On a March night last year, a Halloween atmosphere permeated a crowded auditorium at Harkins Bricktown 16.
In the row behind my friend Carissa and me, a group had carefully planned their complementary costumes: A brunette with braided hair donned a dark leather jacket and brandished a bow, while her “sister” wore a white shirt that wanted to form a ducktail above her beige skirt. One boy carried a loaf of bread and wore a white apron, while another wielded a plastic trident with a net slung over his shoulder.
But the scene-stealer off the film screen was the young lady with the gaudy makeup, garish pink suit and over-the-top fuchsia headpiece: a convincing facsimile of Effie Trinket had come to Oklahoma City for the night.
Between the faithful costumes and the palpable air of excitement, it was easy to sense at that midnight screening of “The Hunger Games” just how eager fans of Suzanne Collins' books were to see her dystopian trilogy brought to life, Hollywood-style.
I didn't have to see the record-breaking box-office results — with its $152.5 million debut weekend, the initial film set a revenue record for a nonsequel — to realize just how big “The Hunger Games” phenomenon had already become.
The phenomenon reaches the sequel stage with Friday's opening of the second film, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” one of the most anticipated movies of the year.
With heavy competition coming this holiday season from the fantasy sequel “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the long-awaited comedy follow-up “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” and the Oklahoma-set and filmed drama “August: Osage County,” it's unlikely “Catching Fire” will hold onto the top spot at the domestic box office for four straight weeks like its predecessor. But the odds are in the sequel's favor that it will reach or surpass the $408 million total “The Hunger Games” took in during its 2012 theatrical run.
Fortunately, director Gary Ross kept too much Hollywood style from sneaking into his franchise-launching adaptation of the first book in Collins' popular and acclaimed series. There are so many ways that a PG-13 movie version of the young-adult writer's near-future sci-fi tale about a government-mandated, live-for-television game show that forces teenagers to fight to the death could have gone horribly wrong. Thankfully, though, Ross and Co. got much of the story right with their solid starter.
But the first film definitely left room for improvement, and early reviews indicate “Catching Fire” helmer Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) upped the ante with the sequel. About 700 fans spent last weekend camped out on the concrete in front of L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles to get tickets to Monday's “Catching Fire” premiere, so the series' fervent fans are still very much on board.
From a storytelling point of view, the stakes are higher in “Catching Fire.” Heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, who won an Oscar earlier this year for “Silver Linings Playbook” but earned mainstream leading-lady status with “The Hunger Games”) and her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) beat the odds to survive the 74th annual Hunger Games.
As they embark on the Victory Tour of Panem (a post-apocalyptic version of North America named after the Roman Empire's practice of distracting the people with “panem et circenses,” or bread and circuses), it's clear that Katniss has become a symbol of hope and potential rebellion for the oppressed population. Back at the Capitol, conniving President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Head Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavesbee (Oscar winner and series newcomer Philip Seymour Hoffman) scheme to eliminate the couple, who developed their romance for the benefit of the TV audience but have real, complicated feelings for each other.
Filming already has started on the two-film adaptation of the final book, “Mockingjay,” with “Part 1” due in theaters 12 months from now, and “Part 2” swooping into theaters on Nov. 20, 2015. Director Lawrence, movie star Lawrence and the rest of the “Hunger Games” principal cast are returning for the cinematic version of “Mockingjay,” in which Collins delves more deeply into the moral and societal implications of embroiling our young people in war.
Although best-seller status is no guarantee of cinematic success — for every blockbuster “Twilight Saga” or “Harry Potter” franchise there's a box-office disappointment like “Ender's Game” or “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” — the odds still seem to be in the favor of “The Hunger Games,” and as long as the moviemakers stick close to the books, the success will be well-deserved.
Contributing: The Associated Press.