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