The Hunger Games’ Feral Feminism
Jennifer Lawrence stars as 'Katniss Everdeen' in The Hunger Games. Photo courtesy: Lionsgate Films Inc. / Murray Close
As a mad fan of Suzanne Collins’s book The Hunger Games, I was totally pysched for the film. Secretly, though, I was prepared to be disappointed, because how often does Hollywood do justice to a book you love? The movie does oversimplify a bit, but then, for a book that reads like crack on paper, The Hunger Games is a complicated story, with many layers and lots of sharply drawn characters. While it has lost the first-person voice of its scrappy heroine, Katniss Everdeen, it’s amazing how much of the book the movie gets right.
There are many ways to analyze The Hunger Games. You can see it as a savage satire of late capitalism: in a dystopian future version of North America called Panem, the 1 percent rule through brute force, starvation, technological wizardry and constant surveillance. The Games exemplify these methods: as punishment for a past rebellion, each of the twelve districts of Panem must sacrifice two teenagers, a boy and a girl, to come to the Capitol (sic) and compete in a televised ritual of murder and survivalism until only one is left. Tea Partiers can imagine an allegory of oppressive Washington, and traditionalists can revel in the ancient trope of the moral superiority of the countryside: the district people are poor and downtrodden and wear Depression-style clothes but they live in families, sing folk songs and have a strong sense of community. In the Capitol, which has the dated-futuristic look of a fascist Oz, the lifestyle is somewhere between the late Roman Empire, the court of Louis XVI and the Cirque du Soleil. You can also read the book as an indictment of reality television, in which a bored and cynical audience amuses itself watching desperate people destroy themselves, and the movie plays this angle for all it’s worth. When the unctuous Games host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, in a startling blue wig) interviews the teens about to be murdered as if they were trying out for American Idol, you start to wonder when we’ll see Perez Hilton chatting up death row prisoners on Entertainment Tonight (“Any last words for your family?”).
The element that is the most striking to me, though, is Katniss, portrayed in the film by the splendid Jennifer Lawrence. Katniss has qualities usually given to boys: a hunter who’s kept her mother and sister from starving since she was 11, she’s intrepid and tough, better at killing rabbits than expressing her feelings, a skilled bargainer in the black market for meat. No teenage vegetarian she! At the same time, she’s feminine: never aggressive or swaggering, tenderhearted and protective of the defenseless—when her little sister Prim’s name is chosen for the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place; during the games she risks death to protect the lovable girlchild Rue (Amandla Stenberg). Not to get too literary about this most popular of popular fiction, you can see Katniss as a version of the goddess Artemis, protectress of the young and huntress with a silver bow and arrows like the ones Katniss carries in the Games. Like the famously virginal goddess, Katniss is an independent spirit: she is not about her looks, her clothes, her weight, her popularity, gossip, drama or boys. The great Stuart Klawans made a rare slip writing in these pages that Katniss is a typical young-adult heroine, “greatly worried” about whether “guy number one” likes her and what “guy number two might think about that.” The whole plot turns on Katniss being so romantically uninterested in Peeta, her fellow District 12 Games contestant, she doesn’t realize he’s in love with her. When she’s not convinced he’s trying to kill her, she believes he’s pretending to be smitten with her to gain sympathy (and help) from the invisible TV audience. She rescues him several times anyway. As for “guy number two” back home, the devastatingly handsome Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss only fleetingly thinks there might be more than friendship there. Mostly she is just trying to survive without becoming a horrible person.
Katniss is a rare thing in pop fiction: a complex female character with courage, brains and a quest of her own. She’s Jo March as coal miner’s daughter in hunting boots, the opposite of Bella, the famously drippy, love-obsessed heroine of the Twilight books—and unlike clever and self-possessed Hermione of the Harry Potter series, she’s the lead, not a sidekick. We’re worlds away from the vicious-little-rich-girls of Gossip Girl and its many knockoffs, where everything revolves around looks, clothes, consumerism, social status and sexual competition.
She is a rare thing in real-life girl culture, too, where the latest news is of Dara-Lynn Weiss’s Vogue article—and book deal—recounting the rigid diet regimen she forced on her 7-year-old daughter. (At least Amy Chua browbeat her daughters to read books and play musical instruments!) What does it say about us that so many mocked the slender Lawrence’s Katniss as too “big”? It’s true that in the book, Katniss is underfed, like almost everyone in the districts, but in the movie none of the other Games contestants are skinny either, and they all look fit and healthy, even tiny Rue, who in the book has never even had a whole bird leg to herself. Besides, the anorectic cookie-cutter young actresses favored by Hollywood don’t have the acting chops for this role. Lawrence, who played another hardscrabble heroine in Winter’s Bone, brings to life the hidden tenderness that is one key to Katniss’s character.
The other key is Katniss’s moral centeredness. Unlike most of the contestants, she kills only in self-defense. Life as a celebrity—winners are feted and made rich for life—repels her. When she thinks about fairness and justice, she’s thinking about social class and political power, not about who gets to be prom queen. What would she make of the racist response of some fans to the casting of black actors as Rue and another beloved character, Thresh? I suspect she’d be as contemptuous of them as she is of the hyperprivileged darlings of the Capitol.