When the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games opens on March 23, it will provoke both relief and anxiety for producer Nina Jacobson, who was hand-picked by the author in 2009 to bring the wildly successful YA novel to the big screen, and who has worked hard to create a faithful version of the book for audiences nationwide.
“I love the books with the same kind of intensity that the biggest fans do,” Jacobson said in an interview in her spacious Santa Monica offices. “I feel great about our movie and how excited people are, but it’s the audiences who tell you what a hit is, not the press. For both Suzanne and myself it triggers a lot of fear. There are huge expectations.”
As the former president of the Walt Disney Motion Picture Group, Jacobson oversaw script development and film production on some of Hollywood’s biggest film franchises, including Pirates of the Caribbean and The Chronicles of Narnia, both of which grossed over $100 million. In 2007 when she formed her own company, Color Force, Jacobson’s first project was Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a success that led to production of a sequel, Rodrick Rules, which opened at number one at the box office. She is currently producing the third Wimpy Kid film, which will open in August.
Multiple producers pursued The Hunger Games, but ultimately Jacobson secured the project. One of the factors behind this was that she and Collins had a friend in common in director and screenwriter Peter Hedges, who was a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts with Collins years earlier. “Peter wrote and directed a movie for me called Dan in Real Life when I was at Disney,” said Jacobson. “He spoke to Suzanne in a way that was meaningful to her about what it would be like to work with me.” Another incentive was that Jacobson already had experience working with an author – Jeff Kinney – and Collins appreciated that Kinney’s voice had remained intact in the Wimpy Kid films.
Jacobson was so enthralled after reading The Hunger Games that she asked to see the manuscript of the second book, Catching Fire, before it was published. “After that I had an obsessive need to pursue the rights,” she said. “When I love a book, I really love a book. You don’t get that very often.” At the time the first book had sold about 150,000 copies, impressive but not that unusual. Still, Jacobson could envision The Hunger Games as “a brand that needed to be protected.” To guarantee that this happened, and after four studios bid on the production, Jacobson ultimately chose to go with Lionsgate Entertainment.
“I felt they really understood what we were trying to do,” she said. “It was the first YA book they had optioned, and it was an important asset to them, not just a piece of development but something they were excited about from the beginning. We all saw eye to eye creatively and agreed it should be a faithful adaptation.” Because Lionsgate is a relatively small company, all the pertinent people and departments were able to work in tandem. “So I knew that the guy who green-lighted the movie and the guy from marketing were both committed to The Hunger Games,” Jacobson said.
Striking a Balance
The challenge for Jacobson was to find the appropriate balance in the adaptation of the novel. “One way to go was to create a softened, diluted version of the book by aging up the characters,” she said. “Instead of being 12 to 18 years old, they’re 16 to 20, or even older. This would make the idea of kids killing kids more palatable.” The alternative approach would have been to glamorize and glorify the story. “In the book the Capitol is the evil central power and the source of the subjugation, and I didn’t want to make a movie that was in essence guilty of the sins of the Capitol. I had to make careful, ethical choices about the adaptation, which was the pitch I made to Suzanne.”
The result is a film that is a faithful adaptation while staying within the PG-13 guidelines. “Being honest with the subject matter was very important to me,” Jacobson said. “Otherwise I’d be doing a great disservice to the themes of the book, which are communicated by the fact that the characters are so young.”
Collins worked closely with Jacobson and Lionsgate in the development of the script. She wrote the first draft, from which much of the adaptation was conceived. The second writer, Billy Ray, then collaborated with Collins. When Gary Ross was hired to both write and direct the film, he and the author wrote the last draft of the script together. Collins visited the set only once, an indication of the trust she had in the filmmakers.
Jacobson will also produce the other two books in the Hunger Games trilogy, which currently has 26 million copies in print. Reflecting on this commitment and the success of the Wimpy Kid films, she said, “When you’re younger and you see something that really speaks to you, it’s indelible in a way that’s not the same as when you’re an adult. So I’ll always love reading books and making movies that resonate with young people.”
As the interview wound down, Jacobson’s cell phone could be heard ringing in her outer office. The haunting tone is a four-note rendition of the mockingjay birdcall Katniss hears in key scenes in The Hunger Games, a downloadable ring tone that could become as popular over time as the book – and the film – itself.