Much is riding on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire when it hits theaters on November 22. All signs are pointing towards a sure-fire hit. Estimates project a weekend box office of $175 million domestically. But is incoming director Francis Lawrence able to please fans and a wider audience after Gary Ross’ excellent Hunger Games?

The answer, in short, is yes. The story follows Katniss as she embarks on the Victory Tour where she notices signs of a rebellion slowing taking shape. After President Show requests she help calm the Districts down, our hero learns that she and Peeta will be heading back into the Games for the Quarter Quell where they’ll face off against other “all-experienced killers.”

If you ask readers how they would rank The Hunger Games book trilogy, the vast majority who we talk to say the first was best, the second was second best, and third was the worst. That must be a daunting fact for producer Nina Jacobsen and Francis Lawrence who will be carrying the four-part film series to the end. They’ll have to keep the story interesting and clean up mistakes that Collins made in her books. Namely, the pacing of the story and the messiness of Mockingjay’s final battle.

Fans and the producers can rest easy until next year, at least. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a leaner, meaner version of its source material.

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Leaner: Numerous chapters in the book are not in the movie. Like in The Hunger Games, Madge is completely absent from Catching Fire. Darius, Maysilee, Bonnie, and Twill are gone too. It’s only at the very end that Katniss learns of District 13′s existence. Specifically, chapters 9, 10, and 11 of the book are completely removed. Most of chapter 12 is out except for the very end where we see the Quarter Quell announcement.

Instead of this (arguably) slow area of the book, we jump straight from Gale’s whipping to his recovery and then the Quarter Quell announcement. Another example of a cut: There’s no scene where Katniss and Peeta watch Haymitch’s Games.

Meaner: In some areas, the film’s story is more gruesome than what you see in the book. A pre-Games scene depicts Peacekeepers entering District 12 and causing havoc for no apparent reason. This leads Gale to attack one of the Peacekeepers which is why he gets whipped (in the book, he gets whippings for poaching). In addition, Katniss’ goodbye to District 12 is very dramatic in the film whereas in the book she departs without making any commotion. Scenes like these emphasize the danger of the Capitol. During the presentation to the Gamemakers, Katniss actually sees Peeta’s painting of Rue (in the book she does not), which appears to set her off and inspire the hanging of Seneca Crane.

By making the story leaner and meaner, the story becomes a Hollywood epic. Clocking in at 2 hours and 26 minutes, we were actually surprised by how fast the story moves when you consider that it’s one of the longest movies you’ll see this year.

Acting with the heat turned up

Havensbee and Haymitch in 'Catching Fire' Catching Fire’s quick pace can be credited to the aforementioned plot cuts as well as stellar acting from a wide variety of cast members. The two standout roles in this film are from returning stars: Stanley Tucci who plays Caesar Flickerman and Woody Harrelson who plays Haymitch Abernathy. The two bring unique performances that make you think about how lucky producers were to snag both of these stars in the first place. Tucci in particular seems to have brought his portrayal of the tribute interviewer to a new level. His timing, dialogue, passion, and body language deliver some of the most pleasing acting you’ll see in the entire film. Meanwhile, Harrelson uses Haymitch’s drunkenness to bring comic relief into moments where you may least expect it even though his reason for drinking is quite depressing.

All around, the cast is stellar. Donald Sutherland’s President Snow has a cool temper as he winds down the Districts and gets into Katniss’ head. New roles have equally excellent actors. Sam Claflin’s Finnick surprised us with his charm and smooth attitude. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee matches the stern and professional atmosphere Snow brings. Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason is exactly as she reads in the books.

The roles of Katniss, Peeta, and Gale have been brought to a new level thanks to the darker story and a second opportunity for stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth to portray their characters. Lawrence in particular has become completely engulfed in Katniss and belts out raw emotion during several scenes like the attack by the peacekeepers on Cinna.

Line-by-line, a loyal transformation

Several lines that you hear in the movie are word-for-word what you’ll find in the book if you go back and compare like we did after watching.

Cinna in 'Catching Fire'Examples of Collins’ words being brought to the screenplay:
- Gale after kissing Katniss: “I had to do that. At least once.”
- Haymitch to Katniss about Peeta: “You can live a hundred lifetimes and not deserve him, you know.”
- Katniss to Finnick: “I don’t like jewels and I have more money than I need,” and Finnick’s “I haven’t dealt in anything as common as money for years.”
- Cinna: “I just want you to look straight ahead, as if the entire audience is beneath your notice,” and Katniss’ “Finally something I’ll be good at.”
- Johanna: “Make him pay for it” to Katniss in regards to making her wear the wedding dress.
- Cinna to Katniss: “Remember Girl on Fire, I’m still betting on you.”

If things weren’t word for word, the transfer of scenes from book to screen worked in most cases. For example, Effie drives hard the “team” theme between her, Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch as seen in the books and you can’t help but feel like you’re a part of their group. Another example: Plutarch and Katniss have a talk at the Capitol party, but the Gamemakers’ watch with the mockingjay is not seen. Instead, he drops a verbal hint to Katniss about where his loyalties lie. For a wider audience it may be a better hint and less confusing than a glimpse at his watch.

Additions to the film further enhance Catching Fire in unexpected ways. Effie makes a reference to mahogany which isn’t found in the book but will please fans who loved the line in the first book and movie. President Snow’s granddaughter is introduced and she takes a liking to Katniss which naturally must enrage the Capitol leader. And in one of the funniest moments in the movie, Haymitch is present while Johanna strips in front of Katniss and Peeta in the elevator (in the book, the mentor is not there). While the boys ogle at what’s happening right before them, Jennifer Lawrence offers perhaps one of her most JLaw-esque reaction faces that you’ve come to love her for on red carpets.

A whole new world thanks to IMAX

Our Catching Fire screening took place in an IMAX theater. The Games were shot using IMAX cameras, and as soon as the tournament starts, the screen in your IMAX theater will open to reveal a taller picture. This unique feature lends itself to the scope of the jungle and the gorgeous beach (Hawaii). You really feel like you’ve entered the jungle with Katniss and company. When the Games end, the screen shrinks back down to “normal” size and it’s almost jarring after getting accustomed to the larger view.

A sense of ‘Mockingjay, Part 0′

The final shot in 'Catching Fire'We think there’s an issue with how this film plays into the four-part series on a whole. The climax arrives at the same time as it does in the book when Katniss shoots the arrow at the forcefield and breaks down the system (By the way, Finnick feeds her the “Remember who the enemy is” line. She hears it earlier from Haymitch, but she needs a reminder from someone else.).

The end of the story moves at a pace that is quicker than what you’ll find in the book, and it’s because of this faster rate of motion that we were left feeling like Catching Fire is one big introduction to Mockingjay.

Why is this a problem? Mockingjay is being split into two movies, and by the end of this series we’re going to have essentially two prequels to the grand Mockingjay, Part 2 finale. To us, it felt like the story needed a bigger climax and some resolution so that we’re not left hanging for two movies in a row.

We are not letting this affect our overall impression of the film because it’s loyal to the original story. Put simply: The sudden ending of the Games and then the cut to black a few minutes later – coupled with how quick this film moves – made us crave more.

Conclusion

It’s not easy for a film franchise to keep the momentum going from one film to the next. We can say with confidence that Francis Lawrence has pulled off an amazingly worthy follow-up to The Hunger Games. The 20-month wait between the two films is made worth it thanks to the speed, action, dialogue, and acting you’ll encounter while diving deeper into a rebellion with Katniss. All we can do now is be happy that we only have a 12-month wait between the remaining two films.

Grade: A-

The good: Fast-paced storytelling, dialogue fans will eat up, and beautiful visuals thanks to better special effects when compared to The Hunger Games.

The bad: Little sense of resolution, some romantic moments that only YA-lit lovers will appreciate.

Rated: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language)

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens in theaters on November 22, 2013. Purchase your tickets now!

Look forward to our exclusive interview with Jeffrey Wright (Beetee) next week.