If you've loved Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Games trilogy adaptation into films, then you have producer Nina Jacobson to thank. She was able to convince Collins that she would stay true to the war themes of the books and create a franchise of which the author and her devoted fan base would be proud. Now the last film in the series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, has landed in theaters globally to cumulative billion-dollar box-office returns and strong critical praise.
The Girl on Fire has also led the charge in proving that a blockbuster film franchise can thrive with a woman as the protagonist. In the three years since the first film was released, it's had a huge influence on studio heads at least acknowledging that a lot of money can be made on female-led properties.
Looking back on the last four years, Jacobson shares the lessons she's learned bringing such an ambitious series to screens on a tight schedule, what she's most proud of accomplishing in the films and the lasting impact Katniss will have on the business.
[Some spoilers for the books and films below]
With more than $2 billion at the box office and counting, The Hunger Games films have certainly made Hollywood pay attention just from a financial perspective. As an insider, how have you seen the films impact the greenlighting of female-led films?
Nina Jacobson: I do think, certainly, people are much more receptive, I hope, to the fact that, hello, of course you can have a successful movie with a female protagonist in it. It's not like we make up 10% of the population. We are 50% of the population, and women make enormous decisions in the marketplace about what movies people see. I think at least that stupid and ill-informed bias has been broken.
And just today, there is an idea I've been playing around with and a writer I really love came back and said, "I love this idea and I've been thinking about it. I just feel like the protagonist should be a girl instead of a boy." It was a male writer, so it was this great breath of fresh air. Those little moments I really appreciate and are the victories, where you can make a decision like that, because it feels right creatively and doesn't feel remotely controversial.
Where's the industry still lacking?
That's still largely not manifest when you look at what movies are available to see and who is in them. There's still work to be done, and behind the camera there's even more work to be done. But it certainly feels like a thaw is occurring, at least. It's also when you look at Frozen, or Inside Out or Bridesmaids, or Spy or the Heat, or the new Ghostbusters, which is cast with women, it feels there is room to finally break out of this box that has been so confining for so long. Hopefully, that conversation can now also go beyond issues of gender and race. Whether it's a [television] show like Transparent or Empire, hopefully those really white male assumptions that the white male approach must be what people want [is changing].
The book fandom really embraced these films. Was that important to their ultimate success?
Yes, I feel very grateful to the fans. I feel like we have a really sophisticated fan base. When we first went into this, there was so much being written about the casting and all that stuff. I kept thinking, "We are just going to put our heads down and make the best movies we can." I'm a huge fan, and I'm going to trust as a huge fan that if we keep true to these books and try to get the essence of the characters and books right that that will satisfy the fans. That's because I know that's what I want as a fan when I see an adaptation.
What was most important for you to accomplish in Mockingjay Part 2?
For one, I really wanted to feel that feeling of completeness and catharsis and thoroughness at the end. To feel like the characters you invested in had a true conclusion to their journey. That was hugely important. This is our last bite of the apple, and you don't want anyone leaving the theater going, "Yeah, but I wish they explored such and such."
What about translating Katniss, who can be inscrutable at times in the books?
It was also to be true to the books in the fact that Katniss doesn't always react emotionally the way the people want to see a girl react. When she first sees Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), instead of going and crying a river, she shuts down. Based on what she's been through and who she is, going back to the psychology of who her mom is and how she reacted to things and Katniss as a veteran and survivor of these games, her ways of reacting to an emotional crisis is not traditionally girlie. To let her be that person was really important and really important to Suzanne too.
And, at the same time, to make sure she's an active heroine was really important. To see her take control of her agenda was hugely important. This is the book that instead of acting or reacting, she is proactive. She is making decisions and having to live with the consequences of those decisions. It was important to see the baton in her hands in that regard.
What details from the books are you most excited for the passionate fans to see in the final film?
I love what [makeup artists] Ve Neill and Glenn Hetrick did with [Capitol resident] Tigress. I think the epilogue is very beautiful, a cathartic, satisfying ending to the movie. Putting together the pieces of Katniss' recovery cinematically and doing so in a way that's efficient and impactful, so the ending feels very complete to me.
In the last act of the book, Katniss suffers a very physical ordeal. Was it important to show that to audiences so they'd get the cost of war?
We focus much more on the emotionally than the physical, as we did with Peeta, too, when we didn't have him lose his leg. In a way, it's too easy to focus on the physical. With someone like Jen Lawrence, I'd rather watch them act than look at her makeup.
You landed four blockbuster films on their release dates in the crazy span of four years. What have you learned that was critical in accomplishing that?
The one thing I am incredibly grateful for is we tried to pay attention in the casting to the human beings we cast. Not that they just be able to play the role, but they are people you want to take the journey with. The fact is that this cast has been so close-knit and genuinely affectionate with each other. Nobody went bad and got full of themselves and became that pain-in-the-butt person that nobody wanted to see. So, it's to be mindful that in success the people you are casting you will be living with, if you are lucky, for a long time. If you've heard someone is a nightmare, they probably are, so don't cast them. When you cast quality human beings it makes such a difference. It was greatly affirmed to make the decision to pay attention to who these people are as human beings and to know it would make an enormous difference in getting through something like this.
Was the compressed production timeline the biggest hurdle?
The challenges of having to make the movies while the other ones were in post-production were really stressful. We had great source material and relied on great writers, but that part of the process of keeping multiple balls in the air had its challenges. But having Suzanne there and having her mentorship and guidance made a huge difference. I always felt like we kept our north star with us. She's also not precious and was always the one asking, "Do we even need this?" It was me going, "Yes, we need that!"
What about the rumors that Lionsgate would like to extend the franchise. Are you open to that?
My involvement with The Hunger Games has always come down to that I asked Suzanne Collins to trust me with the books. She did me the great honor of giving me that opportunity. For me, I would follow her lead. At this point, there are no plans. If by some miracle she has the J.K. Rowling moment of more ideas, I would be there in a second. If she wants to go there, I'll be there. If she doesn't, I won't.
Can fans expect any extended editions of the films in the future?
There is nothing we left on the editing room floor that didn't belong there. Sometimes, we added bonus scenes for people interested in the process. But I don't think there's one of them that belonged back in the movie. If we felt that strongly about a scene, we would find a way to put it in there. Once it's gone, you tend to be over it. So I can't imagine we would have extended cuts of the films.
What's next for you?
I'm in the throes of production on the People vs. O.J. Simpson. It's the first season of the Ryan Murphy anthology American Crime Story. It's been really fun, with an incredible cast. I am loving TV. We have a pilot we are doing for A&E called Infamous, which I love. On the feature side, there is The Odyssey [with Francis Lawrence attached to direct] and Crazy Rich Asians, which has an all-Asian cast. There's The Goldfinch adaptation, and we are in the process of getting them right. Based on the first draft of The Odyssey by Peter Craig, I feel optimistic about that. Richard Linklater is overseeing the draft of Where'd You Go, Bernadette. But right now, it's been nice to immerse ourselves in our television business.