Writing ‘War-Appropriate’ Stories for Kids: 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 second 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 second in a five-part series:

TIME: Francis, what sold you on Catching Fire? What made you want to make this movie?
Francis Lawrence: The stories in general I loved. The theme and the idea of the consequence of war and what that does to people and how people are affected by war and by violence. I just thought that there’s not many of these YA stories that really come from a real idea and a strong, topical, relatable idea. Then I had the opportunity with Catching Fire to sort of open the world up. Part of what I love to do is creation, and there was a bunch of world creation done in the first one, but there was more opportunity — we were going to see more of the Capitol, more of 12, lots of other districts. There was a brand-new arena that had nothing to do with the first arena. So there was a lot visually for me to sink my teeth into.

Did you feel as though you wanted to keep to the same kind of visual style and visual vocabulary that [Hunger Games director] Gary [Ross] had established?
FL: I think it would have been a little bit of a mistake to entirely throw out an approach to a movie when it’s a franchise. I would never do that to a franchise. But in saying that, I thought there were some opportunities to open up the scope in terms of the costumes and the visual effects and just geography in general. I liked Gary’s naturalistic approach. I have my own version of it, my own style. I don’t shoot the way he does, I choose different kinds of lenses, and part of that is to feel more intimate with characters while still maintaining a sense of place. So I have a different approach, but I kept the same production designer on, because he designed the Capitol, and those aesthetics should carry through. And even the other districts, there should still be aesthetic unity all the way through that I wanted to make sure we maintained.

(MORE: Beyond the Blood: What The Hunger Games Can Teach Tweens)

To step back a bit: Suzanne, why write a book like this? Why write a book about war and violence for teenagers? Why is it important that they know about that?
Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games is part of a larger goal I have, which is to write a war-appropriate story for every age of kids, which I sort of completed in September when I had a picture book come out called Year of the Jungle. It’s an autobiographical piece about the year my father was in Vietnam and it’s a home-front story. That’s me, that’s my family, those are the postcards he sent, the imagery from it — it’s very nonfiction.

The first one I did was the middle-reader piece, which was The Underland Chronicles: Gregor the Overlander — that’s maybe 9 through 14. And then The Hunger Games was the YA one. My father was career military. He was a veteran, he was a doctor of political science, he taught at West Point and Air Command Staff and lectured at the War College. And when he got back from Vietnam, I was probably about 6, and he, I think, felt it was his responsibility to make sure that all his children had an understanding about war, about its cost, its consequences.

So I felt like I was sort of tutored in that from somebody who was very experienced in it both as a real life and as a historical basis. And if I took the 40 years of my dad talking to me about war and battles and taking me to battlefields and distilled it down into one question, it would probably be the idea of the necessary or unnecessary war. That’s very much at the heart of it.

The picture book is really just an introduction to the idea of war, because at 6 is when I figured out what it was. The Underland Chronicles, sort of moving along in sophistication, is about the unnecessary war. The Underland Chronicles is an unnecessary war for a very long time until it becomes a necessary war, because there have been all these points where people could have gotten off the train but they didn’t, they just kept moving the violence forward until it’s gone out of control. In The Hunger Games, in most people’s idea, in terms of rebellion or a civil-war situation, that would meet the criteria for a necessary war. These people are oppressed, their children are being taken off and put in gladiator games. They’re impoverished, they’re starving, they’re brutalized. It would for most people be an acceptable situation for rebellion.

And then what happens is that it turns back around on itself. If you look at the arenas as individual wars or battles, you start out in the first one and you have a very classic gladiator game. By the second one it has evolved into what is the stage for the rebellion, because the arena is the one place that all the districts that cannot communicate with each other, it’s the one place they can all watch together. So it’s where the rebellion blows up.

And then the third arena is the Capitol, which has now become an actual war. But in the process of becoming an actual war, in the process of becoming a rebellion, they have now replicated the original arena. So it’s cyclical, and it’s that cycle of violence that seems impossible for us to break out of.

In the third part of the interview, running Wednesday, Collins discusses the influences of Lord of the Flies and Greek mythology