[Originally published at Empty Popcorn. Republished with permission.]
As with most literary trends, I was late to the game. For example, I didn’t read my first Harry Potter book until the first movie was already on DVD. I will (reluctantly) admit that I still haven’t read “The Lord of the Rings” all the way through (because I find Tolkien to be overly poetic and tedious). So it was with Suzanne Collins’ young adult trilogy “The Hunger Games.” I really had no prior knowledge of the series before agreeing to attend the first movie with a friend – but by the time I got home I was already downloading the books onto my e-reader and devouring them in the waiting room for jury duty (I wasn’t selected).
Long story short, I may be slow on the uptake, but when I am finally exposed to a fandom, I usually take to it like a duck to water. I’ve been waiting for “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” to come out for what feels like forever. It is my favorite of the three books, and knowing that they raised the budget after the initial success of the first installment, I had very high hopes (and, if possible, even higher expectations). I was not disappointed.
True to its source material, Catching Fire is much darker than The Hunger Games. In this film, we see the embers of an uprising being fanned in the 12 districts – and the Capitol powers are not about to let it burn out of control. President Snow (played with slimy charm by the incomparable Donald Sutherland) gives Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, my imaginary BFF) an ultimatum – stamp out the revolution or be eliminated. Oh, and we’ll also eliminate everyone you love. Just FYI.
Of course Katniss can’t help herself, can’t keep herself quiet, and in act after act of defiance essentially tells Snow where to stick it. She and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are thrown back into the arena in an extra fucked-up special edition of the Hunger Games. Knowing that this time only one victor will emerge, Katniss and Peeta fight to keep each other alive at all costs.
The bigger budget definitely shows in simple things like costuming – Effie Trinket’s Capitol Couture make Elizabeth Banks hardly recognizable, and as ridiculous as the fashion and makeup is, I still want some of the pieces – especially the rhinestone studded pantyhose. You don’t see as much of the Capitol in this film – mostly the presidential palace. The script enjoyed a bit of an upgrade as well – the dialogue seemed less clumsy, and Lawrence and Hutcherson’s chemistry have improved since their first go at the characters.
Even though this film franchise highly centers around Katniss, Peeta and (to a lesser extent) Gale (played by Thor’s baby brother Liam Hemsworth) both give standout performances for somewhat minor characters and make the whole series feel rich and balanced. None of the actors are slacking on the job here, least of all Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman. Tucci is a scene-stealer with his lavender ponytail and oversized veneers, clearly reveling in the over-the-top host of The Hunger Games. Also notable are Jena Malone (Johanna Mason) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the new game maker, Plutarch Heavensbee.
Without spoiling it too much, just know that Catching Fire is miles ahead of its predecessor in terms of both production value and performance quality. It’s dark, fast-paced, emotional, and tugs at your heart in a visceral way. I’m already aching with anticipation for Mockingjay, which, I’ve heard, is going to be broken into two parts.
- Woody Harrelson as Haymitch. No other actor, I think, could fit that role so perfectly.
- Katniss’s dresses and makeup are all to die for.
- The arena’s design is exactly how I pictured it when I read the book
- Jennifer Lawrence is stellar.
- There’s that dude who doesn’t wear a shirt very often.
- Lenny Kravitz as Cinna is still one of the most unexpectedly brilliant casting decisions ever.
- The film cut out a couple of scenes from the book that, while not crucial to the advancement of the action, I was really looking forward to seeing (SPOILERS: the endless parade of wedding dresses, the time Katniss gets caught on the other side of the fence when the electricity gets turned back on)
- Too much “love triangle” bullshit. I understand the primary demographic is teenage girls, but the source material is not nearly as love-centric.
- Not enough Stanley Tucci.
- I don’t think I can find rhinestone pantyhose like that and I’m a menace with a glue gun.