Or, “How Katniss Everdeen Climbed Out of Her Book and Ignited a Real-Life Conflict.”
The past few months have been filled with casting decisions for the upcoming movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. So far, almost all of those casting choices have been met with controversy from the millions of avid readers of the dystopian trilogy. Earlier this week, someone mentioned that they didn’t remember any other movie being so filled with controversy at the casting stages, and I’m inclined to agree.
Note: I tried to keep this post free of major spoilers, but the nature of a trilogy like this means that the very presence of some characters in multiple installments is spoiler-ish, along with certain other details. Read at your own risk.
Other films, of course, have had some public outcry about casting decisions, but apart from Avatar: The Last Airbender and the extreme whitewashing in its live-action movie adaptation, I can’t think of any that got quite this much attention quite so early on from the general population. I have a few ideas about why this is, and why so many people have found themselves invested in the casting of the characters for this particular series.
First, The Hunger Games is a book that is, at its roots, about vast socioeconomic inequality. The Games themselves are a form of retribution enacted by the dominant class and the government against the subjugated working Districts. In order to secure greater amounts of food, the Districts must send two children, called Tributes, in the Arena every year to fight in a televised competition to the death. The winner’s District gets extra food for that year. But some Districts win very rarely, and individuals are then forced to place extra entries into the lottery in order to obtain extra rations. Meanwhile, in the Capitol (which never has to offer Tributes), citizens attend elegant parties where they force themselves to vomit so they can continue eating rich foods. Though certain racial signals are absolutely present in the plot, they’re understated due to the nature of the world Collins built, and the explicit and perpetuated inequality is class-based.
The first installment of this trilogy published in September of 2008, just a month before the U.S. government was finally admitting (after quite a bit of hemming and hawing) that we were falling into one of the worst recessions in history. The first novel alone sold more than 6 million copies; the final installment, Mockingjay, has sold nearly 2 million copies since its release in 2010 (Scholastic). The title’s popularity crosses boundaries of age, but a huge portion of its readers are under 35, placing them in the demographic that is predicted to suffer the longest-term effects of the recession. For many of those readers, it’s probable that the class stratification hit close to home, allowing them to relate personally to many of the characters. The addition of District-specific trades may have lent added points of socioeconomic identification for many readers.
This self-identification with the characters and the story may have something to do with people paying so much attention to the appearance of the characters in the movie. But Collins wrote most of her characters in racially ambiguous ways. Katniss has “olive skin and dark hair,” but her mother, her sister, and Peeta are all described as paler than many other members of the district. For most readers, this signal about race was flexible enough to leave room for that self-identification I mentioned before, and those of us with the privilege to ignore the race of characters were able to think she was probably white and get on with things. Readers of color, however, were also able to take that description and see a heroic female character of color, and added to similarly imprecise descriptions of other important characters, this ability for everyone to potentially see themselves or someone like them in Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Prim, and even Cinna was critical to the rest of the discussion.
Underneath the socioeconomic stratification in the trilogy, though, there’s also the mere fact of obvious, visible, harmful oppression going on. Which possibly brought emotional investment from actively oppressed groups, and almost certainly brought it from those who consider themselves threatened with oppression in our current climate. It never fails that dystopian fiction eventually finds favor with some of the very people it criticizes. The debate that surrounds The Hunger Games casting has evidenced very clearly that there are very devoted fans across most of the sociocultural lines we draw, all of whom identified with the story and its characters.
So on both sides, people got invested. And then the casting calls went out, and for Katniss, they called for someone blonde, Caucasian, and pretty beneath a tomboyish body. In the end, Jennifer Lawrence was cast in the role. Behind that link is an E! article that includes an image of Lawrence before her character makeup. She’s blonde, very fair, and since those are the only real physical characteristics we have about Katniss, you might understand why some people were upset about the casting call that made her a candidate in the first place. Not even a brunette? Especially considering that a more recent E! article shows a promo image of Lawrence with her blonde hair dyed dark and her skin darkened with makeup. They couldn’t just expand the casting call to people who had those features themselves? People have reasonably asserted that the physical descriptions of District citizens are only very, very rarely mentioned, and that “olive skinned” doesn’t have to mean non-white, but the fact remains that it can mean non-white. The people doing the casting expressly excluded young women of color from the auditions for Katniss.
Shortly thereafter, the casting decisions for Rue and Thresh, the District 11 tributes, were released. Both of these characters appear Black, and some thought this added diversity in the cast should help appease some of those who were upset about Katniss. But anyone who’s read the book and knows both where these characters come from and what happens to them should have known that this felt like a typical Hollywood way to add diversity without having to “sacrifice” a beloved primary character.
More recently, Lenny Kravitz was cast as Cinna, the stylist who gives Katniss and Peeta their fiery image before their first games and continues through Katniss’ transformation into a rebel icon in Mockingjay. If the people who expressed disappointment over the casting of Katniss were sad and frustrated, the people upset about Cinna being cast as a black man were just morally outraged. Heaven forbid that in a world where people in the capitol dye their skin green for fashion, we have a black man with gold eyeliner as a stylist. “It’s not about race,” they said, and then tried to make it about sunglasses. But if we had only a smidgen of reason to assume Katniss was a woman of color, we have even less reason to believe Cinna is white. And this, for me, was where the frustrations about the casting really came to a head, because it became very clear that for those who considered that the characters would probably be white, it didn’t matter whether or not Collins had offered us any racial signals in her characters. All that mattered was that non-minority readers could no longer see themselves in these characters if those characters weren’t expressly white, at least under their makeup. Which is nice and ironic, considering the arguments that always come out when people of color complain about not being able to see themselves in the most popular fictional characters.
In general, I think it’s possible that the emphasis on socioeconomic stratification in the series combined with the current economic and political climate to create the self-identification between characters and readers that made them pay attention to the casting. Adding the cultural conflicts and the huge chasms being (often intentionally) built between members of racial, economic, and cultural groups at this particular point in time made more people likely to not only be interested in the process but also vocal when they felt their needs weren’t met, or when they were met but were being challenged by someone unlike them. Most people could find a hero in the books that they could relate to, at least in their heads. The casting of the movie adaptation has thrown that off for a lot of people who aren’t accustomed to that sensation, while simultaneously reminding those people who are accustomed to it that their needs can always take a back burner.
Of course, it’s only reasonable that a series about revolution provoked by governmentally and socially-perpetuated inequality should spark this particular controversy, right?
The Hunger Games Trilogy / Suzanne Collins. Scholastic Press, 2008-2010. U.S. $53.97 (boxed set)
For more thoughts on The Hunger Games and its cultural influences and implications, try The Girl Who Was On Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy / Ed. Leah Wilson. Smart Pop, 5 April 2011. U.S. $12.95
“Bow and Arrow” by Leo Reynolds (LEOL30) at flickr. Cover images from Amazon. A full collection of to-date cast images and often infuriating discussion of the same can be found at Entertainment Weekly.