The most buzzed about movie of the year, The Hunger Games, hits theaters March 23. The first of four films based on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy, it stars last year’s Winter’s Bone Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen and boasts a cast of such accomplished actors as Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland and Elizabeth Banks.
Producer Nina Jacobson, who snared the rights to the tale early on, has a dramatic story of her own to tell. As an executive at Disney from 1998 to 2006, Jacobson developed and oversaw a string of hits, including The Sixth Sense, Pearl Harbor, The Princess Diaries and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, before being abruptly fired from that job while her partner was in labor (details below). The straight-talking producer quickly rebounded, however, forming her own production company and finding success with its first release, a film based on the juvenile favorite, Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Here, Jacobson talks about her passionate pursuit of The Hunger Games, how she envisioned the movie, and the decisions that led to its stellar casting.
MORE: I was thinking of you the other day when I saw a screening of Jeff Who Lives At Home (opening March 16). It’s a comedy about a guy who’s obsessed with Signs. The whole movie’s sort of an homage to Signs, which you produced. Have you seen it?
Nina Jacobson: No, I didn’t know about it. Is it funny?
More: Very funny. Jason Segel is the slacker and Susan Sarandon is his mother. Ed Helms is in it too. But let’s talk about your new movie, The Hunger Games. We’re all dying to see it here. At what point did you buy the film rights to the series?
N.J.: It was not yet a big phenomenon. It was doing well, the first one sold I think 100,000 copies. There were other producers competing so there was a bit of a derby and I was driven insane by the thought of anyone else getting a chance to produce it. I had the fan fervor, the obsession. Fortunately I was able to convince Suzanne Collins of that. I felt the book deserved to be adapted with the utmost respect and care given the kind of ethical integrity of the book. Suzanne walked that dangerous edge of writing a book which is about young people and media and violence but the book itself is never guilty of the sins of the Capitol. It’s thoughtful and rooted in Katniss’ point of view. Susanne never exploits the subject matter in a way that seems unethical.I felt it was important that that tone was retained.
More: How many of the books had you read when you bought it?
N.J.: I had read the first book and galleys of the second. Then we went to buyers. Some places passed, but when they had some interest, we met with those places and looked eye to eye to make sure we all saw the same movie, that they were committed to a PG-13 version as we were, but they weren’t going to soften it.
More: Are your kids old enough to read the books?
N.J.: Two are. I have an 11-year-old girl and a 13-year-old boy. I just let the 11-year-old read it. My younger son is 5; obviously I’m not going to let the 5-year-old read it.
More: Do boys read this book? Is it gender neutral like Harry Potter?
N.J.: Yes. Regardless of gender, they were fixated. Boys love this book. My mom read it and she loved it too. It’s rare to find anyone who didn’t like it.
More: What made you think it would be a good movie?
N.J.: It feels like a movie, so visual, so emotional, it manages to be both intimate and epic. It’s personal and yet the world lays itself out in a way that your imagination paints a picture for you. It’s our world but wrong.
More: I always describe it as Miss America meets Survivor.
N.J.: Suzanne was watching both American Idol and the Iraq war when she came up with the idea.