The subtitle of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is perhaps somewhat misleading. Certainly in a literal sense, anyway. The first adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ multi-part tweenage-fight-to-the-death-dystopia, caught fire when The Hunger Games was first released in 2012 – setting opening weekend Box Office records at the time, and going on to gross over $685mn worldwide. Eighteen-months on, The Hunger Games remains Lionsgate’s biggest blockbuster to date and, along with her Oscar-winning turn in Silver Linings Playbook, perhaps the defining moment in Jennifer Lawrence‘s still-young career. Catching Fire – part two in Collins’ trilogy – is released in UK cinemas on November 21. And while the hype and expectation is already bubbling beneath the surface – this time, it’s less about catching fire; and more about fanning the franchise flames.
Fires rarely start themselves; usually, there’s some kind of catalyst. And while Lawrence’s ‘The Girl on Fire’, Katniss Everdeen, may have had the aura of a star destined to ignite, The Hunger Games was always built on more than just the expectation heaped upon its young lead.
Certainly, Collins’ pre-existing Hunger Games universe played a vital part in the wide appeal of the franchise. In an era of multimillion-dollar budgets, cynics would argue that Hollywood would have been reluctant to even sanction a $75mn plus budget on a quadrilogy kick-starter, without such foundations. But while each of Collins’ Hunger Games novels sold at least 750, 000 copies before Gary Ross’ 2012 film, the timing of the adaptation was probably as vital as the foundations themselves.
Collins’ Hunger Games finale, Mockingjay, was published in August 2010 – less than eighteen-months before the cinema release of the first film. Compared to the glacial pace of some adaptations, the speed in which The Hunger Games film came to fruition still feels impossibly fast. Yet it was this near-instant cross-media fertilisation – also spawning videogames – that ensured the flames continued to spread; preventing The Hunger Games ‘brand’ from ever fading from public consciousness.
Lionsgate’s decision to release The Hunger Games during March last year – rather than summer or Christmas – also proved to be shrewd. Avengers Assemble might have re-broken the records The Hunger Games set when it arrived later the following month, but Ross’ film maximised its potential; and sidestepped head-on collisions with Whedon’s $1.5bn Avengers, Mendes’ $1.1bn Skyfall and Nolan’s $1bn Dark Knight Rises.
While Lionsgate controlled and orchestrated everything they possibly could, events beyond the studio’s control aided The Hunger Games brand, still further. Modern film fans seem to crave sprawling, multi-part epics like cinema snacks coated in monosodium glutamate – but with several long-running franchises coming to an end, The Hunger Games was able to hoover up large numbers of the mourning masses. Harry Potter had finally reached its conclusion with Deathly Hallows: Part 2 in 2011; while Dark Knight Rises and Breaking Dawn – Part 2 were set to conclude their respective narrative arcs in July and November 2012. Meanwhile, the first part of Jackson’s delayed and re-engineered Hobbit – now steamrolled out to three parts – didn’t arrive until December. The Hunger Games, then, partly by careful planning, partly by good fortune, had the best part of nine-months to establish itself as the dominant, non-superhero franchise-opener of 2012.
The timing was key, but the sheer breadth of themes and concepts in The Hunger Games proved equally integral. While many films get pigeonholed by genre or category, prompting either instant apathy or excitement, The Hunger Games thrived by never catering to one, unified audience: part sci-fi/action; part reality TV parody; underpinned by sociological comment, and a doomed, star-crossed love story; The Hunger Games had something for everyone.
Like Thomas Newton (Bowie) gazing up at his matrix of screens in The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hunger Games bombarded us with ideas and information – but crucially, it allowed ‘us’, its audience, to prioritise the film’s events. There were occasional knots, sure. But in a narrative comprised of so many contradictory strands, it was a universe woven together more seamlessly than it had any right to be. From The Running Man to The Truman Show, through to Battle Royale, very little of The Hunger Games’ tapestry was truly unique – but like Ross before him, Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence is tasked with creating new from old. And in a decade where – now more than ever – ‘old is the new new’, perhaps the familiarity of many of The Hunger Games’ building blocks has been the very thing that’s given everyone a ‘block’ they can connect to.
Catching Fire, then, arrives without the need for additional gasoline. With Batman and The Avengers officially now on hiatus until 2015, many are calling Catching Fire a contender for biggest film of the year. Whatever you might say about Lionsgate, they sure know how to time a fire.