“Come for the Love Story, Stay for the War”: A Conversation with Suzanne Collins and Francis Lawrence

TIME talks to the writer-creator of "The Hunger Games" and the director of "Catching Fire" — the fifth in an exclusive five-part series

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Francis Lawrence, director of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games Trilogy
Peter Hapak for TIME

Francis Lawrence, director of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games Trilogy

With The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opening in theaters on Friday, Nov. 22, TIME book critic Lev Grossman recently sat down for a long and wide-ranging conversation with Hunger Games creator-writer Suzanne Collins and Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence.

This is the fifth in a five-part series:

When I read people writing about the Hunger Games, there seems to be a split between people who read it as an allegory of the emotional experience of being an adolescent, and there are people who read it more literally as an exploration of the moral issues surrounding war and political oppression. Is it both? Are you comfortable with both?

Suzanne Collins: I have read so many interpretations. There’s a whole Christian allegory. There’s you know, I’ve seen people talk about it like Plato’s cave, which is really fun. I’ve seen an indictment of big government. I’ve seen, you know, the 99 percent kind of thing. I think people bring a lot of themselves to the book. When Hunger Games first came out, I could tell people were having very different experiences. It’s a war story. It’s a romance. Other people are like, it’s an action-adventure story.

You know, for me it was always first and foremost a war story, but whatever brings you into the story is fine with me. And then, of course, if a person interprets it as an adolescent experience or a Christian allegory, you can’t tell them they didn’t. That was their genuine response to it, and they’re going to have it, and that’s fine. You can’t both write and then sit on the other side and interpret it for people.

I can tell you that for me it was a war story. But it also has so many ethical issues because you’re dealing with war, and there’s all these other ethical issues surrounding with, you know, there’s violence, there’s war, there’s hunger, there’s the propaganda, there’s the environment’s been destroyed, there’s a ruthless government, misuse of power and all these other elements that come into play with it, and people may respond to ones that are most important to them, and you know other people came for the love story. That’s fine. Come for the love story, stay for the war.

Francis, do you read reactions from the fans online? Do you follow what people say on Twitter about casting and things like that?

Francis Lawrence: I do, a little bit yeah. I mean it’s been really positive in my experience so far, which has been really nice. I mean, I have to say when I got the job I sort of stayed offline for about a week or two, I was just sort of nervous about…

SC: Till they were done talking about you?

FL: Yeah, whatever their feelings were, I didn’t want to know. Then, I sort of started to read stuff as things would be announced. Or there would be rumors, you know. But the quality of the people that we were getting was so great. I think the biggest controversy was going to surround the Finnick choice. Everybody had their idea of what this god-like man was going to look like. You know to some, it’s somebody the size of Chris Hemsworth in Thor; and to others, Sam Claflin is perfect. But there was always going to be a little bit of a controversial decision there.

How tough was it on the actors getting into the physical stuff? Combat, and all that stuff. It looked hard.

FL: It was hard. For people like Jen and Josh and Sam, you know, you do the Monkey Mutt fight, we’re in this swampy, muddy pool of water in this rainy, muddy jungle for about a week. And Jen was getting ear infections, and Josh was threatening that she was going to get trench foot, and then of course she believed that she was going to get trench foot. So it was hard. Hawaii — I mean everybody says, Ooh lucky, you get to go to Hawaii. But when you’re in the jungles and doing that kind of stuff, it’s tricky. You’re really in the elements.

There’s a remarkable scene where Katniss, she’s just heard about the Quarter Quell and she runs into the forest and just feels everything all at once. Tell me about that scene

FL: Well we shot it very, very quickly. We actually shot two days just outside of the city here in the Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey. In January, when Jen was on her tour for Silver Linings, you know, the Oscar campaign, we caught up with her  and shot two days in the mountains. And it was about 9 degrees. It was freezing, freezing cold. Because it was so cold and because in that scene she’s not wearing a coat, I could only ask her to do it three or four times, and she had done a few takes where she had been screaming out, “No, no, no, no, no.” Then I asked her to do that silently, and that ended up being the take that we used.

Tell me about something else that was difficult – tougher than you expected.

FL: The Cornucopia stuff was really difficult. The way we did the arena was that we built the Cornucopia on an island, and a couple of the spokes. And the little platform they come up on, we built on this pond in Atlanta. And we couldn’t shoot it until about mid-November, so the water was 40 degrees and kind of murky. It wasn’t looking very good. And so just maneuvering around that water and getting people in and out of this 40-degree water was really, really difficult. We weren’t even medically allowed to have Mags get into the water because it was so cold and it would raise her blood pressure up.

SC: We were talking about Mockingjay once, and didn’t you say, “At least there’s no water.”

FL: Yes. At least there’s no water. Or very little.

SC: That’s how he consoled himself.

Have you been surprised by what a big adult audience that book’s built?

SC: Oh yes. I didn’t anticipate that. I thought that I would maybe have my Gregor audience because they’d grown up into that YA audience, and then you know that handful of people who will read anything about dystopia, so it was a very pleasant surprise. I didn’t anticipate it.

Did you know when you were writing it that this was something very new and big?

SC: No.


SC: No. It’s just like writing everything else. I think of the early months, which was a lot of me sitting there reading survival books. None of which I can practice, but that I know academically now. And just, I worked on it just as I had worked on the Gregor books. I used the exact same process. And no, I didn’t have any sense of it being different.

Now you’ve spawned an entire subgenre.

SC: I don’t think I can take credit for that.

You can! Go ahead, take it.

SC: Well, I just think the dystopian stories are striking a nerve with people right now, and the Hunger Games contributed somewhat to that, but that can’t be the whole explanation for it. It’s something that’s going on within the culture. I think people respond to dystopian stories because they’re ways of acting out anxieties that we have and fears that we have about the future. And so much media’s coming at you and so much stuff comes at you over the Internet, your brain gets overloaded, you don’t know what to do with it. And one thing you can do with it is to spend a story or read a story. I mean I think of dystopian literature as being cautionary tales, and it’s a way you can kind of frame it and try to make sense and kind of set it outside yourself but look at the issues involved.

Has your life changed a lot since the books came out?

SC: Not my real life. I mean, I still have the same friends and my family and my writing, and that’s my real life. But the big change would be this would be the first time in my career where I’ve been able to work on whatever I wanted and not have financial concerns involved. You know that’s how I made my living for many years, and that’s a luxury I don’t think anyone that’s been a writer long-term would not be very grateful for or unaware of.

Did you give yourself a present? Did you buy yourself a sports car?

SC: My studio, so that I could move from my chair, since the office was taken by the kids. We built a little studio space outside the house, just across the driveway. That was my present.

What are you working on now, now that you’re free to work on things without financial concerns?

SC: Well, I probably have a few more rounds of notes on the last script, and the picture book has just come out, but it’s done. I have a new piece I’m playing around with, and it’s very new so I can’t give you the specifics of it, and we’ll just see where it goes. It may go nowhere. Right now it’s extremely complicated, and it would have to simplified a good deal to make it into a narrative. The world is complex. We’ll see.

Last question. You’re in the arena, the games start. Do you go for the Cornucopia, or would you run for the trees?

FL: Oh, I would be like the Morphlings. I would go run and hide until everybody else was dead. I’m a big chicken. That’s what I would do. I’m with the Morphlings.

SC: I would definitely have run. And climbed a tree.