Ben Child 

The Hunger Games: five challenges facing the sequel’s new director

Ben Child: After Gary Ross's departure, what problems await Francis Lawrence, the newly announced director of Catching Fire?
  
  

Spoiler alert: Do not read if you have not yet seen The Hunger Games or read the novel and would like to do either without knowing their outcomes.

The Hunger Games has turned out to be one of 2012's most welcome surprises: a popcorn movie with enough satirical clout to satisfy those keen on dystopian scenarios. It also stands almost alone in the pantheon of blockbuster 2012 movies as a film which actually has something to say about modern society. Avengers Assemble is about a team of unlikely superpowered demigods, The Dark Knight Rises will be about an equally outlandish masked vigilante with rather too much money and time on his hands and Prometheus is about a slightly spurious search for extra-terrestrial life. The Hunger Games, even if it wears its satire lightly, examines the potential for governments to control their populations via an age-old mechanism: entertainment. The Roman emperors who spent fortunes on colosseum entertainments knew all about such Machiavellian manoeuvres, and mankind doesn't seem to have developed much resistance in the subsequent millennia. Television remains the drug of the nation, the opium of the masses: as the late great Bill Hicks once said: "Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control again. Here. Here's American Gladiators. Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. You are free to do what we tell you! You are free to do what we tell you!"

Yesterday it was announced that Francis Lawrence, director of the middling 2007 post-apocalyptic Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend, has been handed the directorial reins for The Hunger Games' sequel Catching Fire, based on the second book in Suzanne Collins's bestselling young adult fiction series. Lawrence also directed last year's Water for Elephants, a depression-era drama about a struggling circus which the film-maker kept pleasingly afloat despite the presence of a detached Robert Pattinson in the lead. While he's presumably the man who made the fateful decision to depict I Am Legend's plague-stricken vampires in astoundingly unrealistic CGI, Lawrence seems like a reasonable choice for studio Lionsgate given that Hunger Games's Gary Ross passed on returning. But has he taken on a poisoned chalice? Ross has said that he could not make the film in the time Lionsgate wanted to see it finished, and there may be other obstacles in the way of the new man in charge. Here are five challenges Lawrence will have to face if he hopes to make Catching Fire as successful as its predecessor.

1. Time
"As a writer and a director, I simply don't have the time I need to write and prep the movie I would have wanted to make because of the fixed and tight production schedule," said Hunger Games's Gary Ross earlier this month after walking away from its sequel. Lionsgate got a huge stock market boost from the spectacular box office success of the first film which requires it to get the followup into production pronto. Coupled with star Jennifer Lawrence's commitment to a second X Men: First Class film, that means a pretty preposterous August start date for the Catching Fire shoot, requiring Francis Lawrence to hone a completed screenplay by Slumdog Millionaire's Simon Beaufoy in just a few months. This is a far cry from the kind of room for manoeuvre which directors such as Christopher Nolan and JJ Abrams have been handed with regard to the latest Batman and Star Trek films, and provides a very different environment to that experienced by Ross for The Hunger Games. The latter approached (and says he was allowed to approach) the film from an auteurish standpoint, taking on both directing and writing duties (alongside Collins) to ensure that the final product emerged as a unified vision. The new director will not have the same luxury, but at least a lot of the prep work has already been done and a screenplay, cast, and many of the locations are already in place (or can be recycled) from the first film.

2. Maintain the pace
The Hunger Games throws the audience almost straight into the action as Katniss Everdeen is forced to volunteer for the lethal tournament in place of her younger sister within just a few pages. Catching Fire takes rather longer to get going as it deals with the aftermath of Everdeen's joint victory with Peeta Mellark. Much of the slack before we return to the action is taken up with fairly vital background on the emerging anti-Capitol movement in various districts, and Francis Lawrence won't be able to excise it because it has ramifications for the rest of the series. The second Hunger Games novel is no longer just about the tournament itself: there are wider intrigues taking place, but the new director will have to find a way of showing this without departing from the blitzkrieg-paced tournament scenes for too long.

3. Create room for Gale
The Hunger Games was flagged as the new Twilight prior to its release partly because of the love triangle at its centre. Yet one corner of that triangle was barely present in the first book and is almost as absent in part two. Gale, Everdeen's hunting partner and best friend, finds himself sent off to the District 12 mines in Catching Fire, and while the pair do have the odd romantic moment they are not exactly joined at the hip. Audiences will be expecting to see more of a character upon whom the entire series' dynamic depends, but Gale is a little thinly drawn in the books and may need some help from the screenwriters. Fortunately Liam Hemsworth did such a good job in the first film that it wasn't hard to see why our heroine might be drawn to him.

4. Keep away from the Twilight
Speaking of Twilight Collins never sinks to the lovelorn level of Stephenie Meyers' sickly sweet vampire romance series, with its protagonist Bella Swan, in Catching Fire. Yet the novel, which once again is told in the first person from Everdeen's standpoint, does feature its fair share of teenage angst. Ross and Jennifer Lawrence did such a fabulous job of presenting Everdeen as a tough, independent young woman that it would be a pity to see her transformed into a swooning little flower in the sequel. Fortunately, Collins makes it clear that her heroine is fairly interested in romance but really rather more bothered about staying alive and keeping her family from being throttled by the powers that be. There's no need for Catching Fire to doff its cap to the Twilight crowd, and we must hope the new director realises he has a more wholesome proposition on his hands.

5. Find the political satire within
While The Hunger Games showed us a society of haves and have-nots in which all are transfixed by the riotously entertaining (and compulsory) tournament of death at its apex, much of the political commentary was insipid to say the least and was outshone by Katniss' personal struggle for survival. Catching Fire offers us a wider glimpse of Panem society, its cruelty and its overconfidence. In the decade of the Arab spring and the ongoing protests in Russia, here is a film with a real opportunity to reflect our changing global political arena. There are far worse things than The Hunger Games going on in parts of our world: a brave director would find a way to shine a spotlight on them via a movie which will probably be shown in many authoritarian countries, or will at least become widely available on illegal DVD. It might sound a little over-ambitious to expect a blockbuster Hollywood movie to act as a Trojan horse for anti-authoritarian polemic, but a Catching Fire without a few satirical nods to real-life events would be an opportunity sorely missed.

 

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