The Hunger Gamemakers: Interview with Author Suzanne Collins and Director Francis Lawrence
By Lev Grossman for Time Magazine (2013)
In 2008, when the Hunger Games was published, Suzanne Collins was still a working writer. She spent her mornings in a bleak future dystopia of starvation and gladiatorial spectacle and her afternoons freelancing on the kids' show Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! Five years later, the Hunger Games trilogy has more than 65 million copies in print in the U.S., the first movie earned nearly $700 million worldwide, and the series' hero, the gimlet-eyed but tenderhearted Katniss Everdeen, has taken a place alongside Harry Potter and Bella Swan in the pantheon of popular mythology. Collins, who is 51 and bears a striking resemblance to the actress Julianne Moore, hasn't given an interview in more than two years, but with Catching Fire opening on Nov. 22, she sat down with the film's director, Francis Lawrence, and TIME's Lev Grossman to talk about Katniss, writing about war for children and her personal survival strategy.
Let's start with Katniss. Where did she come from?
Suzanne Collins: Katniss arrived almost fully formed--she was an archer, she was the sole support of her family, 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 at too early an age, and it had formed her. So there's some ways in which she's very mature and some ways in which she's extremely immature for her age.
Why do you think people identify with Katniss?
Collins: Well, 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. 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 1 and you don't have to worry that this character's going to feel morally superior to you for three volumes. Right away you know, O.K., she's not perfect. But very quickly, within a couple of 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.
How has Katniss changed since the beginning of the first film?
Francis Lawrence: Well, she's been through the games. I think one of the things that interested me most about this book was that we start to see the kinds of effects that the games have on people, the effects that violence has on people.
Collins: She's got a lot of classic posttraumatic-stress-disorder symptoms. She has nightmares. She has flashbacks. You can see she's practicing avoidance--she's completely pushed Peeta to arm's length, you know? She's trying to stay away from him, because everything associated with him except some very early childhood memories is associated with the games. She's conflicted to some degree about her relationship with Prim because she couldn't save Rue. So she's dealing with all that, and her method of dealing with it is to go to the woods and be alone, because there just are so many triggers in her everyday life.
Is Katniss the character that you identify with most?
Collins: 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 that be?
Collins: This is such an unflattering thing to say about yourself, but it would be Plutarch Heavensbee.
Collins: Yes. Because he's the head gamemaker. Plutarch is creating the story, and he's creating the arena, and he's manipulating the characters--a writer isn't far from a gamemaker. I'm not for creating arenas or anything, but if you look at it from a creative perspective, we're really doing the same job.
To step back a bit, why write a book like this? Why write a book about war and violence for teenagers?
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. My father was career military. He was a veteran, he was a doctor of political science, he taught at West Point and Air Command 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 of war, about its cost, its consequences. So I felt like I was tutored in that by somebody who was very experienced in it both as real life and on a historical basis.
The way you describe violence in the books--it's so visceral. Were you ever worried it was too much?
Collins: I had been exposed to these things very early, through my father. I think 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.
Lawrence: And you don't hold back. I think that's also part of it. You show the consequences.
Collins: It's something we should be having dialogues about a lot earlier with our children. There are child soldiers all around the world right now who are 9, 10, carrying arms, forced to be at war. Can our children not even read a fictional story about it? I think they can.
You've taken up an interesting position as somebody who has created a blockbuster pan-media phenomenon that is itself highly critical of the media. Is that a balancing act?
Collins: 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 so thrilled about the marketing campaign, 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. 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.
How are you with a bow and arrow? Did you ever pick them up in the name of research?
Collins: 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 would be believable that she could use--not magically use but really use. You could have built a bow out of things you found in the woods, if you knew how. 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 it wouldn't be your weapon of choice.
Collins: When I was young I was trained in stage fighting, rapier and dagger.
Lawrence: You like to take people out up close.
Collins: [Laughs.] It's all choreographed. It's more like dance, really.
Sometimes it seems like you've spawned an entire subgenre of young-adult dystopias with The Hunger Games.
Collins: I don't think I can take credit for that.
You can! Go ahead, take it!
Collins: Well, I just think the dystopian stories are striking a nerve with people right now, and The Hunger Games contributed somewhat to that, but that can't be the whole explanation for it. It's something that's going on within the culture. I think people respond to dystopian stories because they're ways of acting out anxieties that we have and fears that we have about the future. And so much media's coming at you and so much stuff comes at you over the Internet, your brain gets overloaded. You don't know what to do with it. And one thing you can do with it is read a story. I think of dystopian literature as being cautionary tales. It's a way you can kind of frame it and try to make sense of it and set it outside yourself but look at the issues involved.
Has your life changed a lot since the books came out?
Collins: Not my real life. I mean, I still have the same friends and my family and my writing, and that's my real life. The big change would be that this is the first time in my career where I've been able to work on whatever I wanted and not have financial concerns involved.
What are you working on now that you're free to work on whatever you want?
Collins: I have a piece I'm playing around with, and it's very new, so I can't give you the specifics of it, and we'll just see where it goes. It may go nowhere. Right now it's extremely complicated, and it would have to be simplified a good deal to make it into a narrative. The world is complex. So we'll see.
Last question: You're in the arena, the games begin--do you go for the Cornucopia, or do you run for cover?
Lawrence: Oh, I would be like the Morphlings. I would go run and hide until everybody else was dead. I'm a big chicken.
Collins: I would definitely run. And climb a tree.