How many faithful literary adaptations are also great movies? The Venn diagram intersects less often than you think; as a rule, the most celebrated big-screen translations are those that dare to take liberties with their source material, the most famous example still being Peter Jackson's loving but substantially reworked take on The Lord of the Rings.
For director Francis Lawrence, who takes over the reins here from The Hunger Games' Gary Ross and will direct two further sequels, Catching Fire is a lose-lose scenario. Change too much from Suzanne Collins's beloved, nuanced second novel and he risks alienating a passionate fanbase (what few omissions there are have already rankled some). Change the bare minimum and he's left with a structurally problematic story of two halves: a slow-burn political thriller that U-turns jarringly into wall-to-wall action set pieces for its third act. As an adaptation of Collins's Catching Fire, Lawrence's film is close to faultless. As cinema, it's solidly engaging but consistently underwhelming.
That's not to say Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt's script isn't written with depth and clear love for its characters – Jennifer Lawrence remains a compelling and grounded presence playing a newly skittish, haunted Katniss, who's struggling to adjust to a life of plenty after winning the Games.
Her defiant joint victory alongside Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) having sparked a revolution amongst the oppressed citizens of Panem, she becomes a target of the Capitol and in particular Donald Sutherland's creepily avuncular President Snow, a man from whom the phrase "I want us to be friends" sounds terrifying.
Peeta has thankfully been tweaked into less of a damp squib, and there's some shrewd deepening of his previously lacklustre relationship with Katniss – forced by Snow to carry on their fauxmance for the Capitol's cameras, the pair simultaneously forge a genuine bond over their shared trauma. Similarly compelling is her more paternal dynamic with mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and Capitol lackey Effie's (Elizabeth Banks) growing conscience. Among the new recruits, only Jena Malone stands out as the straight-shooting Johanna, whose pragmatism goes some way towards compensating for Katniss's newly sentimental streak.
But where The Hunger Games had a strong self-contained narrative, Catching Fire plays ultimately like two and a half hours of setup – its downbeat cliffhanger of a climax was a perfect gut punch on the page but here leaves you aching for emotional resolution. The pair are ultimately thrown back into the arena to fight against fellow victors in a very special anniversary edition of the Games, but the survival instinct that made Katniss such a potent protagonist before is watered down here in favour of a half-baked desperation to keep Peeta alive ahead of herself.
What Lawrence's direction does deliver is a physical dexterity that pays off in the third act's onslaught of assorted peril, and a visual lushness that emphasises the importance of water throughout the story. There's also a paranoid tone to the dystopian horror; Snow and the mysterious Plutarch Heavensbee (played by an unengaged Philip Seymour Hoffman) check in intermittently on our heroes via surveillance footage, in a trope that becomes crucial to Katniss's eventual quasi-victory.
Catching Fire succeeds on a great many fronts, not the least of which is pacing – despite its hefty running time it never feels less than lean and efficient. But it strays too often into unearned melodrama and by-numbers plotting, with even Lawrence struggling to sell some of Katniss's more abrupt emotional shifts. Fans who want to see a story they already love brought vividly to life won't be disappointed, but there's nothing here to engage the uninitiated.