Unless you have no interest in books whatsoever and have avoided news regarding the ascension of book sales of young adult literature among the consumer-driven public, then you’d be oblivious to the fact that the abbreviation YA carries with it an albatross as being deprecatory. The success of Stephenie Meyer’s vampire saga, Twilight, first as a series of best-selling “chick-lit” novels then as a film franchise, has given YA book-to-film translations a negative connotation. This is unfair to the gamut of young adult books available; one successful, albeit highly lucrative, series shouldn’t tarnish the rest.
If there’s a silver lining when it comes to dismissing YA’s pejorative subtext it may be Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. This bestselling YA series and now movie franchise has accomplished something that Twilight could not: It isn’t limited by an intended audience. Twilight could never extend beyond the reach of its large female demographic, enraptured by the series’ vampire-themed fantasy romance.
Collins’ novels are set in a dystopian future that brings with it tropes found in the science fiction and adventure arena. The narrative contains a romantic triangle, not unlike the one found in Meyer’s novels, but the story extends beyond the reach of the maturation of its lead character.
The movie translation of Catching Fire, the second volume of the series, doesn’t lose a step from the first installment, treating the audience to what made The Hunger Games so compelling to begin with. Where it succeeds beyond its predecessor is the darker tone and deeper emotional resonance. For those that think “young adult” stories are merely child’s play, the irony here is that this story proves bleaker than what you would typically find in an adult-centered narrative.
Having heard of Collins’ novels but never read them I entered The Hunger Games with a blank slate. Sometimes this is the best approach when walking into a movie adapted from a published work. The key factor that intrigued me about the production was Gary Ross, the writer and director of such films as Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. An entirely new direction for his filmmaker path, Ross would walk away from the chance of doing the sequel citing the fixed and tight production schedule as the major hang-up between him and studio Lionsgate.
With Gary Ross out that left a vacancy in the director’s chair. That vacancy was ultimately filled by Francis Lawrence, a music video director turned filmmaker. He’s no stranger to dystopian tales having directed Will Smith in I Am Legend. Even with the change of directors there were no beats skipped. The production design remained mostly the same; the noticeable change was in how the action scenes were choreographed and edited later in post-production. Fast edits in The Hunger Games was Ross’s solution to having the film not be stamped with a restricted rating, getting around those scenes in which human blood was being spilled and lives lost.
For those that missed The Hunger Games upon its initial theatrical release in March 2012, or its subsequent release on home video later that year, Catching Fire doesn’t include a prologue to get you up to speed. Just know that Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) were co-winners in a survival game in which in the end there should only be one victor, while the remaining 23 “tributes” (contestants) take a dirt nap. At the start of the sequel the two are about to embark on a victory tour, which is more about towing the company line (in this case appeasing the government of Panem) and not respecting the fallen tributes. This doesn’t sit well with Katniss, someone you wouldn’t call your average teenage gal. Even before the start of the Hunger Games she’d been hardened to living a life of destitution. Good with a bow and arrow Katniss would eliminate her opponents at the Games with Terminator-like precision. But she isn’t a complete machine; after the start of Catching Fire you get a sense that the fatalities she witnessed or acted in have caused a malfunction. Katniss appears to have symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.
The sequel continues Katniss’ story while also showing the significance of her and, to a lesser degree, Peeta’s accomplishments. Her victory in the Hunger Games has brought forth change within the twelve districts of Panem, if ever so slight. The corrupt government, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), doesn’t seem as unstoppable as it did once before. The oppression is still there, but the citizens have a symbol of freedom in Katniss Everdeen that give them hope in building to a revolution. Not amused, Snow will go to great lengths to see that his power is unabated.
Clocking in at 146 minutes overall, time just flies while watching Catching Fire. Smartly marketed to emphasize the battle-to-the-death contest of the Hunger Games (which doesn’t begin in the sequel until it hits the 85-minute mark), Katniss once again finds herself competing in another Hunger Games, in what can best be described as the All-Stars version of annual competition. All 24 tributes are former champions. Some have turned their previous victories as a means to forge a career in the killing arts. Other winners are peculiar in their intellect and methods of subduing opponents.
With the 75th annual Hunger Games (also called a “Third Quarter Quell”) about to commence the secret goal is to make Katniss Everdeen a pariah to those who embrace her as a symbol. As new gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) relays to President Snow at one point, “We don’t have to destroy her, just her image. Show them that she’s one of us now. Let them rally behind that. They’re going to hate her so much they just might kill her for you.”
The addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman bolsters the cast of Catching Fire, even though his contributions are minimal (though I understand his role is quite sizable in the forthcoming Mockingjay sequels). Seeing this Oscar winner in a blockbuster franchise is akin to established actors taking roles in superhero films. It happened with Jack Nicholson (Batman) and more recently with Russell Crowe (Man of Steel). PSH’s involvement could be attributed to a strong screen adaptation from Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael deBruyn (pseudonym for Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Arndt), or it may have been the chance of working alongside Jennifer Lawrence (though the two only have one scene together in Catching Fire).
And what of Jennifer Lawrence, Hollywood’s “it girl” of the moment? Fresh from her Oscar win for Silver Linings Playbook her character of Katniss Everdeen doesn’t suffer from “damsel in a dress” syndrome. This time around she’s coping with the consequences of winning the Hunger Games. The result in Catching Fire is a multi-layered character that builds upon the strong female protagonist we got with The Hunger Games.
In terms of blockbuster potential, the second installment of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is likely to be one of the biggest titles of the year, and unlike many of the ultra-successful franchise and tentpole releases of 2013, Catching Fire will have greater replay value. Rarely do you have a sequel that betters its predecessor, yet this one vastly improves upon the original concept as it bridges the gap of what happens in the finale.
By the time Catching Fire reaches its conclusion one can’t help but be excited for the next installment. Ending with a cliffhanger that is on par with the likes of The Empire Strikes Back, the set-up is there for a revolution. All it needs now is to be televised.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer(s): Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Notable Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks