Friday, July 8, 2011

Race and class in movie version of The Hunger Games

On March 23, 2012 a film version of Suzanne Collin’s hit trilogy, The Hunger Games, is set to air on the big screen.  The Hunger Games, marketed rather disturbingly as young adult fiction, centers on sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen and her moral and physical dilemmas as she competes as a tribute in the 74th annual Hunger Games.  Collins takes great care in describing Katniss’ features as olive-toned and dark, which contrast her mother and sister’s blonde hair and pale skin, marks of a higher socioeconomic status, making a clear statement about race and class throughout the book.  Set to debut as Katniss is the very white Jennifer Lawrence, (X-Men, The Winter’s Bone), a fact that has understandably caused some controversy.

Although stylists have dyed Lawrence’s blonde hair brown for the movie, her whiteness is still quite apparent.  As aforementioned, Collins never overtly states Katniss’ race, but it is very clear from Collins’ careful descriptions that Katniss is not Caucasian.  In an article that combats this decision, Bitch magazine argues that the choice to cast Lawrence may make the character more accessible to viewers.  Here’s the thing:  The Hunger Games is another runaway success, like Twilight and Harry Potter that have a natural appeal to the target audience.  Her stylists could put Katniss in a burlap sack and glue googly-eyes to her face and enthusiasts of this story would still love her.
One of the most compelling and important things about the novel, from a cultural perspective, is that the protagonist is both non-white and female, representing two groups that don’t hit the top of the privilege pyramid scheme.  While on many levels it is unfortunate that Collins chooses to introduce the love triangle, making Katniss appear less independent, at least for the first novel, it isn’t a central conceit.  The concern that Bitch magazine expresses and many echo, is that, due to Lawrence’s depiction, the obviously important element of Katniss’ race will be entirely lost, and audiences will view her solely as a white woman warrior.  Clearly Collins took the time to differentiate between Katniss’ appearance – like her father’s, from the lower, mining class – and her mother’s, who Collins states married down.  Hollywood is known for distorting stories and not being exceptionally loyal to novel plots, but, in a country where race and class is such an enormous issue, one might think they could cast a non-white Katniss or, at the very least, not make “Caucasian” the first casting requirement.

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