Sunday, November 24, 2013

Film Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

In the interest of full disclosure, I hated the second Hunger Games book. I also wasn't a huge fan of the first film because I thought they tried to stay too true to the book (book purests who, incorrectly,  think the books are always automatically better are hating me right now) instead of focusing on making a good adaptation of the source material. But I didn't hate the first film, and I didn't hate the first book either, so those are the caveats I feel obligated to make before starting this review. I guess logic dictates that my next statement be that I hated The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but I really really didn't.

Here's the major mistake that I think Collins makes that the films, by necessity, rectify: The First Person, present tense narration. Even though the films (the first more than the second) pull almost all of their dialogue from the book, they were smart enough to avoid the too easy trap of including some kind of voice-over narration from Katniss. I don't know if this is because the film makers know how horrible voice-over generally is, or because, like me, they found the narration of the books to be the weakest element. Being stuck in Katniss' head while she repeatedly and willfully makes the worst deductions and most illogical leaps about the things in front of her face is one of the most torturous experiences I've ever had. Per usual, the films take place in third person, and the difference it makes to Collins' story is tremendous.

The story of the film shouldn't be surprising to anyone at the this point. Katniss (played by the most glorious human being ever, and someone I totally wish was my best friend, Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned home from their defiant triumph in last year's Hunger Games. Now they're in a position to play up their false love (false from Katniss' point at least) for the cameras in an attempt to quell the burgeoning rebellion of the districts that their actions in the games have started. This is complicated by Peeta's (understandable) lack of interest in allowing his very real emotions to be placated by Katniss' farce, Gale (Liam Hiemsworth or, I mean, sorry, maybe this one is better?) starting to make his long standing feelings for Katniss known, and the continued threats from President Snow (Donald Sutherland in a continuously fun and evil performance) that if things in the districts don't get any better, he'll take his frustrations out on Katniss' loved ones. So in an attempt to do his part to eliminate Katniss' status as a symbol of hope, President Snow uses the upcoming Quarter Quell (a special version of the Games that takes place every 25 years) to enact a rule that this year's Hunger Games Reaping will take place from the previous winners of each district. So of course Katniss and Peeta (after he volunteers to take Haymitch's place) find themselves heading back into the games.

(Spoilers follow) As an adaptation, Catching Fire is pretty much everything I look for. The core story elements are there and pretty much unadulterated, some of the things that are a little more implicit in the book are made perfectly explicit in the film (the relationship between Katniss and Gale is one of the things that I feel is being firmly taken out of speculation and the subtext and placed firmly on the screen, and the scene in which Katniss saves Gale from being publicly flogged is one of the more powerful in the film), and the things that are being left out are more or less inconsequential, while the scenes that are added do a lot to add color and context to the story and the characters we don't get to spend as much time with in the books (the scenes between Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee [the constantly amazing Phillip Seymour Hoffman] come to mind).

There are a couple moments in the book that don't make the cut which could be argued as being important, but I'm not sure the storytelling experience is truly lessened by their absence. As for Peeta's amputated leg, while I agree that leaving this out was an oversight, I also think it's a flaw to be held against the first film and not this one, which couldn't have fixed this issue without a hugely problematic retcon. As a result, what you get is not only an intelligent and highly entertaining film, but a rare adaptation that truly surpasses the experience created by its source material.

If I have one complaint about the film, it's that the pacing still feels to be a bit off. Where I think Collins had a tendency to allow the pre-games scenes to take their time and build character and suspense, and for the pace to be picked up during the life and death games, I feel like the films have tended towards the opposite with the earlier scenes flying by while the games lack a more pulse pounding tempo. That isn't to say that the scenes in the Arena aren't exciting, tense, and suspenseful, because they often are, but the general feeling of death coming and passing the characters by in a blink is lesser here than I felt it was in the book.

But in the end, I'm left with one simple fact: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was an exceptionally entertaining way to spend two hours and twenty-six minutes. I left the theater very excited for the next two films, which is way way more than I can say for how I felt putting the book down.

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