It’s hard to think of another time I’ve been so relieved walking out of a movie theater. Book-to-movie adaptations are hard, and a series of books you have a perplexingly intense emotional attachment to are harder yet. So despite my somewhat-less-than-nonpartisan evening with part of the cast from Catching Fire at the Mall of America, I did try to prepare myself for disappointment. This is my favorite book in the series…and I’m so happy to say that I loved it.
Not just the ALL-CAPS kind of love I have for the Marvel Avengers franchise, or the abandon-reason-and-hail-the-robots kind of love I have for Pacific Rim, but a love built on a foundation of respect and appreciation. The movie does cut out a lot of what I love about Catching Fire the book: the mayor of District 12 and his daughter Madge never appear in any form; no one else in District 12 is more than a prop; you see maybe a single avox in the background of a couple shots; and the complexities of all of the districts on the Victory Tour, as well as the larger population and culture of the Capitol, are glossed over almost entirely. However, this second entry in the series sheds those things to find a clean, well-defined line through the story that hits the main points hard, but doesn’t talk down to the audience by repeating anything to the point of obnoxiousness. The Quarter Quell games are fast-paced, the lingering moments between the victors do not linger, and the camera does not shake. Much.
The important points the film selects from the books hit hard because of their intensity, which they have to in the interest of time—Catching Fire already clocks in at a healthy 146 minutes. When Peeta and Katniss are reconnecting on the train thanks in part to the trauma they both still suffer from their first games, the scenes are brief blasts of intense emotion, as opposed to the full chapter in the book. The surprising intensity of those scenes in the film makes them last, and that’s a strategy used throughout the whole film. I was on the verge of tears almost every time Effie, played with such delicacy by Elizabeth Banks, spoke about anything—especially her feeling of connection to her team of teens led to slaughter and their damaged, alcoholic mentor Haymitch. Haymitch, of course played by Woody Harrelson in a textbook case of dream casting, is the perfect opposite of Effie: a man whose ability to cope and connect with the world has been destroyed by his involvement with the games while Effie’s helps her truly begin to understand and connect to humanity. The maturity and opposing forces in this part of the adult cast are a perfect complement to the immediacy and mercurial life that their younger costars embody.
Banks and Harrelson are far from alone in an outstanding adult cast. It shouldn’t even be possible that Stanley Tucci’s garish talk show host Caesar Flickerman could get any more spot on over the top, but it does. Donald Sutherland gets creepier and grosser as President Snow, whose scene hinting at his possible weakness feels more disgusting to me than most episodes of The Walking Dead. But the big surprise for me was Commander Thread: the new enforcer sent by the President to crack down on District 12, played chillingly by Patrick St. Esprit. Thread’s role in the movie is cut down dramatically from the book, and yet he packs his few moments with enough rage and spittle to convey several book chapters’ worth of dread and damage.
The Victors casting is equally fantastic. Sam Claflin carries Finnick Odair much easier than the entire Internet assumed possible, and his former mentor/fellow Tribute Mags is too much for words. The Career Tributes are the ideal combination of brutality and preening, and the Morphlings are frail and sad. The only cast member I’m not sure about is Jena Malone as axe- and grudge-wielding Johanna Mason. She seems a touch high-pitched, and less grounded than I would expect from a lumberjack murderess. Her real coming-out will be in Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2, though, so maybe I’m wrong. Based on the results from the new director and expanded cast for Catching Fire I have nothing but a backpack full of optimism about the Mockingjay films.
There’s nothing that I can possibly add to the conversation about Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta that the box office results from The Hunger Games and a Best Actress Oscar haven’t said already. Please enjoy this GIF set that demonstrates how above us and yet one of us Jennifer Lawrence remains:
If anyone reading this is aware of a good self-help book or program on how a person might best cope with an acute case of Potentially Terminal Fangirling In a Public Movie Theater, please contact me before the release of the Mockingjay films in 2014 and 2015. I made it through this one, but not by much.