The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is quite an improvement over the tepid and weak first entry in the proposed trilogy. Even though the best thing I could say about the first Hunger Games was "At least it wasn’t as horrid as Twilight", I could still fully understand the challenges that came with adapting such a violent and depressing subject matter to tween PG-13 standards.
I didn’t read any of Suzanne Collins’ bestsellers but from what I hear they are more graphically violent and rebellious than at least the first film adaptation. Just the idea that a series of books revolving around a despotic dictatorship in a dystopian future forcing children to violently kill each other in a giant arena and broadcasting the "games" live being tailored to the Young Adult crowd always felt like a disturbing proposition to me.
In order to adapt this otherwise incredibly distressing material into PG-13 films, the graphic violence has to be cut down and the anti-authoritarian fervor has to be diluted, leaving behind a neutered version of Kinji Fukasaku’s ultraviolent masterpiece Battle Royale.
Containing pretty much the same exact plot, Battle Royale does not shy away from intense graphic violence and a perfectly nihilistic tone that actually matches such a bleak plot device in order to bring the audience an unrated cult classic, regardless of the fact that pretty much all of the protagonists are junior high level students. Collins stated that she’d never heard of Battle Royale while writing The Hunger Games but I call bullshit on that.
Another problem with the first Hunger Games goes beyond the visual cowardice of the PG-13 rating and involves the passive reactions of the two winners of the games at the end of the film. Lacking certain anger and rebellious fervor, the characters were almost depicted to be proud of murdering a bunch of innocent kids and coming out on top. Watching the first Hunger Games left me so cold, making me ask, "What happened to the rebellious youth of the past?" that I immediately followed it up with an extra helping of Battle Royale as an angry antidote.
This is why I entered into the press screening for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with a healthy dose of "Meh". However, I would never have guessed that I would leave fully pumped to watch Mockingjay, the final episode of the trilogy being split into two films. I feel that after Harry Potter, Twilight and now The Hunger Games, the two-parter finale of any YA franchise will become common, even if the final book is as long as a haiku. After all, you gotta milk those poor saps, aka parents of tween girls, for all they’ve got.
The first half of the second entry in the franchise does whatever it can to destroy the overly benevolent ending of the first film. After winning the previous year’s Hunger Games with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss Everdeen (aka Female Hawkeye, portrayed by America’s new sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence) suffers from some serious PTSD and possesses a kind of anger towards the establishment that was missing from the first film.
Afraid of the public’s rebellious fervor brought on by Katniss, President "Calls-himself-president-but-actually-a-ruthless-dictator" Snow (Donald Sutherland, whose calm devilry is always welcome) decides to send Peeta and Katniss on a pro-government propaganda tour across the 12 districts in order to convince the public that Katniss is on his side. If Peeta or Katniss refuse to comply, he will have their families killed.
When Katniss and Peeta refuse to stick to the script and make speeches that further incite the public into rebellious action, Snow and his new Hunger Games producer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman. By the way, where does Suzanne Collins come up with these goofy character names?) come up with a devious plan to turn the people against Katniss.
You see, the next games represent its 75th anniversary and every 25 years the past winners are forced to kill each other in an event known as Quarterquell. So Snow and Heavensbee decide to stick Katniss smack dab in the middle of the game in order to show her true violent self to the public (Did they not see her violent self killing a dozen people during the first games?). This bit of news comes as a shock to Katniss, but in all fairness if this is an event that takes place every 25 years, shouldn’t she have seen it coming? Anyway, moving on.
Catching Fire’s biggest improvement over the first film is its patience in creating the world and the characters before throwing us into the games. Even though the lack of action during the first half might cause some adrenaline junkies to become impatient, Catching Fire takes its time showing the organic beginning of the upcoming revolution and Katniss’ role in it.
There are also jabs at a science-fiction version of our current wealth inequality as Katniss and Peeta are disgusted when they find out the super-rich drink a special concoction to make themselves throw up so they can further stuff themselves while the other districts are starving to death.
Gary Ross, albeit being an exceptional writer and director (He helmed the underrated Pleasantville), was not as experienced in helming a blockbuster franchise and his visual style suffered because of it. His way of masking the considerable amount of young adult violence during the games was to simply shake the camera as hard as he could in order to earn a PG-13 rating.
Having directed I Am Legend, Francis Lawrence proves to be a better choice for the material as he uses clever camera angles and precise coordination to mask the violence instead of relying on shaky-cam.
Another advantage on Lawrence’s side is that in this installment, the Hunger Games itself is not the focal point of the story and therefore doesn’t have to present as many gruesome kills. Once we get to the games, it’s more about alliances and strategy than simple murders, which makes it more engaging and better written. The way the game ends is also pleasantly unpredictable.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire presents a well-constructed bridge between the weak first episode and the (hopefully) strong finale.