Reviews of the Hunger Games sequel have been nothing short of rapturous when it comes to comparing the new film’s director (Francis Lawrence) to his predecessor (Gary Ross). Critics are crediting Lawrence with taking Suzanne Collins’ unwieldy second novel and turning it into a tight, suspense-filled thriller all the while judging the shaky cam snooze fest that (apparently) was the first movie.
While I will categorically agree that Catching Fire has surpassed the original movie in terms of cinematic scope and quality, I will say that there’s more going on than just a change in the man behind the camera. Although I’m not sad to see the shaky cam go — in fact when I watched the original last week, I actually got a little nauseous — Ross didn’t do all that bad a job, given what he had to work with. And that’s really the crux of the issue here: with Catching Fire, Lawrence was definitely dealt a much better hand of cards. It was inevitably going to turn out into a better movie.
There’s No Way to Spin Kids Killing Kids
Trying to keep the rating PG-13, the first film tripped all over itself to gloss over this important factoid, with shaky cam, a lack of blood and an emotional distance that leeched anything that might have been considered “stakes” out of it. By trying to smooth over the idea of kids killing kids, the first movie also sanitized the emotional import of a society in which kids are forced to kill kids. And this decision, whatever the motivation behind it, definitely hurt the movie.
The second time around, there are no kids in the arena. There’s no problem with a teenaged Katniss Everdeen taking out a forty-something hulking dude coming at her with a spear. Nothing particular of emotional import there. Just self-defense. And so Katniss can finally fight, a little blood can be shown, and she can be genuinely scared of these hulking monsters who are genuine threats to her and Peeta’s survival. And it’s no different than any superhero taking out the minions of the super villain.
Home Is Where the Backstory Is
The Hunger Games had so much to cover in so little time there’s very little wasted on Katniss’s home town of District 12 besides some brief shaky cam shots of dirty children looking Appalachian. But just like JRR Tolkein made sure to introduce us to Hobbiton before he sent Frodo off to Mordor, Collins spends a lot of time in the first book introducing us to District 12. Unfortunately she does it in flashbacks that are hard to translate into the flow of an action film. So it’s not till Catching Fire that we really get to see what Katniss is fighting for. The film gets to spend nearly a whole hour of its time with Katniss’s friends and family, establishing relationships merely hinted at the first time around (Gale it’s nice to finally meet you!).
Love You J.Law, But I Can’t Read Your Mind
Almost as problematic as the whole children murdering each other thing is the fact that wide swaths of the first novel are first person narration without Katniss speaking to another living soul. And even when she’s talking to Peeta once they team up, she’s constantly reminding the reader that her relationship with him was an act for the cameras. In the first movie, for someone who’s never read the books, that subtext is almost entirely lost. Jennifer Lawrence does her level best at it, but it would help if she could talk.
Catching Fire has ample opportunity for the Girl on Fire to speak her mind. After spending a significant portion back in District 12 the book takes her back to the Capitol and the arena, but instead of sending her off in search of water and climbing trees, she is immediately thrust into an alliance full of relationships and dysfunction and all sorts of good stuff. Beyond actually getting at characterization, it’s simply more interesting to have her in a group and interacting with people than to have her tied up in a tree by herself.
The Clock is Cooler Than a Forest
The arena in the first novel is your pretty standard forest. Barring CGI fire and CGI dogs, there wasn’t much threat besides the other kids. Not so in the sequel. The arena itself is a much more hazardous place. Tidal waves, lightning, killer baboons, rain of blood. It’s not just more eventful, it’s more visual. A panning shot of the the clock jungle is just a better picture than a plain forest. Plus when there are threats that aren’t people, Katniss is allowed to fight and shoot with reckless abandon. Who cares how many rabbid monkeys she kills? At least they’re not kids.
Just Like Oreos, the Best Bit is in the Middle
Call it The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers rule. Without being bogged down with lengthy exposition or a conclusion that ties everything up in a bow, the middle chapters of series have an undeniable advantage over the beginnings and endings. They get to just tell a story in an already established world without anything that even resembles an ending. In fact, the more of a cliffhanger, the better. More people will line up to buy tickets to the midnight showing of the last movie (or, er, the last two movies).
Lawrence (Francis, not Jennifer) undoubtedly brought a fresh take and a better eye to the series. He certainly brought fresh new faces to the franchise, and achieved near perfect casting when it came to Sam Claflin as Finnick and Jena Malone as Johanna. The manic arrogance Malone has and the twinkling bravado that Claflin brings to the table are exactly how the characters were portrayed in the book, and exactly what the movie needed. Characters almost as intriguing as Katniss to (maybe) root for. And yeah, it was really good to get rid of all that shaky cam. But really, Gary Ross didn’t do all that bad. And he did cast Jennifer Lawrence, and the internet shall be forever in his debt for that.
None of this is to say that Mockingjay is going to turn into a good movie. As has already been noted, there are some really big problems with that novel that are going to be hard to turn into an exciting film. So we’ll just have to wait and see what Francis Lawrence gives us.