In this second foray into Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy (Scholastic), the filmmakers approach Catching Fire’s dystopian derring-do with deadly seriousness. Though a new director, Francis Lawrence, has taken over the franchise from The Hunger Games’s Gary Ross, it has been a smooth transition: same look in Philip Messina’s production design and same overall somberness, though this time around with a less jittery hand-held camera.
Both the novel and movie pick up the ball right where it was left, with enough flashbacks and well-woven exposition to catch anyone up to speed. Since winning the nationally televised, gladiator-type Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence)—still stubborn and lethal with a bow and arrow—has become a lightning rod–a symbol of rebellion. When she and cowinner, hometown boy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), of the last Games take their mandatory Victory Tour of the country, riots and political demonstrations break out. The chaos causes President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to threaten her, and for the sake of her family, she has to convince him that that she didn’t set out to subvert the death match (and thus the ruling system). He wants the populace to believe that it was an act of love that inadvertently made her and Peeta the victors—the first time two have survived—and not a form of rebellion, lest anyone else get any ideas.
To the director’s credit, the 80-minute lead-up to the next round of Hunger Games is just as absorbing as the action-packed scenes from the bloodletting sport. The movie takes on a tone of its own once they recommence, this time with only returning champions as the combatants—think of it as an all-star season of Survivor. All 24 players are plopped onto a tropical islandlike setting with poisonous vapors, man-eating monkeys, and downpours of blood-rain: pure B-movie stuffing in an expensive A-list package. The movie joins the ranks of other sci-fi rumbles in jungle, Island of Lost Souls or any of the versions of King Kong to name just two. (Maybe in the third film we’ll see the fluffy, but carnivorous squirrels.)
Now all of the participants are adults, except for teens Katniss and Peeta (but since both actors are adults, it’s easy to overlook their characters’ ages), so the sequel is not as provocative, or carries as much baggage as Katniss’s first time in the area—it’s not kids killing kids.
However, the expertly paced book doesn’t feel like a bridge connecting the set-up of the first novel to the series’ final denouement, unlike the film. The reader follows along with Katniss, as she puts together the clues that the rulers of Panem may not have such an iron grip on all of its 12 districts. The screenplay, on the other hand, spills the beans about the machinations of the televised Hunger Games, with President Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) plotting to destroy Katniss’s image on live-TV. The pair tries to turn her from a hero in the proletariat’s eyes to an object of hatred. But unlike the best of screen villains, they don’t exude joy or glee from being bad. The filmmakers leave no doubt which character(s) they want the audience to identify with, and in doing so stay true to the book’s point of view.
The cinematography darkens the verdant colors of the outdoors; and indoors, dark and murky is the name of the game—granted, fussy fashion plate/chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) dons any number of gaudy, eye-popping ensembles. Look for imitators at next year’s Halloween. Even in the infrequent moments of flirtation or offhand banter, the actors deliver their lines like there’s an invisible gun to the characters’ head (though story-wise, there is). But in the novel, the tone varies, perhaps not wildly, but enough to make Katniss’s first-person account come off as candid, conversational, spontaneous, and vividly violent, with snarky asides and romantic ponderings thrown in. (Believe it or not, laughter breaks out among her and her allies during the Games.)
On screen, however, Katniss is more reticent. Star Lawrence as Katniss remains on her guard, revealing not too much, including private conspiratorial conversations away from the prying eyes of the Peacemakers (an Orwellian labeling if ever there was one). Not once does Katniss have a chance to let her hair down, except when a bow and arrow are at hand. As the nicknamed “girl on fire,” she gives off low heat. No surprise that she fails to persuade President Snow; he sees through her charade. Jena Malone almost steals the film as one of the competitors, the angry Joanna, who has no loved ones left alive. As a free agent and loose cannon, she certainly cuts loose.
Even with supporting characters and subplots trimmed, if not shorn, from Collins’s story lines, there are plenty of indications that all involved have used her books as a template, from the exact shade of the loyal Cinna’s golden eye shadow to the design of the glass-roofed train compartment. It’s doubtful a viewer will throw his/her hands in the air in exasperation, and in an Effie-like pout, wonder: “Why didn’t they stick to the story?”
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Rated PG-13 (just a blood splatter away from R)