Director Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games opened last weekend, crushing the competition at the box-office and coming in third for the largest opening weekend of all time - behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 and The Dark Knight (#1 for the biggest non-sequel opening weekend). The questions on everyone’s mind now are: How far will this first installation in the franchise go? And will audiences remain as engaged when the sequel, Catching Fire, arrives?
Certainly, there is a built-in audience for this franchise, but those who have not read the Suzanne Collins series are already beginning to ask: What's next?
Warning there are some small Catching Fire spoilers ahead:
It is now fairly common knowledge that Peeta and Katniss will return to the games in Catching Fire - the second book in Collins' series. So having seen the first film, many are wondering how a return to the arena is possible (or interesting). There are certain elements that are native to the source material that make the setting for Catching Fire both complex and compelling - but there are adjustments that the team behind the film franchise can and should make to elevate the second movie in the series.
1. World Expansion:
The Hunger Games gave us a good overview of the nation of Panem. We were given a sense of how the districts function in relation to the Capitol, as well as the players involved in the political game of chess that is at hand. The Hunger Games themselves become analogous to the large measure of fear and the small measure of hope that President Snow was using to control the citizens of the districts, and the flashy distractions he utilized to manipulate those who reside in the Capitol.
But in order to keep our interest in Catching Fire there is going to need to be a richer and more detailed exploration into the universe in which the story takes place. A delving into the particulars of the sociopolitical structure is necessary both to capture the audiences attention and because it is primarily the circumstances in the country at large that drive the plot.
In our interview with Gary Ross, the director was reluctant to speculate in too much detail about the ultimate tone and scope of Catching Fire, though Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) is currently drafting the script. The director did concede however that the undertones that are hinted at in The Hunger Games become far more crucial as the franchise moves along.
“Obviously there’s much more political context in the subsequent two books even than there is in the first one, as Katniss becomes a symbol for this revolution. That sort of sinks roots and spreads through the countryside and the books by definition become more political, or gain more political context.”
That political context can only be made clear if we understand the dynamics of the nation in which the film takes place. One of the tricky elements of adapting even the first book was that, despite incessant comparisons to Battle Royale, the games themselves are not the ultimate point of the story.
The games serve as the inciting incident, the thing that shakes the main character out of her comfort zone and sends her on a journey which will ultimately lead to a deepened understanding of herself and the world around her. The games, as mentioned, illustrate the socio-political dynamics of Panem. And the games test the moral and emotional limits of the characters, allowing us to understand who they fundamentally are as people. It is more what the games represent that is essential - rather than the events that take place in the arena itself.
The return to the games is a far different journey for both Katniss and Peeta in Catching Fire. Their goals are different, the circumstances that send them there are changed and in order to fully comprehend the choices that are made, we will need to have a firmer grasp on some of the historical events that created the Panem of the day as well as the current culture of the citizens.
The inherent challenge is that Gary Ross made a choice to maintain Katniss’ point of view throughout The Hunger Games, which in some ways constricts the ability to demonstrate the scope of the world. That isn’t to say that we never moved away from Katniss throughout the course of the film, it is only to say that when the film did move away from her it was always with the intent of propelling her story. If Ross cut to President Snow it was because he was talking about something relevant to Katniss. The same holds true for any of the other cut-aways that took place in the film.
There will be an opportunity in Catching Fire to either maintain or break that convention. If the production elects to remain tethered to the first person narrative, then some fairly intricate work will need to be done on the script in order for the audience to both understand and invest in the characters as the events (both in and out of the arena) unfold.
2. Sophisticated Visual Effects:
The setting for the "arena" itself is far more fantastical in Catching Fire than it was in The Hunger Games. The woods are replaced by an Island lush with color and filled with horror. The effects work in The Hunger Games was minimal and for the most part worked in the created world, but there were moments that were less effective for many audience members. The CGI on the “mutts” towards the end of the film read like video game characters to many viewers. In order for us to stay connected to the sense of urgency in the games the effects in Catching Fire are going to need to be sophisticated and believable. Many franchises (particularly young adult franchises) “cheat” in this area because they know they don’t really need expensive visual effects to draw in their audience - but Catching Fire is a story that could easily lose us if we don’t stay grounded in the world and connected to the consequences.
3. Up The Action Ante:
The Cornucopia (the area where the tributes first enter the arena) payed off in The Hunger Games. It was a brutal, moving and emotionally effective scene - but we are going to need that tension sustained for a longer period of time in the next chapter. Some viewers craved a more visceral sense of danger in the latter portion of the games. Creating a sense of urgency and legitimate peril is a challenge in a film that has both a known outcome and requires a PG-13 rating. It is a delicate balance, but it is one that was achieved in at least one portion of the first film, and must be created for a longer stretch of time in the second in order to make a return to the Games worthwhile for the viewer.
4. Develop Katniss:
We were introduced to Katniss in The Hunger Games, but if we are going to invest in where the story is taking her we are going to need to see far more of the complex creature that she is in the books. As Gary Ross mentioned, she becomes an unwitting symbol for a revolution. We must come to understand her as a person that has no interest in the finer points of politics, but that just by nature of the circumstances she finds herself in, becomes a leader. Katniss is a girl who has been honed in the struggle for survival and is, by her own admission, dangerous and violent. She is of course also compassionate, has integrity and is unwilling to suffer fools gladly. We need the full scope of her humanity or we will not believe that those around her would naturally follow her lead, or that she ultimately has no desire for them to do so.
5. Increase The Tension In The Love Triangle:
Now this is one that some fans may not want to hear, but the truth is that if this franchise wants to keep its female audience (and believe me, the studio does) then this is an area that will need to continue to be nurtured. Some of the increased romantic emphasis is inherent in the novel but the final outcome will rely on the direction of the film. It will be important that the dialogue and tone capture the emotional essence but doesn’t veer so far afield in the sentiment that it alienates the audience members who tend to be less interested in that aspect of the story. Both Peeta and Gale have a strong role to play in the decisions that Katniss makes throughout the course of the story so the connection that she has with each of them needs to be clear and felt. It is a complex love that she experiences and therefor needs to be dealt with some nuance. Additionally, who she ultimately chooses and "why" reveals a great deal about her character.This is, as fans know, not Twilight where the central focus was the romance. The romance plays a role in The Hunger Games as well as the remainder of the trilogy, but it is not the singular, nor ultimately, most important portion of the tale.
Gary Ross did an admirable job of translating this first film for the screen and given The Hunger Games success it would be easy for the studio to expend the minimum level of effort on the sequel, banking on their built-in fan base to turn out. But if Ross (or whoever replaces him if by some strange set of circumstances he does not return) puts the same level of thought and passion into Catching Fire and its needs as was put into The Hunger Games, then we may be granted a rare case where the sequel outclasses the first film in a series.
The Hunger Games is in theaters now.
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