World-Building: Catching Fire Has it
Wow, the world-building. The 12 Districts were greatly expanded upon in Catching Fire. To be fair, the sequel didn't have to spend as much time setting up the world, so they had a lot more time to bulk up this dystopian future. In this movie we really get to see the landscape, the people and the problems they're facing. One big help is putting the fallen tributes' families on platforms under a video of the deceased character. It helped put together each District, and absolutely shattered me when looking at Rue's family in District 11.
Even the high-speed Capitol train gets expanded, as the audience got to see the gorgeous observation deck, bedrooms and the countryside of Panem from the windows along with glimpses of Mockingjay graffiti, which symbolizes the citizens' unrest.
Catching Fire also beefed up the utter bleakness of District 12 and the vacant, cold nothingness of the world Katniss and her family live in. The Victors' Village looks like a mausoleum, the Hob gets revisited (and appears to have grown), but nothing delivers a swift kick of coldness better than Katniss and Peeta's first day on their Victory Tour.
Flanked by camera drones, the two Victors coo in the freezing, black snow in a dead village while the world applauds their love. The juxtaposition was fantastic.
Humanizing the Capitol
The greatest beneficiary of this expanding of the world of Panem is, hands down, the people of the Capitol. No longer are they merely props in pink wigs walking around what can only be described as an empty college campus.
First up, director Francis Lawrence reintroduces the beloved characters from the books Octavia and Flavius. These ostentatious members of District 12's prep team give us an inside track into the vapid thoughts of the people of the Capitol, but because they were so disarmingly obtuse about the reality of the world they live in, you couldn't hate them. Plus, they genuinely care for Katniss and Peeta, and showed this in a way that only they could — helping make them both likable. This decadence is the only world they've ever known.
Next up, Effie Trinket, played by Elizabeth Banks, was given a lot more depth and a whole lot of room to actually emote and become a fully-formed human creature. Which was exactly what Lawrence was looking for. He told us:
"She may be a Capitol person through and through but she's actually connecting with our lead very strongly. I wanted to give her, her own story. For Effie, who's been always given District 12 and they're always the losers. Suddenly she has something that's historic. She doesn't just have one victor she has two. And she really likes them, and now suddenly they're getting pulled back into the games and even for someone who's so Capitol like Effie she suddenly starts to feel for them and feel the injustice of the situation."
By fleshing out the people under the fancy wigs, Catching Fire starts to close the gap between the Capitol and the outside Districts. It makes them seem less like monsters and more like people, which is important later when the revolution rolls into their town.
Someone Did Their Homework!
If you're going to direct a wildly popular book with a ravenous fan base, maybe it would be fun if you threw in a few things for the fans? Really anything, any small amount or nugget that demonstrates that you've read Suzanne Collins' books. No one is asking for a slavish retelling of the original story, but maybe you could throw the fans a bone here and there.
We've already touched (many times) on the tremendous decision to recast Buttercup the cat (which was ordered not only by the producer, but by Suzanne Collins herself) but there were so many additional winks and nods to the die-hard fans that didn't leave the casual viewer behind.
For example, did anyone notice the blood that leaked into President Snow's champagne glass at the opulent Capitol party? While not in the book, this moment is a nod to the first time Katniss gets close to the villainous leader and realizes why he's always carting around supremely fragrant roses: because his breath reeks of blood. It's not only an ominous foreshadowing of the future in the book, but also a vague assumption that this man has done ridiculous things to his body in order remain ruler of all of Panem.
And it doesn't stop there — whole chunks of dialogue are taken straight from the book. Finnick is introduced with a sugar cube in hand and a see-through gold net around his waist (even though you don't really get to see the whole get-up, but that would probably be a little too much). So many wonderful details are included in this movie, and they only enhance the story. Hell, at least in this movie someone actually said Effie Trinket's name!
Actual Hunger in the Hunger Games!
And while we're praising Catching Fire's attention to detail, we must address the ipecac party scene. While partying in Panem. Octavia and Flavius offer Peeta and Katniss a sip of a special elixir that will make them vomit, so they can continue ingesting more decadent treats. The potion is revolting to both victors from the starving District 12, and Peeta says so. Yes! Finally! Hunger! Plus hooray for bookish details. That moment could have easily been edited out, but we're so very glad it wasn't.
Didn't Look So Much Like Shit
The success of the first movie CLEARLY bumped up the budget for this picture. No longer were the tributes forced to speak with Caesar on a ramshackle stage. The new movie had a brand new look, which was specifically addressed by the Hunger Games host himself.
The people of the Capitol got a bit of a makeover as well. Anyone remember the costumes from the chariot scene in Hunger Games? YIKES. This go-round, the fashion was elevated: Effie had a dress made of butterflies; the dresses on fire looked like they were actually on fire (instead of on CG fire); people looked sophisticated, not ridiculous (well, still a little ridiculous, but fabulous all the same).
Lawrence told us:
"I wanted to do two things with the people of the Capitol. I wanted to, overall, add a kind of sophistication to the costuming. Because I thought the more sophisticated they would be in terms of the sort of hedonistic, lush lifestyle that they lead with how they eat and how they dress and how they present themselves, [that] would actually make them a little scarier."
Last year we lamented that all the oddball Capitol naked times were gone. In the book, Katniss is constantly stripped down, waxed over, picked, prodded and pruned over whilst being naked as a mockingjay bird. It shows a harsh difference between life in the Capitol and life in the infinitely more modest Districts. Plus, it physically offers up Katniss the Tribute as a piece of meat ready for the blood bath.
The Catching Fire director managed to squeeze in a bit of oddball nudity, thanks to character Johanna Mason, who strips down in front of Katniss and Peeta in the elevator, a scene we actually said probably wouldn't happen. But it did! And now Catching Fire has the challenging Capitol nudity that was dropped from the first movie. Side note: Jena Malone completely killed this character; we did not see that coming. Well done.
Discernable Action Scenes
In the first movie, 24 kids get thrown in a wooded area and forced to fight. In the second movie, 24 victors were thrown into a reverse-engineered lagoon with 12 different sections that would each unleash some sort of hell at various hours in the day depending on the time. The second movie was easier to follow. How is this possible? NO SHAKY CAM.
Peeta's first Hunger Games fatality was cut from the first film. This is a brutal moment in the book, because it demonstrates that the baker's boy is not afraid to murder and could hold his own with the careers (even if they were just keeping him around to lure Katniss). It also makes the reader slightly nervous about Peeta's motivations and trickery. The first person that Peeta kills also illustrates his fantastic ability to manipulate any situation to his advantage.
But alas, in the movie version of the first book, Peeta is nothing but a painted, gutted rock, slowly bleeding out — a helpless broken bird that Katniss has to take care of. Not so in the second movie. In fact, the first thing Peeta does in Catching Fire is MURDER. This was completely intentional, director Lawrence explained to us in a previous interview:
"It was intentional. It was intentional. We made an effort to change Peeta a little bit. We just felt that he was a little too helpless. At times he can feel like a piece of baggage. We wanted to make sure that he was a little more vital. He can't injured all the time, he can't be getting carried around all the time, he can't be getting saved all the time. It was the thing that we worked on. It took a little while to figure out the right balance. It really changes your point of view on him when you come in and he's in a fight and he ends up killing somebody."
Not only does this decision to elevate Peeta's status from being a stone around Katniss' neck to a contributing member of the District 12 killing team, but it also helps facilitate an actual relationship between the two. No way would Katniss be attracted to a defenseless mouse of a boy.
Peeta is much larger in the Catching Fire. Katniss and Peeta and zero chemistry in the first film (the whole cave scene was cut!). And while it's not a vast improvement, there's at least an attempt to show Peeta's many attributes, such as the ability to think on his feet (surprise pregnancy, donating their winnings to fallen tributes' families), and many tender moments between the two (sleeping together to avoid nightmares, Peeta's near death experience).
Less Lenny Kravitz, More "Cinna"
Casting Lenny Kravtiz as the gold-eyelinered Cinna was a brilliant decision. Watching him act was, well, not as awesome.
Catching Fire just lets Cinna be Cinna, by giving him fewer lines. His chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence is undeniable, and it was good just to coast on knowing glances and hugs for a bit. Less with the talking.
What Was Missing
Just because there was SO MUCH good in Catching Fire doesn't mean they got everything in. Not that we're complaining, but in case you were wondering what was left out from the books, here are a few things we spotted that didn't make the final cut.
The newly electrified fence. Ah, the electric fence—the sign of Capitol's newly applied determination to stamp out rebellion when it's suddenly switched on while Katniss and Gale are out hunting—was cut. We got to see the fence itself one more time, but never fully juiced up.
No Darius the "nice" Peacekeeper. The Hob already established the kind of relationship District 12 currently holds with the local Peacekeepers. It's unfortunate that we're not going to see Darius turn up later down the road as an Avox, but it's possible that the Avox lifestyle has been scrubbed entirely from the movie re-telling, although we have seen them in the background serving the tributes in the first film. Still, we're not holding our breath. But let's give a big hand to the fella who played Romulus Thread. While never mentioned by name, he was still pretty scary.
The mockingjay watch hint from Plutarch. Let's be real, once you saw an aerial shot of the arena, you didn't need any more hints. It's a clock.
Finnick instead of Enobaria. At the very end when Katniss is losing her shit (and her partner Peeta) she has a face-off with the intimidating Enobaria, but in the film that character gets swapped out for Finnick. This works better for a whole host of reasons, but also, putting Finnick in the line of fire hyped up the sense of betrayal and confusion, and elevated the big reveal when the secret behind the Quarter Quell was finally revealed. Throwing in a new character the audience didn't bond with would have been a waste, and Finnick's potential betrayal amps up the stakes and chaos. It was fantastic.
Gale's whipping happens for entirely different reasons. Because he killed a bird, not because he got in the way of the Hob's destruction. Doesn't matter. Also, Gale refuses to run away with Katniss because he wants to join the revolution in the film, not because she won't say she loves him, as in the book.
We get to meet President Snow's grandkid. We always knew Snow had grandkids but we never got to see them in the books. And how great is it when one of them tells Katniss' greatest enemy that she wants to be just like her one day? SPOILERY UPDATE: Crazy thought, what if this character was introduced in order to swap fates with Prim? Just an idea.
District 8's Bonnie and Twill looking For District 13. No more District 8 runaways looking for the real District 13; that District reveal is for the next two films. And we're assuming we'll never meet these two characters.
Haymitch's Hunger Games. Probably the biggest surprise on the left-out list. Peeta and Katniss spend hours watching the past Hunger Games recordings so they can scope out their competition, which mean the audience gets to find out what happened to Haymitch during his battle. It's brutal. Alas, there wasn't enough time, but the victor's constant struggle with PTSD sets up enough groundwork to excuse his alcoholic stumblings.