ng Fire” has been highly anticipated and is already fulfilling its expectations at the box office. The second in a planned series of four film adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular young adult trilogy, this one brings back basically the same cast of characters and adds a couple more for good measure. The reprise elements and the additions both enhance the story’s appeal and broaden its themes.
A new director, Francis Lawrence, brings a more solemn tone to the proceedings and slows the pace, especially in the first half. He is backed by an army of technical artists, notably: cinematographer Jo Willems realizing spectacle without overdoing it; Phillip Messina’s production design, which builds on his work in the first number of the series; and Trish Summerville’s wildly imaginative costume design, which includes a dress made entirely of Monarch butterflies. In front of the camera, Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence deepens her role as Katniss Everdeen, the heroine who survived the first Games and is dragged back into another.
She is targeted by President Snow (a silky, sinister Donald Sutherland) and a new henchman, the cleverly named Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the Master of the Games who controls the players’ lives. Joining them is Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, a delightful, satiric send-up of TV games hosts, supercilious and spray-tanned to underline the point. His overacting and the depiction of The Capital and its citizens — a kind of latter-day Oz — draw a sharp contrast to the grim, all-but-affectless Katniss, whom Snow correctly perceives as a threat to his power.
On a “victory tour” of the twelve outlying districts with her fellow survivor and putative lover Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the two young heroes discover that the citizens are angry to the point of open rebellion. Somewhat unwittingly, Katniss becomes a symbol for hope and resistance, making it more important that Snow get rid of her, even as he co-opts her fame. The twist on these games is that she and her fellow previous victors will face each other, making the formation of alliances that much more crucial. For Katniss, the most important allies turn out to be the least likely, playboy and Capital darling Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and his aged mentor Mags (Lynn Cohen). Her own mentor, the alcoholic Hamitch (Woody Harrelson) has less to do in this second number, though his character reverses course at the end, as does the story itself.
If you are one the few people on the planet not to have read the Hunger Games trilogy, I won’t spoil the surprise. But along the way, there are the expected threats from other Tributes and the various lethal “wrinkles” that the Master of the Games has dreamed up, among them a poisonous fog, killer apes, and a tidal wave. Since the Games themselves take up less screen time this go-round, the focus becomes less on the action and more on the characters. Here, Lawrence stands out, moving Katniss from her initial PTSD flat monotony to rage and agony, her feelings toward Peeta gradually changing, her political savvy and ability to deceive (are these the same thing?) growing apace.
Secrets, in fact, are significant throughout “Catching Fire,” both emotionally and thematically. Characters’ willingness to divulge or keep secrets, their and our knowing them while others don’t, generates dramatic irony and involves us more than the often-violent action that earns the movie its “PG-13” rating. This is a darker film than its predecessor: the dystopic society pictured here recalls Nazi Germany, yet it also alerts us to our own propensity to be bought off with bread and circuses while our civilization devolves into fascism. The books are “young adult” literature in one way, yet they and their film adaptations have a decidedly “adult” message. The odds are distinctly with this provocative second number and the entire series is succeeding handsomely.