Adapting the second film of a highly successful literary franchise must feel like juggling between “don’t to screw it up”, “make it bigger and better” and “leave them desperate for the third”. In other words, entice new fans while cranking up the action, style and intensity from its predecessor. And don’t give too much away for the third.
Director Francis Lawrence has undertaken the challenge with relish. Best known for the films ‘I am Legend’ and ‘Constantine’ as well as a wide array of music videos, the man relatively new to the big screen heads up a team that has come up trumps.
This is helped by a stronger story that shows how much the major characters have learned. Whilst in the first film Hunger Games there was the need for an introduction to the characters and the premise, here we can shoot right in and continue where it left off. So Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) have survived the 74th Hunger Games but rather than being able to enjoy their victory, they face events more treacherous than ever. The menacing President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is on the scene and out for blood. The pair’s unlikely and unprecedented survival has inspired an uprising in District 12 and Snow makes it clear there will be serious consequences to them and their families if they don’t quell the rebellion.
Katniss and Peeta do their best but things are far more complicated than even they can imagine. Realising that Katniss’ popularity is unprecedented and fearing further repercussions, President Snow knows he has to destroy Katniss in a way that will not harm the Capitol. He instructs new tournament director Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to create an even grander Hunger Games, using the fact that it is the 75th anniversary to allow them plenty of creative license. The sneaky gambit this time is that two recent former winners of all the districts will be the contestants. Katniss will not only have to fight against her good friend Peeta or mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), but the most skilled of enemies. And as per usual, only one person will be coming back.
The premise is so brilliant it is tempting to keep describing the story as it is so well thought out and brilliantly executed. The script never fails to highlight the immense pressure that is on each of the characters, whilst not losing the touches of humour that were so notable in the first film.
The stronger script allows previous characters to reveal all kinds of personal development. It isn’t just limited to the main characters. Katniss’ sister Primrose (Willow Shields) has become skilled at nursing and is confident enough to take responsibility. We see beyond the helpful showman side of Haymitch, who is caught with all kinds of horrible obligations and see how Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) cannot abandon his people despite knowing how violent it will get.
But such is Jennifer Lawrence’s presence on screen that is of course impossible to ignore how much of this film almost belongs with her. Her Katniss is a heroine of modern times, filled with consummate skill, but with a compassion and sensitivity that is never made to look one-dimensional. Philip Seymour Hoffman brings gravitas to his scheming role, and Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks revel in their maverick roles.
It could be argued that that those who didn’t see it will struggle to understand the context, though this is what helps it maintain its pace. One or two parts are overly sentimental and the ending even for the second part of four is a bit too abrupt.
But the film rises above any perceived limits of the genre to be far more than an entertaining ride. It’s more than just action and adrenalin and a good looking heroine. The Olympic Games may be the ultimate in sporting achievements, but Catching Fire shows how fun and exciting it is when you push the limits of human endurance even further.