Franchises are hard. On the good ship Harry Potter, they had to anchor what they hoped would be a multi-billion dollar franchise to three unproven kids; their approach was to pack the series with every facet of the British establishment’s acting talent – Ralph Fiennes, Sir Michael, Sir Ken, Dame Maggie, Gary Oldman, Hans Gruber – and hope that the chosen three grew into half-decent actors. Eight films, $7.7bn and a theme park later, it turned out to be a smart move. Every few months it seems like some teen IP or other is trying to step into that billion-dollar market gap, but most of them sink without a trace. Novel adaptations Ender’s Game and Beautiful Creatures came and went this year without ever threatening to make back their budgets; Alex Pettyfer has his own line in flightless franchises, dragging Stormbreaker and I Am Number Four clanking along behind him. The collective critical and commercial indifference to 2007’s Daniel Craig-led Philip Pullman adaptation, The Golden Compass, led to a financial restructuring of its parent studio, New Line.
Color Force and Lionsgate therefore had a job on their hands living up to the promise of The Hunger Games, a series which had 26 million global sales behind it before the first film hit the silver screen. Add to the that the challenge of making a mass-appeal 12A (PG13) certified film, the main topic of which is the government rounding up children, imprisoning them in an arena, torturing them and then forcing them to murder each other for entertainment. Battle Royale, its most obvious point of reference (also adapted from a novel – which Suzanne Collins swears she hadn’t heard of before penning her strikingly similar book nine years later) had the luxury of an 18 rating over here, but Catching Fire’s violence is a measure of how far UK ratings have come since the 12A was first introduced in 2002, with the technicolour fisticuffs of Sam Raimi’s Spider-man in mind. Catching Fire asks a lot from its audience in terms of maturity: people are shot, stabbed, flogged, drowned, disfigured by poison, clubbed and generally under constant threat of death or violence. This is firmly at the Adult end of Young Adult.
Catching Fire takes all this tragedy, all this horror, all of this burden to carry, rolls it up, and hangs it around Jennifer Lawrence’s neck. Such are the benefits of having a leading lady of immense talent: 2010’s Winter’s Bone, in which Lawrence played a granite-tough teen searching the Ozark wilderness for her absent father, now looks almost like a feature-length audition for her role in these films as Katniss Everdeen, arable archer and revolutionary pin-up to the oppressed masses.
The latest instalment picks up where the first left off, with District 12 tributes Katniss and Peeta embarking on a victory tour after triumphing in the arena. However, the districts are beginning to rally behind Katniss as a symbol of defiance, forcing uber-evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to manoeuvre the young lovers back into mortal combat, with the aid of inscrutable games-maker Plutarch Heavensbee, played by series newcomer Philip Seymour Hoffman. At just under two and a half hours, there are an awful lot of the ‘moves and countermoves’ that Heavensbee relishes, but it never feels stretched, unlike some recent blockbuster adaptations (how on earth a 300-page book like The Hobbit can be spread, pancake-thin, into three ponderous films, I will never know).
The supporting cast is competent, with Josh Hutcherson, Lenny Kravitz, and Stanley Tucci (as a kind of dystopian Graham Norton) standing out, but the film focuses its attention squarely on Katniss, the camera barely leaving her side for a moment. Lawrence drives the action forward ceaselessly, whether playing the stoic outdoorsy heroine, the vulnerable family protector, or the unwilling political icon. Added to the mix this time is her eyebrow-raising quasi-Legolas turn with a bow – she seems to have spent the gap between the films training intensely with Peter Jackson’s combat elves – but it’s good fun, in an environment where the laughs are few and far between.
All in all it’s a tremendously strong entry in the series and sets things up nicely for the final instalment, Kill Bill-ed into two parts as is the standard practice these days. It’s hardly light entertainment, and neutrals drawn in by Lawrence’s stardust should be well aware that this is now a gritty, serious story, told in a hostile environment that mainly involves murderous jungles, post-industrial wastelands and the occasional fancy train ride. But they should also know that it’s well worth the investment, for Lawrence’s masterful performance, and for much more besides. Roll on Mockingjay this time next year.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opened in the UK on Friday 22nd November 2013 and is currently on general release.