna, and Stanley Tucci is brilliantly funny as TV personality Caesar Flickerman. Only Liam Hemsworth looks a bit lost as Katniss’s friend, Gale, who wants to join the rebellion but who isn’t given enough screentime to really develop as a character.
The new additions to the cast are uniformly excellent. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, who is cold and ruthless in his maneuverings but has a sense of humanity to him nevertheless. Then there are the previous victors against whom Katniss and Peeta will compete, including Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as Beetee and Wiress, who each won their games by means of their technological expertise. There’s Sam Claflin as sexy Finnick, who is lethal yet flirty, and who seems to genuinely care about Katniss. And best of all is Jena Malone (a longtime favorite of mine) who steals every scene as Johanna, a snarky and outspoken Tribute who is deadly with an axe and has no problem dropping F-bombs during her pre-game interview or stripping off her clothes while surrounded by people in an elevator.
Francis Lawrence has taken over directing duties for Catching Fire from Gary Ross, and he has a considerably different style. He’s put the film’s increased budget to good use, giving us expansive shots of the Capital and some new visual upgrades to familiar settings. He gives the film a much more polished style, and while I may miss the gritty, shaky style of the first film the change feels right this time around. Now that Katniss and Peeta have their first Hunger Games under their belt, the focus has to move from their fear and apprehension to the feelings of the nation as a whole. As for the new arena, the size and scale of the action has increased dramatically, and along with the new tropical location things feel far deadlier and mysterious for our heroes.
While Catching Fire may feel either like filler or setup for the next film to those who haven’t read the books, it is still compelling and exciting enough on its own. That doesn’t mean that those sentiments are wrong, however. Catching Fire is still something of a bridge between the introductory first film and the epic conclusion to come (the final book, Mockingjay, will be split into two films, each arriving a year apart). In fact, Catching Fire seems like an easier film to make when compared with what lies ahead, which promises to be quite the challenge, both for our characters and for the filmmakers. Taken on its own, however, Catching Fire still shines as brightly as the Mockingjay pin worn by Katniss. It has upped the stakes of the first film while simultaneously deepening the characters, while painting a picture of a world on the brink of rebellion. I have no idea how they will manage to adapt the final book, but as far as Catching Fire is concerned I’d be hard pressed to find much room for improvement.