This is the movie I’ve been waiting for ever since Young Adult fiction franchises became a thing. It’s been the trend recently to limit the amount of money being funneled into making these movies in order to cash in at the box office. Twilight is a good example. Those movies could have been better, but they didn’t need to be to rake in the dough, and Summit Entertainment kept the budget down, maximizing their profits on the series. As a fan of the books, I wasn’t too thrilled with Hunger Games last year. I liked it, but I wanted to love it. Catching Fire has completely reversed my thinking on this film franchise. Instead of being fearful that the team behind the films isn’t open to making the necessary calibrations between films, I am now more excited than ever about what is to come.
Catching Fire has the misfortune of being the middle child of author Suzanne Collins’ book trilogy, but the film does a pretty good job dwelling only on the themes that will inevitably drive the rest of story through both Mockingjay films. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) return victorious from the Games, and are about to embark on their Victory Tour through all 12 districts and the Capitol. They now live with Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) in the Victors Village, their families are rolling in money, but their lives have never been more in danger. Katniss continues to test the patience of President Snow (Donald Sutherland) while struggling to define her feelings for both Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). When Katniss and Peeta are sent back to the arena, the stakes have never been higher, not for their own survival, but the survival of the rebellion brewing in Panem.
Catching Fire could be a model for young adult film franchises moving forward. It’s a clear step in the direction of making quality films for a demographic that too often is manipulated into opening their wallets. One of the biggest qualms I had with Hunger Games was the writing, and therefore, the characterization, particularly of Peeta and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). Catching Fire screenwriters Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3, Star Wars: Episode VII) and Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) are dilligent in fleshing out these characters more than what we saw in the first film. Josh Hutcherson does more with Peeta because his dialogue allows it. Elizabeth Banks is no longer a caricature as the colorful Effie. She and Cinna (the quiet strength, Lenny Kravitz) are a part of Katniss and Peeta’s fate, and more than ever she wants to support and protect her “golden team.” Yes, Gale is still a little one note, but this time around, his anger and his aggression with the Capitol is palpable. It’s the very beginning of what will be a rift between him and Katniss. The stage is being set early, not only from a plot standpoint, but also through pitch-perfect characterization.
The newest cast additions to this franchise are also a plus. Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new Games architect, Plutarch Heavensbee, is a godsend. Jenna Malone as the spitfire Johanna Mason and Sam Clafin as the handsome and conniving Finnick Odair bring added humor and humanity to the film. Woody Harrelson is also given more as Haymitch, with his humorous bits hitting more regularly than in Hunger Games. Also of significance is Gary Ross’ frenetic directing style, a point of contention for many fans in the first film, has been replaced by director Francis Lawrence’s capable interpretation. Nothing too fancy, but nothing lost.
I haven’t mentioned Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, because really there is nothing much more to say. Unlike almost everyone else in this franchise, I can’t picture Katniss as anyone else. I think that’s saying enough.
Fans of The Hunger Games novels may never be fully satisfied, as is often the case with literary adaptations. But Catching Fire rings true to the spirit of the book, while keeping its sights clear for the cinematic conclusion to come. I can’t wait.
*Techie side note: Francis Lawrence and team did shoot parts of the film using IMAX cameras (that’s 70mm film), so it may be extra worth it to see it on an IMAX screen if it means that much to you!*
Catching Fire opens today in Philly area theaters.