I’m More Like Plutarch than Katniss: 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 fourth 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 fourth in a five-part series:

TIME: Where did Katniss come from?
Suzanne Collins: Katniss arrived almost fully formed. That she was an archer, that she was the sole support of her family, that she was a very admirable character but also a deeply flawed character at the same time, because it was going to take that to survive what she was going to have to survive. She was one of those kids who had had great responsibility thrust on them too early in age, and it had formed her in certain ways.  So there’s some ways in which she’s very mature, and some ways in which she’s extremely immature for her age.

And then what’s funny – when I sat down to write the book I intended it to be like The Underland Chronicles, third-person past tense. And I started writing and it came out first-person present tense. It was like she was insisting on telling the story, so I went with that.  She was fully in my head very quickly.

What do you think people find to identify with her? Obviously her experience is very different from people who actually read the books. Or I hope it is.
SC: Well I think one of the things that people identify with is that she is a flawed character. You know on the first page, for instance, that she tried to drown a kitten. Now if you think about it, there’s a lot of other things you could have done with a kitten. You could have put it outside, she could have asked the neighbors if they wanted it, she could have let it run around there and get mice. But she takes it and tries to drown it in a bucket while her little sister’s wailing, and she relents because it’s Prim, but you’re on page one, and you don’t have to worry about this character feeling morally superior to you for three volumes. Right away you know, okay, she’s not perfect.

But very quickly, within a couple chapters, she’s going to do this remarkable thing, which is that she’s going to volunteer for Prim in the Reaping. So now you have a complex character, already. And you’re not sure – it’s also that her moral compass shifts. It isn’t always pointing north. It isn’t always pointing to the right and moral choice. She deep down has a good heart, but you know that she’s capable of making the choices that nobody should have to make.

Francis Lawrence: I think too that people can really relate to her and believe the choices that she makes.  She’s not a superhero in any way. She’s a very real person who wants very real things and is very reluctant to take on any kind of super responsibility. I think any of us, male or female, can imagine being thrust into the situation, and you can identify with the choices that she makes. She’s heroic but she’s not a superhero, and I think that’s a huge thing.

How are you with a bow and arrow?  Did you pick up a bow and arrow in the name of research?
SC: In high school for a couple years we did archery.  Nothing to report there.

You choose your weapon by the kind of war. In this one I needed a weapon that it would be believable that she could use. Not magically use but really use. She couldn’t have had really any weapon, but you could have built a bow out of things you found in the woods if you knew how, and her father built the bows. You could realistically have snuck out and used the bow and become very good. In fact, you’d have to be very good to feed your family with it, so her talent with the bow is hard won. It’s not something that magically happens when someone zaps her.

But I also needed a weapon that when it shifted from the arena into more of a war zone, it’s a weapon that could be militarized.  So that’s the bow.  The bow can actually be used in combat.

But that wouldn’t be your weapon of choice, probably.
SC: When I was young I was trained in stage fighting and rapier and dagger, for several years.

FL: You like to take people out up close.

SC: It’s all choreographed.  It’s more like dance, really.

Is Katniss the character that you identify with most?
SC: She’s the one that’s hardest to distinguish from myself in my mind, but when I step back and look at the series, she’s not the character that I would identify most with.

Who would be?
SC: This is such an unflattering thing to say about yourself, but it would be Plutarch Heavensbee.

SC: Yes, because he’s the head game maker. Plutarch is creating the story and he’s creating the arena and he’s manipulating the characters – a writer isn’t far from a game maker. And Plutarch masterminds the rebellion, so he’s thinking in many ways about the story and how the story is unfolding in the same way I am as an author when I’m telling it.  I’m not for creating arenas or something, but if you look at it from a creative perspective, we’re really doing the same job.

You’ve taken up this funny position as somebody who has created this huge sort of pan-media phenomenon which is also highly critical of the media. Is that a balancing act?
SC: It’s ironic on a level, but I hope it’s an irony that the audience is aware of as well. It’s one of the reasons I’m just so thrilled about the marketing campaign.It’s just brilliant, because it’s using the same images to promote the movie to our audience that the Capitol is using to promote the quarter quell to the audience in the Capitol.  That right there, that dualism, is very much what the book is about. It becomes more so as you move along, as you get into Mockingjay: the propaganda war, the image of real or not real and whether or not you can believe what you’re witnessing on a screen, how much you’re being manipulated, how much the image is being manipulated, how much you’re being lied to.

With your dramatic background, were you tempted to make a cameo?
SC: Not at all.

Not in the slightest? Francis?
FL: I would have put her in there had she wanted to be in there. In the party scene or something.

SC: No.

FL: We should sneak you in somewhere.

SC: I don’t want to be in there.

FL: I’d say, you won’t be in the shot over there Suzanne, I swear.
SC: I’m not comfortable around cameras.  I think we saw that today.

Where do you do your writing?
SC: I wrote The Hunger Games in a chair, like a La-Z-Boy chair, next to my bed. I had an office but my kids sort of took it over.

FL: On a laptop?

SC: Yup.

FL: Not at a desk?

SC: No. In fact, I have a studio now and there’s no desk at it because I don’t write at a desk.

You write in the La-Z-Boy?
SC: Mmmm hmm, on a laptop. And then I pace a lot.

In the fourth part of the interview, running tomorrow, Lawrence talks about the difficulties he encountered during the movie’s production