Since the success of the Twilight films, producers around the world have been scouring their offspring's bookshelves for young adult fiction novels to adapt into feature films in the hope of starting a new global franchise. Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments and I Am Number Four, amongst others, have all made the transition to the big screen and to date arguably the only unqualified success since Twilight has been The Hunger Games.
The first book of Suzanne Collins' trilogy was brought to the screen by Gary Ross in March 2012 and it proved to be a critical and commercial hit ($691m worldwide, with £24m from the UK alone). The bleak dystopian world where one boy and one girl from the 12 districts of Panem are pitted against each other in a fight to the death, was expertly realised and the film was anchored by a terrific lead performance from seemingly fearless lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss Everdeen. Since the first film Lawrence has won a Best Actress Oscar and the books have attracted even more fans. To say that Catching Fire is highly anticipated is putting it very lightly.
Picking up where the first film ended, reigning Hunger Games champions Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are about to embark on a victory tour of the remaining Panem districts, maintaining their romantic charade under President Snow's orders in an effort to keep the spirits of the downtrodden citizens high and distract from the whisperings of revolution. Katniss is reluctantly cast as a symbol of hope and potential rebellion amongst the people and the sinister Snow (Donald Sutherland), along with new head of the games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), conducts a plan to tarnish her image and crush any seeds of hope. The plan involves creating a sort of champions of champions Hunger Games, where previous winners of the games face off in a brand new, torturous arena that includes angry competitors, even angrier fog and the angriest baboons.
There's a lot to get through, at times too much, and as someone who hasn't read the book it can feel like the writers are box-ticking to cover every plot point fans of the book are expecting. It's an understandable approach but it doesn't make for a wholly satisfying narrative. The opening hour particularly has a huge amount to cram in, re-acquainting us with familiar characters and introducing a host of new ones. It's only once the competitors are in the arena that the film really hits its stride, with some gripping action sequences.
Taking over directing duties from Gary Ross is Francis Lawrence, who proved himself adept at bleak dystopias with I Am Legend. Gone with Ross is the distracting handheld camerawork that was employed in The Hunger Games and, with a budget that has reportedly almost doubled from the first film, Catching Fire feels suitably more epic. It almost seems unnecessary to say that Jennifer Lawrence is terrific. She's making a habit out of being great in everything she appears in and she adds to her growing list of impressive turns here. More surprisingly, Josh Hutcherson's Peeta becomes a far more interesting element of the story. In the first film he had little to do aside from play with make-up and stare longingly at Katniss. Here his character has more depth and two thirds of the way through, you can understand why such a strong, impressive woman as Katniss may give him a second look.
Of the new recruits, Philip Seymour Hoffman effortlessly provides the necessary gravitas in the few scenes he's in and Jena Malone's spikey Johanna is a welcome unpredictable presence in the gaming arena that the first film lacked. Catching Fire is a solidly made thriller that has the capacity to surprise. The unrelenting bleakness can be a bit wearing at times (can someone please provide some light relief?) and the film predictably ends on a cliff-hanger that almost had me asking 'is that it?', but this is impressive big budget entertainment. Fans of the books are likely to be more than satisfied and I will be spending the next year doing my best to avoid learning how the story unfolds.