Catching Fire: Is the Best Director Always the Better Filmmaker?

By  · Published on April 24th, 2012

Editor’s Note: With Landon Palmer busy (read: probably writing a thesis on Sexual Deviancy in John Wayne Films in the Greater Context of Post-WWII America As Seen Through the Work of Southern Filmmakers), the excellent, insightful Adam Charles has stepped in to write this week’s entry. Enjoy.

Few things have been as equally discussed and deliberated over the past few weeks than that of who Lionsgate was going to choose to take the reigns from Gary Ross to direct the second installment in The Hunger Games franchise. The first film had one of the biggest opening weekends in history (and it didn’t even require 3D price-hikes to get there), earned a positive majority from critics, and has a dedicated fanbase that defies demographic lines of fandom; and they’re chomping at the bit to see the next adaptation in the series, Catching Fire, as quickly as possible.

Neither Lucas, Spielberg, or even Peter Jackson’s franchises could replicate just how much of the domestic populous is waiting for the next picture.

The studio was working with a rigidly limited time-frame of their own making by trying to get the next installment into theaters by next Spring. This was further complicated by only having a few months left to shoot before star Jennifer Lawrence has to revert her attention over to her other franchise role at Fox as Mystique in the next X-Men film. Oddly enough, the director of that franchise might have made a pretty good candidate to take over the position Lionsgate was trying to fill.

Over the past few weeks there were news items of Lionsgate wish-lists of filmmakers they wanted to approach with David Cronenberg, Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu and Alfonso Cuaron topping the list of experienced and critically-lauded directors. They are three of the most uniquely talented filmmakers in world cinema, so they obviously sparked deep intrigue from cinema lovers. I imagine the majority of the fans of The Hunger Games have no idea who any of them are; nor really care.

Then came the announcement that the studio had personally approached and spoken to these four filmmakers:

Two of those names (the latter two) really grabbed the attention of the film geek community as they are two of the more promising newcomers in genre filmmaking. Another name (the first one) seemed like the most fitting selection to take over from a filmmaker who he seemed to share similar sensibilities with. Miller and Ross worked in dramatic pictures before being approached for The Hunger Games, both only had two pictures under their belt and one of which for each was an inspiring sports drama. Seemed logical to give the picture to an Academy Award nominated director with an impeccable (albeit young) portfolio who most likely has a decently small price tag and would fit in almost the exact same pair of shoes previously broken in by Gary Ross.

The one who inevitably got the job was Francis Lawrence; the one I didn’t say anything about yet.

I didn’t discuss Lawrence because from a film fan perspective there isn’t anything particularly sexy about Lawrence. His films appeal to the majority, they have good production value (though not fantastic Computer Generated imagery) and they are not considerably stimulating or special in comparison to their contemporaries. You get the sense that anyone could have made his films and if any of the directors previously highlighted in this article had done his films they would have done something that was stylistically much more identifiable; and therefore ‘special.’

Which is to say that Francis Lawrence seems like precisely the right fit for the Lionsgate versions of The Hunger Games.

At the risk of offending half of the United States (or more) I don’t say that as a presumption that the fans of the book series wouldn’t want the best filmmaker possible in the driver’s seat of their cherished property; it’s more that from the assumed perspective of most of the population I don’t believe the majority of the fans of the series even know who any of these people are, by name, to begin with.

The only one of the names that stands a chance at being recognized by many is Alfonso Cuaron, and that’s not because of his directing one of the most unforgettable dystopian, science-fiction films of the modern era (Children of Men); it’s because he directed, arguably, the best installment in the most financially successful franchise in the world of any era (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban).

However, if you were to poll the fans of The Hunger Games series and name the films that each of these filmmakers made I can almost guarantee that most of the fans will not only recognize, but say they enjoyed the films of Francis Lawrence despite what any critic or film buff claims. Lawrence makes movies for the masses and the majority of that mass enjoy the movies he makes for them. Many of the individuals who presumably don’t like his work are fans of the material his films were adapted from and they didn’t like them (most specifically I Am Legend) because the film wasn’t made for them, it was made for everyone else.

Now, Lawrence has material that is made for the ‘everyone else’ already and that ‘everyone else’ already seemed mostly okay with the few liberties that Ross took with the material. Okay enough, at least, to garner still growing box-office numbers that rival the sum of all three of Lawrence’s prior pictures combined, and I Am Legend was a blockbuster in its own right.

Point being that while Lawrence may not make the best possible filmmaker, he is actually the most logical choice of the filmmakers mentioned. Lionsgate doesn’t need a filmmaker who will make something unforgettable (the fanbase alone will make it unforgettable for themselves), they need a filmmaker who will not risk ruining the material that is beloved rabidly by hundreds of millions of people by trying to make the film his own. They prefer to go the route of the Harry Potter franchise (overall safe, not particularly daring) versus a Stanley Kubrick for The Shining.

They want a director, not an auteur, because – and nothing against Stephen King and his book(s) – but what fans will do to the filmmaker (and the studio who hired him) who makes The Hunger Games too specific for the critical minds while sacrificing the mass’s taste…even King himself couldn’t come up with horrors that await that man.

Or woman, if one had been considered.

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