The books were a publishing sensation
Back in 2008, publishing houses the world over were looking high and low for that most elusive of properties, The Next Harry Potter. With Deathly Hallows having brought the boy wizard’s journey to a close (on the page anyway) the previous summer, there was a vacuum to be filled in the fantasy fiction market, and the time was right for the launch of a new franchise ostensibly aimed at young adults.
Enter Suzanne Collins, and her post-apocalyptic drama The Hunger Games . Set in an alternate future in the fictional country of Panem (a realm created amid the ruins of what used to be America), the book tells the story of sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdean, one of a group of teenage combatants in a state-organised, televised fight to the death. When civilisation crumbles, it would seem that broadcasting standards will be a thing of the past…
Released to widespread critical acclaim, The Hunger Games ended up on numerous “book of the year” lists, and has gone on to sell by the truckload. It was translated into 26 different languages and has been sold in 38 different countries, scooping various publishing awards along the way. Factor in the key detail that it was the first book in a trilogy, and it becomes clear why the Hunger Games saga was so ripe a prospect for a big screen makeover.
So when it was announced that Lionsgate had picked up the rights to the trilogy in 2009, few eyebrows were raised either in Hollywood or the world of publishing. The project was immediately boosted by the news that Collins herself would be adapting the script, and it wasn’t long before an Oscar-nominated writer/director was officially unveiled…
Gary Ross is directing
Whilst many names were bandied about for the position (including pretty much anybody who’s directed a Harry Potter or Twilight movie) the big job was finally awarded to Seabiscuit director Gary Ross. How did he get the gig? Well apparently, it’s because his kids were mad on the books.
When Ross first met with Lionsgate, he brought a piece of video-footage along with him in which he had interviewed his children and their friends about why they loved the stories, and which characters they identified with. In short, the man had done his homework.
“What was amazing was how insightful these kids were about this book and about Katniss as a character,” says producer Nina Jacobson. “It was so clear that Gary was interested in what the fans cared about. In terms of his understanding of Katniss, I felt he understood the duality of her character. She’s not a traditional heroine.”
Indeed, Ross himself was anxious to be able to make a film that the younger fans of the franchise would be able to enjoy. “It’s not going to be an R-rated movie because I want the 12 and 13 and 14-year-old-fans to be able to go see it,” he told Entertainment Weekly .
“This book means too much to too many teenagers for it not to be PG-13. It’s their story and they deserve to be able to access it completely. And I don’t think it needs to be more extreme than that. I don’t need to have a huge prosthetic budget or make this movie incredibly bloody in order for it to be just as compelling, just as scary, and just as riveting.”
Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdean
When pressed on who would be picked to play the series’ teen heroine, Ross was always clear that he wanted a good fit rather than a big name. “We’ll cast the right person for the part,” he told Entertainment Weekly . “Lionsgate has been great in the respect that they don’t feel that this needs a movie star in Katniss’ role, so we can cast whoever we want.”
It was also clear that beauty alone wouldn’t be enough to win an actress the role. “I don’t think that’s the main criterion for Katniss,” Ross insisted. “What makes Katniss attractive is her strength and her assuredness and her defiance and ultimately her compassion. She knows her own truth, she feels deeply and fiercely, and this is something that the actress has to bring with her.”
In the end, the actress in question turned out to be X-Men star Jennifer Lawrence, a choice that was met with breathless approval by author Suzanne Collins. “Jennifer's just an incredible actress," she gushed in an official press release. "So powerful, vulnerable, beautiful, unforgiving and brave. I never thought we'd find somebody this perfect for the role, and I can't wait for everyone to see her play it.”
Ross was similarly chuffed at the appointment. “'I’m so excited to work with Jen and see her bring this character to life,” he said. “Katniss requires a young actress with strength, depth, complexity, tenderness, and power. There are very few people alive who can bring that to a role. Jen brings it in spades. She's going to be an amazing Katniss.”
Praise indeed, but what did Miss Lawrence herself make of it all? Well, let’s just say she had all her fingers and toes crossed. “I did this really long improv with Gary Ross,” she told LA Radio station Kiis FM. “It was the most terrifying thing of my life! When I left, and when I heard it went well, I was like, 'Are you serious?' I had my heart in my throat the entire time. I haven't been nervous at an audition in so long, but that one got me.”
Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson are her leading men
Katniss isn’t the only teen to tool up and fight, and Jennifer Lawrence was soon joined by a couple more Hollywood up-and-comers in the form of Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson. Hutcherson plays Katniss’s fellow District representative Peeta Mellark, and like Lawrence, he too has bagged the Collins seal of approval.
“People may get thrown off by, say, the colour of an actor's hair," explained Collins to Entertainment Weekly ."but I tell you, if Josh had been bright purple and had six-foot wings and gave that audition, I'd have been like, ‘Cast him! We can work around the wings.' He was that good.”
Hemsworth meanwhile, will play hardened combatant Gale Hawthorne, Katniss’s best mate (and hunting companion) from back home. And whilst Hemsworth’s casting might please female fans, Gary Ross is at pains to stress that the actor is more than just eye candy.
“On first glance he's such a hunk that it's easy to just sort of ascribe a hunk-like simplicity to him," says Ross. "But this is a phenomenally subtle actor.” That’s as maybe, but it sounds to us like there’s going to be some serious side-choosing going on amongst teenage girls the world over. Team Peeta vs. Team Gale anyone? Don’t bet against a t-shirt range arriving in a store near you…
Woody Harrelson is Haymitch Abernathy
Casting booze-addled reprobate Haymitch Abernathy was a chance to balance all that young Hollywood glamour with a good old-fashioned character actor. John C. Reilly was initially thought to be attached to the role, before Woody Harrelson was unveiled as the man to bring Haymitch to life.
And whilst the character is a somewhat tragic figure in the books, Harrelson was determined to seek out the humour of the part and bring it to the forefront of proceedings.
“"It was my objective to give the character as much comedy as I could without it seeming not to fit," Harrelson told 24 Frames . "I tried to take a certain comedic aspect and give a sense, through that, that he's been through a lot and is anesthetizing himself as a result of that."
And according to Harrelson, he’s put his own stamp on how the character looks as well. “I didn't want it to feel like just because he's an alcoholic that he would look just like any bum on the street,” he says. “So there are things that go against your expectation of what a washed-up guy would look like.”
Intriguing stuff, although such apparent tinkering might set alarm bells ringing amongst the book’s more devoted fans. Harrelson however, is confident that they have nothing to worry about.
“The essence of the book is going to be in the film," he says. "It's something we've never seen before. We have the best wardrobe, the best costume people, the best makeup people. There's a level of commitment to innovation that [ audiences ] have never seen. I think they're going to be very pleasantly surprised by it.”
The supporting cast is packed with star power
Backing up the film’s principle players is a supporting cast to rival even Harry Potter ’s gallery of talent. Next to join was Elizabeth Banks as District escort Effie Trinket, a role that Banks feels she is the perfect fit for.
“[ Effie is ] so suited to me,” the actress revealed in an interview with Parade . “She’s a little funny, she’s a little kooky, she’s a little dark. All those things really attracted me to her.”
She’ll be joined in the Capitol by Donald Sutherland, who plays President Snow, whilst Stanley Tucci has also signed on to play Caesar Flickerman, the motormouth host of the eponymous TV show. Meanwhile, Toby Jones adds yet more thespian clout as arena announcer Claudius Templesmith, as does Wes Bentley as Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane.
And then there’s Lenny Kravitz, following up his turn in Precious by playing Cinna, stylist to Katniss when she becomes a national telly star. “I think that it will please fans of the book,” Kravitz told the Associated Press . “Gary Ross is an amazing director and working with him was absolutely wonderful. He’s got complete vision and command of his project."
The action is set to be spectacular
Whilst Gary Ross has stressed that the violence of the books won’t be quite so graphic on the big screen, that’s not to say that the action on show won’t pack a hefty punch. A toned and trained Jennifer Lawrence can vouch for that…
“We all pretty much have to get in supernatural shape for this,” she told Access Hollywood of her intensive training regime. “The dieting for X-Men [ has been ] helpful!”
Describing the fight scenes as, “very intense,” Lawrence goes on to admit that she’s revelling in her new role as a kick-ass action hero. “I love archery! I really love it,” she grins. “And I’m starting to do stunts with the bow and arrow, so I kind of feel like Hugh Jackman. And then I’m doing rock climbing [ and ] tree climbing…”
All of the above appears to be something of a dream come true for the Winter’s Bone star, who was a Hunger Games reader long before she won the part. “It was great because I was such a huge fan of the books before I even knew about the movies,” she says. “I feel like a fan that gets to dress up… It was really, really great!”
Steven Soderbergh is in charge of second-unit filming
As if the cast wasn’t starry enough, Ross has even managed to bring some glitz to his supporting crew, with the surprise appointment of Steven Soderbergh as second-unit director. It’s unusual to see an Oscar-winning director on second-unit duties, but according to Soderbergh, he was only to happy to do a favour for a friend.
“The story is really simple,” Soderbergh told Moviefone . “Back in April, Gary — who is a close friend of mine I’ve exchanged creative favours with non-stop over the last 15 years — when he got the boards for the shoot in April called me and said, ‘Hey, first week of August, I got these two days of second unit. Is there any way you can come down and help me out? Because I’d rather have you do it than hire somebody who I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Actually, that works out. We’ll just be finishing Contagion and prepping Magic Mike and, yeah, it could be fun.’”
“Cut to two months later, and I show up to do this thing. Of course the whole design of it and what’s fun about it, for me, is my job is to come in and duplicate exactly what Gary and [ cinematographer ] Tom Stern are doing. To mimic as closely as I can to their aesthetic. If I’ve done my job properly, you won’t be able to tell what I did because it’s supposed to cut seamlessly into what they’re doing. That’s why he asked me to come down, because he knew that I would be rigorous about matching what they were doing.”
What next? Scorsese making the tea? Spielberg cleaning the toilets? Gary Ross is clearly a persuasive man…
The first teaser was a little disappointing
When a teaser trailer finally arrived online this August, it’s safe to say we along with everybody else were expecting a little more than a bit of running and the title logo.
Naturally, the forums were full of angry fans claiming that the adaptation was going to be a washout and Ross didn’t have a clue what he was doing. However, the man himself was quick to defend his project against the outpouring of online bile.
“Look, we’re still shooting,” he told MTV, “so unfortunately, it’s just a teaser. We could only give you a little bit because we’re still down here making the movie. There’s a lot of things to come that I think are going to be hugely epic and very emotional and incredibly powerful.”
He went on to hype the look of the film, expressing particular pride in The Capitol (home to this alternate America’s most rich and powerful citizens) which sounds as though it will be as visually arresting as it’s described in the book.
“I think that we’ve done wonderful things with the mutts [ genetically altered animals bred in The Capitol ],” he said. “I think that we’ve done a tremendous job in bringing the Capitol to life. I think that’s going to be really, really exciting for people to see.”
Remind yourself of the trailer here:
The trilogy will be made into four movies
In the wake of Warner Brothers’ controversial but profitable decision to split Deathly Hallows into two films, it should come as little surprise to learn that the Hunger Games trilogy will be made into four films.
As yet, Lionsgate have yet to confirm which of the three books will be split into two halves, although it won’t be the first instalment, which works fairly neatly as a self-contained narrative.
However, books two and three (entitled Catching Fire and Mockingbird ) are more epic, sprawling affairs, so either one could be stretched into a two-film extravaganza. There’s no shortage of action in either story, so Gary Ross (assuming it is still he in the hotseat) would have any number of potential set-piece finales to choose from.
At this stage however, we can merely speculate. What we do know is that the first film will arrive in UK screens on 23 March 2012. Suffering from Potter withdrawal symptoms? You won’t be for much longer…