Hunger Games, The: Catching Fire (United States, 2013)

November 19, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hunger Games, The: Catching Fire Poster

Have we reached a point where the term "young adult literature" has become pejorative? Have books like Twilight and its ilk promulgated a negative connotation? If Stephenie Meyer's scribblings represent an exhibition for the prosecution, perhaps Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy could head up the case for the defense. These novels and their movie adaptation offspring tell captivating stories that are in no way limited by their supposed target demographic. Collins' books have much in common with the longstanding tradition of so-called "dystopian future" tales which comfortably straddle the science fiction, adventure, and even horror genres. The screen translation of Catching Fire, the second volume of the series, offers its audience many of the elements that made The Hunger Games compelling, but adds to that by deepening the themes and emotional currents and traveling to darker destinations. There's irony in recognizing that a "young adult" narrative can prove to be bleaker than the average "adult" fare.

One of the criticisms of The Hunger Games was that human life was too cheap. The "happy ending" was achieved through the deaths of 22 young people. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) triumphed by being better at killing and survival than the other contestants. At times, she seemed almost machine-like in eliminating opponents. Catching Fire, which begins shortly after the conclusion of The Hunger Games, with Katniss and fellow winner, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), about to embark upon their victory tour, shows that Katniss didn't escape her ordeal without deep emotional scars. Suffering symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, she at times has difficulty functioning. Something is broken within Katniss. The first act of Catching Fire forces the viewer to reassess all of The Hunger Games.

Catching Fire continues to follow Katniss' story while expanding on the social upheaval in the wider world. She's no longer a pawn being ground to dust by the gears of an unstoppable, corrupt government. Now, she has become the means by which that engine can be destabilized and broken. The Hunger Games provided us with glimpses of the oppression existing in some of the 12 districts of Panem. Catching Fire goes into greater detail as disaffection with the government builds to overt rebellion and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is forced to become increasingly inhumane in his methods in order to maintain a slipping grip on power.

One stock YA element that Collins embraces is the love triangle. In this case, the three participants are Katniss, Peeta, and Katniss' longtime best friend, Gayle (Liam Hemsworth). It's handled in a more sedate and adult manner than in the whiny Twilight series. The focus isn't on Katniss losing her virginity; it's about the emotional cost of her journey and the need for some kind of human warmth along the way. Peeta and Gayle don't snipe at one another. They don't bare their fangs and growl. They understand the situation and move forward. They both love the same girl and are willing to sacrifice to save her and perhaps each other.

While Catching Fire doesn't shy away from some nearly R-rated scenes - the persecution and murder of dissidents being a prime example - it offers a strong dose of what made The Hunger Games compulsively watchable: another battle-to-the-death contest involving 24 "tributes." The tone, however, is different: grim, cynical, and tragic without a hint of exultation. In The Hunger Games, we rooted for Katniss to win. In Catching Fire, it's apparent that any victory will be pyrrhic. Here, the tributes are all returning champions - a kind-of Ultimate Hunger Games All-Stars. The secret goal, privately agreed-to by President Snow and the new game-runner, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is to kill Katniss in a manner that will invalidate her as a symbol of freedom and rebellion.

Once the new game begins, Katniss finds herself allied with some other "outsider" players like the attractive, athletic Finnick (Sam Claflin); the angry loner, Johanna (Jena Malone); the nerd who wins by his brains, Beetee (Jeffrey Wright); and, of course, Peeta. But things aren't as simple for Katniss as in The Hunger Games. Here, she has to wonder about the fidelity of her so-called allies and what the end game is. Is she fated to lay down her life for Peeta, or he for her, or is there some greater goal? Is there a way to strike out at President Snow from within the game? The movie ends with a brutal cliffhanger that mirrors the way the 2009 novel concludes.

The talent involved in Catching Fire is impressive. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy has three Oscar nominations and one win (for Slumdog Millionaire) on his resume. Co-scripter Michael Arndt (writing under the pseudonym "Michael deBruyn") has two nominations and one win (Little Miss Sunshine) to his credit. Although director Francis Lawrence has thus far received no recognition from the Academy, he was a well-regarded music video director before turning his attention to movies in 2005 with Constantine.

The cast can boast a collective nine acting Oscar nominations and two wins (the numbers go much higher if Golden Globes are considered), and none of the performers can be accused of going through the motions. Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of Katniss attains more emotional depth in Catching Fire as she is forced to cope with the consequences of her win in The Hunger Games and what she had to sacrifice to achieve it. Lawrence proffers a strong, multi-layered character who displays all the frailties of humanity to go along with her physical prowess. Woody Harrelson commands the screen in his limited number of scenes; the same is true of Donald Sutherland, who generates a villain worthy of despite. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth provide able, appealing support. And all the newcomers - Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright - are in peak form. Special mention goes to Patrick St. Esprit, whose Commander Thread is so utterly despicable that, in just a few scenes he makes viewers thirst for his comeuppance.

Halfway through a proposed four-film cycle, The Hunger Games has proven to be one of the few franchises where additional chapters are anticipated rather than merely accepted. Catching Fire is a better movie than its predecessor and elevates the series into that rarefied atmosphere where it must be considered as something more substantive than just another fanboy/girl-friendly means by which a studio can fatten its coffers. Catching Fire brings the heat and doesn't flame out.

Hunger Games, The: Catching Fire (United States, 2013)