In case you were sleeping under a tree, it’s official: HUNGER GAMES was the third biggest opening ever, with $152.5 million, the best non-sequel opening ever, only behind HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2 and THE DARK KNIGHT.
Heady company for a girl who hunts squirrels.
The success of the movie also puts the lie to Hollywood’s beloved trope that an actioner starring a woman can’t be successful. And as such, it’s going to have a lot of repercussions. Because Hollywood is full of copycats and they’re going to try to repeat the formula. But what formula will they see in HUNGER GAMES?
Katniss Everdeen, the heroine portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, has succeeded where so many not only failed but failed spectacularly.
CATWOMAN (thought by some to be the worst superhero movie of all times)
And of course, the many, many failures of Wonder Woman. (See this Wired piece for the recent history of female-led action films.) Some of them have done alright—UNDERWORLD, RESIDENT EVIL—but in Hollywood’s way, when a movie with a female lead succeeds it’s because of the pre-awareness or the director. When it fails…it’s all because of the woman.
The amazing thing about HUNGER GAMES is that its audience is about 40% male, unlike the TWILIGHT franchise where it’s about 90% female. And unlike TWILIGHT, which has become another word for wimpy googoo eyes chick flick, HUNGER GAMES is perceived as a SF action movie that guys will not be ashamed to see.
A few things that contributed to the film’s success. The film is most lucky to have a great star in Lawrence, who honed her action chops in both X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and WINTER’S BONE, which, although an indie movie of character, also featured squirrel shooting and Lawrence getting beat up on a heroic quest to find her father. It was a great warm-up.
And the movie didn’t distance girls who loved the book by tarting up Katniss. Instead of a campaign that showed her in a bikini and platform shoes, in the publicity and advertising, Katniss looks HEROIC…and beautiful.
So this changes everything, right? That Wonder Woman movie is going to be greenlit tomorrow, as is Hack/Slash and so on?
This piece by Wired is hopeful of a sea change in Hollywood:
“The [violent female action character] is a recent addition to contemporary American cinema and has the potential to redefine female heroines, for better or worse,” Gilpatric wrote in her study. “This research provides evidence that the majority of female action characters shown in American cinema are not empowering images, they do not draw on their femininity as a sources of power, and they are not a kind of ‘post woman’ operating outside the boundaries of gender restrictions.”
Katniss Everdeen arguably does, and it’s not a total coincidence: Since Collins set her books in the future, it doesn’t seem so out of place that a 16-year-old girl would think she could do everything a young man her age could — presumably gender equality has advanced in the intervening years (think of Starbuck’s swagger in the modern Battlestar Galactica). Also, Collins came up with The Hunger Games after a night spent flipping channels between reality television and footage of the Iraq war. And when her agent once suggested she not kill off a beloved, innocent young character, she replied flatly, “This is not a fairy tale; it’s a war, and in war, there are tragic losses that must be mourned.”
But that is not the narrative Hollywood will hear.
Despite the popularity of the books and genre fiction in general with young female consumers who are the biggest spending social group, every other reason will be found for THE HUNGER GAMES’s success. This piece in the LA Times by Stephen Zeitchik gives us a preview, presenting five box office myths that the film proved wrong:
Based on a popular book ( Hollywood hates books)
Indie stars (indies flailing)
Strong director not a name director
Even though a “youth” film, adults went
The film was shown in 2D and triumphed anyway.
See one missing myth? Notice the director getting the credit? Ayuh.
Here are two grim predictions out today, one from sometime Beat columnist and screenwriter Todd Alcott who worked on a detailed breakdown of a YA novel series with a female protagonist only to have a female studio exec who loved it but asked if he could change the heroine to a boy.
I was dumbstruck. No, there was no way to make the protagonist a boy. The books were very much about a female perspective on this strange futuristic world — the two were inseparable. You literally could not tell the same story with a male protagonist.
But 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.”
Writer Marc Bernardin, well versed in the ways of Hollywood and comics like, has a similar take:
Tyler Perry’s films have made a billion dollars. Are we in the midst of a black cinema boom? No.
The Bodyguard made $400 million in 1995 dollars. Did we start to see lots of color-blind romances? No.
Every year, there’s a romantic comedy that “breaks out” and makes a ton of cash. Does that translate into more work for the female writers and directors who make those romantic comedies — or, hell, more romantic comedies (which are cheap to make and deliver a good return on investment)? No.
There are 1.6 billion Asian people in the world, give or take a hundred million. And Hollywood has given us precisely one Asian, leading-man movie star in the past hundred years: Bruce Lee*. Wouldn’t you think that people in the business of making money would play to that gigantic audience by creating another Asian movie star the way we create Orlando Blooms? You might, but you’d be wrong.
The studio probably had a bit of worry about HUNGER GAMES. That’s why they opened it in the low-stakes March wasteland. You can bet HUNGER GAMES II will open in the prime Memorial Day slot, but it won’t be because girls actually went to see a movie and weren’t insulted by it. Just like BRIDESMAIDS proved that all of a sudden women can be funny after centuries of not being able to laugh (Hello Baby Snooks, Mae West and Dorothy Parker), HUNGER GAMES will prove only that HUNGER GAMES is successful and every other female-led movie is CATWOMAN II.
Mind you. I hope Todd, Marc, and I are wrong. I hope that someone in Hollywood will see that it’s their own antipathy/hostility about female-led movies that makes them a self-fulfilling prophecy of tackiness. That authenticity towards a literary work is what makes it succeed in the cinema (and the literary world is FULL of strong female protagonists). They’ll see that girls want to be heroes. Just like boys. And maybe boys accepting that will not make them less manly….but even stronger.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.