The Hunger Games
Credit: Scholastic

It's time to return to the Games.

A decade after the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy was released, Suzanne Collins is taking fans back to Panem with her highly anticipated prequel novel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, set 64 years before the events of the original series. Leading up to the new installment's May 19 release, EW is looking back on the books that started it all.

Whether you're a diehard Hunger Games fan or a newcomer looking to dive into the series for the first time, you can follow along with our binge-read series as Collins' longtime publisher and editor David Levithan reveals new facts and insights about the story. After all, he oversaw the publishing of all three Hunger Games novels (and is doing the same for Songbirds and Snakes), reading every draft and making suggestions along the way.

First up: 2008's The Hunger Games.

The very beginning

Before writing The Hunger Games, Collins and Scholastic had a working relationship thanks to her best-selling books The Underland Chronicles. That series comprised five books aimed at a younger audience, and when Collins approached her team with a new idea, they were immediately interested. "We loved her writing and loved what she had done with those books," Levithan tells EW. "And when they were done, she said, 'I have a new idea,' and we were like, 'That's great,' but she didn't tell us what the idea was. Then she sent in the proposal, and it just blew us away."

The Hunger Games was unlike anything Levithan and his colleagues had been expecting. "We had been thinking it would be another middle-grade fantasy, but instead it was this YA dystopian speculative fiction about a world that forces citizens to give up their children in sacrifice," he says. "It certainly was much more intense than we had been expecting. At the same time, we knew that Suzanne wrote incredibly and insightfully about war, about politics and dynamics of freedom and rebellion. So the idea of her doing something older and having such high stakes made perfect sense to us."

As excited as Levithan was to hear more about this new idea, Collins stayed secretive, even with her book proposal. "I always joke because the proposal was for the trilogy, but there were maybe seven pages about the first book, maybe two pages of a second book, and then the third book was basically a paragraph being like, 'And then everything wraps up,'" Levithan recalls with a laugh. "Going into it, we were never sure where she was going to go with this, which was great because then that meant the first time that we at Scholastic read it was very similar to when readers first read it, and I had no idea the twists and turns that were going to come."

The first draft

When Levithan finally did get to read the first draft of the first book, all he wanted to do was to talk about it with everyone he knew. But other than one of his colleagues, he was the only one in on the secret.

"Another editor working on the book and I, we got the manuscript on a Friday and read it over the weekend," he says. "Monday morning we both came in early, and I walked into her office and just looked at her and I said, 'Holy s—.' And she just looked back and she said, 'Holy s—.'

"We were just so extraordinarily blown away," Levithan adds. "It was just to a degree that very few, if any, manuscripts have blown us away. At that point, we genuinely were the only two people who had read it outside of Suzanne and her agent. We were all we had, she was the only person I had to talk to about it, and likewise her with me. And so we just sat there and talked about it for hours, about all the intricate things she had done and how surprising all the twists and turns had been."

Catching fire

The draft began making the rounds at Scholastic, and Levithan's colleagues were foaming at the mouth over how much they loved The Hunger Games.

"We knew how powerful it was because the reaction in house at Scholastic was unlike anything we have seen," he says. "Even thinking about Harry Potter, it was that kind of — anyone who read it basically pinned everybody else in the halls and said, 'You have to read this book immediately.' And then as soon as we had galleys to give to other people, we did the same thing for outsiders. We joked that all of us gave it to our mom to read because, oh my God, anybody can read this book. We were evangelical in our beliefs for it."

Still, they knew there was no guarantee the book would resonate with readers. "We were thinking in book terms," Levithan says. "We were thinking hopefully this will be a best-seller, hopefully this will be a book that people are talking about. It certainly was beyond our wildest dreams to think of what a phenomenon it would be, and how much it would influence the culture, and how much it would become a pop cultural shorthand for so many things."

Levithan credits the real-world parallels to war and politics as the reason why people became so passionate about this trilogy.

"I’m just proud that it is such a meaningful series, and that it took the world by storm and resonated in the way we wanted it to resonate," he says. "It genuinely affected the way that people see the world and politics and power. It’s astonishing when you can see a book or story be that powerful. And the story continued in movies, which only enhanced the power. That’s the most remarkable, the fact that it did give an interesting lens for people to view the world, their own politics, and war and the price of war, and hopefully come to some conclusions about how wasteful war is."

The violence

Of course, the idea of a book about children slaughtering each other as entertainment in a dystopian world wasn't immediately accepted by everyone. There was initial shock at how dark and violent the story was, since it’s about kids and teens, for kids and teens. But Levithan and his colleagues weren't worried about the backlash.

"We were never concerned about people's reaction once they read the book," he says. "It felt like it could be sensationalist, it could be gratuitous in its violence, but of course when you read the book you realize that it is, in fact, diametrically opposed to the sensationalism of violence or gratuitous violence. You have to think of it as a war novel. So people saying, 'Oh goodness, 16-year-olds killing each other!' There's not really that far of a step between that and 18-year-olds on either side of a war fighting each other."

Levithan continues, "Because it was a critique of war and a critique of violence and not glorifying it, we felt pretty certain that if anybody objected and said, 'That sounds too violent for my kids,' we would say, 'Just read it and see what it's actually saying about violence.' And more times than not, people would immediately understand what Suzanne was doing."

Throughout the process of publishing the first book, Levithan says there was never a time when he had to make edits to censor the violence.

"Especially in the first book, I don't think there was a single thing where she had crossed a line," he says. "Keeping in mind that Suzanne had written for children's television, she had written a middle-grade series, she was coming at it understanding what was appropriate for YA and what would be pushing it too far, and what would give a thrill of violence as opposed to a depiction of violence. In her first draft she really did stick very closely to treating the violence responsibly, and I can't recall a single moment where we had to put up a stop sign and say no, this is too much, this is too gory, or this is too gratuitous. She stayed within those parameters herself, because that's the point of the book."

The first casualty

There are many iconic moments in the first book, but the one that stands out most to Levithan is Rue's death in the Games.

"The power that it has and what it means both to the reader and obviously to the other characters is so important to the story," he says. "In this setup, you should know that most people — or all but one, or it ends up two — won't survive, and yet it is still so shocking and so incredibly upsetting when Rue is killed. I think that is really where you understand the price of the violence and you understand the cost of the Hunger Games."

He also points to this moment as proof of why the violence and death toll are necessary for the story. "That, to me, is where anybody who doubted what the point in creating this violent world was, that's the moment where you have to understand that this violence is only harmful, it is only destructive, and that there is no point to it, except to try to control the citizens," he says. "That is the biggest flashpoint in the first book."

Picking favorites

Everyone has their favorite character from the franchise, and for Levithan, there's no competition. "Haymitch, I love Haymitch!" he says. "He should be a trope. He's the master, he should be like Obi-Wan, right? And what [Collins] did with that trope is just so completely inventive. Haymitch's interactions with Katniss and sort of being a foil to Katniss, that both delighted me but also kept me on my toes the first time I read it completely."

Katniss and Peeta's mentor in the Games was not at all what they expected, but he would grow to become one of the most important figures in the world of Panem. "In other hands he would have easily been the wise old master, but in Suzanne's hands, he became something much, much more unpredictable," Levithan says. "What was interesting was that a lot of different readers just got different things out of the first book. I obviously talked to a lot of people about the book, and it was amazing because some people read it and they were like, it is about Katniss coming into her own. Some people were like, it's this love story, other people loved the world-building and loved the Capitol and all of the figures from the Capitol, like Flickerman."

Levithan was surprised to see how people didn't only connect with Katniss. "With a lot of other properties I worked with, there are clear favorites and there's the breakout star, but with this, different people hooked on to different things," he says. But he was gratified to see that "the only unifying thing was that they all loved Katniss. They liked that her flaws were just as prominent as her heroism, and that she was incredibly adolescent in her in her heroism. People really had not read many protagonists like her before, and seeing the story through her eyes was what really drew them into the story."

Peeta vs. Gale

Speaking of people connecting with characters, one of the most enduring elements of The Hunger Games trilogy is the love triangle of Katniss, her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta, and her hunting BFF Gale. The Peeta vs. Gale argument still rages on 12 years later (despite being resolved in the third book).

"The slow burn and the fact that it wasn't as easy a choice as it might have been in other hands, I think that helped a lot," Levithan says. "Some of the funnier editorial conversations I had with Suzanne were about making sure that it's a fair fight between the two of them. But not just the romance is up in the air, everything about their lives is up in the air. That does keep you tuning in, if that is the aspect that you are tuning in for."

Stay tuned for EW's next binge-read retrospective as Levithan looks back on 2009's Catching Fire.

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