Odds are, Katniss Everdeen’s Mockingjay pin has crossed paths with most people reading this. Branded on book covers and posters everywhere, the iconic “Hunger Games” symbol has spread like, well, wildfire since the first movie’s release. This week the dystopian drama returns in its second installment, “Catching Fire”, which opens in area theaters Friday.
Based on the trilogy by Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games’” first adaptation left off with Everdeen’s victory in the titular obstacles. “Catching Fire” picks up with the consequences of her win – growing political unrest and hope for revolution, as well as more trouble for the “Girl on Fire.” Attempting to smother Everdeen’s spark, corrupt President Snow (Donald Sutherland) proves that her trials are far from over.
The sequel boasts a new director (Francis Lawrence, unrelated to the film’s lead) and an all-star cast of new actors. As Snow tries to eliminate all threats to his power, the audience meets uniquely interesting characters from previous games. His “Quarter Quell” battle to the death throws former victors into the ring, from elderly Mags (Lynn Cohen) to tech-wiz Beetee (Jeffrey Wright). Key characters like axe-wielding Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and charming Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) capture the essence of their novel counterparts in ways fans will appreciate.
Clearly focusing on long-term themes for the series, Lawrence spends a great deal of time building political turmoil into tumbling momentum. Everdeen’s struggles with both Snow and PTSD factor importantly into the upcoming third installment, and Lawrence sets the stage accordingly. Unfortunately, this means a slow pace during the first half of the film, as Everdeen’s Victory Tour reveals heightened resistance in the districts. As a result, the film’s action-packed second half is sped through, leaving the climatic Quarter Quell feeling disappointingly rushed.
Still, Lawrence and his two screenwriters, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt reveal themselves to be judicious translators of the source material, reverently recreating the novel’s most memorable scenes while eliminating the unnecessary. Between the swelling storyline and the acting to match, “Catching Fire” is a cinematic rendition worthy of praise.