Why the ‘Catching Fire’ Movie Is Better than Suzanne Collins’ Novel

Hunger Games Catching Fire

REARVIEW: From subtle racial commentary to overt reality-TV satire, 'The Hunger Games' franchise was clearly made for the bigscreen, as the new 'Catching Fire' shows.

(SPOILER ALERT: This piece reveals key plot details from “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”)

More than once over the past several years, during the steady diet of teenage wizards and emo vampires that we have come to call moviegoing, I’ve felt compelled to ask: What is the purpose of adapting popular fantasy fiction for the screen? Is it (a) to faithfully reproduce the author’s sacred text in every last particular for the benefit of hardcore fanboys and fangirls? Or is it (b) to refashion the material as an entirely new experience, trimmed down and in some cases completely overhauled?

The answer, of course, is (c) to make a killing at the box office, an outcome generally arrived at by finding some happy middle ground between options (a) and (b), between undue reverence and wholesale reinvention. Peter Jackson struck just the right balance in his magnificent “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, although lately he seems to have committed to his material with a fidelity that Tolkien himself might have found excessive, if the epic bloat of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is any indication. (We’ll know more when “The Desolation of Smaug” hits theaters next month.)

The tedious first two films in the Harry Potter franchise, as directed by Chris Columbus, treated their source texts as gospel; watching them, you’d have thought J.K. Rowling was as fiercely protective of her material as P.L. Travers. That series ultimately found its footing as well as its own identity, largely by sacrificing any notion of strict fidelity to the staggering narrative density of the books. Meanwhile, Summit Entertainment’s “Twilight” movies, although often exasperatingly inert, were in some ways preferable to Stephenie Meyer’s novels, at least sparing us the agony of sentences like “His hair was dripping wet, disheveled — even so, he looked like he’d just finished shooting a commercial for hair gel.”

All of which is a roundabout way of pointing out that “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” far from being merely the latest mindless B.O. juggernaut, may in fact be that franchise-film rarity: a faithfully adapted (by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn), solidly entertaining blockbuster that not only derives from strong source material, but in some ways actively improves on it. I wouldn’t have said that about “The Hunger Games,” director Gary Ross’ lackluster first film in the series, which mistook incoherence for urgency and seemed to have borrowed most of its furnishings from a dystopian yard sale. But our uncertain future suddenly looks a lot more vivid in “Catching Fire,” a swift, enveloping tale of nascent rebellion that assembles a fascist empire before our eyes, a dazzling vision that we are allowed to behold on the very eve of its destruction.

PHOTOS: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” LA Premiere

Much of the credit should go to the Lawrences — not only actress Jennifer, tightening her grip on the role of Katniss Everdeen as indelibly as Matt Damon did with Jason Bourne, but also director Francis, bringing a refreshingly steady hand to the helm. But it may also be due to one fairly simple, if underacknowledged fact: The futuristic world created by author Suzanne Collins actually reads better onscreen than it does on the page. This epic trilogy may have been conceived as a series of novels, but if “Catching Fire” is any indication, the cinema is surely its native medium.

That’s no knock on Collins, an inherently cinematic writer (as my colleague Peter Debruge noted in his review) who seems to have penned these books with a shrewd awareness of the movies they would inevitably become. The story is intricate but not convoluted, unfolding in a stripped-down, present-tense prose style written from the perspective of Katniss herself. The mythology is concisely and sparingly doled out. Character is revealed not through introspection, but through action. The forward momentum never flags.

But the screen-friendly aspect of Collins’ novels is more than simply a matter of form. Even a minimally attentive reader will grasp that the Hunger Games represent a barbed sendup of our celebrity-obsessed culture in general and reality-TV competitions in particular, but for that satirical conceit to fully live and breathe, it requires the power and authority of a visual medium — and in Francis Lawrence’s hands, that’s what it gets. Anyone who has spent any time watching “Survivor,” “American Idol” or “The Bachelor” will get a chuckle out of the canned spectacle and hokey artifice on display here: the lights, the applause, the glorified pageantry, the slick montages, and above all the blindingly white smile of Games host Caesar Flickerman (the marvelous Stanley Tucci, suggesting a heavily exaggerated version of Regis Philbin circa “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”).

As for the deadly tournament itself, it’s a bigscreen natural: From the various horrors that befall Katniss and her allies, to the circular, clock-like design of the arena, to the literally shattering rebel-yell climax, the camera brings a welcome clarity to the novel’s complicated setpieces and spatial logistics. Still, for pure visual impact, even the action sequences don’t hit you as viscerally as the costumes, painstakingly described by Collins but fully brought to elaborate life by designer Trish Summerville. (When Elizabeth Banks emerges wearing a gown of monarch butterflies, you may wish, if only for one moment, that the film were in 3D.)

There’s one especially crucial respect in which “The Hunger Games” franchise has become a richer, more provocative and fully realized thing onscreen, and it’s worth mentioning as a footnote to a year that has seen no shortage of noteworthy dramas centered around black characters and experience. I’m speaking, of course, about Rue and Thresh, two brave young Hunger Games tributes from the previous film who were played by black actors (African-American thesp Amandla Stenberg and the Nigerian-born Dayo Okeniyi, respectively), a fact that riled the many casual racists among Collins’ readership.

“Why does Rue have to be black,” one of them tweeted. Well, because as many sharper-eyed readers have pointed out, Collins wrote her that way (“She has dark brown skin and eyes”). Thresh, too (“The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue”). Admittedly, these descriptions are quick and offhand enough that you can miss them on a first reading — or, if you so desire (and clearly some did), substitute white characters in the privacy of your own imagination. But in “The Hunger Games” movies, Rue’s heritage — like that of Katniss’ stylist and confidant, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), or her tech-savvy fellow tribute Beetee (Jeffrey Wright, an excellent addition to the series) — is an unignorable, matter-of-fact reality.

The diversity of Collins’ world becomes even more pointed and apparent at a key moment in “Catching Fire,” when Katniss takes a moment to express her sympathy for Thresh’s and Rue’s families in their predominantly black district, represented here by a sea of sad, quietly reproachful faces — the collective face of a dark-skinned, downtrodden minority, suddenly touched by an outsider’s compassion. The three-fingered salute that follows may be meant for Katniss, but it could just as well stand in for our gesture of goodwill to the filmmakers: Well done. We’re ready for more.

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  1. “…when Katniss takes a moment to express her sympathy for Thresh’s and Rue’s families in their predominantly black district, represented here by a sea of sad, quietly reproachful faces — the collective face of a dark-skinned, downtrodden minority, suddenly touched by an outsider’s compassion. The three-fingered salute that follows may be meant for Katniss, but it could just as well stand in for our gesture of goodwill to the filmmakers: Well done. We’re ready for more.”

    Ready for more film representations of down-on-their-luck, secondary black characters having their lives touched by white leads with hearts of gold? There have already been plenty of those movies.

  2. Whilst your article colourfully promotes the film – as it probably should do – and whilst the film itself has been well directed and well acted, personally, I found it a disappointment. Yes, the Hunger Games novels were clearly written with film in mind, but the film version of Catching Fire was so similar to the prequel; so predictable and lacking in emotion during the games sequence, I found myself wondering why the point of the sequel was so thinly covered. Katniss’s part in the growing rebellion barely took hold. If the follow-up is still in post and the material allows, I would thoroughly recommend addressing this. We all get Katniss, and Lawrence does a great job, but the screenplay missed a God-given chance to make Katniss the heroin she should have been – which really didn’t need to happen.

    As for the comments on some of the main characters being black, I am at a loss for words. Are we all still so racial?

  3. Kelly H. says:

    Great article! I agree on all counts. I also knew that District 11 was the Black district. In the book it hints at it as well.

    Loved the movie and books. I am so excited for the next installments.

  4. Emma says:

    I had no problem with Rue and Thresh being black, and I was surprised at the people who did. What bothers me most about the movies is that, based on the descriptions in the book, I (and many other people) thought that Katniss was mixed race. As a biracial person, I was so pleased that a series had a biracial hero, as they are sorely lacking in the SciFi/Fantasy genres, even more than in other genres like romcoms. And then they cast a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned white woman. No matter how talented the actress, words cannot convey how disappointing it was, and still is, that one of the very few YA books with a mixed race hero was given a racelift in the movie.
    I had other problems with the first movie, substantial enough that I have no interest in seeing the second, but even if it had been a Psycho or a Sunset Blvd. I’m not sure I could have overcome my anger and disappointment to see the sequel.

    • The book made it sound like Katniss was Mediterranean if anything she never sounded biracial. Her description basically described my sister who unlike me holds more of an Italian resemblance with darker skin (olive colored) and dark hair. She also has blue/gray eyes. District 12 is in Appalachia which if you live in this area is predominantly with in the Caucasian race Italians and Irishman. Which explains Katnis’s description more than likely she is a mixed breed of Italian and possibly German.

      You do realize that the light skinned blonde haired blue eyed women were cast because of the area. They kept that in mind again the Appalachia region contains many Irishman and Italians because of Ellis Island so it makes sense that however far in the future Panem is located that these traits would have carried on. When I am out I see many people of Irish decent, me being one of them being a Blonde Haired Fair Skinned Blue eyed woman. Yes there are other races around us as well but that is more in Southern New Jersey, Philadelphia Region etc the closer you get to the mountains and western PA the more Irish and Italians you see because that is where they originally settled working in the mines as my family.

      Here is an idea if you want a biracial hero that write one yourself. Maybe Collins wrote Katniss in the image of someone she knows. Who is of Italian/Mediterranean descent. The fact that you do not want to see the sequel because of this is absurd. There is a few amazing messages behind the story line. You as a female should be happy that someone (Collins) finally wrote a heroine that is flawed not this perfect image that they always show women as in movies. I have already seen Catching Fire and it impressed me greatly especially Lawrence she portrays Katniss very well. If anything you should be ashamed to watch Twilight and all of its sequels. Bella Swan is a protagonist that is so weak and dependent on others it makes me physically ill. On the other hand Hutcherson and Hemsworth do not hold a candle to the acting from Lawrence as Katniss. She shows that with strength a woman still breaks (watch the film and you will see what I am speaking about) but she is able to overcome it to function. Also Collins purposefully described Katniss as not prim and proper and perfect because every woman has beauty flaws and scars.

    • v says:

      It simply said that Katniss had olive colored skin, and never that she was biracial. Only that she had darker skin and this probably means she was a darker Caucasian. I think that it is unreasonable of you and shallow to say that you are angry about that and can’t control your fury to watch the second amazing movie. With her brown hair, Katniss looks exactly as described, with darkish hair. Actresses can’t be perfect so stop hating. Please keep this insulting opinion to yourself next time, it will help us all. Its not as bad as the Avatar The Last Airbender movie, not at all, so its ok. Collins didn’t even specify her race(s), all right? Calm down!

  5. David says:

    Hard to imagine that a film critic thinks a film is better than a book. Wonder what the book critic thinks?

  6. Living the Geek Life says:

    I think it’s important for the movies not to get too hyped up on the violence, especially in Mockingjay. I felt like in Mockingjay (the print version), the violence becomes gratuitous and done for entertainment and effect, which is exactly the opposite of a major theme of the series. I hope that there is some restraint done in ‘Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2’, as was shown to some extent in ‘Catching Fire’.

  7. Living the Geek Life says:

    While I agree that the filmed version of Catching Fire was better to me than the book’s version, I disagree that the first film was either ‘incoherent’ or ‘lackluster’. It did have a smaller budget and a different directorial style, for sure. But the first movie was a more personal film than this one is and kept the audience invested in the lead character’s POV and experience through those directorial choices. I had no prior knowledge of HG before the first movie, and I was deeply moved by it. I felt that it presented the story in such a way that it avoided becoming – ironically – the very same voyeuristic entertainment that the book skewers.

  8. Stephan Klose says:

    Still to really get the dystopian and really brutal feeling of the books a rated R version of this franchise would be necessary. Especially when it comes to the end of Book 3 which I of course won’t spoil here. But of course I understand the Studio 100% in making them PG-13. Would’ve done the same. But still the violence is very pronounced and descriptive in the books which can never be brought to the screen. Well unless there is an unrated Cut on Blu Ray some day. But at least this aspect was handled better in catching fire too. Because in the first movie they just shook the camera violently whenever something brutal or gory happened.

    • Living the Geek Life says:

      I think it’s important for the movies not to get too hyped up on the violence, especially in Mockingjay. I felt like in Mockingjay (the print version), the violence becomes gratuitous and done for entertainment and effect, which is exactly the opposite of a major theme of the series. I hope that there is some restraint done in ‘Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2′, as was shown to some extent in ‘Catching Fire’

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