When screenwriter and author Peter Craig (The Town) first got the call about adapting Suzanne Collins' best-selling novel Mockingjay — the culmination of the wildly popular Hunger Games series about reluctant revolutionary Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) — into two feature films, he dropped the phone.
His shock could have been due to the daunting task of transforming Collins' darkest and most psychological novel into a global commercial blockbuster, or having to artificially split the book's narrative into two franchise-extending movies. Instead, the reason was much more straightforward.
"I have daughters," he told BuzzFeed News in his first major interview about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, which opened worldwide this weekend. "Both [are] massive fans. Like, my oldest daughter actually took up archery — a crazed Katniss fan, basically." Before his first meeting with the film's producers to pitch himself for the job, Craig even ran one of his ideas — breaking from Collins' book to depict part of the Panem rebellion in the lumber-generating District 7 — by his daughter's carpool. "They were really into it. 'Yeah yeah yeah, Dad, do the tree thing!'"
His daughters steered him in the right direction. Craig got the job as Mockingjay's primary screenwriter, when Danny Strong (Lee Daniels' The Butler) moved on after writing the first drafts. And Craig's idea about District 7 was just the first of several significant changes from Collins' book that he integrated into the films, along with director Francis Lawrence (who also helmed the second film in the franchise, Catching Fire), producer Nina Jacobson (who first optioned the rights to Collins' novel), and Collins herself.
Craig, Lawrence, and Jacobson recently spoke to BuzzFeed News in a series of phone interviews about the complicated process of adapting Mockingjay – Part 1 — meaning that the rest of this story contains several MAJOR SPOILERS for the film, even for those who have read Collins' novel.
Splitting the Book Into Two Parts
Mockingjay the novel traces Panem's descent into outright civil war between the ragtag districts led by District 13 and President Coin (Julianne Moore), and the authoritarian Capitol led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In that war-torn backdrop, Katniss struggles to endure what being the rebellion's symbolic Mockingjay is costing her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), her sister Prim (Willow Shields), and especially her erstwhile boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who was captured by the Capitol at the end of Catching Fire.
In order to separate that story into two distinct films while remaining faithful to the book, the filmmakers turned to Collins, who created separate outlines delineating the major character arcs and story beats for each half of her novel, helping the filmmakers find the central organizing principles of each of the two films. (Collins received a rare "adaptation by" screen credit on the film for her efforts.)
"We felt that the first movie would focus on the propaganda war, and getting Peeta back," said Jacobson. "The second movie [was] about all-out war, and taking Snow out. … Those big ideas were very much informed by Suzanne's approach to how we would split the book into two movies."
With that framework in place, and with Collins on hand as a resource and sounding board, the filmmaking team had room to make some adjustments and outright changes to the film — some subtle, some significant — starting, in fact, with the film's lead character.
Making Katniss More Active
After two stints in the life-or-death arena of the Hunger Games, by Mockingjay, Katniss is in many ways a shell of her former self. Wracked by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and overwhelmed with guilt for what she imagines is happening to Peeta in the Capitol, Katniss spends long stretches of Mockingjay facing inward, ruminating over her plight far more than she participates in the main action of the plot.
"The rebellion that's going on — Katniss is hearing about it and thinking about it, as opposed to us being able to go out into the districts to see it," said Lawrence. "So turning a very internal half of a book into something more visual and cinematic, I think, was probably the biggest challenge, and something that Peter and Suzanne and Nina and I really worked on."
Or, as Jacobson put it, "How do you have an active hero who's not just shaking off the effects of war?"
One solution was simply to give Katniss more to do. "We did find places for her to be courageous," said Craig, "and also stay true to Suzanne's wish that she be very [affected by] PTSD, and she's not somebody that anything is coming easily for anymore." In a sequence where Katniss realizes that Prim is dangerously late in arriving to District 13's subterranean bunker during a Capitol bombing raid, Craig had Katniss race back up the stairwell to find her instead of waiting by the blast doors as she does in the novel. Katniss also decides it is important for her to return to the ruins of District 12 for a second time; in the novel, the idea comes from her propaganda (or "propo") director Cressida (Natalie Dormer). And Katniss plays a more integral role in the climactic attempt to liberate Peeta from the Capitol, volunteering to distract Snow by speaking with him over a live video conversation. (More on that sequence in a bit.)
Clarifying the importance of that rescue attempt became another way to give Katniss more narrative agency in the film: In her list of demands to Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) for becoming the Mockingjay, Katniss insists on a rescue attempt for all the captured victors, whereas in the book she merely demands amnesty for them after the war is over. (The idea of a rescue instead comes later from Coin.) "We tried to phrase it in a way that made it clear that [Katniss] didn't really understand completely the state of how things were [in Panem]," said Craig. "At the point that she's saying [the victors] should be rescued at the earliest opportunity, it should feel impossible."
At the same time, the filmmakers were also wary of making Katniss into merely a drippy romantic. "We wanted to make sure that it never felt that Katniss' sole motivation for being the Mockingjay and participating in the rebel effort was just to get her boyfriend back," said Jacobson. "That was trivial and beneath her. … She also sees what's happening in the country, and that people are rallying for change, and she wants to be part of that change."
In fact, connecting those two threads — Katniss' pull toward Peeta, and District 13's efforts to rally Panem to their cause — became the most potent way to put Katniss back at the center of the movie's core narrative. "She's the emotional catalyst of this entire revolution," said Craig. "When she sings something, it becomes a fight song, and when she yells something, those become battle words."
In order to make that connection explicit, however, the filmmakers had to move further away from Katniss' story than either of the previous two films, and step deeper into Panem.
Depicting the Rebellion in Panem
"The goal was to effectively match Katniss' arc with what was going on outside in Panem," said Craig. "She's giving so much of herself. She's actually sacrificing herself kind of emotionally and spiritually to inspire all these other people. We wanted to show that it was effective and that people were really needing her in all the other districts. They were responding to it and they were also making sacrifices."
To do that, Craig pitched the idea of depicting how each of the propos caused an uprising in the districts — demonstrating precisely how Katniss' actions make an enormous difference in the rebellion. "I actually had, like, way too many," he said with a laugh. "I had, you know, the fishing district rebellion and everything. They got to cull what they thought were their favorites."
The filmmaking team settled on Craig's very first notion of a conflict in District 7, and, more crucially, a bombing of a major dam in District 5. The event is mentioned as a throwaway line in Collins' novel, but in the film it becomes the linchpin moment for the rest of the movie when the filmmakers realized how important the dam could be to the Capitol. "Suzanne knows the world so incredibly well, and we talked about how the electrical system worked in Panem, and how the communications system worked in Panem," said Craig. If knocking out the dam meant knocking out the power in the Capitol, the narrative dominoes — allowing Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) to break into the Capitol's system, driving Snow to bomb the snot out of District 13, giving Coin an opportunity to launch a rescue attempt for Peeta — then all fell into place.
Bringing Effie Back Into the Fold
Perhaps the biggest change from the book to the film was the addition of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). In Collins' book, she's AWOL somewhere in the Capitol until the very end; instead, Plutarch's assistant Fulvia Cardew takes on many of the same duties (and attitudes) that Effie had in the first two films.
In Mockingjay – Part 1, however, Effie is as present as ever, and Fulvia is nowhere to be seen.
"In the movies, Effie is really iconic," said Lawrence. "It really doesn't make sense to sort of set her aside so she can have an appearance at the end of Mockingjay [Part] 2, [and] introduce a brand-new character that's going to live up to or even get close to living up to what Elizabeth's done with Effie."
Convincing Collins of this fact, however, took some effort. "She wasn't sure about the idea at first," said Jacobson. "She knew she wanted to see more of [Effie], but she wasn't sure about the idea of having her in District 13. I pitched her having Effie basically be Fulvia. She was mulling it over."
What ultimately convinced Collins, everyone agreed, was watching Banks' performance as Effie in a screening of a rough cut of Catching Fire, in which Effie reveals a surprising and moving depth of feeling for Katniss and Peeta, especially when tearfully saying good-bye to them before they returned to the arena. "Suzanne, I remember, came to a meeting [after the screening]," Craig said with a laugh. "And she said, 'Fulvia who?'"
Effie also absorbed many of the actions of Katniss' prep team for the Hunger Games: Venia, Flavius, and Octavia. Those characters never made much of an impact in the previous two Hunger Games movies, so cutting them in a film already brimming with characters made for an easy decision. But the filmmakers also cut how Katinss discovers her prep team — and in doing so, changed how audiences will likely perceive District 13 itself.
Softening President Coin and District 13…For Now
In Collins' book, Katniss is horrified to find her prep team half-naked in squalor in a detention cell for the crime of stealing a slice of bread. In the film, Plutarch makes a point of telling Effie that despite how she may perceive District 13's spartan decor, she is not imprisoned and is free to come and go as she pleases.
There are other aspects of District 13's rigidly rule-bound society that aren't nearly as present in the film as they are in Collins' book, like the highly regimented food rationing, and the daily schedule that everyone gets stamped on their arms (which Lawrence did film, but which was ultimately cut from the theatrical version).
"We liked the idea that these are a military people who have waited for their chance to fight back, and they've been biding their time," said Jacobson. "We really wanted to make sure that they felt like a revolutionary base as opposed to this super-oppressive place. We didn't want them to feel robotic."
The most noticeable difference is in District 13's leader, Alma Coin. She is a distant and calculating presence in Collins' book from practically the first page. "It's pretty clear early on in the book that Coin is really a tricky character," Craig said. By contrast, when Katniss first meets Coin in the film, she says, warmly, "I hope you'll find some comfort with us. We've known loss in 13 too."
All these subtle changes add up to making Moore's Coin and District 13 feel far less disquieting than they are in the book. And according to Craig, that is by design — they wanted to give Coin, and in turn District 13, a chance to evolve as the war evolves. "She's someone who really believes in her cause," he said. "I don't think she's somebody who really intends to mistreat anyone. And over the course of the movie … she gets a little bit seduced by some of the power. She gets better at selling things. I think we're watching her transform into the Coin that we recognize right away in the book. … Slowly, over time, you start to wonder, who are these people? You get that they're dangerously of one mind. It's at about the halfway point of the movie, where you just start to wonder, who exactly are we selling this war to?"
Creating Peeta’s Rescue Mission
Another sequence the filmmakers had to invent from whole cloth was the mission to extract Peeta and the other victors from the Capitol, an event that is only described in vague terms by Collins in the novel. "It was so fun," said Craig. "We just had a blast with it. I think Suzanne did, too. She knew how some things had happened, but it was fun for her to go back and flesh out some of those things that were, you know, quickly covered in the book."
Lawrence described the effort in slightly less enthusiastic terms. "The rescue itself took a lot of development, sort of grinding away to figure out how to make that work," he said. "It's fun in the sense of it's a puzzle, trying to figure it out." Part of that puzzle was the decision to make explicit that Snow always intended for Peeta to return to District 13 as a brainwashed (or "hijacked") assassin to kill Katniss — without undermining the efforts of the rescue itself. "We have to really make sure that the people of 13 have what feels like a very viable plan to get in and out," he said. "We also have to understand what's going on with the Capitol, that the Capitol knows about it all. So the engineering of a sequence like that made it kind of fun and kind of tricky."
Choosing the Ending
Given the central arc of Mockingjay – Part 1 — rescuing Peeta and unifying the districts against the Capitol — the decision to end the film after Peeta's rescue was a no-brainer. "We knew that the dramatic question was answered, but it was really about how strong of a statement do we want to make when we cut to black," said Lawrence. "There were a few options."
One tantalizing option was to end with a true cliff-hanger, right after Peeta attacks Katniss, and Boggs (Mahershala Ali) knocks him off of her. They even called it "the Breaking Bad ending."
"Nina and I and Peter used to all talk about Breaking Bad," said Lawrence with a laugh. "And for a while we were talking about, like, that's kind of the Breaking Bad ending. But you [only] have to wait a week, and if you binge-watch it, you don't have to wait at all before the next episode." Lawrence chuckled. "To me, there's a difference between ending on a note that really makes people want more, and ending on a note that just makes people angry."
Instead, the filmmaking team decided to allow Katniss — and the audience — to learn how Peeta had been hijacked, and to see President Coin begin to seize greater control of the rebellion as Katniss' focus turns even more to the deeply damaged Peeta.
"It wound up feeling like a really natural place to break the book, because after Peeta's back, and you have a whole different set of priorities," said Craig. "There's a whole different process that Katniss goes through with him once he's back. … This look she gives Peeta — she's looking at somebody who she really loves who isn't just a pawn in this chess game the way he is to everybody else. I always really liked it ending sort of intercutting between Coin and Katniss there, and how their priorities have suddenly split at the end of the movie. We're actually ending a little bit at a fork in the road. Then there really is a feeling of completion right there. [In] the next movie, I think, everybody will feel that we're starting at a much different place."