It’s hard to believe that it has only been a year and a half since The Hunger Games came out. There has been a string of young adult books adapted into movies following the success of Harry Potter, most of them featuring an up and coming young actor in the lead surrounded by Hollywood veterans, usually fighting against some oppressive regime. The Hunger Games was no different. Jennifer Lawrence was aiming for her big break and Lionsgate was looking for a new cash cow.
The film itself wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t really good either. Suffering from a small budget and a weak screenplay it fell comfortably into the “good enough” category and made enough money to warrant adapting the rest of the series into movies.
It’s a good thing too because where The Hunger Games was just good enough, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is actually really good.
The film picks up sometime after the last one ended. Katniss and Peeta have moved home to District 12 and are about to embark on a tour of the districts to show everyone that the oppressive Capitol is still in charge. The events of the first film have incited revolution by providing hope to the people and the Capitol is clamping down. Katniss and Peeta bear witness to several atrocities along the way and President Snow threatens to kill everyone that Katniss holds dear unless she plays the part and helps calm things down. When this fails a fairly convenient “every 25 years we can do something special with the rules” clause lets Snow throw her and Peeta back into the Hunger Games along with other previous winners, none of whom they know whether they can trust or not.
There are several reasons that this marks a major improvement on the previous film. First and foremost where the first film was almost entirely Katniss on her own, this one presents an ensemble cast (especially once they are in the arena) of interesting and better defined characters.
Donald Sutherland returns as Snow and he steals all the scenes he is in. In the first film he was there in the background and came off as a non threatening old man. In this his ever move is a threat and Sutherland is able to convey both his friendly outward demeanour and his underling malevolence delightfully.
The other people in the arena all have their charms. Sam Clafin plays Finnick, the cocky was-the-youngest-winner-ever from the fishing district (you can tell because he has a trident). He’s cocky but also has a warmth to him when it’s required. Jena Malone is Johanna from the logging district (you can tell because she has an axe) and she is wonderfully sarcastic and the only character who never holds back from showing how angry she is. She gets more than a few of the films best moments, including her appearance on the pre-games TV show with Stanley Tucci.
I’d tell you about Stanley Tucci but he’s Stanley Tucci playing smarmy Stanley Tucci. It’s a small role but he steals most of his scenes and is pretty much perfect for the part. Jeffrey Wright is there as a hyper intelligent older former winner and is fine, as are most of the rest of the people in the games.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is around as the guy in charge of the games as well and he’s good but he just doesn’t have enough to do really.
Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson are both good in their roles, Lawrence in particular. She was already good by the time The Hunger Games came out but she’s kept developing her talent the entire time and it really shows.
If there’s anything to complain about here it’s that while team Katniss are well defined the antagonists of the games are not. We know they are the bad guys (one of them even has teeth filed to fangs so she can bite people to death) but that’s all we ever really know: they are the bad guys.
The direction of the film is tighter as well. The pacing of the film makes more sense and unlike the first film when things go wrong it actually feels like the characters are in real peril. Additionally it’s clearer that new director Francis Lawrence has a much bigger budget to play with because everything i the film just looks better. Not just the effects either, the costumes and locations and sets, everything looks better. I don’t know if I went so far as to say that The Hunger Games looked cheap at the time it was released but in comparison to Catching Fire it certainly does.
The story itself is also more interesting. Where in the first film the whole story is the hunger games themselves and Katniss’s struggle within them in this story we get the first half of the film showing us a world that is starting to crack. We get to know why the games are important in the first place and why they are even more so now, and a sense of what all the people outside the Capitol go through. All this context makes raises the stakes, this isn’t just about a girl surviving it’s about a revolution and it’s far more fun to watch Katniss trying to figure out what;s going on than to just see her survive.
It’s a shame that without having seen the first film you’d probably be pretty lost watching this one. You might be able to get away with it but there is just so much detail that you need to know from the first one that while you might understand what’s happening you’d have no idea why it’s happening.
So is it good? Yes. Can you skip the first one? No. So if you haven’t seen the first one you should do that and then go watch this one because it’s good and to be perfectly honest it’s made me excited to see what’s going to happen in the next two.