(An edited version of this was first published in The New Indian Express)
If the Harry Potter series took a dark turn at around the third book and was elevated by Alfonso Cuaron’s delectable adaptation of the same, The Hunger Games series similarly comes into its own in this second installment. While the third Potter film was more ambitious in terms of filmmaking, the true zenith with an admirable balance of craft, staging and entertainment was achieved with Deathly Hallows Part 1. In that sense, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire owes a great deal more to the first part of the final Harry Potter film than the Cuaron gem.
There are a number of parallels. Katniss Everdeen becomes the single most important target of her foe – the Capitol and President Snow. She decides to go it alone for the sake of her loved ones. She finds it hard to earn the trust of her friends and they share that feeling towards her. There is a still inchoate uprising threatening to go out of control for the Capitol. There is that use of natural elements and scenery to depict gloom and desolation. The snow in winter, the rain forests, the gushing water and the artificial lightning. This is a lengthy film but the material is so deftly handled that it does not feel like that at all. Much like the first part, the action – the Games themselves – doesn’t start well halfway into the film. It’s a circumspect start with Katniss, financially in a better place but mentally in a different one, struggling to make sense of her victory and the aftereffects of it. She knows what’s coming and in a moment of weakness and a last minute hesitant speech inadvertently uncovers the face of the rebellion. The moment here is chilling and it is all thanks to the cautious start of the film. From here on, the film goes in breakneck pace. Here too there is a training and examination period before the Games. Here too Katniss Everdeen gets the trademark evaluation scene that harks back to the first film not only for its impact but also its final events. This time though she has the full attention of the dignitaries.
But then Jennifer Lawrence always had our full attention. It’s almost as if she can do no wrong ever since her breakout both on screen and off screen. It’s an enviable resume for an actress who by the measure of time is essentially still a greenhorn. But she’s got some of the best films – arty, mainstream and money making franchises – and an Oscar through the unlikeliest of genres – romantic comedy. She mixes that firebrand wielder of the bow and arrow and the vulnerabilities of Katniss Everdeen with a charm of her own. What more, she also gets a very Jennifer Lawrence scene inside an elevator with Haymith (Woody Harrelson), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and a Games veteran Johanna (Jena Malone). Watch her give her delicious deadpan expression in this light moment in an otherwise heady mix of stakes. This is nothing but playing to the galleries but it isn’t out of place and she makes sure it isn’t out of character. Now here is a star.
This is a film that’s got its casting absolutely right. The ever inebriated Haymith played by the ever dependable Woody Harrelson. Donald Sutherland as the scheming and smiling machiavellian President Snow. Stanley Tucci hamming it up chewing the scenery and more as the host Caeser. The pick of the second film though is Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the new game-maker Plutarch. His is an eerie and sinister presence and the way he mouths his dialog is dreadful in its own way. Such ace casting with just one disappointment. It is tough to imagine anyone other than Helena Bonham Carter in that Elizabeth Banks role.
Catching Fire is an exhilarating ride through the world of Panem and its reality TV obsession. It makes its social commentary in subtle ways in the background and keeps the world building, performances and the action in the foreground making it one of the most entertaining franchise films this year. It ends with the third (in two parts) installment nicely set up and there is hope that they won’t make a mockery of this shocking ending.