Fans of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels know that the character of Johanna Mason is not particularly concerned with keeping to social graces. A former Hunger Games champion herself, Johanna famously meets heroine Katniss Everdeen for the first time in Catching Fire in an elevator where Johanna takes off every inch of clothing she’s wearing. That scene was faithfully reproduced in the feature film adaptation The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (opening this weekend). As Johanna, actress Jena Malone (Sucker Punch, Contact) really did strip in front of fellow actors Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Woody Harrelson (though her bits and pieces were covered up).
There is another scene in the film, however, where Johanna misbehaves in a way that is decidedly not in Collins’ book.
In Catching Fire, the tributes for the 75th Annual Hunger Games are reaped from the existing pool of victors, a twist known as the Quarter Quell that all of the victors feel is wildly unfair — no one more so than Johanna. During a live TV interview in the film, Capitol talk show host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) asks Johanna if she’s angry. Johanna says, yes, she is angry — she was promised that her victory would mean she would never have to go through this again, and instead she’s being sent back into the arena. “Fuck that!” she screams. “And fuck everyone that had anything to do with it!”
The f-bombs are bleeped in the film, but still, it’s not every day that a PG-13 blockbuster based on a wildly popular series of YA novels includes two F-bombs.
So how did all this happen? According to director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), you can blame him — and author Suzanne Collins.
“This happens often in scripts,” said Lawrence. “That interview sequence was basically done as a montage. The original script had these one-line little things that felt like they were in the middle of an interview. So I went to Suzanne Collins and said, ‘Suzanne, I think you and I have to create a little addendum. Because actors can’t just do one line that’s in the middle of an interview. What we have to do is create a full section of an interview, so there needs to be a real question from Caesar Flickerman, and a full answer from each of these tributes, that sort of matches their point of view against the Capitol, but also shares a little facet of character.’ And it was actually Suzanne’s idea — or she and I together, actually — to give Johanna this ‘fuck you punk’ attitude.”
As it happened, Malone had a similar idea. “I showed up on set that day, and I was like, ‘Francis, I think I just gotta riff in there. I think I just gotta get up there and I just gotta lay one on him,’” she said. “He’s like, ‘This is great. Look, I also wrote you this [dialogue]. And I was like, ‘I love you. Are you kidding me? This is perfect.’ So I used that and made Johanna take it and eat it and chew it up and spit it out.”
Everything went exactly as planned — until Lionsgate execs saw the day’s footage. Apparently, Lawrence had not informed the studio that he was inserting two F-bombs into their PG-13 film; the MPAA generally only allows one before slapping a film with an R rating. So they rang up producer Nina Jacobson — the only time the studio did so during production — and asked her, Um, what are you doing?
“And Nina said, ‘No, no, no, they’re going to bleep it out,’” said Lawrence with a smile. “‘Don’t worry. We’re not going to mess with the rating. Don’t worry about that.’… It got the biggest laughs on set when [Malone] just went, you know, crazy. We just said this is from the Capitol, and the Capitol’s airing it, and the Capitol would have bleeped it all out.”
It was a delicious moment for Malone as an actor, but she also appreciated how it further drilled into the story’s larger themes of media manipulation — and how uncomfortably close the Capitol can be to our own world. After all, Catching Fire is filled with people being slaughtered (bloodlessly) — not to mention Johanna’s elevator strip tease. Yet saying “fuck” out loud is verboten.
“It’s such an easy way in to understanding the mentality of the Capitol without having to do too much nudge nudge wink wink,” said Malone. “Particularly in the society that we live in, there’s like 60,000 different porn sites, but people get thrown off of Instagram because they show an artistic nude. It’s just so weird the way that we censor ourselves, and that there’s actually no balance between the two, so I think it’s a really great way for a generation to see that as like, ‘Wow, even at this level, they’re still being censored.’”