In the eight years since the most recent Hunger Games movie came out, audiences have been offered course after course of similarly young adult-flavoured dystopia adventures: The Mortal Engines, Chaos Walking, The 5th Wave, The Divergent series. If you don’t remember any of those, don’t worry – hardly starving audiences were obviously too full from the Hunger Games to bother, either.
But director Francis Lawrence is hoping that just enough time has passed for a real return to Panem, with the filmmaker behind three of the four original Hunger Games movies returning for the prequel, The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes. Based on author Suzanne Collins’s prequel novel, tracing the youth of eventual-villain Coriolanus Snow, Songbirds & Snakes aims to return the YA-dystopia genre back to its blood-soaked roots.
Ahead of the film’s release this week, Lawrence – no relation to original series star Jennifer – spoke with The Globe and Mail about re-enlisting in the franchise.
I understand that as Suzanne Collins was writing this novel, she reached out to you toward the end. Did she think of the book as a work of literature or more a template for what a movie might become?
She does have a history of screenwriting, and she does think relatively visually. We had done so many things together by then that as she was creating the book, she often would imagine how I would visualize it. But she is more working on structure and character and theme.
When you read the manuscript, was there any point you thought, “Oh my god, how am I going to recreate this?”
The trickiest thing with all the books is that so much of the story is internal – you’re getting the thoughts of the characters. The trick with any of them is dramatizing and visualizing that. But in terms of the general scenes, there was nothing I was worried about – that’s the fun part.
There’s an interesting challenge with this kind of story, not unlike the one that George Lucas faced with his Star Wars prequels: How do you tell a story about the innocent beginning of a great villain?
It is tricky, but I love those kinds of stories – the challenge of getting an audience to root for him, but at the same time layering in scenes of ambition and greed and hunger for power so that when he does go dark, you understand that and feel it’s truthful and believable.
The previous films are dark, but this feels more intense – there’s lots of killing, but you have to straddle the line to avoid an R rating so you can get the target market. How do you balance that?
The great thing about Suzanne’s books is that she wrote them for teenagers but she didn’t pull any punches. So you need to create movies that teens can obviously see, and our goal is to get that emotional impact rather than through gore or exploitation. But every Hunger Games movie I’ve done starts out as “R” and we whittle our way back. The grey zone is always intensity. So it’s lowering the volume on a hit or fall, or taking a little bit out of a scene where someone is getting stabbed. It’s a back and forth.
In the years since the original franchise wrapped up, there have been a lot of similar players in that YA field that have come and gone. Why do you think audiences are ready to return to this kind of storytelling?
The broader appeal of these movies all comes from Suzanne. You look at a lot of the others, and I won’t name them, but you see typical high-school cafeteria dynamics, and that’s what people tend to think YA is. But the original series had the consequences of war and the polarization of the world and the state-of-our-nature debate: Are human beings inherently good and deserving of rights and freedoms, or are we brutal and savage? It’s these themes that separate her stories from other YA pieces out there.
On that note of relatability, this movie is being released during the thick of our own world being engulfed in terrible conflict. Those headlines are unavoidable, so how do you feel this film plays in conversation with that?
Part of what Suzanne does is she chooses themes that are sadly quite timeless. The fact that we have to talk about the consequences of war and that we have to debate whether people are inherently brutal or inherently good is not a great place to be. But these things have been around for thousands of years. It’s an unfortunate thing.
I finally have to ask about the long-rumoured sequel to your film Constantine, with Keanu Reeves. Is there movement?
There is. It took a long time for us to gain any control over the character with all the changes at DC and Vertigo Comics. But finally we have control, and Keanu and [screenwriter Akiva Goldsman] have been in a room batting ideas around. It’s starting to take shape. And we’d do R-rated.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes opens in theatres Nov. 17.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.