We are weeks into the release of director Gary Ross’s adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ dystopic young adult fantasy The Hunger Games, and the film has continued to dominate at the box-office, with a domestic gross of $251 million and an international gross of a remarkable $364 million.
We had the opportunity to sit down with Ross to talk about handling the challenges of adapting a first-person science-fiction novel with political overtones, into a film that works for all audiences.
Screenrant: This was a tough nut to crack, obviously. The book is so Katniss-centric and relies on her particular understanding of how to play this game. Was there ever a point that you thought about voiceover narration to give us a sense of her internal dialouge?
Gary Ross: “No, never. Because I never wanted you to feel like you were in a movie. I wanted you to feel like you were in the games. I wanted you to feel like you were in her world. I wanted you to feel like you were in the Capitol. And the minute I engage in voiceover, I shatter that and I tell you that you’re in a movie and I create a distance I don’t want. I want engagement not distance. And I felt that I could convey everything, especially with an actress like Jen (Lawrence). I mean, I don’t need to articulate in text what Jen is more than capable of doing in subtext, you know?”
SR: Another thing that struck me as sort of a delicate balance is how far into the fantastical you go in the design of the world and the interpretation of the various pieces of science fiction and fantasy that are described in the book. For example I noticed that the “mutts” who appear at the conclusion of the games didn’t have the faces of the defeated (murdered) tributes as they do in the novel.
GR: “We made the decision that they not be specific tributes, because if we did it, we would have been a massive digression at a moment in the movie where I didn’t think it could have afforded that. You’re hurdling toward the end and that would have taken a tremendous amount of room at a time when we didn’t have it. However, I will say that all the mutts, if you really look at them, they’re really half-human and half-dog. If you put a mutt’s face next to a dog’s face, and next to a human face, you really will see that they’re a hybrid of the two. And so we were specific about that. The important thing about the mutts to me was, not specifically that they were tributes, but that they were a creation of the Capitol designed for this particular instrument at this particular moment in the games. And because we had the games and were actually able to show their creation, we were actually able to show them being birthed in that game center and then revealed in the games. We had the ability to do something by cutting away that a novel isn’t when it’s constantly maintaining Katniss’s point of view.”
SR: One of the things Donald Sutherland (President Snow) said that was so interesting was that in the Capitol if you fail, you die. Seneca failed, so Seneca dies. And he said that’s what this business is like right now. And I thought ‘well if this business, in general, is like that, then what does that mean for this movie?’ Did you feel the pressure of the scope and the enormity of the undertaking?
GR: “No. You can’t possibly feel more pressure than I put on myself in every movie anyway, and I love them all the same. And I’m really satisfied and proud of the movie, so I just feel excited.”
SR: What I like about this film is that it appeals to this youth audience, but it also has something to say to them, and that is quite rare. Donald Sutherland also mentioned that he thought this could be a game-changer in terms of being a motivating force for them, possibly inspiring kids to enter the world of politics. Did that notion appeal to you?
GR: “I think it has a lot on its mind. That’s why I wanted to do it. I wouldn’t do it if it was just a glossy piece of entertainment. Just before this, I was offered a sequel in a really large franchise, and I turned it down. I won’t say, but I turned it down and my agents were sort of stunned. I said there’s nothing fresh I could do and it doesn’t really have much on its mind and I’m not just interested in a piece of entertainment, per se. What I loved about Suzanne’s novel was that it was so intelligent, had so much to say, was so relevant. The idea of Katniss fighting for her own humanity in a system that wants to strip her of humanity, who wants her to be complicit in these games, to play the game, and the evolution of her own sense of ethics and her empathy and her compassion and her sense of who she is and her own moral line that leads to this act of defiance that is the thing that sparks the revolution, I thought that was fantastic. That’s why I wanted to do it. I wouldn’t have done it just because it was popular. I’m really glad it’s popular. But I did it because I loved it for those reasons.”
SR: It’s also incredibly relevant.
GR: “Exactly, I can speak to that. Look, when she is about to eat those berries and would rather give her life than take an innocent life, when she began the movie as somebody who’s just fighting to survive, what she’s saying is ‘look, I’m not playing your game anymore, and I refuse to play your game. I would rather give my life and this is my own sense of ethics.’ And it was a similar act on the part of one Tunisian flower vender that set off the Jasmine revolution. I mean we don’t have to look very hard to find instances like that in the world. So yeah, it’s tremendously relevant. What it says is the individual matters, and the individual matters politically. And the only thing that ever matters politically is the individual finding their own set of beliefs and how they feel and what their own morality is, separate from what the state is saying, and I mean how do you find a bigger idea than that? How do you not want to do a movie like that?”
I don’t know. I would want to do it.
GR: “And that’s the reason I don’t feel pressure. Because I love it so much and I’m so clear about it and I’m so passionate about what that is and I love those ideas so much. I mean, that gets you up in the morning. There’s a thing that happens in a movie where you feel subordinated to the movie. I work for the movie, but where the movie becomes more important than you, it’s not about me anymore, it’s about conveying an idea that I find powerful. There’s a wonderful humility that happens in that, where this is more important than me and suddenly it’s not about me anymore. Do I feel pressure, don’t I feel pressure, who cares? It’s about is this an important thing to put in the world? And I really think it is.”
SR: This sociopolitical and ethical allegory is inherent in the book. But it seems like a challenge to shoot an idea. How do you manage that in the writing process and then on set?
GR: “Well, you can shoot it to a certain extent. I mean, when you show the lurid excesses that people whose wealth has morphed them into something grotesque. I mean Suzanne, in the subsequent books, talks about a nation addicted to bulimia, where they’re gorging themselves and then vomiting and this is pretty resonant to a world in which so much wealth is invested in so few hands, and so many other people are struggling. It isn’t hard to see those parallels.”
SR: What would you like to see the younger audience take away from this ultimately?
GR: “I think this is resonant for them. I mean, kids are faced with a difficult, cruel world, and the questions for them become ‘how do I stay human in a world where I have to claw for my own survival? How do I maintain my humanity? who am I in the face of this?’ I think this thing is inspiring. It’s about the power of the individual, about finding who you are as an individual, as it relates to the state, as it relates to your culture, about being able to maintain and be true to your own ethics and your sense of morality. About preserving your humanity. Do you preserve your humanity? It’s Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, right? It’s like ‘What’s So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding?’ I mean, it’s about empathy, care and compassion you know? Does that make you stronger not weaker? It makes Katniss stronger. These are a lot of interesting ideas.”
Stay tuned for more from our conversation with Gary Ross.
The Hunger Games is in theaters now.
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