Friday, March 18, 2011

On Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss

The backstory: Despite really disliking Mockingjay, the third novel in the Hunger Games series, I've been following the movie news quite carefully. The casting of Katniss (and Peeta and Gale) is crucial. When news broke yesterday that Jennifer Lawrence had been cast, I was deeply saddened. She's not the right choice, and her casting worries me.

My thoughts: This morning, Entertainment Weekly posted an interview with Gary Ross, the film's director, calling it the easiest casting decision of his life. He responds to critics who think she's too old (Lawrence will turn 21 in August; Katniss is 16 in the first book):
"First of all I talked to Suzanne extensively about this. Suzanne saw every single audition. And not only did Suzanne not have an issue with Jen’s age, she felt you need someone of a certain maturity and power to be Katniss. This is a girl who needs to incite a revolution. We can’t have an insubstantial person play her, and we can’t have someone who’s too young to play this. Suzanne was incredibly adamant about this. Far from being too old, she was very concerned that we would cast someone who was too young. In Suzanne’s mind, and in mine, Katniss is not a young girl. It’s important for her to be a young woman. She’s a maternal figure in her family. She’s had to take care of Prim and in many ways her mother since her father’s death. She’s had to grow up pretty quick."
Here's why they're both wrong: the power of this book is in the age of Katniss. The Hunger Games are so terrifying because the contestants are between 12 and 18. Seeing actual teenagers fight to the death is very different than seeing people in their early twenties. It's the difference between the gritty rawness of Degrassi versus the equally entertaining but often less compelling Gossip Girl or One Tree Hill (shows I watch and love). When I watch Degrassi (the original Degrassi Junior High, Degrassi High, or early seasons of Degrassi: the Next Generation), I constantly think, "but they're so young." A similar phenomenon continuously compels me to watch 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom 2. Seeing teenagers face adversity (sometimes overcoming it and sometimes failing miserably) is harrowing. Seeing adults pretend to be teenagers is entertaining.

(Gary Ross & Jennifer Lawrence)
Image Credit: Albert L. Ortega/PR Photos;
Lester Cohen/
The casting of Jennifer Lawrence concerns me because I think it waters down the message of the books. I don't read very much young adult fiction, but I was inspired by Katniss partly because of her age. A sixteen-year-old girl inspiring a revolution? Yes, please! Sadly, it seems a lot more plausible than a twenty-one-year-old doing it. There's a broad range of youthful idealism between sixteen and twenty-one.

I don't doubt that Lawrence will be good in the role; she gave a powerful performance of a 17-year-old character in Winter's Bone, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. The critical distinction: her performance was strong, but I didn't realize she was supposed to be seventeen until the middle of the film. In many ways, her character was similar to Katniss. She was a maternal (and arguably paternal) figure to her younger siblings. She hunted their food. She lived in a life and death world. She was strong, brave and somewhat heroic.

I don't care that her physical description is so different than how Katniss was described. I don't think her hair color matters. I do, however, think her age does.

The verdict: The age of Katniss is an undeniable part of The Hunger Games, and I worry the film just lost some of its authenticity and power. I was rooting for Hailee Steinfeld, who is only 14. She was unbelievably convincing in True Grit, and she can believably play a 16-year-old. The films will still make money. They will still introduces millions to the books. They will still be entertaining. They simply won't be the films I hoped they would because they won't really be about teenagers anymore.

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  1. I really hope she does well, but I also was disappointed when the news was announced. I thought Hailee would have been a good choice as well. I just hope Jennifer Lawrence has read this book and has also been reading YA books in general so that she can get a real sense of what this audience looks for.

  2. You make a really good point! Especially since there was another oscar nominee who really would have fit the part well! And especially if they make all three movies, Jennifer could potentially closer to 30 by the time they finish taping the last film! Even if they do them quickly she'd be in her mid-twenties.

  3. I hadn't been following the news on this, but agree with you totally, and also think that she is physically wrong for the role as well. I envisioned a younger and more stoic looking Katniss, so this news disappoints me as well. It will be interesting to see how this movie changes the impact that the books have made on me, and I also agree with Jenny's point that the character's age over time might also be a problem. It's always disappointing when Hollywood gets it wrong from a book lover's perspective.

  4. I can definitely see what you mean about Katniss' age -- and her youth -- being very important to the film's success, and I'd have to agree with you. Hoping the movie is still phenomenal!

  5. I know exactly what you mean, and Jen's age seems to be at the forefront of concerns. However, after looking at some stills from the film, they managed to make her look like a teen. I think I would have to agree that they needed "someone of a certain maturity and power to be Katniss." I have a hard time coming up with one teen actress out there who could really pull this role off.


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