In The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen has gotten herself into more trouble than she can imagine. Her desperate act to save herself and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark has gotten her on the wrong side of President Snow. Katniss accidentally sewed the seeds of a revolution against the Capital, and it becomes her job to squelch it on the Victory Tour. When her efforts fail, she is forced into the Third Quarter Quell–the 75th Games–under the guise of the founders of Panem wanting to prove that no one, no matter past successes, is above the needs of the country. 24 former victors who believed the games guaranteed peaceful lives are forced to fight again because of Katniss.
Unlike last year’s The Hunger Games, Catching Fire is afraid of changing the text of the story. There is no new clever device to show the inner monologue of the characters (like the addition of color commentary from the TV hosts in the 74th Hunger Games) and, even more surprising, no real character development. The Hunger Games worked because every character who had an impact on Katniss’ life felt important; in Catching Fire, only her family, friends, and fellow victor Peeta are important. That’s a problem.
If you are going to make a film where the majority of the running time is people killing people in blood sport, there has to be some level of empathy. It cannot be a false empathy wrought from bad things happening to normal people. It needs to be earned. The victims in the first film who had relevance to Katniss’ story earned the emotions that followed their fall. Her fellow victors are given nothing to do to earn the same this time around.
I honestly feel bad for the production team going into the two Mockingjay films. So much of the substance of the Catching Fire novel is the ramifications of war on Katniss, Peeta, Haymitch, and everyone who has lived or worked with them. All of them suffer terrible nightmares awake and asleep of what they experienced in the games. They’re forced by the Capital to assume a life of gaiety, taking on fashion design or some other kind of art. They become the prized pets of the Capital, living the rest of their days as living idols rather than human beings.None of that exists in Catching Fire. Anytime this sense of forced privilege starts to rear its ugly, depressing head, new writers Michael Arndt and Simon Beauofoy and new director Francis Lawrence cut to another scene. It’s maddening. The replacements for writer/director Gary Ross and writer Billy Ray seem so determined to do something new with the series that they turn it into pablum.
In Catching Fire, there is no sense of urgency or danger. The world seems small and isolated. The effective imagery–peace keepers going after protesters, Katniss forging bonds with the other victor tributes in training–are repeated until they lose all sense of meaning. Anything that might be too upsetting–the reveal of the training scores, executions, the actual destruction of The Hob (marketplace in District 12)–are removed entirely from the film or edited away in the final cut. Gary Ross found the balance between brutality and exploitation that made The Hunger Games a thrilling film to watch; Francis Lawrence turns Catching Fire into an overly sanitized bore.
The saving grace is the acting, at least from the actors given anything to work with. Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, and Elizabeth Banks–so spectacular in the first film–are reduced to flat foils for Katniss and Peeta. The same applies to everyone in District 12.
Jennifer Lawrence does solid work as Katniss, though the elimination of all but one obvious scene of genuine trauma leaves her with little new ground to cover. Josh Hutcherson, the only actor to actually earn character development in the sequel, is captivating as Peeta. He’s not just aw shucks and smiles; you actually get to see him strategize and confront the trauma from the games head on. Donald Sutherland stands out with a few more scenes as the scheming President Snow, providing the only real tension in the film.Newcomers Jena Malone and Amanda Plummer steal the show in key victor roles. Jena Malone, as District 7 victor Johanna Mason, is the only actor to sell the betrayal of the Capital with the reaping of victors in the entirety of Catching Fire. She’s dangerous, not because she’s an experienced killer, but because she refuses to hide the truth of what President Snow has planned from everyone in or watching the games. There’s a sneer to everything she says and a rage that keeps everyone away without turning off the audience.
Amanda Plummer gets the flashiest role in Wiress, a brilliant but damaged victor from District 3. She’s a genius at strategy, immediately picking up on tiny details that no one else can see. Plummer finds a way to make the total mental breakdown of Wiress in the arena seem honest and tragic without ever becoming annoying. If you’ve never read the books, Wiress is reduced to repeating a two word phrase over and over for most of the games and it’s perhaps the most ridiculous element of the entire Hunger Games trilogy. Thanks to Plummer, it serves the function novelist Suzanne Collins always intended without irritation.
Five good performances alone don’t make a good film. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the worst kind of sequel. It’s as if the studio decided the success of the first film meant making the second film more generic, more predictable, and less dangerous to aim for a wider audience. The box office receipts support the theory, but at what cost? A poor adaptation of a promising novel that was screaming for a big narrative fixes on the silver screen.
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