Hunger Games: Fans of hit movie hunger for more

The movie phenomenon that is The Hunger Games continues with Catching Fire. Film critic Tony Earnshaw finds the cast of the latest installment in reflective mood.

Josh  Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence
Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence

THERE is a moment during the huge junket for Catching Fire when someone cuts through the self-congratulatory back-slapping and captures the essence of what The Hunger Games is about.

That person is 78-year-old Donald Sutherland, veteran character star, political idealist, kook and, these days, part of the backbone of films such as this.

Alongside Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci and Jeffrey Wright he brings much-needed gravitas to the films of Suzanne Collins’ books.

Asked to consider the allegorical nature of The Hunger Games series, Sutherland cuts to the chase.

“Can I just say one thing? It was essential for me personally that I somehow find my way to be a part of this because it more clearly represents the dangers of an oligarchy of the privileged than anything I’ve seen for a long, long time.”

Bravo, Donald Sutherland. There is the essence of The Hunger Games in a nutshell. Sinister, militaristic and dystopian with a whiff of The Most Dangerous Game, Collins’ series of books have the requisite depth to spark all manner of debates.

For leading lady and recent Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence, playing heroine Katniss Everdeen, signing up for what the producers and studio hoped would be a money-spinning franchise meant resigning herself to a degree of pigeonholing.

“We already had Harry Potter. We already had Twilight,” said the 23-year-old. “We were obviously surprised by the success. How could we not be? And if I was going to be identified with a character for the rest of my life… that is a hard thing to think about.

“But I love this character. I am proud of her. I would be proud to be associated with this character for the rest of my life.

“That being said it has been important to get the little [movies] – for audiences to see that I can do it. I like going back. I started doing indies.”

Lawrence’s rise has been stratospheric. Emerging to glory and an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone in 2010 she quickly became the hot ticket. And the golden goose. The makers of The Hunger Games must be beyond thrilled that their star is now both box office gold and the toast of the critics with her Academy Award for Silver Linings Playbook.

Like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Collins’ books have become a magnet for young adult readers. But they’re darker and nastier. It feels more like real war and the choices fascistic governments make to keep the proletariat cowed and underfoot.

It happens in the real world. But Collins’ books give teenagers a get-out clause from totalitarianism and a safe environment in which to digest those real-world perils. Plus, for many, there is the added bonus of romance, action and epic stuntwork straight out of Mad Max.

“In this society people feel entitled to certain things,” adds Lawrence. “We’ve been completely desensitised in our shock factor and the media continues to feed you what you want.

“It’s a wonderful message to show how powerful one voice can be. It’s very easy as a society for us to just kind of follow the feet in front of us, and history does kind of repeat itself. It’s an important message for our younger generation to see how important they are in shaping our society and our future.”

After the first film, directed by Gary Ross and written by him, Collins and Billy Ray The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has a new director in Francis (I am Legend) Lawrence and a fresh scribe in Yorkshire’s own Simon Beaufoy.

For Lawrence a primary concern was in adhering to a sense of what he calls “aesthetic unity” so that Catching Fire and the follow-up, the two-part Mockingjay, enjoy the same style which he describes as “1930s Appalachian”. Producer Nina Jacobson says the tag-team of Lawrence and Beaufoy simply underlines the collaborative tone between the movie’s emotional and visual elements. The key, she states, is the point of view of the heroine.

“The heart of these movies is Katniss. As long as it remains firmly in her shoes [there] will always be consistency. She’s a complex character. She changes but she grounds us. Francis was able to expand her world enormously while still staying very true to the emotionally honest approach of the first movie.”

When Simon Beaufoy was writing his screenplay he was acutely aware of the sensitivities surrounding the books. Working with the fiercely protective Collins he got an innate understanding of the world of Katniss, Gale Hawthorn, President Snow and Haymitch Abernathy.

“She’s absolutely fascinating about what the subtext of these stories is all about – that it’s a war trilogy, an examination of different forms of warfare and countries under different kinds of states of war,” explained Beaufoy. “The first is a survival story, the second book is underground revolution and the price one has to pay as a country when you decide to rebel, and the third one is about all-out war.

“You have to be very respectful of the people who love the books. And I mean worship the books and believe in the characters. But at the same time it’s got to be a completely beguiling piece of cinema and to do that, things have to change. I’m trying to find a way of doing that in a quite subtle way so that I’m not upsetting a huge fanbase.”

Nina Jacobson adds: “One of the things that Suzanne did in her books – and which the actors have been inspired by – was ask ‘What would you do if that really did happen to you?’ In this movie – even though it is a popcorn movie – you see the effects on them as human beings. What if there is a dystopian future…?”

Vissions Of Dystopia

DRAWING on Greek mythology while also looking to a dystopian future and using elements of science fiction, The Hunger Games is set in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem in North America.

The books take their name from an annual event they describe in which The Capitol, the metropolis which exercises political control over the rest of the nation, pits teenage boys and girls from the districts that make up the nation against each other in bloody battle.

Drawing also on Orwellian notions of a dystopia and even movies like The Running Man, it has adventure and a political message.

On general release.