First published on 2 Apr 2012.
If you’ve left the house in the past month, you won’t have been able to avoid the posters: a gleaming, golden-skinned Jennifer Lawrence aiming a steel-tipped arrow squarely at the viewing public, framed against a backdrop of roaring flames. The Hunger Games, the poster proudly announces – but you’d be forgiven for not knowing exactly what all the fuss is about.
In the UK, few outside a hardcore of bookish schoolgirls and genre geeks will be familiar with Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of novels set in a futuristic, dictatorial America run by the cruel Capitol, where teenager Katniss Everdeen is forced to take part in a battle to the death against 23 other children. Like JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, Collins took a familiar, even clichéd, fantasy concept and gave it a teen-friendly modern spin, turning what could have been an overfamiliar blend of Death Race 2000 and Battle Royale into a barbed attack on celebrity in the age of reality TV, and a subtly political call for more social and economic justice.
But The Hunger Games has another advantage over its rivals: a genuinely complicated central character. Like Bella in the Twilight books, Katniss is a forthright teenage girl forced to choose between two smouldering suitors. But there the comparisons end. An unwilling heroine, Katniss can’t just follow her heart, but must navigate between the conflicting demands of the Capitol, the viewing public and the burgeoning rebellion for which she becomes a reluctant figurehead. As a result she is a richly sympathetic character whose journey becomes compellingly tangled over the course of three increasingly epic novels.
For Collins, there was apparently only one choice to bring Katniss to the screen. Jennifer Lawrence was Oscar nominated for her breakthrough role as the girl from the backwoods forced on a hellish journey in the 2010 indie drama Winter’s Bone, displaying a combination of beauty and strength that seems tailor-made for The Hunger Games. "Suzanne was wonderful," Lawrence recalls, over coffee in London in advance of the film’s premiere. "She had a confidence in me that I didn’t have in myself."
Speaking to Lawrence, it is clear that she’s completely in love with Katniss as a character – though she may be less certain about the prospect of becoming a marquee name. "Katniss is a futuristic Joan of Arc," she enthuses. "A hero who doesn’t want to be a hero, a symbol of revolt and hope. But it was a life-changing decision, accepting the role. This wasn’t part of the plan! I pictured myself making a couple of indies, maybe some studio pictures, then having babies and chilling out. This is scary."
Lawrence seems completely certain that The Hunger Games will be a hit – she has a fan’s passion for the material. But this is a far darker and more complex work than your average popcorn blockbuster. If nothing else, the level of violence may give some parents pause for thought. "[Director] Gary Ross had a vision of making a war movie, a true, sad, strong story, not an action movie about a badass girl with a bow and arrow," argues Lawrence. "If you take the violence out of the movie, you take the heart out of it. None of us were going to be part of a watered-down version of the book we’d read and loved. That’s why the story is so heartbreaking, because these people don’t want to be part of this violence."
This idea of being forced to participate in aggression also feeds into the film’s underlying political themes, which may be universal but seem particularly pertinent in these unstable times. "It’s a futuristic world that’s not too hard to believe," Lawrence agrees. "The government in the story has seized control of the people by separating them, keeping them hungry and weak, so they’re not strong enough to fight back. I don’t want to be one of those actors who talks about politics. I’m not under the impression that my opinion matters. But I do think it’s a really important theme which, unfortunately, resonates with us as a society."
Another of the book’s key themes is public voyeurism: hardly a new idea, but one that’s more relevant than ever today. In The Hunger Games, as well as viewing live broadcasts of the teenagers in combat, the public are encouraged to take part by ‘sponsoring’ their favourites, sending in expensive but vital gifts of food, weapons and medical supplies. "We live in a world that’s obsessed with reality television, we’re totally desensitised to the shock factor," Lawrence says. "People’s tragedies have become our entertainment. Yes, it’s fiction, but these ideas do exist. We live in a world where history repeats itself." But it’s not all misery and murder: The Hunger Games would never have been so successful if it wasn’t also a rousing story of action, adventure and – ultimately – personal triumph. "Everybody loves an underdog story," Lawrence smiles. "Good overcoming evil, people fighting for what they believe in. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of."
Whether The Hunger Games will strike the same chord with the cinemagoing audience that it did with readers remains unclear. But the prospect of two (or, rumours suggest, possibly three) more films in the series is an entirely welcome one. The world which Collins and her filmmaking collaborators have created may seem familiar, but it’s also richly detailed, morally complex and wholly involving, not least because of that dynamic, inspirational central character – a far better role model for teenagers than certain mimsy whey-faced vampire groupies we could mention. Let the games begin!
The Hunger Games screens from Thu 22 Mar.