(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.
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.