Sorry to Thanksgiving—November is now officially devoted to The Hunger Games. Not only is there a prequel film, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, now in theaters, but this month also marks a decade since the release of the movie franchise’s best installment, Catching Fire. With that, we should all be looking back on the most important moment in Hunger Games history.
Yes, we’re talking about the groundbreaking naked elevator scene.
A clip of this scene goes viral about every other year, so you may have seen it without knowing the context. It’s a scene taken straight out of Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire novel: While at an event to promote the Quarter Quell (a bigger, more dramatic Hunger Games thrown every quarter century), Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) pile into an elevator with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). Famed Hunger Games winner Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) flounces into the elevator right after them, marking Katniss and Peeta’s first encounter with the spunky know-it-all.
Johanna, a feisty character who brings drama with her everywhere she goes, spares everyone a boring round of introductory ice breakers. Instead, she asks Peeta to help unzip her outfit—a tree, inspired by her forested district—and flaunts her naked body to everyone in the elevator. The other characters’ eyes in this scene say everything: Katniss rolls hers. Peeta doesn’t know if he should avert his gaze or stare at Johanna. And Haymitch, well, his eyes are on the prize.
This scene is a masterclass in character introductions from Collins, and in this one rare occasion, it’s a scene that is somehow better in the movie than the book. Harrelson, Lawrence, Hutcherson, and especially Malone are all captivating, somehow each able to convey a different level of shock and awe. This moment is better on screen, because we get to see what they’re all thinking; the book limits us to Katniss’ perspective.
And get this: Lawrence wasn’t even on set the day they filmed this sequence.
In a recent red carpet interview to promote The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Malone spoke about the challenges in filming this scene. “The scenes that are fun are never fun to do, you know? Jen was sick that day, and so I ended up doing it without Jen, so there wasn’t a lot of people in the elevator,” Malone said. “But, you know, that’s the magic of filmmaking. You only need a few seconds to create something that lasts.”
While it did break my brain when I found this out—what do you mean J.Law wasn’t present on this historic day of Hunger Games history?—the more I think about it, the more in awe I am. The stars were able to make this scene feel so edgy, so chaotic, so monumental, even without one of the stars on set the day they filmed. The series’ blazing outfits and futuristic set pieces are all breathtaking, but it’s this one scene that’s the most masterful thing The Hunger Games has ever given us. Malone said it best—movie magic continues to blow my mind.
The image of Malone’s sly-lipped Johanna has outlasted that of every other character (save only Katniss, perhaps, in her fiery dresses and iconic braid) in my mind. When I think of the Hunger Games series, I think first of the unbelievable brilliance of Catching Fire—the clock arena!—and Johanna’s introduction in particular. Why did she get naked? Was it to assert her power? Was she trying to seduce Peeta? Johanna explains that her costume was bothersome, but to this day, I still think there was something more to it. It will always perplex me.
This scene has been replaying in my mind more than usual lately, and not just because of the new Hunger Games flick. In recent weeks, Hutcherson has become a total teen heartthrob all over again, thanks to his role in Five Nights at Freddy’s but also to the resurgence of The Hunger Games. That’s all fine and dandy—Hutcherson was an adequate Peeta, and the viral fan-cams on TikTok make me nostalgic for 2013—but out of all the Hunger Games stars who deserve a second wind, it should be Malone. Her elevator entrance brought more to the franchise than every scene Hutcherson was in combined.
Looking back at it all these years later, the elevator scene showcases a quartet of brilliant stars at the peak of their powers. Malone led the pack, but that’s not to say Harrelson wasn’t killing it over in his corner of the elevator. (I still think his best contribution to The Hunger Games was that he wore flannel pajama pants on the red carpet, though.) Even though Hutcherson and Lawrence had star turns this year in Five Nights at Freddy’s and No Hard Feelings, I still see them as those kids in the elevator. After a full decade, I can’t enter any elevator without thinking about it.