“I Was Destined to Write a Gladiator Game”: 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 third 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 third in a five-part series:

The descriptions of combat in the arena are so visceral, so graphic – how did you know how far you could go, in terms of describing violence to a young audience?
Suzanne Collins: I think probably my own experience as a child. I had been exposed to these things very early through history, through my father.  He I think knew the level that was acceptable at different ages to explore a different topic or something with this. That was probably my guideline through all nine of the books.

I think that it’s very uncomfortable for people to talk to children about war. And so they don’t because it’s easier not to. But then you have young people at 18 who are enlisting in the army and they really don’t have the slightest idea what they’re getting into.  I think we put our children at an enormous disadvantage by not educating them in war, by not letting them understand about it from a very early age. It’s not about scaring them. The stories didn’t scare me when I was a child, and in these cases they’re fictionalized. Gregor is set in a fantasy world and The Hunger Games is set far in the future. I don’t get the sense that the young readers are frightened by them. I think they’re intrigued by them and in some ways I think they’re relieved to see the topic discussed.

Francis Lawrence: Yeah, and to see you not hold back.  I think that’s also part of it.  It’s that you don’t hold back; you show the consequences.

SC: It’s something we should be having dialogues about a lot earlier with our children.  It exists, but people get uncomfortable and they don’t know how to talk about it.  There are children soldiers all around the world right now who are 9, 10, carrying arms, forced to be at war and whatnot.  Can our children not even read a fictional story about it?  I think they can.

Why write it as science fiction?  Why not write a realist novel about an actual war that took place? 
SC: I think because there are sort of allegorical elements to it.  The arena’s very allegorical.  It’s the symbol – we’re going to watch it transform.  And I need to be able to create that, manipulate it, as I need it to work out.  There’s a basis for the war, historically, in the Hunger Games, which would be the third servile war, which was Spartacus’ war, where you have a man who is a slave who is then turned into a gladiator who broke out of the gladiator school and led a rebellion and then became the face of the war. So there is a historical precedent for that arc for a character.  But I think I needed the freedom to create elements that I wasn’t going to neatly find in history.

Francis, did you think about where the line was, in terms of showing graphic violence?
FL: Well, I remember when I was reading the book The Hunger Games the first time, even though I wasn’t involved in that one at all, I was thinking this is going to be really tricky, just because I’ve had ratings issues with other movies that I’ve done in the past. I’m thinking, Gosh, child endangerment is a tricky thing with the ratings board, and showing kids killing other kids is tricky. I on the other hand had a different experience, because there’s far fewer children in Catching Fire than in the Hunger Games.  You’re now dealing with an arena full of victors, so now we have an 80-year-old woman, and Katniss and Peeta, I think, are the youngest ones.

SC: They’re the only two that are still technically minors.  They’re 17, and the next youngest is probably Johanna and she’s 21.

FL: And there’s also far less human-on-human violence in this movie. The arena itself becomes much deadlier. So I was really far less worried than I would have been had I been making the first film.

People always mention Lord of the Flies in connection with The Hunger Games. Was that an influence on you?
SC: Lord of the Flies is one of my favorite books. That was a big influence on me as a teenager; I still read it every couple of years.

That’s definitely a book where I read it as a teenager and thought, I’m not being lied to.  No one’s papering over the cracks.  This is what people are like and how it would play out.  What else was an influence? 
SC: In terms of the initial impulse for the story, I was a Greek mythology fanatic as a child, so you’ll definitely see elements of that, from Theseus and the minotaur and the oppression of Crete by Athens, the lottery and the calling of the youths and the maidens to be thrown into the labyrinth in Crete.  Also Spartacus – when I was a child I was fascinated with the gladiator movies, so there was Spartacus and Demetrius and the Gladiators, but Spartacus is the top of the line, so that would have to be an influence.

But that was also a real part of history to me, because my father would tell me the historical context, and he would go get his copy of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and read me the part about Spartacus from it, so it was all integrated in another way as well.  So I think I was destined at some point to write a gladiator game.

Favorite books besides Lord of the Flies?  I have so many.  That directly influenced this? Probably 1984 and Brave New World, because of the dystopian aspects.  There were a lot of books I loved that had YA protagonists when I was growing up.  I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  I read it later as an adult, but I loved We Have Always Lived in a Castle.  And that brings you around to “The Lottery.”  You can’t pretend — it’s a lottery in which you draw a name and people die.  That’s a short story, but it’s such an incredible short story.

In the third part of the interview, running tomorrow, Collins talks about the origins of Katniss