*The following review contains some storyline spoilers and specific references to the differences between the book and the movie.
Based on the second novel in author Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, Catching Fire takes place just after the preceding Hunger Games film where protagonists Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are declared the winners of the 74th Hunger Games. The rogue Olympics are a battle where one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are ‘reaped’ from each of the 12 districts of Panem to participate in an outdoor arena fight to the death until only one remains. The brutal contest is designed to showcase the superiority of the reigning Capitol over the poorer towns that it presides over.
Certainly the best book of the trilogy, Catching Fire is the best demonstration of its author’s writing ability and awareness. While the hokey tagline of The Hunger Games, reads ‘may the odds be ever in your favour,” (offering luck to the children so that they aren’t selected), it also serves to illustrate the idea of a sequel being better than its predecessor. The odds of a movie spin-off being better than the original are slim and becoming increasingly rare. The Empire Strikes Back, Back To The Future 2 and The Godfather Part 2 are really exceptions to the rule that the sequel never really lives up to the original. It is in that regard, however, that Catching Fire has catapulted itself into the list of elite follow-ups.
In addition to a much deeper and politically-driven plotline that sees Katniss and Peeta return to participate in the Games again, Catching Fire succeeds because of of its new director’s vision. While the first movie was helmed by Gary Ross who, motivated by making the movie accessible to as many people as possible, accelerated the brutality of the kids murdering each other, Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) prefers a more nuanced style, focusing on character development. While he also delineates the violence in the movie, it seems that this is done only because of all of the elements that had to be included in the second film.
Katniss and Peeta initially return to their homes in District 12 before taking a victory tour around all of the other districts. Katniss sees Gale again and their relationship escalates from platonic hunting playmates to almost becoming Facebook official in their relationship status. In addition to her blossoming feelings for the boy from the mines, Katniss is forced to continue the charade of her Hunger Games love affair with Peeta to satisfy the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The antagonist of the film believes that allowing the couple to survive the last games has caused an ideological revolution in the Districts who no longer feel that they need to be presided over and all want to collectively abolish the class-centric system. By keeping the couple together, he can continue to romanticize the need for the Games and retain his iron fist of control over everyone. Despite putting their best foot forward, the ‘happy’ couple aren’t able to convince Snow of their love. Thus, in an effort to further wield his power and continue his reign as the omnipotent dictator, Snow uses the Quarter Quell to announce that the new Hunger Games competitors will be pulled from the existing pool of victors. Instead of facing first-time participants like she did the last time, as her District’s only female winner, Katniss is forced to go back in, only this time, against a pool of seasoned veterans who, like her, have all won the Games before.
In addition to focusing on the love triangle between Katniss/Gale/Peeta, Lawrence is also given the opportunity to work with new larger-than-life characters in the sequel and these include Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), the dashing District 4 victor who won the Games when he was only 14 and is the poster child of Capitol and the vicious Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) from District 7 who feigned being weak and helpless to gain the trust of the other competitors only to display a “wicked ability to murder” in her win. This is no longer a movie that is just about Katniss and Peeta.
When a popular book is translated into a major motion picture, its inevitable that there will be detractors. Some won’t like the actors that were selected as the personification of the characters that they love. Others won’t appreciate the way the director chose to highlight certain parts of the love triangle, while leaving out others. There are some (myself included), who would prefer the Games to be the sole focus. It is in that regard, however, that Catching Fire succeeds on all fronts. The actors selected to complement the leads could not have been cast better. Claflin and Malone particularly shine as they embody what Finnick and Johanna are all about. The same goes for Lynn Cohen’s understated portrayal of Mags. They are exactly who we wanted and expected them to be.
The love triangle was really my only minor knock against the movie, as I felt like the first hour of the film spent too much time in establishing the relationship between Katniss and Gale. The only moment from the books that needed to carry over was the initial kiss and Lawrence’s decision to spend additional time on them took a lot of time away from the Games themselves (which was probably an intentional decision).
As for the Games, the Arena looked impressive, especially with the water elements in the initial run to grab weapons from the cornucopia. With that said, the build and training session scenes leading up to the Games seemed rushed as the audience really only sees Katniss’ dominance with the bow and arrows (already made apparent in the first movie). It would have been nice to see more of what the other victors did to win their Games as this would have increased anticipation for the Games while also raising the stakes and pressure on Katniss to win again.
As for the wardrobe found in the movie, Katniss’ wedding/mockingjay dress delivered although the fire outfits that her and Peeta wore upon their initial arrival to meet the other victors were unimpressive.
It is important to note that this movie is not a standalone as the the plotline picks up immediately from the end of the first movie. To take it even one step further, it is my belief that reading the books is a prerequisite to truly appreciating the story. You honestly won’t have a clue what happens at the end of Catching Fire if you aren’t familiar with the story.
At the end of the day, the determination about a movie’s efficacy is whether you would pay to see it again or if the story has left you craving for more. If this is the barometer for success then this film deliver as I have already seen it twice and am preparing for a third viewing this evening.
Reviews for the Hunger Games are like technical assessments of Apple products. They are unnecessary because we all know they are the best.
Murtz Jaffer is the world's foremost reality television expert and was the host of Reality Obsessed which aired on the TVTropolis and Global Reality Channels in Canada. He has professional writing experience at the Toronto Sun, National Post, TV Guide Canada, TOROMagazine.com and was a former producer at Entertainment Tonight Canada. He was also the editor at Weekendtrips.com.