Appetite for dystopia: Gary Ross creates a ruthless world in eagerly awaited 'Hunger Games'

With two directing credits and four Oscar nominations to his name, Gary Ross doesn’t appear to be Hollywood’s most obvious choice to direct The Hunger Games, an adaptation of the sensational young-adult trilogy that has inherited the fervor surrounding the Harry Potter and Twilight series. Ross has spent most of his career as a screenwriter, and he only rarely feels compelled to direct.

“I heard the bell ring when I read The Hunger Games. I just really, really wanted to do it. Until I feel that with a movie, I can’t really get behind it, because for me it’s a process of committing to it completely,” he says of the Lionsgate release, which will hit theatres on March 23.

Because he’s a writer as well as a director, Ross has plenty of time before shooting to unravel the nuances of the movie’s characters and their journeys. “When I dive into something, because I’m also a writer, it’s a very complete process,” he notes. Still, even for a screenwriter, Ross is uncommonly eloquent as he talks about simplifying character arcs, narrowing in on the universalities that underpin entire plots. “[Katniss] goes from being someone who trusts no one to someone who trusts,” he says of The Hunger Games’ heroine, explaining that the key is for the audience to be “destabilized along with her,” learning to trust only as Katniss does.

I sense something scholarly in Ross, and it turns out I’m right. He’s spent time as a professor at USC Film School, lectured at the American Film Institute and UCLA, and even worked in high school “a bit.”

Like Ross’ 1998 film Pleasantville, The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopia. Twelve subservient districts live in poverty while providing natural resources and goods to the wealthy Capitol. Every year, each district sends a male and female teenage Tribute to take part in the Hunger Games. The fight-to-the-death competition is televised nonstop.

“One of the things Suzanne [Collins, the author] created that interests me is that entertainment is the opiate of the masses. It’s used to get political control. That’s so much more powerful than overt repression.”

Collins’ tale synthesizes elements from classics like 1984 and Brave New World along with Roman gladiators and American reality television. Panem, the name for the country, comes from the phrase “panem et circenses,” or bread and circuses, Roman satirist Juvenal’s contemptuous summation of what it took to appease the populace in the declining civilization.

The look of the Capitol borrows the mid-20th-century architectural style known as Brutalism, which often features slabs of outsized, imposing concrete. Much of the Capitol’s ambiance is imparted through production design as well as the costuming and makeup of the Capitol citizens, whose day-to-day look favors extremism that would put Lady Gaga to shame. “There’s tremendous detail in terms of the excess, and the way they’re housed,” Ross says. “I hope we captured the kind of twisted garishness of the place and still allowed it to feel real.”

The Hunger Games has won over readers not only because of its vision of a future centered around a “twisted carnival,” as Ross calls it, but also because of its impressive action sequences. Collins’ lean prose reads like a screenplay. When you devour the fast-paced action set-pieces, you can’t help but anticipate what they would look like onscreen. Bringing the brisk, highly choreographed action to the screen was the easy part. The hard part was translating Collins’ first-person narration to film.

The entire book is narrated from the point-of-view of Katniss, the determined Tribute from District 12. She’s alone for much of the time she’s in the arena and unable to communicate her true feelings even then, lest her words get picked up by one of the cameras. Ross was able to work around some of these obstacles. In scenes where Katniss imagines what others are doing outside the games, Ross actually shows the action. “Unlike the book, the film has the luxury of being able to cut away since it’s not told strictly in the first person. Lots of the things Katniss is speculating about—the gamemakers, Capitol, manipulation—a lot of that I was able to cut away to and show.”

Ross adds that Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane’s onscreen time makes him a much more prominent character in the film than he was in the book, “because we can actually meet him in a way that the book can’t.” To help convey Katniss’ interior state and her character’s transformation, Ross had an important asset: star Jennifer Lawrence.

“I think that’s she’s peerless an actress. I was bowled over by her audition, I was bowled over by her work in Winter’s Bone,” Ross enthuses. “When you do what I do, you see so many actors that you really recognize when someone special walks in the door. I was knocked out when she first read for me. I had a similar feeling for Reese and Toby, too,” he recalls. When he cast Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire for Pleasantville, their careers were just beginning. “I had that feeling where you’re seeing the next generation of really talented actors come up,” he says, including co-stars Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson in his praise.

Lawrence first made a splash last year, earning an Oscar nomination for her role in the indie Winter’s Bone. Katniss actually bears resemblance to Ree in Winter’s Bone. Both are strong characters who survive in spite of their bleak environments. Lawrence’s performance as Katniss has “that strange combination of at once being completely subtle and amazingly powerful,” Ross attests. “Jen never really reaches for the camera. She has such confidence in what she’s playing that she’s completely real at any moment. She can execute any choice and completely immerse herself in the character. That said, what makes Jennifer special and so right for this role is that there’s such an incredible power to her acting, so much emotional size in what she’s able to do and commit to.”

Lawrence’s Katniss “goes from being a character intent on saving herself to one who’s willing to sacrifice [herself] for something larger,” Ross observes. “She becomes a kind of inspiration for her culture, her world. I think that’s inspiring for people who read the book, to know that there are values greater than staying alive.” That “very beautiful and inspiring subtext” underpins Katniss’ transformation.

Like Twilight, Hunger Games has a love triangle, though it’s not nearly as torrid. Before Katniss goes into the games, she has the beginnings of a romance with Gale (Hemsworth), who shares her survivalist attitude. Once Katniss becomes part of the games, she’s forced into a fake courtship with Peeta (Hutcherson). What first develops as fodder for the cameras becomes very real, even as Katniss still pines for Gale. While viewers may have their own opinion on who is right for Katniss by the end, the material itself tries very hard not to make viewers choose sides.

“I think it’s great that we’re not asked to pit those two men against each other, because there’s a larger foe which is the Capitol,” Ross notes. “What I think is so great about the love triangle is that is there is so much ambiguity. She cares about both of those men for different reasons, and those sets of feelings are totally genuine to her and very real. The contradiction and ambiguity make the series so interesting.” While fans are still dividing into “Team Gale” and “Team Peeta,” the rivalry doesn’t have quite the same intensity as Twilight’s “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob.”

Most of the two dozen Tributes—children—meet their end violently. The book is graphic but not gory, a tone Ross tried to keep for the film, which received a PG-13 rating. “It was important to me that it feels as raw and real and visceral and terrifying as it did in the book. If the violence was too gratuitous, you would jump outside the narrative. There’s a lot that you can do that’s very harrowing and stays within Katniss’ perception of the situation, but doesn’t become so lurid that it starts to feel gratuitous.”

During pre-production and shooting, Ross made sure to include his teenage children, who served as a catalyst for his interest in the project and gave him insight into a teen’s perspective. The summer the movie shot in Asheville, North Carolina, he found jobs for his kids, who roomed in the apartment next to his. His daughter worked in the visual-effects department, and his son in the camera department. Ross himself comes from a Hollywood family. His father, Arthur A. Ross, wrote Creature from the Black Lagoon along with many other post-war screenplays. Ross’ wife is the producer Allison Thomas (The Tale of Despéreaux).

When I spoke to Ross, The Hunger Games was five weeks from completion, but the movie was only just beginning to come together. “Normally in a movie without much CG [computer-generated imagery], there’s a decrescendo at the end of the process. In this case, you suddenly see the movie get very vivid and real in front of you, so it kicks in at the end.” Over 1,200 visual-effects shots do everything from generating a crowd of 100,000 to depicting the malicious creatures that populate the arena. Scary mutations like a swarm of tracker-jackers, genetically modified wasps, and eerily human-wolf mutts are only now being digitally inserted.

Though he hasn’t had much time to work on it, Ross is already attached to the second film in the series, Catching Fire. The sequel is currently being scripted by Simon Beaufoy, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Slumdog Millionaire. That film has been set for a Thanksgiving 2013 release, just a year and a half after The Hunger Games’ release. Like the literary franchise sensations that have preceded it, the final chapter, Mockingjay, will be split into two movies. With Harry Potter over and Twilight winding down, The Hunger Games will fill the gap. Fans that claimed allegiance to Hogwarts or mooned over Bella and Edward now have new characters to stand behind: Katniss, Peeta and Gale. The popularity of the series is still growing. Rights to the book have sold in over three-dozen countries, more than 20 million copies of the series are in print, and the series has 1.7 million Facebook fans—and counting. Until the movie comes out, Ross can do little more than comfort fans, reassuring them that their beloved series is in the right hands. “I promise them that I’m working very hard to do justice to a book they love.”