I was 15 minutes into The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and was relatively unsurprised at how underwhelmed I was by the movie so far. Unsurprised, because unlike many disappointed fans of Suzanne Collins’ teen-lit trilogy set in a dystopian future, I actually thought director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) did a reasonably decent job adapting the first book in the series for the screen.
As Catching Fire opens with a perfunctory shot of Appalachia – no, not Appalachia, District 12 – all kinds of red flags started going up in my head. “Look Ma, no shakycam,” the folks at Lionsgate seem to be shouting from the top of a mountain. Gone is Tom Stern’s jittery camerawork ; in its place, Jo Willems’ lush panoramic vistas fill the screen. Because nothing screams mining town squalor more than Hollywood polish. Credit the conspicuous change in approach to Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), who took over directing duties after Ross opted to bow out. (More on that later.)
Unfamiliar with Collins’ rough-around-the-edges brand of sci-fi? Allow me to fill you in. What feels uncannily like the United States of America, only many years from now, is called Panem. The people revolted against a totalitarian regime, but their revolution was snuffed out by government forces. As a reminder of this insolent uprising by the masses, every year the powers that be force families to watch their kids – a boy and a girl from each of Panem’s 12 districts – butcher each other for the entertainment of the moneyed elite. (If you have yet to see last year’s The Hunger Games, rent it and catch up with me later; spoilers follow.) District 12′s Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, ideally cast) volunteered when baby sis Primrose (Willow Shields) was selected from the lottery, a nerve-wracking process Collins calls the Reaping. The Hunger Games are supposed to end when only one player remains, but in an act of defiance, our badass heroine with the wicked archery skills and fellow District 12 participant Peeta Mellark (played by vertically challenged Josh Hutcherson) threatened to poison themselves at the finish line of this bloodbath. Both of them were allowed to walk out of the Arena, but Katniss landed the top spot on President Snow’s (a chilling Donald Sutherland) shit list.
As Catching Fire opens, Katniss and Peeta barely have time to enjoy the victors’ spoils before having to go on a tour spanning every district, an event for which outlandishly clad mentor Effie Trinket is obsessively preparing them. Watching Lawrence and Hutcherson coldly interact under Lawrence’s let’s-get-on-with-the-show direction, I felt as if I were watching immaculately dressed mannequins and not the willful survivors with the complicated relationship. (He’s infatuated with Katniss, and Katniss, well, she thinks he’s a good egg, but he doesn’t quite do it for her, which sucks for both of them, because they pretended to be a couple deeply in love as a survival tactic during the Games.) Having read Collins’ novel, I started taking note of all the events Lawrence and screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt glossed over or altogether excised. The same whiplash effect that marred Lawrence’s screen adaptation of Water for Elephants set in, and I braced myself for what was shaping up to be a Cliffs Notes rendition of Collins’ work.
Gradually, though, I realized what Lawrence and his creative team were up to. Catching Fire, at least during the first hour, lacks the emotional pull of its predecessor, which played in part like a movie version of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” As Katniss and Peeta begin noticing more cracks beneath the rigid, iron-fist façade of Snow’s regime, Lawrence dials down his ADD and sucks you right into the story. If you haven’t read the books, the better off you are not knowing the challenges Katniss and Peeta face this time around. Suffice it to say Lawrence is able to juggle quite a few new characters while keeping the story chugging along at a steady clip, yet ensuring to slow down when it actually counts. (San Claflin makes quite an impression as a cocky fellow competitor.) What prevented the first Hunger Games from being a better film was Ross’ decision to chop down the actual Hunger Games to a series of watered-down deathmatches. Lawrence fares considerably better in this regard.
In a year filled with political noise about income inequality and the One Percent lashing out as what they might perceive as government overreach, it’s pretty heartening to see a piece of mainstream pop culture embracing imagery that strikes unmistakable parallels between Collins’ bruising make believe and the realities that many moviegoers who will be watching this film on opening weekend have to deal with outside the confines of the multiplex. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is far from perfect, but it ultimately confirms Mr. Lawrence as an efficient craftsman to finish telling the rest of Collins’ tale on the big screen. (The director will also be adapting Mockingjay, Collins’ third and final book in the trilogy, which is being divided into two movies Deathly Hallows-style.) And when he’s firing on all cylinders, Lawrence also knows how to stage spectacle that vividly comes to life onscreen. A sequence in which Games participants ride out in chariots dwarfs anything Ross came up with in Part 1. It’s Ben Hur as scored by Vangelis. As tween fodder placed quality-wise somewhere between Hogwarts and Twihardsville, you could do far worse.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire fights the power is showing at theatres now.