Bringing The Hunger Games to the screen

The Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson and director Francis Lawrence, who helmed Mockingjay Part 2.
The Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson and director Francis Lawrence, who helmed Mockingjay Part 2.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

LONDON • The pressure is on. The endgame is near. There will be blood, brutality, death and scary lizard mutants smashing through a sewer. The final film instalment of Suzanne Collins' best-selling trilogy, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, opens in Singapore tomorrow, and millions of fans worldwide will scrutinise it for its fidelity to the books; the portrayal (by Jennifer Lawrence) of its intrepid, taciturn heroine Katniss Everdeen; and its evocation of the civil war that rends Panem, the totalitarian state built from the ashes of North America at some unspecified time in the future.

The pressure has always been on for the makers of The Hunger Games films. More than nine million copies of the trilogy were in print in the United States by the time the first movie was being planned, and a huge fan base, with very specific ideas about Katniss and her world, already existed. Despite the blockbuster nature of the books, Collins' dystopian vision of an annual gladiatorial game of wits and weapons, in which 24 teenagers - a boy and a girl from each of Panem's 12 districts - must kill one another while the entire population watches on television, was not an easy one to bring to the screen.

"Many studios just passed," said Nina Jacobson who, along with Jon Kilik, has produced the film series from the start.

"Kids killing kids, a young protagonist, female, and what's with the weird name?" she said. "I had people saying: 'Couldn't you age up the characters? Can we make the love triangle more important?'"

The independent producer said she became fixated on the series after an employee persuaded her to read the first novel. She also convinced Collins that she would find a studio which would be faithful to the values in the books.

"The book is about the consequences and the commercialisation of violence, so it can't be guilty of commercialising violence itself," she said of the film franchise. "That was the first conversation we had."

She and Collins eventually chose Lionsgate from three potential studios, even though it had never made a film on the projected scale of The Hunger Games.

"Having been a corporate soldier for most of my career, I was aware of how scared big companies can get down the line," Jacobson said. "At Lionsgate, everyone was in the room from the beginning and knew exactly what they were in for."

One of those things was Collins' uncompromising vision of a heroine who is not friendly, funny, kooky or defined by a man. Still, Jacobson insisted that there had never been any demands to direct the role differently. Director Francis Lawrence, who was responsible for Mockingjay Part 2 and the two preceding films, agreed.

"The conventional arc for this kind of movie would have been that she was petrified to go into the games and learns courage and triumphs," he said. "Instead, she volunteers, is courageous from the beginning and is changed in other ways - and not always for the better. In the last movie, it is her fault that some of the loss of life happens."

He added that he liked that the love triangle involving Katniss, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) - her fellow tribute from District 12 - and her childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is not at the forefront of the movies or the books. "It's just about survival."

Lawrence has won plaudits for her Katniss, but her casting initially drew an outcry from some fans of the novels - too old, too blonde, too curvaceous. Yet Jacobson, Kilik and the first film's director Gary Ross held their ground.

"Jen has a very youthful face and quality and, quite honestly, from the time we saw her audition, there was no one else we considered."

After the wild box-office success of the first movie in 2012, which took in US$686.5 million globally, the producers found themselves without a director. Ross, who had written the screenplay of The Hunger Games with Collins and Billy Ray, said he did not have enough time to write and direct the second instalment.

Lawrence, who had established his post-apocalyptic directing credentials in I Am Legend (2007), said he was at first hesitant when Jacobson approached him.

"I had never done a sequel to anyone else's movie," he said. "If too many parameters have been set, there is not enough to do."

After going back to the books, Lawrence said he found enough of a change of environment to make the second film, Catching Fire (2013), interesting. The decision to split the final novel Mockingjay into two parts was made before he came aboard, but he said he would not have been able to make an adequate version of the book in a single film.

"Some people thought it was cynical and money-making," he said. "But I don't think the changes that happen to people in that book are doable in a 21/2-hour movie."

Fans may not have agreed; Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) earned about US$100 million (S$142 million) less than Catching Fire. But Jacobson defended the film, saying that it was the darkest of the movies, with difficult themes of war and revolution as well as traumatic emotional events. "We hope that people seeing Part 2 will understand the need for Part 1 better," she said.

Lawrence and Jacobson said that while such themes are always relevant, they carry particular weight today. "The fear and the consequences of defying the status quo are not glossed over," Jacobson said. "You can change the world if you stand up to authority, but at a great cost."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2015, with the headline 'Bringing The Hunger Games to the screen'. Print Edition | Subscribe