thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Hopelessly Real: Anticipating Katniss’s Transition to the Big Screen

In gender, girl culture, race on November 14, 2011 at 8:18 pm

Melissa Sexton

A couple of weeks ago, following my Halloween debut as Katniss Everdeen, I posted about the awesomeness of The Hunger Games‘s main heroine.  Today, the Hunger Games hype has kicked up again as Lionsgate released the official full-length trailer for the March 2012 film. From the chatter I’ve seen on the Internet and heard amongst friends, a lot of speculation has centered on exactly how the film will depict Katniss – a matter that has been of particular concern given the novels’ self-conscious reflection on the repeated manipulation of beauty and sex appeal as part of the televised spectacle of the Games. Concern has also been high because Katniss is an unusual heroine, self-consciously rejecting beauty and romance, constantly conscious of her class situation, admired for what she does rather than how she looks. I think many girls, like me, are rooting for a female heroine that isn’t supposed to be ugly but also isn’t way prettier than her role necessitates (there’s been quite a range of these, from Zooey Deschanel in New Girl to Hermione Granger in The Past 4 Harry Potter Movies). While I might have indulged in some extra eyeliner for my Halloween costume, I like many others fear a sexed-up Katniss – an ass-kicking heroine in the Tomb Raider tradition. All I really want is a girl whose toughness, independence, and anger isn’t made more palatable for polite (male) consumption by disguising it with pursed lips and big boobs: Don’t be afraid of Katniss! She might brutally slay you, but she looks so good doing it; she might look angry, but that’s just disguised passionate lust. Can’t a girl be fearsome and not a sex machine? There was also plentiful reaction to the Katniss casting  calls for a Caucasian actress (a narrow set of parameters given Katniss’s ambiguous racial identification, marked by dark hair and olive-toned skin).

Despite all the concerns about Katniss’s transition to the screen, I breathed a sigh of relief when Lionsgate announced the casting of Jennifer Lawrence.  While her strangely sexy turn as Mystique in the last X-Men movie dangerously suggested action-heroine-vamp, I was confident that she could tap into the gutsy performance she gave in her portrayal of Ree in Winter’s Bone.

Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique: busty alien temptress...

OR Jennifer Lawrence as Ree: bloodied-up backwoods heroine with mettle and guts

While Lawrence is incredibly beautiful, her portrayal of Ree didn’t have you thinking about her looks.  It was one of the best character performances I’ve seen in a long time.  Ree’s steely determination, understated toughness, and dirt-covered but unmistakable regalness seemed a perfect parallel to the Katniss I imagined – a girl so focused on the survival of her family that she could not even recognize or understand her charismatic ability to win allies and inspire the love of the teen boys around her. Lawrence’s comfortable ability in the Appalachian setting of Winter’s Bone also made me hopeful for Hunger Games‘s portrayal of District 12 – the Everdeen family’s home and what was once American Appalachia. The mining poverty of District 12 breeds characters without luxury or sexiness, and I hoped that the film would hang onto that too – a hope that Lawrence’s participation helped preserve. If we could have a world that was closer to the meth-lab-and-trailer-park-world of Winter’s Bone than the strange political alter-reality of X-Men: First Class, then my inner Hunger Games fan girl would be happy.

Thankfully, the trailer leaves me still more hopeful that the film will appeal to Hollywood audiences without super-sexualizing Katniss or her world.

While Lawrence is beautiful and appealing as Katniss, there are no leather skin suits or boob-baring harnesses in sight. She doesn’t look made up.  Her clothes are plain and utilitarian. She looks young enough to be a 17 year old tribute. Her messy braid and flapping tunics are still present.

And the world she inhabits looks dead-on – a mix of futuristic sci-fi glitz, post-apocalyptic gloom, and Depression-era mining town hopelessness. The clothes evident in the trailer’s shots of the reaping suggest Katniss, in her braids and simple blue dress, could have walked straight out of a Dorothea Lange Depression-era photo and straight into the post-apocalyptic future of Panem.

I keep thinking about why it’s so very important to me that Katniss not be sexed up – why Lawrence’s beauty not be the centerpiece of her character.  Partially, I think, it’s the age-old frustration – the desire not to dismiss beauty but to dethrone it from its position above all other positive characteristics. Why should we praise Lawrence’s sex appeal over the truly remarkable talent she showed in Winter’s Bone? But I think part of my insistence is more than a repetition of the now-common frustration with the partnership between sexualized beauty and Hollywood media. It’s a real respect for the smart work that The Hunger Games does with that very relationship. As I mentioned in my last post, Katniss gets made up as part of the Games – and, in the novels, that transformation is part of the outrage and the injustice. Not only do the tributes have to die for a corrupt system; they have to look good while doing it; they have to appeal to the crowd before they are sent to their deaths.  They have to make the crowd love them so that their deaths will have emotional resonance. Katniss’s poor ability to play the beauty game – to present a veneer of prettiness and charm – is a constant concern throughout the series, but, ironically, it is also part of what eventually makes her such a very real heroine, for contemporary readers and for the audiences of Panem. Katniss is unstoppably real; whenever she tries to play to cameras, she comes off as phony and fake.  But whenever she acts out of genuine emotion, usually doing the thing that public relations common knowledge would suggest you should not do, she creates moments that no one in the nation can ever forget. While the Katniss of the films will inevitably be a little bit more mediated – will be a Katniss on a screen within a screen – I still hope that she will shine through within that realness – that the movie will make her an appealing character whose appeal rests in genuine passion and anger and justice rather than in just looking good.

On a screen within a screen - but still looking real while giving the District 12 salute.

  1. I have high hopes too, though since I haven’t seen “Winter’s Bone” I wasn’t sure how I felt about Jennifer Lawrence’s casting. Aside from the fact that she reminds me very much of the actress who played Susan in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” and that creates some mental dissonance for me, I think she will do a good job.
    I think the reason Katniss is so great is that she shows us there are more important things than beauty. Therefore, a movie version of her in which she is too pretty (not that Jennifer Lawrence is not pretty) would take so much away from the character as we understand her. I hope this continues. I worry about the later moments in the Games when contestants’ outfits are damaged and torn and ripping away, and I worry about the awkward-but-awesome storytelling sequence with Peeta while his leg mends. But mostly my hopes are high, much to my surprise!

  2. […] get the humor underlying their criticisms, but think that assigning blame to Lawrence is a cop-out. Lawrence can emote just fine. Instead, we as cultural critics need to be identifying and calling out a […]

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