All things Hunger Games
I know what you’re thinking – lord, another post on the interwebs about The Hunger Games?! Yes, yes it is. But no worries, this isn’t a movie review. I’ll leave analysis of whether the movie does justice to the book’s complex depiction of segregation and inequality, disability, and violence as media spectacle to people who have actually seen the movie. I’m more interested in the various questions around diversity in Hollywood that the movie and responses to it raise.
First the awesome news: the top film at the U.S. box office right now and a record breaking blockbuster is story about an intelligent, competent, complex girl who kicks ass, based on a novel by a best-selling female author, and produced by a lesbian woman, Nina Jacobson, and her production company Color Force. So much for conventional wisdom about the marketability of movies and books with female protagonists, or the ability of female producers.
The less awesome news: despite being yet another in a long string of movies that challenge industry assumptions that movies about “niche” characters can’t make money, Hunger Games may not change much when it comes to Hollywood’s willingness to hang big budgets on movies about girls and women. As Todd Alcott writes about his experience of being asked to change a girl protagonist in a sci fi story he was pitching to a boy, there’s a pretty entrenched mentality in Hollywood that movies that do well with broad audiences against expectations are one-off, non-repeatable exceptions to the rule:
The studio exec explained, “We can’t make a movie with a female protagonist. Boys won’t go to see it.” She also explained that girls won’t go to see science fiction movies, or action movies. I explained to her that one recent movie franchise — Pirates – very much had a female protagonist and had done very well indeed, that another franchise — The Terminator – also had a female protagonist and had done very well indeed, that another franchise — Alien – was also a futuristic sci-fi series with a female protagonist, and had done very well indeed.
The studio exec’s hands were tied. Word had come down from above, “No big-budget movies with female protagonists.” The only movies that could be made with a female protagonist were intimate personal dramas and romances — that is, cheap movies.
My guess is that today, this very day, in offices all over Hollywood, studio executives are still telling writers “We don’t make science-fiction movies with a female protagonist.” And when the writer says “But what about Hunger Games?” they will make an excuse — “Well, but that’s The Hunger Games, it’s a phenomenon, it’s its own thing, you can’t hope to repeat that.”
Jennifer Kesler made a similar point at The Hathor Legacy: movies that do well with demographics seen as outside the expected or target demographic, or that make an unexpected amount of money through the support of “niche” audiences, are treated by Hollywood as “non-recurring phenomenons.” This reinforces an unwillingness to greenlight movies that don’t fit the expected formula, and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where few unconventional movies make a lot of money because few of them are ever made:
You can’t have marketing data that proves a type of movie is viable unless you make that movie. How can we prove what audiences want to see if we don’t have filmmakers trying new things? If every filmmaker who tries to make something new is stopped dead by an industry that’s convinced its backers not to try anything new?
It may be that Hunger Games will loosen studio reluctance to center big budget films on unconventional leads, but judging from the history of these things, the odds are not in our favor.
As readers of the series may have picked up from that last line, I’m actually a huge fan of the Hunger Games trilogy – I devoured them in a matter of days. It’s…possible that all of the media hoopla around the movie has driven me to revisit the books. Just possible.
So it’s come as a surprise to some that I have no intention of seeing the movie in theaters. Why? Well, precisely because of media diversity issues – in this case, casting discrimination that limited auditions for main characters Katniss and Gale to white actors. I was one of many Hunger Games fans who read Katniss and Gale – racially ambiguous, but described as having olive skin, black hair, and gray eyes – as being multiethnic. The white-washing of the casting call leapt from disappointing to outright appalling when Director Gary Ross responded to criticism by suggesting that dyeing Jennifer Lawrence’s blonde hair would quell fan concerns.
Obviously Hunger Games is a blockbuster – a juggernaut, really – and isn’t going to suffer for lack of my purchase of a $10 ticket. But this actually makes the casting discrimination even worse. This could have been a vehicle to stardom for any number of actors of color who could easily fit the physical description of Katniss and Gale in the books. Instead it’s turned into yet another example of how actors of color are systematically denied opportunities to even audition for leading, career-making roles that they’re qualified for.
Meanwhile, the latest news around race in Hunger Games is yet another wave of racist surprise and anger from some white fans over the fact that supporting characters Rue and Thresh, explicitly described as having brown skin in the books, are played by…actors with brown skin. (The first wave of astonished responses from fans with poor reading comprehension came when these characters’ promo posters were unveiled).
It’s not difficult to connect the dots between fan anger over seeing actors of color depict beloved characters – even stating that the tragedies that befall these characters provoke less sympathy depicted by black actors instead of their white-washed imaginings – to studio assumptions that white audiences aren’t interested in seeing non-white characters onscreen. Or, more chilling, to the lack of sympathy some white Americans display when real life tragedies befall black youth. Just goes to show why addressing media diversity head on is so important – the images we consume onscreen have quite a lot to do with how we interact with and see each other in the “real” world.