By Melissa Agar
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate, 2013) – Director: Francis Lawrence. Writers: Simon Beaufoy & Michael Ardnt (s/p), Suzanne Collins (Novel, Catching Fire). Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hensworth, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amanda Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, Jena Malone, Lynn Collins, Sam Ckafin, Jack Quaid, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Taylor St. Clair, & Sandra Ellis Lafferty. Color, 146 minutes.
There are many things I love about being a teacher, but one thing I never really anticipated was how my students would introduce me to new things. I always thought I would be the one instilling a love of literature in them, but my students have brought so many books into my life that have entertained, enlightened, and inspired me, books I likely never would have read without students pressing them into my hand. One of the books that I “discovered” courtesy of my students is Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. While it is a series with flaws, it is also an incredibly entertaining series that is, on the surface, about a dystopian future where adolescents are thrust into a kill-or-be-killed arena. There is so much more going on, though, as its heroine, Katniss Everdeen, assumes the role of the reluctant hero in a world on the brink of revolution. The second installment in the series, Catching Fire, hit theaters and does the same thing the book did – continues the adventures of its prickly heroine, makes the themes more clear, and generally improves on its predecessor.
For those who have managed to immunize themselves to the lure of the series, Catching Fire picks up where The Hunger Games left off. Katniss (Lawrence) has won the Hunger Games along with her district-mate Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson), sweet, sensitive; a baker’s son whose love for Katniss makes the duo fan favorites for those watching the games with sadistic glee. Katniss and Peeta defied the Capitol to stay alive, threatening mutual suicide rather than one killing the other to be named the winner. Their ploy is seen by the Capitol as rebellion, making them a symbol of hope and defiance for other oppressed districts. Now that the games are over, Katniss is haunted by what she experienced in the arena and equally troubled by threats issued by the nefarious President Snow (Sutherland).
Snow wants Katniss and Peeta to play up the tortured lovebirds angle to help quell rebellion, but the rebellion is determined to rise whether or not Katniss encourages it. To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the games, it is decided that previous champions will return to the arena to battle, sending Peeta and Katniss back in to battle. This time, gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Hoffman) has devised a deliciously maniacal arena complete with poisonous fog and vicious monkeys. Katniss and Peeta find themselves allying themselves with a sort of ragtag group of previous champions including cocky Finnick Odair (Clafin), the elderly Mags (Collins), techno-nerds Wiress (Plummer) and Beetee (Wright), and sly Johanna Mason (Malone). Like Katniss, these victors have tired of the Capitol’s manipulation and are ready to revolt.
The novel Catching Fire is the strongest book of the trilogy. It doesn’t have to wade through quite as much exposition as the first book, which allows readers to jump into the action a bit quicker. It introduces some fantastic new characters, particularly Finnick Odair, while deepening relationships between the characters who appeared in the first book. New depth and complexity are added to those relationships, particularly Katniss’s struggle between her affection for old friend Gale (Hemsworth) and her complicated feelings about Peeta. The film starts a little slowly and suffers from the loss of the book’s first person narration, but it is still a winning adaptation of a terrifically entertaining book.
Much of the success of the films, for me, lies in the casting of Lawrence as Katniss. In the past couple years, Lawrence has emerged as a tremendous young actress, able to front this franchise with grit and strength and then winning awards for her role in Silver Linings Playbook. She has found a way to balance the blockbuster appearances with more serious work, and she brings a real credibility and depth to her blockbuster work. She seems to truly understand Katniss as a character, keeping the more prickly aspects of Katniss’s character from becoming too grating and still finding opportunities for a little lightness. Those lighter moments, though, still have a touch of angst that make Katniss all the more endearing and heartbreaking. Lawrence is an incredible actor, and the series is lucky to have her.
Lawrence is surrounded by talented actors who bring emotional depth to even the smallest parts; Banks and Harrelson, in particular, manage to keep their characters from veering into the broad caricatures that they could be. Banks as the flighty Effie Trinket finds a humanity behind the crazy hair and makeup. The bright smile and bubbly personality is masking a pain that becomes more apparent in this film, a pain that would be easy to miss in the hands of a lesser actor. Harrelson is the drunken former victor and Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. Harrelson has a terrific chemistry with Lawrence. Their scenes crackle with energy and make the complicated relationship between Katniss and Haymitch work on a much deeper level than they did on the page.
A graph has been circulating around Facebook lately bemoaning the state of women in film – the small percentage of speaking roles belonging to women, the sexualization of women in film, et cetera. Films like this, though, prove that strong, intelligent women can carry films and that those films can lure audiences. As cute as Hutcherson and Hemsworth are, the person luring those audiences in is Lawrence. Perhaps these films can help inspire Hollywood to put more strong women at the centers of their films. In the meantime, we do have Katniss Everdeen to shoot her way to box office glory. It’s well deserved.