The revelation that Francis Lawrence will be taking over the director’s chair on Catching Fire does not seem to be filling Hunger Games fans with much excitement: Our comment boards are currently filling up with responses that vary from “Wait, the Constantine guy?!?!” to “How come they didn’t get Joss Whedon/Alfonso Cuarón/David Fincher/Kathryn Bigelow?” to “Eh, I Am Legend wasn’t bad.” And there are certainly reasons to be skeptical about the Hunger Games sequel. Lionsgate’s insistence on a Thanksgiving 2013 release date doesn’t give Lawrence much time to plan. That’s unfortunate, since adapting Catching Fire will require some delicacy: The book has an unwieldy, bifurcated narrative, beginning with a mostly drama-free road trip before suddenly taking a left-turn into action territory. Also, yes, Francis Lawrence is the man who made Water for Elephants.
But allow me to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment:
Like a lot of former music video directors, Lawrence has a good eye for rich images. Constantine was pretty far from perfect, but it’s a movie filled with brilliant throwaway touches – Peter Stormare’s cameo as the devil is one of the great one-scene roles in the last decade. (Constantine is basically the best playing-on-FX-at-ten-‘o-clock-on-a-weeknight movies ever made, and I mean that as a compliment.) The first, mostly dialogue-free half-hour of I Am Legend proves that Lawrence has a keen visual-storytelling ability. Lawrence also directed the mesmerizing series premiere of Kings – a TV show which looks more and more like the stealth classic of the late-00s – and was responsible for giving the show a distinctive (and distinctively cinematic) aesthetic. And, well, boy that elephant sure looked cool!
At his best, his movies have achieved a giddily outré sensibility – a sensibility which, personally, I would welcome wholeheartedly after the somewhat colorless franchise-utiliarian aesthetic of the first Hunger Games. Here are four ways I think Francis Lawrence can make Catching Fire even better than the first movie:
1. No More Shaky-Cam. This summer will mark ten years since the one-two punch of The Bourne Identity and 24 instigated the shaky-camera revolution in modern action movie. All the familiar elements of this style were present in The Hunger Games: Needlessly awkward chin close-ups; quick cuts of people running; a complete butchering of the 180 degree rule. As my colleague Adam B. Vary pointed out, Catching Fire is a larger and more exotic story than its predecessor, with intriguing peeks at the other Districts and an Arena which is decidedly more fantastical than the forest in Hunger Games. I think this plays to Lawrence’s strengths – remember the vivid post-apocalyptic Manhattan of I Am Legend?
2. Don’t try to fit in everything. The first movie managed to make some smart plot and character trims, but the whole thing still felt quite a bit rushed, with some scenes playing out as little more than supporting-character role calls. (That’s particularly true in regards to the Careers, who were barely a presence except for their occasional background snarls. People, they were supposed to be antagonists.) That problem could only be exacerbated in Catching Fire, which introduces a host of new characters. Even moreso than Hunger Games, the second movie is going to require some serious editing and refocusing. Which is why I’d recommend…
3. Chop down the Victory Tour. Catching Fire begins (Spoiler for you non-readers, although come on, reading is good for you) with a lengthy trip around the various Districts of Panem, and although it’s interesting from a world-building perspective, it’s mostly tension-free. The first Hunger Games movie spent a lot of time on the lead-up to the games, but as much as I love Stanley Tucci, Catching Fire could benefit from getting to the action faster. My pitch: Make the Victory Tour a montage, and get to the Quarter Quell. That also means more time to spend with Finnick and Johanna, two intriguing new characters who don’t even appear until halfway through the book.
4. Let Katniss narrate, already! There are people who say that adding narration to movies is fundamentally bad. Here is my response to those people: Sunset Boulevard, Adaptation, Fight Club, Goodfellas, The Royal Tenenbaums, Apocalypse Now, A Clockwork Orange, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Terrence Motherf—ing Malick. The books are narrated from Katniss’ perspective, and her narration doesn’t just serve a functional plot purpose: It lets us see how other characters’ perception of her often differs dramatically from her perception of herself. That aspect of the book – the difference between Katniss-as-a-media-image and Katniss-as-a-human-being – is hugely important, and was almost completely left out of the first movie. Taking away Katniss’ interior monologue has the effect of transforming her from a fascinatingly flawed three-dimensional character into a two-dimensional superhero. Let the girl on fire speak for herself!
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