One and a half years ago we saw Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark won the 74th annual Hunger Games, pissing the President off in the way. Katniss’ action at the end of the game saved both her and her lovesick friend Peeta’s lives, but with what cost? Now both of them are living rather peacefully in the Victors’ Village, with more money and comfort than they need. But without her knowing it, Katniss’ move sparked something in the people, it sparked hope. Hope for people not living in the luxury and shocking colors of the Capitol, people who have waited for an icon to ignite their anger and turn it into an uprising—a revolution. “A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.” Said President Snow in the first movie, and now he’s finding the spark a lot more difficult to contain.
Watching The Hunger Games last year was one of the most pleasant surprises I ever had in a movie theatre. I hadn’t read the books at that time and was immensely impressed with the story, the characters, the world building. Since then I had read the three books and I have to say I much prefer the movie, and mainly it was because of Gary Ross.
There are so many Young Adult novels getting the movie treatment in the last few years, with most of them being unworthy of it. Bad books get adapted into hideous movies, or sometimes good books get adapted into okay movies. But The Hunger Games movie surpassed its printed source in a lot of ways, something Ross should be credited for. Among the three books, Catching Fire is my favorite, because so many things happen in it that we are given less time dealing with Katniss’ sometimes-irritating inner thoughts. Catching Fire has an exciting storyline, with many interesting new characters, and more than serves its purpose as a bridge to the finale, Mockingjay. When the directing baton was passed to Francis Lawrence, whose past works include Constantine and I Am Legend, it didn’t sound very good. However, the writing team sounded interesting—Simon Beaufoy of Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, and Michael Arndt of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3.
In the end, everything works. Lawrence somehow lacks a personal touch which actually helps a lot—it keeps the movie quite in the same tone as the first one, making it look and feel exactly like a continuation from the first. Unlike the Harry Potter movies whose many directors have such distinct styles, Catching Fire doesn’t feel at all separated from The Hunger Games. Sure, there is a gracefulness to The Hunger Games that Catching Fire lacks, but it can be overlooked, and perhaps rightly so.
There is no denying that Jennifer Lawrence earns her It Girl status, the talented Oscar winner has a strong presence on screen and her confused emotions show clearly on her face. She’s strong yet at the same time fragile, she’s reluctant yet determined. We get to see how her smile never reaches her eyes, how Katniss is nowhere near as good an actress as Lawrence. Josh Hutcherson had never looked better. Maybe being a nice guy in real life helps with his portraying a near-angelic role, a person so selfless that it’s heartbreaking to witness. Their love story takes its time developing, and it’s so nice to see a teenage franchise with its female titular role not groveling at the male character’s feet, unabashedly looking at him in awe, craving for love and attention. No. Our Katniss does none of that, and that’s one of the best things about Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy.
But perhaps the most interesting relationship is not Katniss and Peeta’s, but Katniss and President Snow’s. Having a less-than-memorable appearance in the form of very few words in the first book, Gary Ross and actor Donald Sutherland succeeded in making a strong character and leaving a memorable impression in The Hunger Games, and this time Sutherland continues to terrorize with his calm manners, his cold-bloodedness effortlessly accented in his eyes and words, being evil rather than acting evil. Before filming the first movie, Sutherland wrote a letter to Gary Ross, titled “Letter from the Rose Garden”, sharing his thoughts and insights about President Snow, and isn’t this what a great actor does? He made it seem like he knows Snow better than Collins, and just maybe, he does. Another actor that also performs so wonderfully is of course, Elizabeth Banks. Her Effie Trinket is ever so enjoyable here, providing laughs when they are sorely needed, and earnest sentimentality when unexpected.
With a budget around US$50 million more than the first movie, be rest assured that the production is up to par. The sets, the visual effects, the sound, everything is as great as they should be and now they even upped the ante with, yes, designer clothes. And why not? The Capitol screams ‘Alexander McQueen’ and it’s only fitting that now they really are wearing some McQueen. As my friend P pointed out, Effie Trinket wears three McQueen dresses in the movie. And there’s also a gown by a designer from home, Tex Saverio.
There are always some things to complain about, maybe the too-many close-ups, maybe the ridiculous photographs in a necklace worn by one of the characters (you’ll know when you see them), maybe the lack of swagger in Sam Claflin’s Finnick Odair, maybe Katniss’ Bella Swan-ish caught-in-a-love-triangle angst, but all in all Catching Fire has an exciting, fast-paced story, an incredible cast (the addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman is more than welcome), and the trilogy is a much needed franchise in the suffocating sea of bad Young Adult adaptations.