”Are you ready?” asks director Gary Ross, his hand on the light switch in his Hollywood office screening room. The question hangs there for a second, the answer at once obvious and weirdly out of reach. You could be a thoroughly devoted fan of The Hunger Games, the first novel in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy about a futuristic government that conscripts children into an annual televised death match. And you could be lucky enough to find yourself nestled in a leather love seat months before the rabidly anticipated adaptation hits theaters, with three different kinds of candy in your lap, plus oranges grown on Ross’ Santa Barbara farm. But when the director asks again if you’re ready to watch an early cut of the bloodbath — the sequence in which 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, played by the Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence, and the other 23 tributes (as the chosen ones are called) are let loose on one another at the start of the Games — it seems only right to pause and take a breath before nodding to Ross to cut the lights.
There is legitimate concern in fan circles that a PG-13 movie, which The Hunger Games has always pledged to be, could never capture the dehumanizing brutality of the Games. ”When I first read the book,” says one of the film’s producers, Nina Jacobson, ”of course I asked myself, ‘How can you do it? How can you possibly do it?”’ But if the footage Ross just shared represents the tone of the entire film, rest assured that the movie will be every bit as raw and harrowing as the reading experience. The scene doesn’t rely on splatter and gore but instead focuses on the frantic and vulnerable expressions of kids in a desperate state of fight or flight, none more moving than Lawrence’s primal crouch as she prepares to sprint for the cover of woods. ”You don’t need to be gratuitous in order to be honest and capture the intensity of the book,” Ross, who co-wrote the script, says afterward. ”Is it violent? Yes. Do we back off from what it is? No, we don’t. But I’m not interested in violence for violence’s sake. This is a character’s story; it’s about Katniss’ journey.”
Later, Ross gives a tour of his impressive edit bay, where a team of visual-effects artists are helping bring to life his $90 million vision of Collins’ dystopian world. In one room, a woman innocently calls up a shot on screen of Lawrence on stage in a red dress, being spun by Stanley Tucci’s oily reality TV host, Caesar Flickerman. Sparks start bouncing around her rather limp skirt as she is transformed for the Games’ viewing audience into the infamous Girl on Fire. ”No, that’s awful — turn it off,” barks Ross, the one time all afternoon he’ll appear unsettled. ”The effects on that shot are giving me trouble,” he explains out in the hall. ”We’ll get it. It’s not perfect. And it has to be perfect.”
He’s right, of course: It does have to be perfect. When fans truly commune with material, particularly something as smart and stirring and socially pointed as Collins’ trilogy, they deserve perfection. And those involved with the movie know that if they screw up the adaptation of a series more than 20 million readers hold dear, they will have a rebellion of their own. Josh Hutcherson, who plays Katniss’ sweetly pining ally, Peeta, says that he and Lawrence have been leaning hard on each other in this last breathless march up to the March 23 release. ”I’m constantly texting her, like ‘Oh, boy, here we go,”’ he says. ”It’s kind of like we’re getting ready for our own Hunger Games.”