article

08.28.10

The Next Twilight

The third book in enormously popular Hunger Games series is just out and fans everywhere are waiting for the movies. Denise Martin talks to the producer bringing this dystopian teen trilogy to the big screen about how she’ll deal with all the violence.

When Nina Jacobson began reading The Hunger Games, she was a bit of a wreck. As she devoured the first installment of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian teen trilogy, the producer’s mind was racing: “How can we pull this off? How can we make a movie about kids forced into this impossible and brutal circumstance? How can it be palatable, and even responsible?”

The story of The Hunger Games is as harrowing as Twilight is chaste: In the not-so-distant future, in the ruins of a nation once known as North America, hardened, steely eyed 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen is scraping by. She hunts for dinner with a bow and arrow and barters around town illegally in order to provide for her mother and younger sister Prim. When Prim’s name turns up in an annual lottery, she quickly swaps places with her because the 24 children chosen—two each from the nation’s remaining 12 districts—are forced to compete in a Gladiator-style fight where the winner is the only one left standing. By the end of the first book, several characters have inflicted or suffered gruesome deaths.

“The situations are so intense and frightening; it’s just going to be a matter of creating suspense,” she said. “The power of movies can be just as much about what you don’t see as what you do.”

Video screenshot

The Hunger Games series has not yet reached the same level of worldwide fan fervor as its contemporaries Harry Potter and Twilight, but it’s well on its way. The New Yorker in June dissected the boom in dystopian fiction for young people, Time magazine named Collins one of its 100 most influential people, and unlike the guilty-pleasure stigma surrounding Twilight, Collins’ grim vision of the future is being heralded by both readers and critics. Authors Stephen King, Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer, and The Southern Vampire Mysteries’ Charlaine Harris have all praised the books. Kristen Bell seems to be on a one-woman crusade to help promote them. And Kansas State University has made the first installment required reading for incoming freshman.

All told, 5.6 million copies of three books are in print in North America. The Hunger Games has spent two years on The New York Times’ bestseller list. The sequel, Catching Fire, debuted atop USA Today’s bestseller list in September, and its publisher Scholastic upped its initial printing of the final installment, Mockingjay, to 1.2 million. Released Tuesday, the end of Katniss’ story is already receiving raves, leaving fans eager for news about the forthcoming film, slated to begin shooting in February. Jacobson, a former Disney studio chief-turned-head of her own production company Color Force, discovered the series a year and a half ago and describes herself as obsessed. Despite her concerns over how best to translate some of the book’s more grisly scenes for young moviegoers, she moved quickly to secure rights. By March 2009, she had partnered with Lionsgate on a future film with Collins’ blessing.

“What Suzanne managed in the book is to explore violence and exploitation without it feeling exploitive or guilty of its own themes,” Jacobson said. “It’s critical… it pulls off being commentary and a really gripping page-turner at the same time.”

With no premiere date in sight, eager readers have gotten creative. More than 470,000 people have viewed this impressive fan-made movie trailer—and it’s just one of the many, including this live-action one. A group of fans have even created Hunger Games Web episodes where the action is enacted by Sims. New York Magazine’s Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, MTV and the Los Angeles Times  have already begun trying to cast the film; seemingly in the lead to play Katniss are Kick-Ass star Chloe Moretz—who has said she “ really really” wants the role -- and The Lovely Bones’ Saoirse Ronan. Twilight star Kristen Stewart is also in the running on nearly all of the online shortlists.

The difficulty in translating the book to film is apparent; both Jacobson and Lionsgate say the movie will be made for the book’s 12- to 18-year-old core audience, and as such they want a PG-13 rating. Scholastic Press editorial director David Levithan recalled his hesitation to the premise. “Oooh, that sounds brutal,” he remembered thinking. “I will fully admit that many of us, just based on the summary, thought this was going to be quite a challenge. Not just for us, but for Suzanne.”

“And then the first book came in and we were all blown away.” Collins, who is currently on a 12-city tour to promote the Mockingjay, is still surprised by how popular the series has become. Hundreds of fans attended a midnight release party for the book at New York’s Books of Wonder, and a surprised told the waiting crowd: “I didn’t know there were so many of you until I came out.” Before writing The Hunger Games, she wrote the middle-reader series The Underland Chronicles and worked as a writer in children’s TV programming.

The mother of two from Connecticut says she was flipping between reality shows and news from Iraq three years ago when she came up with The Hunger Games. "On one channel young people were competing for money. On the next channel, young people were fighting for their lives. I was tired, and the ideas merged," she told USA Today in an interview last September. Coupled with one of the Greek myths about Theseus—similarly about a group of young people sent into a maze to be eaten by a Minotaur—Collins formed the framework for her post-apocalyptic story.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss and 23 other contestants between 12- and 18-years-old are trapped in a massive arena until only one winner is left standing. Throughout the games, she wrestles with the idea of trying to live when it means her competitors must die. And while Katniss succeeds in defying the Capitol in small ways from within the arena, the book does not shy away from the inevitable, nor does it seem to relish depicting deaths by stabbing, insects, or worse. The test for filmmakers will be to walk the same line. “The book’s ethics are clear, and we will find a director who can handle the material in the right way,” Jacobson said. “Suzanne was rightly concerned that it had the potential to be turned into something she hated, glorifying the violence the book is meant to critique.”

“That was really our pitch to Suzanne—You don’t want the movie to become its own version of The Hunger Games,” she continued.

Collins wrote a draft of the screenplay, and Billy Ray, who wrote State of Play and is set to adapt the Fox action drama 24 into a feature, completed a polish. Producers are now searching for a director.

Lionsgate president of production Alli Shearmur collected all of the studio’s top brass to get on the phone when it came time to convince Jacobson they were in sync. “That never happens at a big studio,” Jacobson said. “We were all just really emotionally invested fans.”

The Hunger Games has found older fans apart from the excited filmmakers, which is good news for a potential film franchise; Scholastic’s Leviathan estimates, based on word of mouth and members of the official Hunger Games Facebook page, half of all readers are adults. The book’s mainstream appeal, he explained, can be attributed to any number of its themes. “It taps into the culture of fear we live in, definitely… But it’s also accessible in other ways. There’s action, a love triangle, a headstrong female lead, science-fiction… ”

All involved agree that the film should play to older crowds but “should absolutely be rated PG-13,” Jacobson said. “It would be wrong to make the R-rated version of it.”

“The situations are so intense and frightening; it’s just going to be a matter of creating suspense,” she said. “The power of movies can be just as much about what you don’t see as what you do.”

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Denise Martin is a former television reporter for Variety and staff writer at the Los Angeles Times. She has also written for The Advocate, Premiere and The Hollywood Reporter and has a degree from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.