Just as a warning, this review is not spoiler-free, so read at your own risk if you haven’t seen the movie yet!
Title: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair), Jena Malone (Johanna Mason), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee)
Director: Francis Lawrence
The Basics: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second of what will be a four-film franchise based on Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of Young Adult novels. This installment focuses on Katniss Everdeen’s inadvertent role as the spark behind a revolution in the 12 districts of Panem after she defied the Capitol to keep herself and her partner, Peeta Mellark, alive in the 74th Hunger Games. While still plagued by crippling nightmares and PTSD after the Games, Katniss attempts to return to life back home in District 12 after a grueling Victory Tour, but a surprise twists sends her and Peeta back into the arena to fight amongst other former victors in the 75th Hunger Games. Catching Fire was my favorite book in Collins’s trilogy, and this film met even my high expectations. The special effects, the character development, and the chemistry between all of the major players was even better than it was in the first film in the franchise. And it doesn’t hurt to have Jennifer Lawrence leading the way with a performance as fearless and as faithful as any fan of Katniss could hope to see.
M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Jennifer Lawrence was born to play the role of Katniss Everdeen. In the novels, everything we experience comes from Katniss’s point of view, but the films don’t have that luxury (and thank God we haven’t had to deal with cheesy voiceovers to make up for that fact). Somehow, though, Lawrence makes you feel every single one of Katniss’s emotions—from the most painfully open ones to the ones she hides even from herself. Lawrence acts with every fiber of her being; she’s such a physical actress—her whole body shakes with fear in one scene and rage in another, and she makes both feel so completely different from one another. Lawrence’s eyes are a character all on their own; pay special attention to the very end of the film when they are her only tool to convey what’s going on in Katniss’s head and heart, and marvel at how she makes you want to cry, cheer for, and even fear this girl on fire who has everything and nothing to lose. The Hunger Games franchise is Katniss Everdeen’s story, and it’s not a simple story to tell. It requires an actor whose fearless pursuit of honesty makes every moment she’s onscreen crackle with an intensity that dares you to look away all the while knowing you will never be able to take your eyes off her for a moment. Lawrence is such an actor—perhaps the best one of her generation.
Scene Stealer: Every member of the supporting cast of Catching Fire was wonderful, but I have to give special recognition to the actor who surprised me the most. That was Elizabeth Banks, who gave Effie so much depth and compassion in this film while still maintaining the same sense of overbearing propriety that made her such a strong source of comedic relief in The Hunger Games. Banks manages to bring both the laughs (another excellent “mahogany” reference) and the tears in this film. Her work in the reaping scene is incredibly powerful in its subtlety. The war waging in Effie between her need to maintain decorum and her overwhelming sadness at watching these people she’s come to care for go back into the arena has to stay just under the surface, but you can feel it in every second the camera spends focused on her tear-filled eyes. And her goodbye to Katniss and Peeta was one of the most moving moments in the film. Banks’s control over her emotions was brilliant, and it made those rare moments when Effie’s prim and proper exterior begins to crack all the more powerful. I didn’t care about Effie all that much while reading the books, but Banks makes it impossible not to care about this woman who has grown from an annoying symbol of the Capitol to a beloved member of a team bonded by love and loss.
Bring the Tissues? If you think the answer could possibly be “no,” then you have no idea what this series is about. The big emotional moments deliver with a breathless kind of power, but there’s a special kind of potency to the film’s smaller moments of love and friendship, too. A show of unity among the former victors, Peeta’s face when the Quarter Quell is announced, Haymitch hugging Katniss, and Peeta helping Katniss through her nightmares with a perfectly-delivered “Always”—each of those moments blindsided me with how much they moved me. And if you’ve read Mockingjay, some scenes will be almost brutally sad to watch because you know what’s coming for these characters in the next films. (I’m thinking especially of Peeta and Katniss’s last kiss and an early conversation they have about favorite colors.)
Most Memorable Scene: It was almost impossible for me to choose just one scene. I could have picked the District 11 Victory Tour scene for its emotional impact, the announcement of the Quarter Quell for the great performances put on display without any of the actors saying a word, the jabberjay scene for its ability to bring one of the most powerful scenes in the book to life, or the beach scene between Katniss and Peeta for its quiet intimacy. However, the scene that is still haunting me a day later was the scene between Katniss and Haymitch near the end of the film. I didn’t think anything could equal the power of that scene in the book, with Katniss trying to scratch Haymitch’s eyes out over his part in saving her and letting Peeta become a prisoner of the Capitol, but this scene matched it in every possible way. Lawrence astounded me with how fearlessly she attacked that moment; she made Katniss’s pain, grief, and anger so palpable it made me grip the armrests of my theater seat.
The whole film builds to this moment of Katniss lashing out in response to people controlling everything about her life, and it’s even more powerful because she’s lashing out at Haymitch, one of the only people she trusted. Lawrence makes you believe that losing Peeta has finally pushed Katniss over the edge; he was her anchor in this film, keeping her from getting lost in the darkness because she had someone to navigate that darkness with her. And now he’s gone, a prisoner of the Capitol because others—including Haymitch—deemed Katniss more important to save. The sense of betrayal Katniss feels knowing Haymitch left Peeta to die—or at least to be tortured—is so visceral, and it hurts even more because we understand it. The juxtaposition of that scene and the earlier beach scene puts everything into perspective; Katniss is the only one who needs Peeta, and when he’s gone (with Haymitch being partly responsible), she has no one left to trust. The absence of Peeta for mere moments has such a profound impact on Katniss, and it’s an impact that will reverberate through the rest of the series. To see both Lawrence and Woody Harrelson approach this brutal scene with such honesty was something special. It broke my heart, but it made me feel proud that such brilliant actors were bringing to life a book I love so much.
Strengths: The greatest strength of this franchise so far has been its casting, and it was perfect once again in Catching Fire. I have to single out the casting of Sam Claflin as Finnick and Jena Malone as Johanna as particular triumphs. Malone was electric in her role—from her impressive introduction to her irate interview and her gut-wrenching reveal that there is no one left in her life that she loves. That line was one of the strongest in the novel, and Malone delivered it in exactly the right way. And Claflin captured every nuance of Finnick’s character: his charm, his affection for Mags, his devotion to Annie, and his own desire to be more than just a piece in the Capitol’s games. Finnick is one of my favorite characters in the series, and from the moment Claflin delivered his poem to Annie with tears in his eyes while still trying to turn on his charm for the viewers, I knew the character was in great hands.
Malone and Claflin join a cast whose work in The Hunger Games was impressive, but whose work in Catching Fire is even better. And they’re all served by a director who understands how to showcase the best moments of a very cinematic novel. The pacing throughout this film was great. And there were so many moments that were adapted exactly as they appeared in the book—from the interviews before the Quarter Quell to the jabberjays and the cliffhanger ending. Lawrence trusts his actors, too, and it shows. A highlight of the film is the moment the Quarter Quell is announced, and we get to see Haymitch, Peeta, and Katniss’s reactions. Haymitch’s rage, Peeta’s desperation, and Katniss’s panic reach us without words, and that makes each emotion all the more affecting. Throughout the film, the actors are given room to breathe, react, and emote in very honest ways—the heart of this film never gets lost in the action, and that’s so important.
One of the most surprising strengths of this film is where its heart seemed to lie—with Peeta and his relationship with Katniss. The Hunger Games did a great job of building up who Katniss was, but it failed when it came to creating a compelling character in her fellow victor. In Catching Fire, however, Peeta feels like a real person. He’s been given so much more depth, and that gives his relationship with Katniss much more depth. Josh Hutcherson showed that he is the perfect Peeta when Peeta is actually given something to do. His love for Katniss feels genuine in this film, and it anchors the story with its surprising warmth (the scene about their favorite colors is still making me smile).
Lawrence and Hutcherson made me believe these two broken people need one another. From the opening with Katniss flashing back to the arena to the way they hold each other through their nightmares, this film makes a point to show that Katniss and Peeta understand each other on a level no one else can reach. And the strength of that connection was necessary in order to make the conclusion of the film feel so painful—to make us feel Katniss’s loss and our loss as well for the boy with the bread who went from being an accessory to Katniss’s story to a hero in his own right.
Weaknesses: No film adaptation of a novel is going to be completely perfect—especially not to someone who considers the novel one of her personal favorites. I missed getting more of Haymitch’s backstory. I still miss Madge. And I wish Katniss’s mother would have been shown as the competent healer she was in the books. I also still think some of the District 12 portion could have been cut, but maybe that’s just because I’m not a fan of love triangles.
Finally, I know it means a lot for Mockingjay, but the scene between Katniss and Prim rang false for me. I’m not a huge fan of the actress playing Prim, and I think putting her in an emotional scene with someone as talented as Lawrence just made her immaturity as an actress even more evident. She’s the weakest link in the cast, which is a shame because she’s so important to the story as a whole.
Final Verdict: If you liked The Hunger Games, you’ll love Catching Fire. Everything is even better this time around: the pacing, the character development beyond Katniss, and especially the performances. While the emotional impact of the first film in the franchise came from the horrors of the Games themselves, this film focuses more on the relationships between the characters and uses them to make an even stronger emotional impression by focusing on love and friendship as well as grief and trauma. Yes, this film has plenty of depressing moments, but it also has a surprising number of moments of warmth. It’s a movie I can’t wait to see again (and hopefully again and again).
Final Grade: A