Review – Catching Fire

Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

2013, 146 mins, 12A, Dir. Francis Lawrence, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Having done such an impressive job with The Hunger Games, director Gary Ross decided soon after it was released to step down from making its sequel, claiming ‘I simply don’t have the time to write and prep the movie I would have wanted to make’. An entire fanbase stood on edge as a new director, Francis Lawrence, was found, and castings were made for the multitude of characters introduced in the second book. As I sat in the Odeon Leicester Square on the film’s day of release, my expectations remained high. But they were wildly exceeded; Catching Fire is better than the original in virtually every sense. It may have something to do with the potency of the source material. Or perhaps it is down to an extraordinary combination of direction and performance that renders Katniss Everdeen’s further struggles in the world of Panem in a thrillingly visceral light.

We open in the forests of District 12, the home of Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). A stark contrast from the gaudy colours of the Capitol, the landscape is a deep and bitter shade of grey. Before the plot has even begun, we immediately gain the impression that this is an even darker, more downbeat exploration of the dystopian world. Katniss stares across a lake, an inner torment reflected in her eyes. She soon tries to shoot a turkey with an arrow, and imagines that she has instead killed a tribute from the Hunger Games. Her human relationships eternally altered, it is clear that the damage of her previous experiences is truly lasting.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the grey forests of District 12
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the grey forests of District 12

Yet she also has to deal with her status as a symbol of rebellion within the districts. Whereas popular uprising was barely an issue in the previous film, here it dominates the first half.  Representations of the Mockingjay grow ever more common, as do the repressive actions of the hostile, baton-wielding Peacekeepers. It is here where the film rises above its origins as teen fiction and approaches its socio-political themes with gusto. The focus remains on Katniss, nevertheless, and her reaction to these changes as she is torn away from any previous conceptions of normality.

President Snow, having ominously visited Katniss at her home in District 12, later announces that there will be Hunger Games ‘Quarter Quell’; to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Capitol’s victory over the districts, all the surviving tributes will be pooled and may have to fight again. An astonishing act of further repression, Katniss finds herself in all-too-familiar territory as the President seeks to exterminate any indications of rebellion.

Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman debate the latest Games
Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman debate the latest Games

Before seeing the film, I refused to watch a single trailer or look at any official stills; I wanted to experience the visual look of the new arena with no influences other than the book. It was well worth the wait. As Katniss emerged, distressed, into the water-swept vista, I was gulping for breath. Francis Lawrence has created a truly stunning field of combat, a far more intriguing and complex place where surviving in the wilderness, let alone whilst being hunted by other tributes, is extremely difficult. It was just as I had imagined it in the book, and allowed for some truly and utterly sensational set-pieces.

Credit must, of course, be given to the absolutely marvellous Jennifer Lawrence. Whether it is her trauma in the early scenes of the film, or the tension that lies at its end, she consistently justifies her casting with aplomb. There is something about her, a certain uniqueness to her style that allows her to fully embody Katniss and outshine virtually all other performances. And there are some damn good ones in the film, particularly from those playing new characters. Jena Malone unnervingly brings to life the sexually dangerous Johanna Mason; the endlessly adaptable Jeffrey Wright plays Beetee effectively; and Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliantly enigmatic as Plutarch Heavensbee. Elsewhere, Donald Sutherland impresses as the snakelike and penetrating President Snow. While not everyone is outstanding, we should be thankful that Lawrence is as her character truly anchors the story.

Josh Hutcherson, Effie Trinket and Jennifer Lawrence address District 12
Josh Hutcherson, Effie Trinket and Jennifer Lawrence address District 12

The Hunger Games managed to retain some element of shock in the mere idea of teenagers killing each other. Nevertheless, given that cuts were made to secure a 12A rating in the UK, there was an underlying sense that the film wasn’t as violent as Suzanne Collins’ book, and therefore lost something of its power. Catching Fire vastly improves on this flaw. The violence is still 12A-standard, but it is presented differently. It’s much grittier, whether it’s the agonised cries of Gale as he’s punished by being whipped, the bizarre and brutal hazards of the enhanced arena, or the remarkable scene of public execution which Katniss and the audience barely glimpse behind a closing door. It thus feels more relevant to the violent, hostile and media-centric world that Collins did so well to create.

Indeed, the film is astonishingly true to the book in plot, character and tone. Several key moments – not just the arena, but the ending, the meeting with President Snow, and so on – were realised no different to how I thought they would be from reading the book. This will no doubt please the fangirls, and praise must be given to Francis Lawrence for making such a brilliantly balanced adaptation. He handles the novel’s main themes intelligently, and also deals with the love triangle with just the right amount of emphasis. Katniss’ difficult relationships with Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne are certainly explored and require emotional engagement, but such an exploration is done with restraint. It never takes centre stage or is sentimentalised; indeed, it never did so in the book. It remains to be seen if the final two installments of the series, Mockingjay Part 1 and Mockingjay Part 2, will retain this balance. Judging from what I’ve seen Francis Lawrence do already, I’m not at all concerned.

A symbol of resistance in District 11
A symbol of resistance in District 11

Catching Fire is powerfully convincing on every level. Director Francis Lawrence creates the dystopia from Suzanne Collins’ book with remarkable vividness, and the arena is breathtaking. But it’s also a human story, and the cast – led by an admirable Jennifer Lawrence – command audience engagement to a considerable degree. When it ended, I was dumbfounded, a familiar feeling when seeing something that has really overwhelmed me. Catching Fire is bolder, braver, edgier, more effective than The Hunger Games – and I only hope that the next few installments will burn ever brighter.

9/10

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Review – The Hunger Games

Review – The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

2012, 142 mins, 12A, Dir. Gary Ross, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth.

Based on an overwhelmingly popular young adult novel, The Hunger Games is set in a disturbing vision of a near-future America, a dystopia under the name of Panem, that is divided into twelve districts. As a punishment for a failed uprising many years ago, each district must put forward one boy and one girl annually to fight to the death in a colossal arena, thick with forest; an event which is televised across the nation. And it is exactly into this fray that Katniss Everdeen steps. A humble contestant from District Twelve, she volunteers in place of her younger sister. After days of publicity and preparation, Katniss is thrust into the dangerous, soulless Hunger Games, and is forced to keep her wits if she is to survive. 

Suzanne Collins’ novel was fantastic – a work of teen fiction that not only encompassed complex ideas but also managed to completely transfix your attention. I was utterly gripped for the five or six hours it took me to read it and could barely wait for the film adaptation. Thankfully, the resulting product stays very close to its source book. The blistering pace is upheld throughout – while we spend a long time in the build-up to the games, it never feels slow or uninvolving. Quite the opposite. Even though I had read the novel, I found myself several times on the edge of my seat in anticipation, fuelled by its suspense and action. The future world is created with flair and the forest setting is deep and quite brilliantly shot, the camera often shaking to reflect the urgency of what’s going on, accentuating the fear of what’s coming next. Because, as the audience finds out, in the arena, anything can happen. 

Collins has a screenwriting credit and the dialogue, as well as the tone of the film, is on a similar note. And of course, the strength of its female protagonist is palpable. Jennifer Lawrence, just over a year following her Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone, is terrific as Katniss Everdeen. Though practically the entire film rests on her shoulders, her narrative voice an important factor in the success of the books, she shines with emotional strength and an energetic screen presence. She manages to outperform a strong supporting cast (even a remarkably strange-looking Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman) and drives the film forward with tremendous power. We can only hope that she continues to act in films that demand so much intensity – and with the sequel already on the rocks, it seems like a certainty. 

Lawrence plays one of the strongest female heroines yet seen in fiction.

The tone of the film is just right, never tongue-in-cheek or silly. It’s adapted for an audience, but it never loses its dark, driving sensibilities. The sheer horror of what is happening onscreen, teenagers killing teenagers, is approached in an unsentimental manner, and the dystopian future is breathtaking realised. District Twelve is a blistered and disdained place struck by poverty and hardship – a stark contrast to the almost cartoonish world of the Capitol. The central character is determined to prove to the Games’ autocratic authority that she is not just a pawn in their game – and her plight takes on all manner of seriousness. 

 It is a surprise, and a pleasant one at that, that the romantic element is not overplayed – indeed, it seems rather underplayed. I was honestly surprised at the amount of screen time devoted to the moments between two particular characters. While we perhaps miss out on some of the more emotional elements of the novel, this gives away the film to greater ideas and concepts than just a love story – it’s one of many intelligent decisions made by director Gary Ross during production, such as not to shoot in 3D. In the words of Ross, “We would be doing exactly what the Capitol is doing if we used 3D. We’d be exploiting what the book condemns: a mediacentric society where entertainment in that culture devolves into spectacle, and that spectacle evolves into political control.” 

Go and see The Hunger Games. It’s a furiously fast, breathlessly suspenseful thriller anchored by superlative performances and intelligent writing. It’s dark, complex, driving and intense in equal measure and never loses its pace. The single outright criticism, aside from unimportant quarms, is that we’ll have to wait over a year for the sequel. Indeed, The Hunger Games made me tremendously excited and – dare I say it – hungry for more.

I refuse to believe the man on the left is Stanley Tucci, even though it is. There is a conspiracy going on…

8/10