How rare for a movie to actually capture some of that bottled magic that lives in the pages of a favorite book. And yet there it was in the fierce and panicked furrow of Jennifer Lawrence’s brow when The Hunger Games reached its climax and we knew our heroine would indeed see home again. Our weary warrior Katniss faced an uncertain future. It turned out the sequel, Catching Fire, did as well. Just months before production began, the movie found itself without a director or a script. ”We all went through a phase where we were like, ‘Dude, we have no idea what’s going to happen,”’ says Lawrence.

Enter Francis Lawrence (no relation), a director used to working under the gun. (He made the Will Smith apocalyptic thriller I Am Legend under a similar time crunch, employing his talent and affable nature in a brutal production schedule.) ”Lionsgate knew I could handle the size of the movie, and we were all in agreement of what the movie should be,” he says. ”It’s still really Katniss’ story — there are no diversions from her. I wanted to be true to the book, and I didn’t want to reinvent it in any way. It just needed an adaptation.”

So producer Nina Jacobson put her new director and Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins in a Manhattan hotel room, where they spent three days last spring hammering out a new outline before screenwriter Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) stepped in. For the sake of the movie, they trimmed the novel’s first third, in which a traumatized Katniss is locked in an internal debate about whether she’s more wedded to herself or the revolution she’s unwittingly sparked. The scene where she stumbles upon District 8 refugees Bonnie and Twill in her father’s hunting cabin, for instance? Cut. Or when she jumps from the trip-wire fence and sprains her ankle? Gone.

But the beating heart of the book remains intact, Francis Lawrence promises. President Snow (Donald Sutherland), fearful of the growing unrest in Panem, sentences a stunned Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) to return to the Capitol and fight to the death once more in an all-star edition of the Hunger Games. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Plutarch Heavensbee, the new Head Gamemaker, and Jeffrey Wright is a former victor hurled back into battle, along with Snow White and the Huntsman‘s Sam Claflin as District 4’s trident-wielding charmer Finnick Odair. Claflin spent many hours prepping for his very first scene, where he casually ties a knot in a rope while talking to Katniss. ”I wanted to do it just standing up, chatting away,” says the actor, who last month wed British actress Laura Haddock. ”I’d practiced and practiced for weeks just in my room. I must have looked like a crazy person in my hotel room tying a noose constantly. I remember I was on Skype with [Laura] and she said, ‘You do look nuts.”’

The fans have three more long months of waiting before they can see if the sequel lives up to the beloved second book in Collins’ trilogy. But there’s reason to hope. Lawrence brought in a new costume designer, Trish Summerville, to amp up the level of manic sophistication in the Capitol’s high fashion. And a new visual-effects supervisor, Janek Sirrs (The Avengers), should deliver the effects required for the grander scale of the new arena.

Most encouragingly of all, Hunger Games‘ heroine is happy. ”Francis is really passionate about the book,” says Jennifer Lawrence. ”It didn’t seem like he was just excited to make a huge movie.” Do you hear that, readers? He’s one of us.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 146 minutes
  • Francis Lawrence