Critics say yes. Audience reviews and Twitter reactions say yes. The box office numbers say yes. I say yes.
There are two ways that we can answer this question. First, is Catching Fire a better movie? Second, is Catching Fire a better adaptation? Both are valid questions, and both answers are still yes, in my opinion. It’s a hard conclusion to come to, because I already thought The Hunger Games was perfect, but it was apparent to me, after seeing Catching Fire, that filmmakers took a look back at The Hunger Games and said, “It’s good, but we can do better.”
Almost unbelievably, they succeeded in doing this. According to RottenTomatoes.com, critics gave Catching Fire an 89% on the tomatometer, compared to 84% for The Hunger Games. When considering only the ratings of the top critics who write reviews for Rotten Tomatoes, that margin is even greater: 90% to 78%. The margin is the same when considering the audience rating, though it’s 3 points higher: 93% to 81%. Truthfully, it really surprises me that the ratings are as low as they are for The Hunger Games. I had very few things to say by way of complain when I wrote my own review.
I follow @TheHungerGames on Twitter, and for a while there, my Timeline was absolutely flooded with retweets of positive reactions of regular people (and some famous people) who had just seen the movie. It was a bit overwhelming, but I suppose it was a good way to publicize the movie—by spreading others’ positive reactions.
Box office numbers also show that Catching Fire is enjoying even greater success than The Hunger Games had its first weekend, which is truly saying something. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, it doesn’t matter how you look at it, whether adjusted for inflation or not, Catching Fire had a better opening than The Hunger Games had.
Why, though? What makes Catching Fire better? A better movie? A better adaptation?
Characters. Existing characters are developed—we want to see more of the characters we love! New characters are introduced—we’re excited to see what new actors and actresses can bring to the franchise!
During the Victory Tour, Effie Trinket is her usual trinkety self, but during and after the reaping for the 75th Hunger Games, the 3rd Quarter Quell, she is a different person, which shows that even those from the Capitol can change. She realizes, as she is reaping Peeta and Katniss, her new friends, that she is sending one or the other or both of them to their probable deaths. She realizes, in that moment, that what she is doing is completely wrong. She doesn’t say it outright, but you can see it in her face and body language during that scene, compared with the reaping scene from the previous movie. You can see her struggle with this idea of wrongness… an idea that maybe she’s never thought about before.
Since Finnick Odair is an ally to Peeta and Katniss right from the start, he was always a more memorable character to me. By contrast, Johanna Mason wasn’t really on my radar when going into the movie. However, she definitely made a lasting impression on me during the movie. My favorite scene? Her interview with Caesar Flickerman. It’s interesting to me that the same broadcast network in Panem that airs the Hunger Games—where 24 children fight to the death and there’s only one survivor—bleeps out swear words. Even more interesting is that, had Johann’s profane language not been censored, the movie probably would have had a rating higher than PG-13. Oh, the real-life parallels.
Speaking of real-life parallels, check out this video from the Harry Potter Alliance, if you haven’t seen it already:
Plutarch Heavensbee, played by the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman, was portrayed impeccably. He does dance with Katniss at the Victory Dinner, but he does not show her his watch as he does in the book. This gesture was meant to hint at what the upcoming arena would contain, even before Katniss herself knew that she would be in it. It was also meant to hint to us that Heavensbee is on Katniss’s side, not on President Snow’s side. However, by cutting this, the planning process between Heavensbee and Snow was allowed to be more organic. We see several scenes between them. Snow describes the problems he faces with Katniss and the other victors. Heavensbee gives advice and solutions. You can see how Heavensbee gains Snow’s trust. But you can also see, as the arena is spun, the moment Katniss falls from the Cornucopia Island, he turns off the spinning, which still hints to us which side he truly supports.
President Snow, as always, is menacing and conniving. Although this character is not in the book, Snow’s granddaughter is an interesting and I think welcome addition to the movie. Her character clearly shows Snow how much influence Katniss truly has on the popular culture of Panem, such as how girls wear their hair. Katniss’s power scares Snow. Underneath his sheer power and national manipulation, we can see vulnerability in him, particularly in the last moments of the movie, when he watches Katniss destroy the arena, and when he realizes he’s been betrayed by Heavensbee.
Speaking of the last moments of the movie, the scenes within the hovercraft are… interesting. I was half-hoping, half-expecting the last line to be, “Katniss, there is no District 12,” followed by a blackout, exactly as we read in the book. However, Gale continues with a few lines more, after which the camera cuts to Katniss’s face, as we watch for a few painstaking seconds while Katniss tries to digest everything that Gale has just told her. It’s not a bad ending—it works because Jennifer Lawrence is a brilliant actress and can make it work, though I’m not sure it’s as effective as a simple blackout after that cliffhanger line is delivered. Thankfully, at least, the line is intact.
That’s what makes Catching Fire such a brilliant adaptation. So many of Suzanne Collins’s original text made it to the movie—and that’s how every book-to-movie adaptation should be. So many screenwriters think they have to change the text to make it “work for the movie” or to “make it their own”. Every good adaptation screenwriter knows or should know that you simply cannot or should not change brilliance. The less you change or cut from the book, the better.
Harry Potter fans have had cringe-worthy moments while watching their favorite books on the screen for the first time. Dumbledore’s speech in the Great Hall at the end of Goblet of Fire—not Rowling’s text. Dumbledore’s words to Harry in King’s Cross during Deathly Hallows Part 2—again, not Rowling’s text, at least not in its entirety. And then there are the scenes that are cut altogether, or scenes that are added—Half Blood Prince’s new beginning, rather than starting at the Dursley’s (the same mistake was made for Goblet of Fire too), the added attack on the Burrow, no funeral for Dumbledore, the scenes upon scenes that were cut from the longest book to make the shortest film, Order of the Phoenix.
Obviously, this is not a Harry Potter review—the previous paragraph merely serves as an illustration for the lesson on how good adaptations are made. Leave well enough alone and a better adaptation you will have.
There are a few minor scenes that are cut or changed from Catching Fire—Katniss sees Peeta’s painting of Rue, Katniss’s wedding dress photo shoot didn’t happen, Gale attacks Thread rather than trying to sell him a poached turkey—but the major events that happen as a result still do happen—Katniss still does “hang” Seneca Crane, Katniss still does wear the wedding dress for her interview with Caesar Flickerman, and Thread still does whip Gale practically within an inch of his life, which is probably more justified in the movie, considering Gale did attack a Peacekeeper.
All in all, the magnificent actors and actresses who portray these characters so perfectly are what makes Catching Fire an incredible movie, and the screenwriters who know when to use Suzanne Collins’s original text, and when not to embellish the text with their own words, are what makes Catching Fire an incredible adaptation.