"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" has won over critics and fans alike, having earned a score of 75 on Metacritic and a whopping 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Where Gary Ross’ adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ first YA dystopian installment was considered pretty faithful (at times, to its detriment) to the book, sequel director Francis Lawrence takes more leeway to play with Collins’ text and insert his own sensibilities. Reviews praise star Jennifer Lawrence for her more nuanced portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, as she struggles with knowing all the Capitol’s inner workings and having to be their pawn anyway. Ditto for the new crop of Hunger Games victors, played by several recognizable actors,
But how does the movie stack up against the book, which some “Hunger Games” fans consider the weakest link in the trilogy? I hesitate to use “better” and “worse” here because “Catching Fire” was a near-perfect adaptation—and yet, it’s the best way to assess which elements of the story were better served on the big screen, and which translated better on the page. So, for better or worse, here’s my take.
Better: Jennifer Lawrence, unleashed
While the audience had some sense of Lawrence’s capacities from"Winter’s Bone," after seeing J. Law in performances like her Oscar-winning turn in "Silver Linings Playbook," now filmgoers really knew what she could do. Ergo, it feels as if in the second film more of Lawrence has seeped into Katniss: As the victor-turned-political-pawn, she gives herself over to terrified, face-twisting sobs when innocent people are murdered in her name. That liberation extends to the story’s sillier parts: When Johanna Mason strips to her nethers in the elevator, the best part of that scene is Katniss’ unimpressedstank face.
Worse: Prim coming into her own
During Katniss’ brief time in District 12, we get the sense that her little sister Prim has really grown up since Katniss volunteered to compete in the Hunger Games in her place. At such a young age, Prim has already surpassed their mother in her nursing skills; diehard fans know that Prim’s inevitable career choice will have damning consequences. But we got only the briefest moment of eye contact between sisters to communicate that; we could’ve used more.
Better: Katniss’ posse
As the other victors secretly conspire to protect Katniss in the Games, the actors portraying them play off each other charmingly. Sam Claflin nails it as petulant, popular prettyboy Finnick Odair, and Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason gets some of the movie’s funniest moments as she carries the victors’ anger—and more than a few f-bombs—at being dumped back in the Games. I teared up twice when Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) lost her usual composure, crying over the unfairness of the Quarter Quell for her charges. And don’t even get me started on Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).
Worse: Haymitch’s backstory
The only one of Katniss’ cohorts who could’ve used more shading around the edges was Haymitch, which is bizarre, considering that he’s such a striking character already. One of my favorite parts of the book was Katniss watching the archive footage of Haymitch’s Games—the second Quarter Quell, specifically—and connecting his trick with the axe in the force field with how she busts out of the Arena. It also adds context when we learn the sobering fact that, in response to Haymitch’s trick, Snow murdered his family. Without that background, we just get him spouting off trailer-bait lines like “Stay alive.”
Better: Romulus Thread
To be honest, the book version of Peacekeeper Thread is a forgettable character—a symbol of the Capitol’s tightening grip on the districts. But for his one scene in the movie, Patrick St. Esprit infuses Thread with a terrifying fury: He’s so obsessed with showing everyone the might of the Capitol that he’sthisclose to offing the Capitol’s new toy, Katniss. Here’s hoping we glimpse more of Thread in"Mockingjay."
Worse: Katniss and Peeta get closer
Fans have debated this for years, but I think these two 17-year-olds totally did it before and/or during the Quarter Quell. They’re sharing a bed after nightmares they want to forget, and we’re supposed to believe nothing happens? In the book, Katniss describes—in an odd mix of detail and detachment—rolling around on the Arena beach heatedly with Peeta right before they split up. The fact that Katniss may not love Peeta at this point makes it even sadder that she’s—as I read it—having sex with him for comfort, or perhaps for ratings. But, while they have more regular makeouts in this movie, it’s all still rather chaste. Small quibble, but if you’re going to play around with f-bombs, you should make the movie as daring as Collins’ book and play with that blurred line.
Better: The Arena
Really, this includes the pre-Games portion of the movie, as well: Katniss and Peeta’s victory tour is incredibly eerie as they’re forced to read off cue cards while citizens riot and spit in their faces. Furthermore, the way the Capitol citizens fawn over the couple is appropriately satirical of our reality-TV-mandated pop culture. There many similarly great moments I could highlight, but you should see them for yourself.
The filmmakers smartly saved most of the Arena footage for the movie itself (as opposed to giving it all away in trailers for the film). Unlike “The Hunger Games’” ’80s sci-fi look, “Catching Fire’s” tropical obstacle course is sharper and scarier, bringing to mind the terrifying foliage—and lurking dangers—of"Jurassic Park." While I would have liked to experience all 12 of the Arena’s deadly wedges, what we did get was plenty chilling: Burning fog that boils flesh, blood rain and those jabberjays. “Where do you think they got the sounds [of Prim and Annie screaming] from?” Finnick demands of Katniss. “They mimic sounds.” The Capitol is not f**king around.
Bottom line: Whether you’re a fan or a newbie, you shouldn’t need any coercion to see this. As a fan, one element of the movie I really appreciated was the consistent layering of real versus false. This will lead us smoothly into the “real or not real” motif that forms the crux of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship in "Mockingjay."