Movie Review: Heroine Creates a Hunger
In Katniss Everdeen, Audiences Find a Surprising Power
Hollywood studios don’t always pay attention to art but they always pay attention to money.
And The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which stars Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, the indomitable heroine of Suzanne Collins’ literary trilogy, took in more than $160 million when it opened nationwide last weekend, breaking the November box office record, according to a story in The New York Times. The film also did well in foreign markets, which makes it not only a national phenomenon but an international one.
I took my 12-year-old daughter to see Catching Fire over the weekend and was struck by the sheer number of people buying tickets to see it, and the speed at which two back-to-back screenings sold out. Although the highest concentration of movie-goers was adolescent girls, there was a mix of parents and children, boys as well as girls. This runs counter to the time-honored Hollywood assumption that films centered on women (or girls) can’t sell tickets or draw in a wide audience.
Before the film began the audience endured an interminable parade of previews for movies that Hollywood clearly thinks will bring in box office. Based on franchise characters like Captain America, Thor and The Avengers, these are bombastic movies that rely on special effects, percussive explosions and the sound of screeching metal to do their work — computer-generated pyrotechnics occasionally interrupted by storytelling, not the other way around.
While the first two installments of The Hunger Games boast a dizzying array of visual effects, some impressive, some silly, what distinguishes the movies from your average Hollywood action flick is Katniss herself. No wonder teenage girls are lining up in droves to buy the books and watch the films.
The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian American future, after an apocalypse. The country is called Panem, and what used to be states are now regional districts. Katniss Everdeen and her family come from District 12, which in both films looks like 1930s Appalachia as shot by such Farm Security Administration photographers as Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange. The district industry is coal, and the residents are gaunt and sallow, living a pinched, mean existence under the thumb of an authoritarian government.
To keep Panem’s restive population under control, the government organizes the Hunger Games, a yearly competition in which young people from the districts are forced to fight each other to the death. The contestants are forced into an engineered wilderness to try to outwit each other, and if you’re caught you can expect summary execution unless you kill the executioner first. It’s Outward Bound on steroids.
Imperfect but authentic, Katniss is a heroine, and young women aren’t used to seeing that in Hollywood movies where a parade of stereotypes — mean girls, vixens, sluts, victims, fat girls, uptight corporate types, anxious brides and scheming bridesmaids — sashay down the cinematic runway.
Katniss is the antithesis. She’s resourceful, compassionate and a wily survivor. A steampunk Odysseus, Katniss is the wanderer and seeker who relies on her skill and more than a little trickery to gain advantage over those who would destroy her. And when Katniss draws her bow back to release an arrow, she’s Artemis, the archer with unerring aim who, in Greek myth, is also called on to protect both young girls and the wilderness.
The scenes of Katniss in the forest, picking her way along old trails, fording streams and climbing trees, give a female cast to something that’s almost always been, in movies, the province of boys. Apart from its nods to Greek myth, The Hunger Games films also play on our own frontier iconography of the pioneers moving the frontier west under often unforgiving conditions. Katniss is a descendent of James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, also called the Deerslayer or the Pathfinder, a moral force as well as a physical one.
The picture of Katniss drawing back the bowstring, eyes fixed on a distant target, is the most powerful image the Hunger Games movies have to offer. It takes patience, strength and resolve to shoot well, and Katniss prevails because her instincts and training assert themselves even when circumstances are so dire it seems impossible anybody should survive.
It’s no accident that Katniss was a literary creation, not one dreamed up by a screenwriting team that has to reach plot point 1 on page 20 of the script. Girls in books are permitted much greater latitude and breadth of character than girls in movies.
And one reason that Jennifer Lawrence succeeds in the part, and wins over her audience, is because she doesn’t fit the Hollywood mold of the bobble-headed, attenuated starlet with the blank gaze. She’s got a mental toughness, but also a humility, that comes through. And make no mistake, she is the movie.
The younger, conventionally handsome male leads with the perfectly coiffed hair are fairly forgettable, and while Donald Sutherland purrs as the evil, if leonine President Snow, he has little to do beyond raising a supercilious eyebrow and stroking his silky white beard and mustache, which are so luxuriant they should probably get a movie credit all their own.
Stanley Tucci does a sly, expert turn as the TV host of the Hunger Games, drawing on every cliche of a TV game show and talk show host you’ve ever seen, with a tan John Boehner would envy and a teeth-rattling laugh that would give even The Joker pause.
The Hunger Games movies aren’t top-notch entertainment in the way, say, the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men managed to keep you on the edge of your seat while also delivering a bleak portrait of an America ruled by the law of the gun. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire verges on visual tedium with its heavy rotation of computer-generated tsunamis, monsters and poisoned fogs.
But the moviemakers are smart enough to recognize that Katniss Everdeen has become a cultural touchstone — and they get out of her way.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.