If you're a small movie company like Lionsgate looking to break into the big time, The Hunger Games is just about the perfect way to do it.
But nabbing the right property doesn't mean a thing if you can't get a good director to put it all together. Someone who has a vision, but won't cost a whole lot. Someone with a sense of literary style and who knows how to tell a story instead of just drowning you in special effects. Someone, in other words, like Gary Ross.
Ross started out as a screenwriter at Paramount Pictures, which makes sense since he co-wrote the screenplay on this one too. He made a lot of noise early on with smart movies like Big and Dave. His first directing job was 1998's Pleasantville, about a pair of teens who get sucked into a 50s television sitcom and end up sparking a cultural revolution. He followed it up with the horse-racing biopic Seabiscuit, which took a similarly smart approach and let him try his hand at adapting someone else's work to the big screen.
It was an impressive one-two punch, one that got him in to direct The Hunger Games.
He had a distinctive style and the right sense of surreal reality (surreality?) to set up the story. He doesn't go for excess spectacle, which means he can keep the budget down, and he has a knack for literary storytelling that lets him communicate with the author on her terms. In other words, he was a great fit, and the fact that he produced a terrific film here is proof that the studio's instincts were spot-on.
Ross approached The Hunger Games the same way he might film a documentary about the Super Bowl or the World Series. There's a combination of shaky-cam-style shots, mostly handling either Katniss in the arena or Katniss's life before being selected. Contrast that with the camera shots of all the pageantry of the Capitol and its combination fashion party and pre-bloodbath snacking. They look like they come from a TV feed, just like Ross would do if he were a future filmmaker in this universe, shooting a documentary of Katniss's life.
It's a slick move, attempting to connect the film in a visual way to one of its central messages: how the media can manipulate our perception of the world. He wants us to understand that Katniss's universe isn't all that different from ours, and he's using the visual language we already understand from reality TV to get the point across.
Thanks in part to Ross's direction, the film grossed roughly a jillion dollars when it first opened in 2012. Ross bowed out of the saga after that, citing a lack of time to work on other projects and leaving it all in the hands of Austrian director Francis Lawrence to cover the last three films (source).
Kind of shocking to walk away from such a blockbuster franchise, right?
Ross went on to direct 2016's The Free State of Jones, featuring the thousand-yard-stare of Matthew McConaughey to haunt our nightmares, so we can only assume he was happy with his choice (source).
If your baby's going to get boiled, you may as well do the boiling yourself. (We know that sounds a little harsh, but stick with us.)
That was the thinking of Suzanne Collins, who wrote the novel on which The Hunger Games was based and stayed neck deep in the production the whole while. (She also scored an executive producer credit to go along with her screenwriting gig.) Collins was no stranger to filmmaking, having cut her teeth writing for kids' television shows like Oswald and Clarissa Explains It All. But she also dabbled in young adult novels, producing five books in the Underland Chronicles series before taking on The Hunger Games (source).
So Collins had the chops to write the screenplay herself, and as a Hollywood veteran she was set up to ensure she got the final word in how it all came together. That said, she couldn't quite get across the finish line on her own. The director himself, Gary Ross, stepped in to help shape it into its final form. We'll talk all about him over in the "Directors" section.
They also brought a third musketeer into the process: Billy Ray, an accomplished screenwriter and director in his own right, who'd worked on everything from the silly disaster movie Volcano to the not-at-all-silly journalist-who-faked-his-stories movie Shattered Glass.
Together, they found the things to drop and the things to keep in order to present an almost ideal movie version of the novel. Accuracy and faithfulness were their watchwords, though they had to make a few concessions to the PG-13 rating. (That dog attack at the end was much more horrific in the books.)
But considering those limitations, it's amazing how much of the book—its spirit, its flavor and the way it sells us on this very dark world—transfers to the big screen. It owes a lot of that to the screenplay, and to the fact that Collins and Ray were pretty much all in from the beginning of the project.
You've likely seen the Lionsgate logo on a number of smaller indie art house films over the past few years, and possibly some hardcore horror movies as well. The company is a Johnny-come-lately to the film scene, wedged in between big companies with names like Disney and Warner Brothers that had been around since the 1930s.
The Hunger Games gave them a seat at the big table.
The company was founded in 1997 by a pair of entrepreneurs, Frank Giustra and Avi Federgreen, who were interested in getting into pictures. They quickly bought up a set of studios in Canada and a distributor to get their films to the theaters once they were made.
It was simple—and it worked.
Naturally, they couldn't produce giant blockbusters: they didn't have the money for that. But they could do little movies that didn't cost much to make and had a high possibility of making money. That meant two things: smart indie dramas and romances that catered to the cinematic elite…and grindhouse stuff. The grindhouse stuff is, admittedly, more fun, and it gave Lionsgate a distinctive profile amid all its competitors.
Lionsgate became known as the company you go to when you had stuff that was too hot to handle for the regular studios. It included movies like Dogma, a comedy about God and the end of the world that didn't sit well in some circles, and Gods and Monsters, about the life of the secretly gay director of Frankenstein, James Whale.
Its first big hit was American Psycho, which seemed to be both art house film and grindhouse horror movie rolled into one. (It also gave Christian Bale a chance to practice his crazy eye before he became Batman.) It was a monster, taking in almost $35 million on a $7 million budget, and it enabled the company to look for bigger and bigger projects to do.
And then The Hunger Games came along.
Suzanne Collins' books were huge, and while the film needed some money behind it, it didn't need as much as, say, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would. Lionsgate produced The Hunger Games for a comparatively cheap $78 million, only to pull in almost $700 million worldwide with it. Those are MCU-level numbers on half the budget, and suddenly this little indie production company looked a whole lot bigger (source).
They haven't let it go to their heads, however, and have stuck to the program by and large: a mix of indie films, low-budget horror movies and a couple of prestige franchises like The Hunger Games (which claims four of the company's five highest grossing movies) and the Divergent series (also based on a series of young adult novels).
We can only guess where they plan to go from here, but it's safe to say that they owe a whole lot to Katniss Everdeen.
Director Gary Ross decided to shoot the movie on old-fashioned film rather than digitally. He told the New York Times:
I love the look of the film and, for the aesthetic of this movie, I wanted both the richness and the grain that film provides. We were also shooting in very remote (and occasionally hot) locations and I wanted the reliability of film. This movie was shot on a very tight schedule and it rained at least half the days. I didn't want to run the risk of the technical issues that often come with shooting digitally — we simply couldn't afford any delays. Most systems are very reliable but even if this was a remote possibility, we didn't have the room in our schedule to run that risk. (Source)
This is a big production, with lots of special effects and CGI used to create those expensive dramatic shots of the Capitol. But Ross didn't want this to be something shiny and chrome and larger than life. He wanted it to feel gritty and real. So he uses handheld cameras for a lot of the film: the kind of thing documentary crews use for filming real-life action like sporting events and other public events. The set design and costume selection makes grim places like District 12 look drab, plain, and believable.
That strategy even applies to the more surreal parts of the movie, like Caesar Flickerman's television broadcasts, which are supposed to be gaudy and contrived. Ross very carefully shows us the artifice. Look at Flickerman's blank face suddenly sprout a smile when the lights come on, for example.
We can see the difference between what the TV shows us and what really lies behind it all.
Ross said that because so much of the film takes place in the woods, and the viewers are drawn into the action of the Games, he wanted to make sure that the audience keeps in mind that the arena is a totally constructed universe. That's why he created the control room scenes, where you can see the game makers creating all the stuff that happens in the woods (source). It reminds us that this is a futuristic society that's created a fake environment filled with manufactured animals, fires, and other mechanisms of torture.
The occasional appearance of medicines and other lifesaving stuff is jarring—we've been so caught up in Katniss's adventures that it's easy to forget that this is all a game being created and managed by the guys on the outside.
You've probably seen the name James Newton Howard on a number of movie credits before. He's one of those post-John Williams guys who's scored everything from M. Night Shyamalan films to the Julia Roberts vehicle Pretty Woman, that Peter Jackson King Kong remake, and the Christopher Nolan Batman films (which he tag-teamed with Hans Zimmer).
Howard grew up in Los Angeles and showed a knack for music at an early age. That wasn't surprising, since his family consisted almost entirely of musicians. Probably USC's most successful music school dropout, he started his career in rock and roll, and actually played keyboard back-up for Elton John for a time. (This is in keeping with other film composers of his age, such as Zimmer and Danny Elfman, who also come from rock-and-roll backgrounds).
Howard's composing career started out in the 1980s, with immortal films like 8 Million Ways to Die and Russkies. He soon earned a reputation for cranking out scores very quickly, which led to a steady career of two or three movies a year, every year, for a quarter of a century. Along the way, he picked up an impressive 8 Oscar nominations, though he remains a bridesmaid on that front with zero wins so far. But he keeps on trucking, with more scores listed on his resume as of this writing.
With The Hunger Games, he created two distinctive musical motifs. For Katniss and District 12, he goes with strings, giving an Appalachian flavor to the themes and an infusion of folk music into the vibe. That makes a lot of sense, since the District 12 folks don't have a lot of entertainment, and (as later books and movies in the saga make clear) folk songs are about all the culture they have. There's a lot of fiddle and banjo mixed in to it. Take a listen here.
With the Capitol, it's all pompous brass noises: propagandistic tunes intended to imply strength and a unified will. It's supposed to be inspiring but there's an air of menace to it too. Take a listen to the Capitol's anthem. You hear it a LOT when they bust out with the parades and the marches. (The Canadian indie band Arcade Fire actually composed the Panem anthem.)
With those two themes as the base, Howard goes on to infuse some serious scary into the mix. This isn't exactly a pleasure cruise for Katniss, after all, and Howard wants us to know how dangerous it all is without losing the thread of his main themes. So you can pick up a lot of low, ominous tones laid beneath the the brass and the drums of the Capitol. He'll occasionally ramp that up to keep our pulses pounding when terrifying stuff happens: mutant dogs, Careers with knives, cocktail parties, etc.
If you listen closely to the score, you'll see that it doesn't overwhelm the story, just gives it a little boost. For a movie about children hacking each other to death or being torn apart by mutant dogs or bugs, Howard shows a lot of restraint (source).
You know why Hollywood makes movies out of books like The Hunger Games?
Because books like The Hunger Games come with their own built-in fan base.
Suzanne Collins first sold her books to Scholastic, and even then, they knew they had a winner: six figures to the divine Ms. C for three books, which sold more than 36 million copies by the time the movie finally got made (source). That's 36 million eager readers who would happily pony up ten bucks a ticket to watch a movie version— maybe more if said movie delivered any kind of quality at all.
It's a pretty slick business plan and we can't say that the fans were disappointed. At the same time, the movie doesn't get much of the credit for the fans, since the book had so many of them to begin with. There's certainly no shortage of fansites out there on the web, such as The Hunger Games Tribute page and jabberjays.net. It's delivered its share of fan fiction, both tame and naughty. (We've got the tame set-up here. You're on your own with the naughty stuff (source). If you need fan art, the Internet's full to the bursting with it. You can see the influence the film has had on people's images, like President Snow starting to look a lot like Donald Sutherland.
Plus, as befits a cultural icon like this one, there's always a smattering of Katniss cosplayers at the big conventions, along with some of her friends here and there. And even if you're not quite so bold as to dress up like Katniss, you can still sport her stylish haircut in just a few easy steps (source).
Yeah, she ain't as flashy as that Star Wars princess, but her fans aren't any less dedicated. We're just glad they smile more than she does.