Latest Hunger Games instalment should set box offices on fire

We chat with director Francis Lawrence and stars Jennifer Lawrence and Sam Claflin of this week's potential big blockbuster, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

From left, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence. Chris Pizzello / AP Photo
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Like the title suggests, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire looks set to ignite at the global box office. Expectations are sky-high for the follow-up to The Hunger Games, the US$700 million (Dh2.5bn)-grossing adaptation of the first novel in Suzanne Collins’s best-selling trilogy. Not least from the incoming director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend). “I wanted to make a movie that is just as successful, if not more successful than the first,” he says, with a bullish quality that the story’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen, might appreciate.

Set in a futuristic totalitarian state called Panem, the last time we saw Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) she emerged as the victor of the 74th Hunger Games, the annual blood-sport where teen “tributes” fight to the death for the masses’ entertainment. In Catching Fire, she’s become more than just a winner; she’s begun to stir feelings of rebellion among the poverty-stricken populous fed up with the government’s oppressive regime.

“This is the next step of Katniss’s heroism and the next part of her journey to finding out who is she really going to be,” Lawrence told Reuters recently, talking about her plucky character’s evolution. “Is she going to stand up and lead this rebellion? Is she going to run away or is she going to fight? Everything is on a much bigger scale in this movie, the stakes are much higher.”

You could say the same for the 23-year-old Lawrence, who won her Best Actress Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook midway though shooting Catching Fire and was even named on Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list this year.

“When all these things were happening to her, she was tired – because she was being pulled in endless directions,” says her director.

Reel to real

In reality, the Catching Fire shoot was almost as raucous as the film itself. Sam Claflin, the rising British star cast as Katniss’s Games rival Finnick Odair, remembers going to a party at the actress’s apartment. “It was one of my first nights of meeting everybody … and I walked in as Jen was shoving a sock down [co-star] Woody Harrelson’s throat screaming at him! I was like: ‘What is going on?’ Welcome to The Hunger Games!”

Of course, the real Games are a mite more violent, one of the distinguishing features of Collins’s books. In Catching Fire, the story picks up with Katniss a year later, as she and her companion Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are forced back into the arena for the 75th Games – also known as the Third Quarter Quell – to face previous winners of the competition, including Claflin’s Finnick and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer, as Beetee and Wiress.

Thematic talk

“This one is much more about the arena itself rather than people killing each other, and especially children killing each other,” says Lawrence, the director. “I’m very mindful of the violence, but also I’ve been a big believer in almost everything I’ve done not being gratuitous. I just don’t find any joy in it. The sight of splattering blood or any guts and gore, I just don’t think is impactful. I’m always after the emotional ­impact.”

The way he sees it, Collins’s trilogy dealt frankly with the consequences of war. “It was one of the things I was really interested in across the entire series. And we deal a lot with that. In Catching Fire, you can see that Katniss is a changed person from having gone into the Games.”

Seeing stars

It’s themes such as this that have attracted stars of the calibre of Donald Sutherland (who plays the scheming President Snow) and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Snow’s underling Plutarch Heavensbee).

“I wasn’t aware of the books until the film came out and people made me aware of them,” says Hoffman, who was recruited for this episode midway through his Broadway run of Death of a Salesman last year.

Reading the books, Hoffman became a fan immediately. “They’re pretty amazing. She’s literally written these books for teenagers about fascism and the overthrow of fascism, and then what overthrows fascism is as bad as the fascist government. It’s so smart. And it’s written for teenage kids. It’s incredible.”

Does he think teenagers embrace the more political aspects of the stories? “I can’t see how they couldn’t. She’s very clear.”

Having inspired the arrival of other teen-oriented dystopian films, from the recent Ender’s Game to the forthcoming Divergent, production is now under way on the two-film adaptation of the final book, Mockingjay – again to be directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Will The Hunger Games best all the others at the box office? To paraphrase from Collins’s world, the odds are forever in its favour.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is out tomorrow in UAE cinemas