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Director Gary Ross first witnessed the impact of ‘The Hunger Games’ and Katniss Everdeen on his own children. “I’d heard people raving about ‘The Hunger Games’ and when I asked my kids about it, they kind of exploded and started going on and on until I had to stop them from telling me the whole story,” he recalls. “Their enthusiasm was so infectious, I went upstairs, started reading, and by 1:30 a.m., I said ‘I have to make this movie.’ It was that impulsive.”
Right away, Ross had an unwavering vision of what lay at the heart of The Hunger Games’ appeal. “My mind was clear from the beginning,” he says. “I saw there was something really beautiful happening underneath the story. It’s obviously a viscerally exciting tale of survival within a lurid spectacle of the future.
But I think what really compels people to pass the book from one person to the next is that it is at bottom about one girl, Katniss Everdeen, finding her own humanity. She begins as someone who only wants to fight for herself, for her personal survival – yet what she finds in the course of the Games is something more important than even staying alive. Her heart opens and she becomes someone who’s willing to sacrifice for something bigger. “
He continues: “The essential thing is that you are in Katniss’ shoes. In ‘Seabiscuit’, I wanted to viscerally put the audience on the racetrack. In ‘The Hunger Games’, the audience has to be in Katniss’ head. You know what she knows. You don’t know more. You’re in this experience 100% with her. To that end, the film required a very subjective style. It had to be urgent, immediate and tightly in with Katniss the whole time.”
His desire to bring Katniss’ quest for survival and something more to life might have been instantaneous but Ross has a long history of bringing imaginatively detailed and never-before-seen worlds to life on screen.
It began with his Academy Award-nominated screenplay for ‘Big’ about a child transformed into a man; evolved with his directorial debut ‘Pleasantville’, which he also wrote, about two teens transported into a 1950s sitcom; and continued with ‘Seabiscuit’, which he wrote, produced and directed, taking audiences into the fabric of the Great Depression through the unlikely story of an underdog racehorse.
Ross was now ready to tackle creating Panem – entirely as it would be viewed by Katniss as she travels from her remote, hardscrabble District to the eye-popping Capitol, and into the unforgiving forest where the Games begin, her perspective broadening at every step.
He began by going directly to the source, inviting Suzanne Collins to collaborate on the adaptation, and to bring all her deep insight into the Games and Katniss’ vital inner life with her. “It wasn’t just that Suzanne was involved. We became a writing team,” states Ross. “It was a fantastic, electric partnership. To know that you are writing a film not only supported by the author but with her input is a real gift.”
Suzanne Collins understood that the film would necessarily be its own experience, no matter how faithful to the book’s essence. “When you’re adapting a novel into a two-hour movie you can’t bring everything with you,” she notes. “Not all the characters are going to make it to the screen.
For example, we gave up Madge, cut the Avox girl’s backstory, and reduced the Career pack. It was hard to let them go but I don’t think that the choices damaged the emotional arc of the story. Then there was the question of how best to take a book told in the first person and transform it into a satisfying dramatic experience. In the novel, you never leave Katniss for a second and are privy to all of her thoughts. We needed to find ways to dramatize her inner world.”
As Ross and Collins worked through these challenges – as well as the question of how to present the violence that is so much a part of what Katniss faces in an appropriate yet impactful way for a PG-13 audience – they came to admire each other’s creativity. “Gary was a complete pleasure to work with,” sums up Collins. “Amazingly talented, collaborative and always respectful of the book.”
For Ross, the screen adaptation had to start with the world that has made Katniss who she is: Panem, a dystopian future realm which owes a debt to classic sci-fi influences from George Orwell to Margaret Atwood, yet that Collins made specific to both a 16-year-old’s view-point and our current moment in American culture.
“The back story of Panem that has to be alluded to is that a variety of forces — global warming, scarcity of resources, lengthy wars, all these things – ripped away at what used to be American culture and culminated in a very oppressive state. When the districts rebelled, the Capitol instituted the Hunger Games as a means of control, to keep the people in line,” explains Ross.
Both Ross and Collins wanted to highlight the way the Games amplify today’s obsession with reality television into something that puts Katniss and her fellow Tributes in mortal danger. As sinister and despised as the Games are, people across Panem nevertheless get caught up in them because they yearn to see someone they relate to triumph and have his or her life transformed.
“The Games are like a Roman spectacle but they’re also a lot like the reality TV we see right now,” comments Ross. “People are riveted by the Games because we all have this need to root for someone to make it. When President Snow says ‘the only thing stronger than fear is hope’ it’s because he knows hope is what gets people so involved in the contest.
It’s one of the brilliant things that Suzanne does in the book – she shows how the best way to control people is not to subjugate them but to get them to participate. That’s how the Capitol uses the Games to control the districts.”
Ross also began to envision the physical architecture of the Capitol, which he knew had to radiate authority to Katniss but also reveal the cynical decadence of those who would prosper while she and others struggle. He and Collins agreed the city should be rooted in history, not fantasy, even as it nearly overwhelms Katniss in the beginning.
“We wanted the Capitol to give off a sense of its past,” he explains. “If you look at any seat of power — from the Brandenburg Gate to Red Square — it’s open space punctuated by buildings of tremendous mass. That was our idea behind it. To Katniss, it all evokes a sense of might and power.”
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