In recent years, few film franchises have achieved the phenomenal success of The Hunger Games. The films — based on Suzanne Collins’s young adult novels — have cumulatively earned $2.3 billion at the worldwide box office, a figure that will certainly receive a solid boost once the highly anticipated final film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, completes its theatrical run. However, despite that series’ place in cinema history, director Francis Lawrence — the man behind all but the first Hunger Games film — has yet to fully receive the recognition he deserves.
Lawrence initially broke out as a music video director, having helmed more than 100 videos since 1993 for such high-profile artists as Lady Gaga, Green Day, Britney Spears, and Aerosmith. Even back then, his visual flair and energetic style translated into standout work, and in 2005, Lawrence was able to successfully translate that aesthetic into Constantine, the big-screen adapatation of the Hellblazer comic book. Although hardcore fans of the comic book criticized controversial changes made to the source material, Lawrence’s direction emerged as a highlight, with the film earning $230 million worldwide.
However, while that film established Lawrence as a talent to watch, his next release was far more successful. The director brought Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend to post-apocalyptic life for the third time, with Will Smith in the lead role. Likely, it was this film that led executives to seek him out for the Hunger Games gig, as I Am Legend similarly centers on a bleak future and an emotionally tormented hero beset by responsibilities far beyond his/her own personal life. While many cinephiles prefer the film’s alternate ending, there’s little point in denying that Lawrence nails the gravity of the situation Smith’s Robert Neville is in and demonstrates his ability to take on a meatier, more emotional grounded tale. Even more importantly (at least by business standards), I Am Legend proved that Lawrence could handle a big studio tentpole film, given the film’s prime mid-December release date.
Rather than simply parlay this success into another sci-fi/horror adaptation, Lawrence instead opted for the period romantic drama Water for Elephants, starring Twilight star Robert Pattinson and Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz. Naturally, the film — based on Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel — did not demonstrate the mainstream appeal as Lawrence’s two previous directorial efforts. Nevertheless, Water for Elephants earned mostly positive reviews and brought in $117 million worldwide against a $38 million production budget. Moreover, it afforded Lawrence the chance to keep himself from getting pigeonholed in doing the same kinds of projects his entire career.
In fact, following the success of I Am Legend, Lawrence not only stretched his muscles as a filmmaker with Water for Elephants but also broadened his scope to include television series as well. In the past few years, he has produced two short-lived drama series, Kings and Touch — in 2009 and 2012-13, respectively — and even directed a few episodes as well. While neither managed to retain enough viewers to stay on the air, both shows were praised for their originality and bold approach to storytelling, proving to be essential steps in Lawrence’s own evolution as an artist and a storyteller.
So when The Hunger Games director Gary Ross declined to return for the sequel, Lawrence was tapped to replace him. Fans and critics instantly took notice of the clearer vision and sharper visual palette behind The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and it didn’t take long for Lionsgate to lock the director down for the remaining two films, each of which has felt closer to Collins’ novels than the first film, which was derided in part for its shaky camera style. Conversely, Lawrence has been praised for his handling of the franchise going forward and the way in which he has continued to evolve the dystopian world established in the first film.
While Lawrence has been caught up in The Hunger Games franchise lately, here’s hoping that series will lead him to even greater projects both on television and the big screen. With each release, his skill behind the camera appears to evolve, and we can only imagine the great works he still has up his sleeve. For years, he has been steadily building a solid resume of diverse work that could easily lead him to becoming the next A-list director. Regardless if Lawrence does finally receive his due, we’ll be watching to see what he does next.
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