The popular young adult trilogy is being turned into a movie. Why it's so important to get the female protagonist right.
Paramount Pictures/Scholastic Press/Anonymous Content
Anyone who has mainlined the best-selling young adult trilogy The Hunger Games can attest that the books are crackling and propulsive reads. Set in an apocalyptic future where teenagers are drafted by a totalitarian regime to battle to the death, the series is sophisticated and breathtakingly paced. And in her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, author Suzanne Collins has created an indelible young heroine—one who is poised to achieve crossover success now that she's coming to the big screen.
The news that cinematic tough girls and Oscar nominees Jennifer Lawrence and Hailee Steinfeld (along with almost every other working actress under 25) are top contenders to play the lead in the Gary Ross-directed adaptation has successfully ratcheted up interest in the upcoming film. Finding the right Katniss is a daunting casting decision—not only because the young actress will be endlessly scrutinized by a rabid fan base and must carry a movie franchise imbued with Harry Potter and Twilight-sized expectations—but because she will be portraying the most important female character in recent pop culture history.
Growing up, my own childhood idols—in chronological order—included Rainbow Brite, Pippi Longstocking, Laura Ingalls, Nancy Drew, Anne Shirley, and later, Buffy Summers. All of them shared several important characteristics: They were the tomboys and the rule-breakers, resourceful, whip-smart girls who were doing it for themselves with minimal parental supervision. Maybe it was because I was such a painfully timid kid that I drew strength from the boldness of my fictional heroines. In addition to serving up youthful wish fulfillment for independence and adventure, the characters provided a kind of road map to the woman I hoped to become. In the wake of the Twilight phenomenon, I wondered what had happened to the Buffys of the world—the kind of girl who wouldn't flinch at stabbing her vampire boyfriend through the heart if he got out of line. While I was languishing into adult decrepitude, had the girl power ethos of my own adolescence undergone an irreversible shift?
Yes, other admirable young heroines have appeared on the scene since Buffy slayed her last vamp. Harry Potter's Hermione Granger is brave, loyal and often described as the cleverest girl at Hogwarts. But she's also saddled with providing the scolding voice of reason, and never seems to have quite as much fun as Harry and Ron. Computer hacker Lisbeth Salander of the wildly popular Millenium trilogy (also coming soon to a theater near you) is brilliant and enigmatic, but too dark and damaged by her violent past to provide a viable role model for female empowerment. Feisty teen detective Veronica Mars snarked her way through three seasons of the eponymous television show, but the clever high school noir series never found the audience it deserved. It's been years since a young female protagonist has captured the zeitgeist to the extent that Katniss has—with the obvious exception of the Twilight trilogy's Bella Swan.
It may seem incredible that swoony Bella and tough-as-nails Katniss share the same literary universe, much less a share of the same audience, but in some ways they are similarly single-minded. Bella's driving force is to divest herself of her irksome soul so that she can be mated for eternity with her love, Edward. There is little else to her personality, aside from her propensity for falling into peril. When Edward leaves her for a large portion of the second book, she pulls increasingly dangerous stunts like crashing a motorcycle and leaping off cliffs because, in the fleeting moments before her possible demise, she has visions of Edward. Left to her own devices both she and the story languish.