Second verse, same as the first: physically, psychologically, emotionally. Until the surprise ending – well, surprising to someone who read the first book in the “Hunger Games” trilogy and stopped there – the “Catching Fire” sequel marks time, taking the story forward only a few steps from the conclusion of its 2012 predecessor.
Once again, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) leaves behind hometown love Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and heads off to the arena with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), this time in a kind of super-games where all 24 contestants are former winners.
Again, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) fears her sway over the already grumbling populace of Panem and wants her suppressed. He tells new game designer Plutarch Heavensbee (inexpressive Philip Seymour Hoffman) to make sure she doesn’t get out of the Quarterly Quell, as this super-event is called. When the combatants land at the site, which contains even more (and more dangerous) surprises than last time, Katniss hides and lets the savage opponents slaughter each other, while she and Peeta work out a survival plan.
Someone who has read Book 2 tells me the novel continually ups the stakes for the outcome: People have begun to revolt, treating Katniss as a Joan of Arc figure, and the central government grows shaky. But except for discontented crowds, one shot of rioters on TV and a few somber pronouncements from Snow, we never see this happening. We stay almost entirely in Katniss’ head, and she’s usually ignorant of what’s happening in the outside world. It’s still a story of survival, not of political upheaval.
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(This brings up the unanswerable question: Should film adaptations of famous books be made only for people who know them inside out? I can say this: If you haven’t read the books or seen the first “Hunger Games” film, you have no hope of following this one.)
Writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (who’s hiding behind the pseudonym Michael deBruyn) bring extra characters to the screenplay, but any resonance those have comes solely from the performances: Jeffrey Wright as a technological expert, Jena Malone as a ferocious woodsman whose weapon is an ax, Sam Claflin as a mysterious figure who buys secrets and quickly allies himself with Katniss and Peeta.
Lawrence gives the same committed, heart-rending performance, and she’s even more saintly than before: The script never lets her fire an arrow except in self-defense, and she stubbornly defies Snow in public, though she knows the probable consequence is death. Hutcherson has more personality this time, yet Peeta doesn’t deepen as a character.
The special effects have improved: An attack by enraged mandrills is so fast and fluid that Katniss and her allies really seem to be impaling or shooting them at close range. Boils caused by waves of poison gas make you want to look away from the screen. (Though of course, those sores have to be dissoluble in water: Can’t have the beautiful leading lady disfigured through half the picture.)
The finale sets up the third and fourth installments cleverly, reshaping our take on virtually the entire story. It came out of a clear blue sky for this unsuspecting viewer, who’d been hoping for some massive surprise. Of course, I’d also hoped the story would go in a substantially different direction from the first “Hunger Games” all along.