Twenty or 30 years ago, film adaptations usually didn’t have to worry about aping their source books exactly. The recent influx of book series with rabid fan bases being adapted into films, though, has led to filmmakers being afraid to cut scenes that worked in the book but don’t in the movie. Catching Fire is a better movie than The Hunger Games was, but it still ultimately falls into the same traps by treating its source novel as gospel.
A year after the events of The Hunger Games, victors Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned to their lives in District 12, but are continually haunted by nightmares and PTSD flashbacks. Katniss’s defiance of the rules in the prior Hunger Games has led to sparks of rebellion amongst the volatile, oppressed districts of Panem.
President Snow (Donald Sutherland) wants to quell any insurrection before it starts, for which he blames Katniss. Along with the new gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow creates a Survivor: All-Stars edition of the Hunger Games, allowing for the re-reaping of Katniss and Peeta.
Catching Fire tells a somewhat similar story as the first movie while crafting more complex characters and darker tones than the original had time for. What could have felt reheated instead feels amped up in scale and stakes. It doesn’t hurt that this had twice the budget of The Hunger Games, either, as the visual effects are much better this time around. All the returning actors are excellent, particularly Lawrence and Sutherland, and new additions to the cast like Hoffman, Jena Malone, and Jeffrey Wright fit right in.
If there’s a flaw with the movie, it’s being too slavish to the pacing of the book. The first half of Catching Fire is all character development and set-up, which worked much better in literary form than it does here. By the time the Games actually begin, more than half the movie’s running time has elapsed, which barely worked in the first movie and here just feels uneven.
The final book of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, Mockingjay, is being split into two movies, like the Harry Potter and Twilight climaxes. Carrying the momentum of Catching Fire forward will be the filmmakers’ biggest challenge, as this one does pretty much everything right and does it better than the first one. And just maybe, by stretching its story over two movies, Mockingjay, Part 1 and Part 2 will be forced to accept being different from its book.