Through the Fire and Games

When a new franchise movie comes out, I almost always dress up to go see it, but for some reason this didn’t hold true for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. When the first movie came out last spring, my way-too-excited group of friends and I donned our leather jackets and “fiery” clothing and did our hair in our best imitation of Katniss’s signature braid. Despite the common consensus from early critics that the sequel was better than its predecessor, I guess I just wasn’t looking forward to it as much. Having already been introduced to most of the cast and knowing the feel of the script, edited and approved by author Suzanne Collins, I felt like there was less to anticipate. Looking back, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Catching Fire begins with the District 12 victors (and seeming lovers) of the last Hunger Games preparing to embark on their victory tour of Panem, but at the start it’s clear there’s trouble in paradise. I’m not just talking about the plot; the movie’s opening was its weakest part. Key bonding moments between victors Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) were cut out, and instead the film’s beginning centers disproportionately on Katniss’ relationship with Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Unlike conflicted book-Katniss, movie-Katniss seems quite certain of her feelings for him – an instance where the absence of first-person narration weakens the film adaptation. From here, though, the movie flows smoothly as scene after memorable scene follows. While the stirrings of a revolution in the districts loom ever present in the background, Katniss struggles to keep those she loves safe. And when a cruel twist forces her and Peeta back into yet another arena battle to the death, it feels like everything in the first movie was simply a lead-up to this one.

In Catching Fire, much of the sharp, pithy dialogue is preserved from the book. Trying to move on from the awkwardness of their recent victory, Peeta, in a simple and touching exchange, makes a candid request to be friends with Katniss. The great thing about Hutcherson is that he just completely gives off a vibe of Peeta. Nothing he says, no matter how corny, seems anything less than genuine.

And sometimes, even when the script deviates from the book, it’s for the better. Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) offers really our only insight into the mind of a “good” Capitol denizen, and through an added-in goodbye scene, we see how our heroes’ unfortunate fate really affects someone usually distanced from all horrible things. Banks fabulously portrays a character who, previously functioning mostly as comedic relief, sobers up when she experiences loss for the first time – and possibly shares in the feeling of injustice the rest of Panem experiences.

For the tributes, who must compete in another Hunger Games despite having been promised the dream life, that feeling of injustice becomes defiance, and the way the 24 tributes come together, no matter for how short a time, is a delight to see. Sam Claflin – who ordinarily plays handsome, rather blandly sweet boys – embodies a perfectly cheeky District 4 victor Finnick Odair (those dimples!). I was skeptical that Jenna Malone would do justice to my favorite character, Johanna Mason, but she rocks the role of the sexy, sly, and angry District 7 victor. Plutarch Heavensbee was a great casting move, too, with Philip Seymour Hoffman sporting a perpetual smile that’s both capable and dangerous.

Directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), this sequel to Gary Ross’s first installment of the The Hunger Games series feels fresh and new. I was worried when news of a new director was first announced, but the shift in directorial styles is fitting for an adaptation of a middle book that really functions as a precursor to a totally new plot issue in the series – revolution. Lawrence, with his background in action films, takes moments from the book that could be plodding on screen and manages to keep up the momentum. The film is 148 minutes long but it goes by in a flash.

Even having read the books and knowing the end was coming, I kept hoping for just a few more scenes before the credits rolled. After the final shot – a close-up of Katniss’s face as her emotions range from shock to despair to vengefulness – I couldn’t help thinking that the film couldn’t be over already.

The ending may be a bit confusing to those who haven’t read Collins’s trilogy, but certainly not through any fault of Jennifer Lawrence, whose portrayal of the hardened heroine is as potent as ever. There’s little left to praise that hasn’t been said before about the actress, who gives yet another powerful and raw portrayal of Katniss, bringing life to the character and making her seem so real. At the same time, this role is quite distinct from Lawrence’s many other standout performances – the ill-at-ease Mystique from X-Men: First Class, crazy Tiffany from Silver Linings Playbook, a pestering housewife from American Hustle – which round out an unbelievably impressive filmography for a 23-year-old. Soon to be added to this list are the two upcoming Mockingjay movies, which will amp up the political drama, explain what was really going on in Catching Fire, and delve deeper into the history and minds of the newest characters. And this time, when they premiere, I won’t be mistaken – I’m definitely dressing up.

Grade: A

Rebecca Zhang is a junior in the Operations Research and Financial Engineering department.