Posted on Friday, March 18th, 2011 by Adam Quigley
Not everyone was thrilled with the casting of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, director Gary Ross‘ adaptation of the first in a trilogy of popular young adult novels written by Suzanne Collins. Despite her Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone catching the attention of many a filmmaker and studio, some couldn’t overlook the implications of her casting, and took the decision as yet another sign of Hollywood’s creative and moral bankruptcy.
The reasons are twofold: Age and appearance. The book’s premise is based around teenagers killing each other, and without the young age of the combatants, an essential component of the story is lost. Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist, is 16-years-old. Jennifer Lawrence is 20, and looks like she could be even older. But by upping the age of the character(s), the subject matter of the film becomes more palatable to general audiences, opening up the film to a wider demographic — and in turn, bigger box office earnings.
As for Lawrence’s appearance, she looks nothing like the character. Normally that issue only comes up as a result of nitpicky fans being unable to separate the text from the screen, but in the case of The Hunger Games, race does play a factor in the novel’s themes, however subtly. Katniss’ race is kept ambiguous, but it’s hinted that she (along with many of the residents in the area she resides) could be biracial, as evidenced by this excerpt from the book:
He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin, we even have the same gray eyes. But we’re not related, at least not closely. Most of the families who work the mines resemble one another this way. That’s why my mother and [sister] Prim, with their light hair and blue eyes, always look out of place. They are. My mother’s parents were part of the small merchant class…
Why, then, did the casting call for Katniss specify Caucasian girls?
Not unlike the casting of primarily white actors for the lead roles in The Last Airbender and Prince of Persia, the approach Lionsgate has taken with The Hunger Games reeks of whitewashing. But just as M. Night Shyamalan snapped back to defend his reasoning for the casting in Airbender, so too has director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) argued in favor of Jennifer Lawrence, calling it “the easiest casting decision I ever made in my life”.
First of all, I talked to Suzanne [Collins] 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 quickly.
And here are his comments about her race:
Suzanne and I talked about that as well. There are certain things that are very clear in the book. Rue is African-American. Thresh is African-American. Suzanne had no issues with Jen playing the role. And she thought there was a tremendous amount of flexibility. It wasn’t doctrine to her. Jen will have dark hair in the role, but that’s something movies can easily achieve. [Laughs] I promise all the avid fans of The Hunger Games that we can easily deal with Jennifer’s hair color.
As for the controversy surrounding both of these issues, here’s what Ross had to add:
I think one of the wonderful things about The Hunger Games is that everyone has such a personal relationship to the material that they feel they have a very specific idea about the character and who the character is. And that’s wonderful. And I think a lot of the debate that has gone on about who Katniss is is fantastic, because people feel very passionately that their take on the character is unique and correct. But the one that I’ve honestly listened to the most has been Suzanne, who conjured this girl out of her own imagination. To Suzanne, Jen is the perfect realization of the character who is in her head.
Well, damn. Kind of hard to argue with that.
You can read the rest of the interview over at Entertainment Weekly.
Though I referenced the racially confused casting of The Last Airbender earlier, there are sizable differences in both scenarios that I think make The Hunger Games a less egregious offense. First, the ethnicities of the characters in Airbender were very specific to the cultures being depicted, whereas in The Hunger Games race is only suggested, with the greater focus being on social status. Secondly, all we had to justify the casting in Airbender was M. Night’s word that newcomers like Nicola Peltz and Noah Ringer were chosen for their talent. In the case of Jennifer Lawrence, we already know she’s talented. And isn’t that what matters most?
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