If “Catching Fire” were a traditional studio sequel, one could reasonably expect a bigger, bloodier elimination contest to take centerstage — more of the same, presumably amplified by the extra $50 million or so Lionsgate poured into the budget this time around. Instead, this film hews to the model established by the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” franchises, where fidelity to the source material takes precedence, allowing this fictional world to grow deeper and more complex with each successive installment.
Unlike the authors of those book series, Collins got her start in screenwriting, which might explain her almost instinctively cinematic sense of storytelling, in which characters and scenes are described so vividly, fans can scarcely wait to see how they will be translated onscreen. On that level — and despite its hefty $691 million worldwide haul — “The Hunger Games” was a disappointment, clumsily shot and strangely cast (Jennifer Lawrence was nearly a decade too old, while Josh Hutcherson was hardly the stocky baker’s son readers had pictured).
Good, then, that the reins have passed from “Hunger Games” helmer Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence — a director with a firm grasp of large-canvas filmmaking, equally skilled at tense, white-knuckle sci-fi (“I Am Legend”) and bald, unapologetic romance (as evidenced by his excellent yet underseen circus swooner, “Water for Elephants”).