HOLLYWOOD – Today’s Hollywood is great at catering to the superfan. Whether it’s the dedicated following that supports (or argues over) TV shows like “Game of Thrones,” “True Blood” or “The Walking Dead,” or the comic-book enthusiasts that salivate over every detail of a superhero flick like “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” it’s definitely a great time to be a pop-culture vulture.
Fans of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” novels are no different when it comes to diehard commitment, which left Jennifer Lawrence with some pretty big shoes to fill after winning the role of the story’s main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, in the film version of the book series.
“To me, interesting characters are the beginning and the end of an interesting story — or a good movie,” the 24-year-old Lawrence tells The Japan Times. Katniss is “a responsibility and an honor to play.”
Fans haven’t been disappointed in Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss, and the role has cemented her status as one of Hollywood’s few female action stars.
“Katniss is awesome,” Lawrence says, “in terms of what she’s asked to do and what she becomes capable of. But she’s not the only interesting character, and this (new) movie gives fans a chance to learn more about other characters.”
The third and final installment of the series is titled “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” and has been divided into two installments. The first was released worldwide last year, but is only just now coming to Japan. Meanwhile, the highly anticipated “Mockingjay — Part II” hits screens here and overseas at the same time in November. While the title references the bird that has become the symbol of a revolution, in Japan “Part 1” is titled “Hunger Games Final: Resistance” and “Part 2” will be called “Hunger Games Final: Revolution.”
Both of the series’ previous installments — “The Hunger Games” (2012) and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (2013) — were packed with action. But, aside from some impressive explosions, “Mockingjay — Part I” focuses more on character development than fight scenes: Katniss is listening and learning.
When she read Collins’ work, Lawrence says the first thing that she noticed were the names — Plutarch Heavensbee, Peeta Mellark — she thought they may have had some kind of deeper meaning, though she never learned if they did.
“Suzanne really created a story, an entire arc, with resonance … where the characters grow,” Lawrence says. “After all, it’s about sacrifice — the individual doing something brave and necessary for the greater good … like people have said, it’s individuality versus fascism.”
Collins was partly inspired by the ancient Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur for “The Hunger Games.” Each year the Greeks had to send a quota of young men and women as sacrificial offerings to the wicked King Minos’ half-man, half-bull creature. Eventually, Theseus slew the Minotaur.
“It’s great that she transmogrified — is that the word? — the hero into a modern heroine,” Lawrence says. “It’s also a great theme and still so relevant; obviously, because these books and especially the movies are big hits all around the world. So many people can really relate, because everybody bitches about their government — but then you look beyond the modern world and there’s much, much worse.”
The films’ success escalated Collins’ novels into the stratosphere of bestsellers, but before any of that, the series was mainly seen as a young-adult phenomenon. The first movie, directed and co-written by Gary Ross, caught flack from some critics for slipping into teen melodrama territory. The “Catching Fire” sequel, however, saw director Francis Lawrence come on board and the film grew up a little, with on-screen relationships becoming more subtle and the drama more grounded.
“I think once it was realized how these movies are really for all ages, the filmmakers chose not to focus so much on what they considered teenage concerns and outlooks, you know?” Lawrence offers diplomatically. “It became for everybody and just grew and grew. Plus, you know, our characters grow older as we go along … more of a moral and intellectual maturity than just aging.”
As the cast of “The Hunger Games” has aged, they’ve become very good friends. Lawrence and co-star Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) have become particularly good friends. Their characters are two parts of a love triangle (the other part being Liam Hemsworth’s Gale Hawthorne) that is split up at the beginning of the film.
“Katniss is, to some extent, more on her own,” Hutcherson says, referring to the fact that his character has become the brainwashed prisoner of the dictatorial President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland). “It’s like, they’ve washed my brain and I can’t do a thing with it … for now.”
The beginning of “Mockingjay — Part I” sees Katniss wake up in a complex below the supposedly razed District 13 of the fictional setting of Panem, her home in District 12 having been destroyed, and learns of a sub rosa rebellion that is gaining momentum and wants to put her front and center in the plot to overthrow President Snow.
“A friend of mine said that in this movie an explosion is a kind of diversion. Another said it kind of takes the place of action,” the 22-year-old Hutcherson says. “There’s really no outstanding set pieces, not like you’ll be seeing in (Part II). But the point is, the guys who said that each said they’d like to see (Part I) again.
“Francis has done a great job in terms of holding audience interest with characterization and conflict. There’s still suspense and it’s an amazing situation for all our heroes, the villains too, but you get to go more into what makes various characters the way they are. It lets you understand why they do what they do and also the mechanics of how this whole awful situation got started and keeps maintaining itself.
Hutcherson, as always, has nothing but good things to say about co-star Lawrence.
“She’s just so intuitive,” he says. “Jennifer’s not like some action figure that’s only believable when she draws her longbow. Like we’ve seen in other movies, she’s almost an acting machine. She disappears into a character and when there’s an emotion or even conflicting ones, you see it all on her face. Her face is her … I was going to say fortune, but I don’t mean that — she’s not a classic beauty (in that sense), but Jen’s face is her best acting instrument.”
Lawrence reciprocates Hutcherson’s praise with some of her own.
“I’ve seen him improve and keep improving,” she says. “He’s matured as an actor and — I’m just gonna say it — as a human being. He’s a pal. One thing I love about a franchise is you can make friends with people that you’re acting with over and over again. You connect as actors and as people, and it does feel like you’re going to be friends for life.”
The final piece in the on-screen love triangle is Hemsworth’s Gale. The 25-year-old Australian actor, who began his acting career on television in his homeland, gets to play a bigger role in the action in “Mockingjay.”
“What I did on TV was what you can call soap opera … about relationships among characters. That’s a whole different world from movies where the budgets are astronomical and the special effects are unthinkably complex. It’s pretty intimidating for the actor, or some actors. Or me,” Hemsworth says.
“By another token, as ‘The Hunger Games’ saga moves along here we are dealing with relationships among characters. To me the psychology is interesting because of all the cross-currents. Who does Gale get along with? Why? Who does he hate and why? Who’s an ally because you’re not necessarily simpatico but you are on the same side? And on and on — in ‘Part I’ we get to explore what’s behind the faces and actions of these guys and women.
“Another thing that’s so cool is the actors behind all these figures — what a cast! I was so rooting for Julianne Moore (who plays the aloof President Alma Coin) when she was up for the Academy Award this year … and she won! Donald Sutherland is as nice as can be, and real classy, but so evil as his character —what an actor!
“And I have to mention our director (Francis Lawrence), who I think for years has been just living and breathing ‘The Hunger Games’ and has made it as top-notch as it can be. When it’s all over, I think lots of people are going to say it’s a masterpiece in its own genre.”
Hutcherson compliments the way director Lawrence has built the series according to his own long-term vision.
“He took a gamble with (‘Part I’),” Hutcherson says. “He could have stuck in more action, explosions, fights, set pieces, etc., for the sake of it, for certain audiences that need their action fix every five minutes. But he didn’t do that. He went over it (with the writers) and redid concepts … to build in integrity.”
Jennifer Lawrence agrees with the idea of the director’s long-term vision.
“It would have been wrong to have separate directors for each sequel,” she says. “The original was fine, I have no complaints. But it has ascended from there, and it has a unity of vision thanks to Francis. He’d rather sacrifice a bit of box office, you know what I’m saying? Lose a few of the kids or boys who just want bang-bang-bang action, but instead go for better reviews and give more satisfaction to fans and the committed audience. … This whole shebang’s doing nothing but minting money, so money’s no longer the primary objective. It has become about creating a legend, a long-form entertainment that fans can come back to this year and next year and for future generations.
Will Lawrence miss Katniss after “Mockingjay — Part II” has screened out? “I’m missing her already,” she notes quietly.
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.hungergames.jp.