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Once word was out that a film version of ‘The Hunger Games’ was in the works, speculation about casting snowballed into an internet phenomenon of its own.
Amidst the hoopla, the filmmakers began coming to grips with just how intensely invested fans of the book were in seeing something they could believe in on screen. It became clear that everyone who read the book had their own clear idea of who Katniss or Gale or Peeta should be,” notes the director, Gary Ross. “It’s a testament to how connected people become to this story, and I found it incredibly exciting.”
Adds producer Nina Jacobson: “People were very opinionated about who should play the roles and that was obviously a lot of pressure. But I feel the same way when I love a book – I don’t want anyone to mess it up. So as we began the casting process, we talked a lot about looking for the essence of these characters in the actors. You can create a lot of different things on screen, but you can’t create that essence. You have to go out and find it.”
Katniss and District 12
It began with the most difficult character of all to cast – the girl who rises from the dust and grime of Panem’s mining district to become an iconic rebel heroine: Katniss Everdeen. Her origins might be common, but Katniss is anything but a simple girl. Driven by harsh circumstances, she can be cold and calculating at times but at her core she is selfless and loyal. Only 16, she also is still very much in the process of forming her own ideals and notions of love and self-worth . . . in a world where such things are nearly impossible.
“Katniss is a fierce, independent survivor,” describes Gary Ross. “She’s a hunter, an archer and an athlete, and as the story begins, she already has amazing skills she’s developed to protect and fend for her family. Most importantly, she’s someone who comes to know her own truth. One thing Suzanne and I talked about is that she is a bit like Joan of Arc – someone who can’t abide tyrants, which ultimately gives her the courage to defy the Capitol.”
Executive producer Robin Bissell further observes, “In the middle of the Games, important questions arise for Katniss – not just can she survive but is she able to love, and who does she love? She gains remarkable strength but also blossoms as a human being.”
Young actresses across the world coveted the role, but the search stopped when Ross and Lionsgate executives met with Jennifer Lawrence, who had garnered an Oscar nomination for her devastating performance as a girl protecting her family in the low-budget indie thriller ‘Winter’s Bone’. Most importantly, Collins herself gave her blessing to Lawrence.
Collins admits that initially she had some trepidation over the idea that anyone could embody the Katniss she’d envisioned. But Lawrence set those worries to rest. In a letter to readers of Entertainment Weekly, Collins wrote: “In her remarkable audition piece, I watched Jennifer embody every essential quality necessary to play Katniss.
I saw a girl who has the potential rage to send an arrow into the Gamemakers and the protectiveness to make Rue her ally. Who has conquered both Peeta and Gale’s hearts even though she’s done her best to wall herself off emotionally from anything that would lead to romance.
Most of all, I believed that this was a girl who could hold out that handful of berries and incite the beaten down districts of Panem to rebel. I think that was the essential question for me. Could she believably inspire a rebellion? Did she project the strength, defiance and intellect you would need to follow her into certain war?
For me, she did. Jennifer’s just an incredible actress. So powerful, vulnerable, beautiful, unforgiving and brave. I never thought we’d find somebody this amazing for the role. And I can’t wait for everyone to see her play it.”
“I felt I’d found the one person who could possibly play Katniss,” recalls Ross of meeting Lawrence. “I’ve worked with many amazing actors but I think someone like Jen comes around once in a generation. She’s an unbelievable talent and she brings so many qualities that are raw and true to the character, from her natural athleticism to her emotional power. I can always imagine different versions of films I direct, but I can’t imagine a version of this film without Jen.”
Adds Jacobson: “In her audition, Jen stole the role. There was instant power, intensity and certainty in her performance. Some people can be fierce and others can be tender, but Jen is both.”