Book Adaptation Film Review

Quarter Quell Film Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

November 22, 2013Ben MK

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New Games, new rules

In the arena of book-to-film adaptations of young adult fiction, contenders seem to be in no short supply. Ever since the Harry Potter films began capturing filmgoers' hearts more than 10 years ago, we've seen a steady stream of new challengers -- most recently, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones -- with more yet to come -- including the upcoming Divergent. However, few have, well, caught fire like The Hunger Games, with an appeal as broad as the books' fan base. As the second instalment in the franchise, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has some massive expectations to live up to.

Upon the release of The Hunger Games, much was made about its similarities to the Japanese cult-classic, Battle Royale, which featured a similar school-aged winner-take-all battle to the death. Catching Fire quickly outgrows these comparisons, both thematically and in terms of its scope. The film picks up not long after the conclusion of the 74th annual Hunger Games, with District 12 champions Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) touring the twelve Districts, making the publicity rounds. However, not everyone is happy with their victory, especially President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Their act of near self-sacrifice in the first film seems to have stirred a sentiment of defiance across Panem, and Snow is eager to quash a potential repeat of the Dark Days. Fast forward another year to the third Quarter Quell, the special edition of the Games that takes place every twenty-five years, which Snow is using as a means to strike fear into the hearts of the populace and reiterate the power of the Capitol. Martial law goes into effect and, much to their chagrin, former victors are called back into service as Tributes for the 75th annual Hunger Games. New Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has devised a deadly new Arena, unlike anything seen before. This time, the stakes are higher than ever -- not only are the combatants playing for their own survival but also for the balance of power in Panem.

Although, in some ways, Catching Fire is structurally similar to its predecessor (i.e., first comes the set-up, then comes the Reaping, then the training, and, finally, the Arena), it's a much more mature film. The totalitarian themes and evocations of Nineteen Eighty-Four meets The Running Man are still as strong as ever; but the characters have evolved. We see how Katniss has been affected by the previous Games, and we see the effect that she has had on the larger world. Those ripple effects resonate and are amplified, eventually coming full circle. Inadvertantly, she has become the figurehead for something much bigger than herself, and if she is to grow with it she will have to learn to become a leader.

The visual language and design aesthetic of the film has also evolved, while still retaining the essence of the first film. We see much more of the Capitol, including a new living quarters and training facility for the Tributes; there are new vehicle designs, including larger and more impressive transport ships; and the design of the new Arena is more complex and visually interesting than the previous. Costume design is also as lavish as ever, with every Capitol citizen looking like they've just stepped off the runway at a designer fashion show; and the Games uniforms have also been updated, much like Star Trek's uniforms have changed over the years. The special effects this time around are also more impressive -- from the holographic enemies in the training simulations to the Muttations in the Arena -- something to be expected as director Francis Lawrence (who takes over the reins from the previous film's director, Gary Ross) previously helmed the effects-heavy films Constantine and I am Legend.

While we're drawing comparisons to other franchises, Catching Fire is very much the Empire Strikes Back of the series. Not only is it thematically similar (i.e., the Capitol strikes back); it's also darker, more expansive and, of course, makes a very good case for a follow-up to resolve the storyline. It may or may not come as a surprise to viewers, but the film does not tie up all the loose ends into a neat little bow. There are also characters whose fates are left hanging and others who are introduced but then never heard from again. One of the more memorable examples of this is Commander Thread, who is positioned as a fearsome and intimidating new foe in a few scenes and then forgotten completely in the latter half of the film. Undoubtedly, some of this is meant as a set-up for the third film. Then there are the few characters that have very truncated arcs, which is certainly jarring but can probably be attributed to the general trimming that goes on when translating from book to screen.

The Bottom Line

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the next logical step in the direction of the franchise: a film that doesn't just widen the scope of the original effort but also adds new layers to the story. In some ways, it's more of the same, but in others it's so much more. With an ending that will leave audiences eagerly anticipating the next films, Mockingjay - Part 1 and Mockingjay - Part 2, there's no doubt that it will be a tough wait to find out the fate of Panem. [★★★★]

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