By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood March 22, 2012 at 8:43PM
It's one thing to know that a book could launch a movie franchise-- and another to deliver it. Compare and contrast the respective fates of two would-be franchises: "John Carter" and "The Hunger Games." One was produced by a major studio under inexperienced new management, who put their trust in a rookie live-action director. The studio didn't know how to brand "John Carter" and build fans for an exotic new universe. While Pixar animator Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo," "Wall-E") stayed true to his vision of the century-old Edgar Rice Burroughs novel ("Princess of Mars") and Taylor Kitsch delivers in the title role, the fantasy adventure failed to connect with current critics or audiences. Disney is taking a $200 million write-down, the largest in Hollywood history.
On the other hand, the good news for fans of Suzanne Collins' young adult novel "The Hunger Games": Lionsgate's new PG-13 movie is a faithful adaptation of the first installment in the still-bestselling Young Adult dystopian trilogy, which grew its appeal over the years from high school girls and boys to their parents, both women and men. And early reviews are right: "Winter's Bone" star Jennifer Lawrence is well-cast in a similar role as 16-year-old adult child Katniss Everdeen, who is athletic, resourceful, honest and strong-minded. The movie manages to walk the line, neither diluting nor sugarcoating the book, nor making the violence sensational or glamorized. "The Hunger Games" (March 23) should easily break "Alice in Wonderland"'s $116-million March opening record.
This is yet another case ("Harry Potter,""Twilight Saga," "Lord of the Rings") where sticking to the material that excited readers in the first place was the right course. While Collins may not be J.K. Rowling, she's the one who picked veteran studio producer Nina Jacobson--who lobbied her hard in early 2009 soon after the book came out-- to carry the movie forward. (Disney could have used its former production head's expertise on "John Carter.") Together, Collins and Jacobson chose mini-major Lionsgate as the film's proper steward, all over the world. (Arguably, the other studios vying for the prize might not have yielded such strong results.) Collins wrote the script, with Billy Ray ("Shattered Glass") providing a polish. "It was about finding the bandwidth between two places," says Jacobson. "If you failed, you were at risk of missing the point of the book, or worse, guilty of the sins committed in the book."
Crucially, the "Hunger Games" team hired skilled writer-director Gary Ross ("Dave," "Big," "Seabiscuit"), a genuine fan who had been introduced to the material by his kids and also chased the project, following Jacobson to London and later presenting an elaborate show-and-tell for Lionsgate. Jacobson leaned on trusted producer Jon Kilik ("Babel") to run production on this large VFX movie on a responsible scale. Her last film "One Day" (Focus) had a $15 million budget, and Fox's hit "Wimpy Kids" series was modestly scaled as well. "I know what I don't know," Jacobson says. "There's no substitute for hands-on experience."
Shot in North Carolina with tax rebates, "Hunger Games" wound up with a reasonable $80-million price tag. Lionsgate's departing chief Joe Drake, who has substantial production and distribution experience, production exec Allie Shearmur and marketing czar Tim Palen were on board every step of the way. Jacobson felt supported but not second-guessed, she says. Ross carried the movie to completion without losing track of the characters or going over the top with grandiose visuals as most filmmakers would have been tempted to do. "He's a smart, thoughtful and inspired filmmaker," Jacobson says. "Lionsgate gave him the room to succeed. So frequently things get lost in translation. With a great filmmaker with a great script you can get Chris Nolan to make 'The Dark Knight.' There's often so much fear and second-guessing that there's not a chance for a real voice to emerge and engage the audience."
And the filmmakers cast the young leads well, led by Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson ("The Kids are All Right"), as well as the supporting adults, from "Deadwood"'s Paula Malcomson to The Capitol's eclectic cast of colorful characters: Lenny Kravitz, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci. Lawrence's audition, when Katniss says good-bye to sister Prim, clinched the deal: "It was so definite and decisive," says Jacobson. "Game over. Nobody could touch her. We were crying. She's an unusually gifted actress. There was no way we were going to cast anyone else in that part. She brings authenticity, humanity and accessibility. The movie relies on her to an extraordinary degree."
True, but the most dramatic changes from book to film have to do with the shift from a story told strictly from the point-of-view of our heroine, and a movie where scenes unfold on the side that she does not know about. This makes "Hunger Games" the social issue movie more political and its humanity-fights-Fascism message more heavy-handed than the book. But it works to turn Panem dictator Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his rule-changing Games henchman Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) into movie bad guys.
SPOILER ALERT: The movie efficiently establishes Everdeen's world in District 12 in the post-Apocalyptic New England now known as Panem: her home is hardscrabble poor, like a depressed Appalachian coal mining town. She's the main support of her widowed mom (Malcomson) and younger sister (Willow Shields). She and pal Gale (Liam Hemsworth) are chums who hunt and trap together with bow and arrow in the woods to feed their families. At the annual tribute day, when the country's children are subject to a televised lottery in which one boy and one girl aged 12 to 18 from a dozen districts are selected to compete in a nationally transmitted battle in which only one will survive, Katniss steps in to replace her sister for the 74th annual Hunger Games. She is joined by baker's son Peeta (Hutcherson), who was once kind to her.
The train trip to the intoxicating Emerald City--whoops, The Capitol--introduces their drunk "mentor" (Harrelson), a Games winner who counsels them on how to survive and win. We are invested in what Katniss is going through, even as we enter the decadent over-scale metropolis with its "Truman Show" audience and Olympic Games spectacle. "We wanted it to be more ominous," says Jacobson, "not magical and wonderful but intimidating and frightening, freakshowish."
"Happy Hunger Games and may the odds be ever in your favor," intones President Snow. "In two weeks 22 of you will be dead." Katniss does what she does in the sci-fi survival adventure--killing in self-defense, playing up her budding romance with Peeta to ubiquitous TV cameras--not for civic pride or poltical motives but to win the Games so that she can go home to her sister. That is what is at stake. The Games transform her; over the course of the series, Katniss matures into a more evolved leader of other people. Yes, Lionsgate has the rights to all three books.
Jacobson and Ross leaned on an experienced team, many of them indies, from Kilik and music supervisor T-Bone Burnett to French editor Juliette Welfling ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "A Prophet"), who tag-teamed with Stephen Mirrione, who works a lot with Steven Soderbergh. Ross shot the film knowing how it would be edited, with jump cuts off hand-held cameras and bobbing close-ups, to intensify Katniss's POV. "We were inspired by Juliette's work," says Jacobson.
There was never any question that the movie would not be PG-13. Ross depicts the film's extreme violence without showing too much or getting gratuitous with it. Finally, Jacobson is proud that she did not mess up the book: "I love it and didn't want to let people or Suzanne down. I worried a lot about that."