It's crazy what a few poisonous berries can do. But at the end of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, a couple of nightlock berries was all it took for Katniss and Peeta to win the battle against their fellow tributes and emerge from the arena with both of their lives. But the war against the Capitol was only just beginning.
After looking back on The Hunger Games, EW is continuing our trilogy binge-read series with Catching Fire over a decade after Katniss and Peeta were forced to return to the Games for the Quarter Quell. Collins' longtime publisher and editor David Levithan is back to reveal new facts and insights about the sequel, including a pivotal scene that almost wasn't included.
So without further ado: 2009's Catching Fire.
Going in blind
While Levithan had a good idea about what to expect from the first book, he had less information to go off of for the second.
"She didn't tell us very much going into it," he tells EW. "She has her outline and her structure in her head and she just sort of goes and writes it. With Catching Fire, we knew where we were picking up, but we didn't quite know what was going to happen. We knew it was the Quarter Quell so we assumed that there would be another Hunger Games in it. But honestly, we didn't really know everything that was in it until it began."
He enjoyed reading the sequel just as much as he did with the first book, and he and all his colleagues were impressed that Collins was able to make the sequel as exciting as the original book. "It was astonishing to us what she pulled off with it, in that traditionally middle books are the hardest because you are strung between two poles," he says. "But it very much felt like a satisfying installment on its own, as well as the second book in the trilogy."
Sticking to her plan
Over a decade later, Levithan is still in awe of how Collins stuck to her original plan ... and how much she was able to keep it a secret, even from her editors.
"When we saw the outline for the trilogy there really were about two pages mentioning the Quarter Quell and just saying that the fight was on," he says. "She didn't even want to give away the ending of the first book in her proposal so I didn't even know that we knew that Peeta was in the second book until obviously we read the first book. But really she stuck to her vision pretty, pretty well."
It made Levithan's job easier because the editorial conversations he had with Suzanne were less about changing what she had written and more about making additions.
"A lot of the conversations we had were sometimes things wouldn't be on the page that we as readers wanted to be on the page," Levithan says. "And we would talk about, 'Can we actually see this scene?' Or, 'You keep referring to this, what is this thing, it's in your head, but it's not actually on the page.' A lot of the process was more filling in blanks, it wasn't really changing the arc of the story at all. I can't think of a single instance where the arc of the story was changed as we were working on it."
Thank him for that kiss
But there is one scene Levithan remembers telling Collins she needed to include in the story. Remember how he previously told EW that "some of the funnier editorial conversations [he] had with Suzanne were about making sure that it's a fair fight between the two of them," referring to Peeta and Gale in the race for Katniss' heart? That came into play in a major way as the central love triangle heated up in Catching Fire.
"In the first draft of Catching Fire, it started with the meeting with President Snow," Levithan says. "And President Snow says, 'I caught you kissing Gale on this camera, what do you think about that?' And Katniss reacts and then it moves on. I immediately was like, 'Wait what? She kissed Gale?! That's a big deal, we need to see that!'"
Gale fans everywhere can thank Levithan for pushing for that scene because Collins eventually added the moment to the story. "Originally the scene between them when they kiss was actually not in the book, it was just referred to by Snow, and then the story went forward from there, and I said, 'We've got to see this,'" Levithan adds. "Having this conversation made Suzanne believe very firmly that I was like Team Gale all the way when really, I just wanted it to be not a foregone conclusion. I mean, clearly talking to her, Peeta was going to win. But I was not necessarily like, 'No, Gale should win!' Instead, I was like, 'I'm just saying that if she kisses him, we need to see them kiss.'"
He breaks off into a laugh before continuing. "She totally understood that, like, 'Alright, alright, you love Gale, we'll put that in,' just teasing me. So that's why we actually get to see that rather than just have President Snow tell us about it." To this day, any time Levithan watches the Catching Fire movie adaptation, he gets a thrill seeing that scene onscreen knowing he helped make it happen. "This scene exists because of this conversation we had," he says.
Readers get a much clearer picture of not only the world of Panem but also the growing rebellion in Catching Fire, and Levithan praises Collins for never getting too bogged down in the details of expanding the world and war over the characters. "Suzanne as a writer has a very, very strong instinctive knowledge of what the balance should be," he says. "So very rarely were there long passages where we were like, 'We don't really need this,' or, 'You're over-explaining.' The biggest challenge in Catching Fire is usually in book two you don't have a completely new cast of characters that joins the book so that was actually the thing that was the hardest to keep track of."
As much as Levithan and his colleagues loved all the new characters, they were worried it was too much to introduce after just getting used to the characters from the first book. "We have all of these other contestants and a lot of them have these great moments," he says. "And so just keeping track of who's Finnick, who's Johanna, who's Beetee, all these new characters, making sure that they were all established very clearly early on, was tough. But a lot of that was already on the page when we started, and we were sort of in awe that we didn't need a chart next to us to keep track of who was who."
Levithan's favorite new character is hands down Johanna Mason, the sarcastic, strong District 7 tribute forced to go back into the Games just four years after she won the first time because she was the only living female victor from her district, just like Katniss.
"I was utterly fascinated by Johanna; I like the unpredictable characters," he says with a laugh. "I just thought that she was really fascinating in her rage and in her not holding back. She was this interesting counterpoint to Katniss insofar as what Johanna could get away with versus what Katniss could get away with and the fact that you never really understood are they on the same side? Are they not on the same side? Is there something Katniss can learn from her? It was the kind of character I had not been expecting and I just from chapter to chapter did not know which way she was going to turn. She was definitely the one who intrigued me the most."
With so many major twists in Catching Fire, from the escalating rebellion to the Quarter Quell to the eventual escape from the arena, it's hard to pick a favorite. But when pressed, Levithan admits that he loves how Collins subverted expectations with the structure of the Games in the second book.
"In the first book, the Hunger Games unfold through Katniss' eyes, and you're not trying to figure out the overview of it and how it works," he says. "It's just about survival and them throwing things her way. And I do remember when I read the second book the first time that I realized 12 quadrants and the clock and the fact that there was this really rigid structure to the Hunger Games world this time in a way that there wasn't the first one, that was just a huge eureka moment. The Capitol has upped the stakes significantly here. There is an even more insidious method to the madness."
Levithan calls it "ingenious" how the Capitol (and Collins) "boosted the ratings" by making it more lethal and more of a show. "You could just see them being like, 'It's a special edition of the Hunger Games shaped like a clock,'" he adds with a laugh. "Because I did not know going into it that that was how the Quarter Quell was going to be set up, I had that aha moment just like a reader when it all clicked together."
After he finished reading Collins' first draft of Catching Fire for the first time, he immediately called her and begged her for more.
"I was like, 'Where is book three?!' It's not fun to wait a year," he says. "I am genuinely jealous of people today who can read all three books in a row. They don't have to wait a year between them. You have no idea how hard that was to wait! She had a very effective cliffhanger."
And you don't have to wait a year either. Stay tuned for EW's final binge-read retrospective as Levithan looks back on 2010's franchise-ending Mockingjay next week.