If you want to remain completely spoiler-free, don’t read this post until seeing Catching Fire, particularly if you haven’t already read the book. (But also, go read the book!)
If you haven’t seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire by now, you’ve probably at least heard the raves. Several of my Facebook friends, not to mention a magazine review, even went so far as to declare it better than the book. Those words are sure to cause contention with the literary set. Catching Fire is my favorite book of the Hunger Games series, and I’m not about to say that the experience of reading it can be replaced with a movie. That being said, this is one awesome adaptation.
As I walked out of the theater, my first thought was, “Well, someone had a bigger budget!” A quick trip to IMDB confirmed that Catching Fire had almost double the estimated budget of The Hunger Games. The improvements are most obvious in the special effects. Remember Katniss and Peeta’s flaming costumes during the tribute parade? I found the first iteration disappointing, but Flaming Costume Redux is everything I hoped it would be. Effie Trinket tells Katniss and Peeta that the Capitol has spared no expense for the Quarter Quell, an amusing nod to the increased production value. It certainly paid off in the training sequences with futuristic technology beyond that of a typical gym.
I was also curious to see what had changed behind the scenes from the first to second movie. Most people know about the new director, and the finished product is evidence that the change worked out well. On the DVD extras for The Hunger Games, I was not overly impressed with director Gary Ross. He praised his crew members for their ability to work within his vision, not for helping to improve his ideas. Maybe that single-minded attitude is to blame for some questionable stylistic choices. Many people will be happy to see that the dreaded shaky-cam is nixed for Catching Fire. Instead director Francis Lawrence keeps his focus on the narrative while working in some beautiful cinematography.
Some other details that improved were the costume and set design. The design team appears to be largely unchanged, but the costume designer is different. Trish Summerville, the new costume designer, deserves major credit for her work. The series of Effie Trinket dresses are a feathery extravaganza. Just look at the photo below. That’s a dress made of monarch butterflies. Peeta continues his series of goofy necklines that I can’t help but love. (Deep V! Weird floppy turtleneck! The boy loves sweaters that make a statement!)
In my review of The Hunger Games, I explained how I try to judge film adaptations based on tone rather than scene-by-scene accuracy to the source material. Catching Fire just worked for me tonally. It showcased the series’ always fantastic cast while placing them in a world that felt absolutely true to the books. In some ways, this story is probably easier to translate to film. Katniss always has companions in the arena, so that situations and tactics can be explained without the clunky insertion of TV commentators. The new cast includes the adorable Lynn Cohen as Mags, and Jena Malone might not fit my mental image of Johanna Mason, but she certainly pulls off her attitude.
And what about Jennifer Lawrence, now an Oscar winner and America’s sweetheart? Since the book ends with a dramatic revelation, I wondered how it would play out on film. The answer is that you just zoom in on Jennifer Lawrence’s face. She will take you from shock and devastation to steely resolve without saying a word. And you know the revolution is on.