Tuesday, November 24, 2015

What the 'Hunger Games' Movies Say About Feminism — and War

At the Los Angeles Times, "The Katniss Factor":
Throughout the new "Hunger Games" movie, the fourth and final in the dystopian series, heroine Katniss Everdeen's name is intoned with grave sincerity. The manipulative President Snow whispers it, as one does of a worthy rival; her battle partner and occasional romantic interest Gale Hawthorne utters it to suggest a noble comrade.

But the most telling invocation comes early in the film. "It's Katniss," belts out Peeta Mellark, her other battle partner and romantic interest, compromised and angry as he lies in a hospital bed. "It's [all] because of Katniss."

Much has indeed happened thanks to Katniss, a name you couldn't dream up if you tried and now can't imagine not existing. The character has become a kind of cultural shorthand — an archetype, someone who has deepened our understanding of armed conflicts and paved the way for a political movement. And that's just off the screen.

As the Lionsgate franchise winds down with this week's release of "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2," the film and its lead character reside in a far different world than the one in which they began. And many of those differences came because of "The Hunger Games" films.

There is, of course, the money. The franchise that started with novelist Suzanne Collins and was largely directed by Francis Lawrence has taken in $2.3 billion globally, with more on the way. Every year since 2012, at least 35 million tickets have been bought in the United States to a new "Hunger Games" movie. More Americans on average have come out to see Katniss in a given film than they have Harry Potter.

But the effects go beyond sheer popularity. As played by Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss, with her bow and arrow, has inspired a generation to lift up their weapons, both literally (the surge in archery lessons) and otherwise. She is often unsmiling, efficient and "male-like," by the chestnutty Hollywood definition, in which female characters are rarely foremost and even less frequently autonomous.

Before "Hunger Games," Hollywood somehow couldn't conceive of a fully formed, villain-thwacking heroine in a top-tier franchise. Sure, some swings had been taken. But they were exceptions — pre-made stars in one-offs (Angelina Jolie in "Salt" or "Wanted") or one-dimensional types in B-movie serials (Milla Jovovich's "Resident Evil" or Kate Beckinsale's "Underworld").

Katniss, on the other hand, was, almost from the start, confident but complicated, bold but human. "She's just so relatable and she's not a superhero — she feels real, she feels lost, she feels reluctant," said director Francis Lawrence. "She doesn't want to be a leader, she doesn't want to be part of a rebellion."

If the character was sometimes caught in a love triangle, a Bridget Jones touch that doesn't exactly scream postfeminist consciousness, she spent much of the rest of the time knocking away at glass ceilings, the Hollywood lady hero whose power comes from thoughts and actions more than sexuality...
Still more.