Magazine | December 16, 2013, Issue

The Perils of Katniss

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lionsgate)

It’s not quite reasonable to describe a movie that made $700 million worldwide and turned its leading lady into one of the planet’s biggest stars as “underrated.” But even so, last year’s adaptation of The Hunger Games, book one in Suzanne Collins’s mega-selling teenage dystopia, reaped more backlash from critics than its pop-blockbuster excellence deserved. The peanut gallery didn’t like director Gary Ross’s handheld camerawork, they thought his PG-13 movie didn’t make the titular games’ teen-on-teen violence sufficiently grisly (because watching kids kill each other isn’t horrifying without gushing arteries, apparently), and without panning the movie outright, they deemed his effort merely . . . satisfactory.

Well, now Ross is gone — thanks for the $700 million, don’t let the studio gate hit you on the way out — and the task of adapting the sequel, Catching Fire, has fallen to Francis Lawrence, a successful music-video director with a few mediocre big-budget movies (Water for Elephants, I Am Legend) on his résumé. I’ve already read more than a few reviewers saying good riddance to Ross and hailing Lawrence’s approach, and so, as an apologist for the first movie, I suppose I should make the opposite case. But even though I really do miss some of that shaky-camera work and think Fire has a little too much bombast and ticky-tack in its set pieces, overall the most striking thing about the two movies is the continuity between them, in form and tone and quality alike. (And in their MPAA ratings: Nobody, but nobody, was going to kill the golden goose of teenage box office by making a Hunger Games movie that’s rated R.)

That continuity is a sign that, for all the carping about his work, Ross won’t be remembered the way, say, Chris Columbus is for his clumsy efforts in the first two Harry Potter films — as a director whose plodding literal-mindedness needed to be abandoned to make the story come to full-fledged life. In fairness, though, it’s also a sign that Collins’s trilogy — in the first two volumes, at least — is much more movie-ready than the J. K. Rowling saga, with less fat to trim, fewer subplots to discard, and a fairly obvious, no-need-to-overthink-it path from page to screen.

And even though I didn’t think the result packed quite the same punch this time around, that too is mostly on Collins rather than her adapters, because the biggest shock in her trilogy is frontloaded and pre-advertised. Once you’ve watched a group of unlucky teenagers from the conquered provinces of a future North American tyranny get lotteried into a televised death match commemorating their rebellious ancestors’ defeat, there really isn’t much a sequel can do to raise the stakes.

What this sequel does, instead, is broaden them. After winning through to the end of the last movie’s games and keeping her teammate/rival/besotted suitor Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) alive as well, Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen finds herself trapped by other people’s movements and machinations. She’s a heroine to the oppressed, restive citizens of her country’s 13 districts, and a danger to its overlords in the Rocky Mountain–swaddled Capitol. But as a capital-V Victor in the Games, she can’t be disposed of without sparking even more unrest, and so instead the bearded President Snow (Donald Sutherland) demands that she play the dutiful subject and travel the continent pretending that she and Peeta are happy lovers with no political agenda whatsoever.

#page#This tour does not go well, not least because while Katniss genuinely isn’t bent on igniting a revolution, she’s too prickly and too honest to adequately play the lovestruck stooge. The complications that follow lead to a further government crackdown — which puts the third point in the story’s love triangle, Katniss’s hometown suitor Gale (Liam Hemsworth), in the regime’s crosshairs — and then to the slightly strained big twist, which throws our heroine back in the arena for a kind of Tournament of Champions, facing off against past winners from the Hunger Games’ 75 years.

The casting has the same weaknesses and strengths as the first go-round. As Katniss’s teenage love interests, Hutcherson and Hemsworth are still a little too Tiger Beat–ish for their post-apocalyptic setting, but fortunately the adult players more than make up for that deficiency: Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Woody Harrelson are all back in action, and they’re joined by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the ambiguously motivated new head gamemaker and an array of interesting actors (including Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone) as the Victors summoned unwillingly back to combat.

Then, of course, there’s Lawrence, so transparent and charming and girlish on the red carpet over the last twelve months (even if her Silver Linings Playbook Oscar wasn’t exactly deserved), and so steely and prickly and well defended as Katniss, who has every eye on her and knows it. As an exercise in world-building, the Hunger Games trilogy has various weaknesses, which I’m afraid that the profit-hungry decision to split the final volume into two movies will expose. But its great strength is its harrowing, entirely believable depiction of the price its heroine pays for becoming a symbol of a revolution — her honesty carapaced, her happiness sacrificed, her agency forfeited, her loves and friendships buried.

Precisely because she can be so natural, so forward, so direct and self-assured, Lawrence is exactly the right actress for such a part — because we can sense what’s being taken from her, what she’s giving up. And here I’ll close with a warning for viewers who haven’t read the books, and who may come away from the not-exactly-happy end of Catching Fire thinking that they’ve watched the equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back — a dark middle installment that precedes a rah-rah, Return of the Jedi–style finish.

Don’t get your hopes up.

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