Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) is currently shooting the sequel to one of 2012’s most anticipated, most scrutinised, and ultimately most applauded blockbuster releases—The Hunger Games, based on the worldwide bestseller by Suzanne Collins. Lawrence stepped into the science fiction franchise on the heels of Gary Ross, the veteran writer-director of film one, whose controversial departure has left many fans ranting at the Capitol.
Indeed, why break up a winning team?
Ross was only one component in The Hunger Games’ success as a movie, but wasn’t he the crucial one, the Head Gamemaker whose visceral and emotional sensibilities so brilliantly channelled Collins’s dystopian thriller? It could have gone wrong a thousand different ways, but in scene after scene he captured the fear, the vulnerability, the anger, the palpable will to survive experienced by Katniss Everdeen. It’s a strong, potent adaptation.
But let’s take a look at the sequel, Catching Fire, and see what Lawrence has taken on, the odds he must overcome to ensure the franchise’s continuing success, not just financially—which is a given—but artistically as well.
Spoiler warning from here on…
Book Two riveted me from start to finish. The constant threat from President Snow’s totalitarian regime bled through every line of every page. The romance shared by Katniss and Gale, and Katniss and Peeta, is rightly never allowed to fully blossom—like everything else in the limelight, love is tugged this way and that by forces it can’t control, and takes on an artificial guise for the watchful public. It’s the one part of Katniss that can’t openly bloom in adversity. And that hurts.
Then there’s the Quarter Quell. In arguably the cruellest plot twist in the first two books, the tributes are selected from a pool of previous victors. Those who’ve survived the ordeal once, whether years or decades ago, are thrown back into the nightmare. This is where we meet the colourful cast additions of Catching Fire: Finnick O’Dair, a kind of narcissistic young Neptune; Johanna Mason, a nasty nymph from District 7; nerdy scientist Beetee; and Plutarch Heavensbee, the new Head Gamemaker tasked with making this the most memorable Hunger Games ever.
The structure is similar to book one. The first act takes place in Katniss’s home district, 12, although this time we’re given a brief tour of the other districts, during which the sparks of rebellion start to catch fire. Act two is the preparation for the Games, where the other contestants are introduced, and also where we spend time with Haymitch, Katniss’s and Peeta’s unpredictable mentor. As a previous victor, Haymitch is actually selected to compete, but is spared when Peeta volunteers to take his place.
I might be the only one, but I was dying to see Haymitch in the arena. He won the previous Quarter Quell—the guy’s lethal, and could take Peeta out in a heartbeat, even if he is on the wagon. Plus, Woody Harrelson fighting in the Hunger Games? I want that film.
We come to the final act. And an action-adventure extravaganza it is, too. This is where I feel the science fiction elements come into play more strongly than in book one. The Quell isn’t just a survival ordeal—it’s a real puzzle to solve, a horrific piece of sadistic design. Nowhere is safe. The alliances are fascinating as well, necessary but only for the time being, constantly a bowstring pull or a knife thrust away from termination. What I love about this sequence is how Collins utilises each character’s specific skills to contribute to the group’s survival. Brains and physical prowess combine to overcome impossible odds…but not for everyone.
The casting is going to be critical here. Finnick and Johanna have to be charismatic, sexy, and dangerous. Beetee is odd, pitiable, but also smart and resourceful. It’s a weird and tense group dynamic in the book, forging ahead despite questionable loyalties and an end result no one wants to face. Jennifer Lawrence’s superb performance as Katniss raised the bar for everyone in film one, so if the likes of Jena Malone (Johanna), Sam Clafin (Finnick) and Jeffrey Wright (Beetee) can bring their A-game, and director Lawrence resists the temptation to go big and Hollywood, and follows Ross’s lead by keeping the focus on our heroine’s point of view, the Quell should be an amazing sequence.
It’s a great story in itself.
**First impressions of the casting:
Jena Malone (Johanna Mason)—Jena’s a talented, spunky young actress whom I’ve seen in several films. She can play bitchy, sweet, vulnerable, seductive, and most importantly for Johanna, intense. Good, solid casting.
Sam Clafin (Finnick O’Dair)—I remember Sam from the historical miniseries, Pillars of the Earth, where he played a wimp that grew into a warrior. He didn’t exactly stand out, but considering the awesome cast of that show, it wasn’t really his fault. In Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Shores, he had the most thankless role, and did quite well with it. Ditto in Snow White and the Huntsman. He seems a competent actor. Not sure if he looks the way I imagined this character. I was expecting Alex Pettyfer for Finnick, but this might just be a star-making role for Sam.
Jeffrey Wright (Beetee)—after recently seeing Jeffrey in Source Code, I’m certain he’s the right guy to play Beetee. He played a more ruthless scientist in that SF film, but the eccentricities, the awkwardness, the intelligence, are all there. But to be honest, he can play just about anything. Jeffrey’s been teriffic for a long time.
On the outside, President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland, is tightening the screws on Panem. He’s seen the subversive effect The Girl on Fire has had on the people, and he’s desperate to “contain it.” Ross cleverly promoted gamemaker Seneca Crane to a major character in The Hunger Games, allowing him to interact with Snow out of the spotlight, and showing how everyone—even a loathesome puppeteer like Crane—is ultimately one misstep away from being extinguished.
Here we come to Plutarch Heavensbee, Crane’s successor, to be played in Catching Fire by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman. Such a major casting coup suggests that, like Ross, Lawrence and his writers have decided to expand the gamemaker’s role significantly from the book. I’m curious to see how Hoffman plays it here: callous and calculating, like Wes Bentley as Crane; or something more eccentric, more flamboyant. It’s a performance either way, and Heavensbee plays a fascinating role in the story. I really hope they give him some serious screen time. If they don’t, Hoffman’s too good for this part.
Several powerful moments occur before we get to the Quell. Violent oppression descends upon the districts, and seems to follow every move Katniss makes. The filmmakers can’t include every scene, but I hope they don’t rush to the games. The tension in the first half of the book is thrilling—we desperately want Katniss, Peeta, Gale, their families, and Haymitch to escape into the woods, but we also want them to take a stand and bring this evil regime down. Every character grows stronger in Catching Fire. They have to, because the odds are definitely not in their favour…yet.
The Hunger Games grossed over $400 million in the US, and almost $700 million worldwide. Critical response was strong. And on DVD/Blu-ray, sales have been excellent, proving audiences genuinely love the movie. Despite the absence of Ross, it’s hard to see how the sequel can miss the mark. Catching Fire is a beloved book full of cinematic potential, Lawrence made a good, solid film out of Richard Matheson’s classic post-apocalyptic I Am Legend a few years back, most of the same cast and filmmakers are returning, respected writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt are on board, and the first film showed them how to do it the right way.
November 22, 2013. Sink or swim. If you want my advice, keep Finnick close by.
*Update. I recently finished Book 3, Mockingjay, which frames the series in a much darker light. While I’m ambivalent about some of Collins’s decisions, I have to admit knowing how the whole thing ends will probably make Catching Fire an even more powerful experience onscreen. If they get it right.
Robert Appleton is an Award-winning writer of science fiction and steampunk. His books include Sparks in Cosmic Dust, Pyro Canyon, and Prehistoric Clock. He currently lives in Bolton, England.