Home Culture Sociology Hunger Games: Katniss succeeds where the other girls failed—but will anyone listen?

Hunger Games: Katniss succeeds where the other girls failed—but will anyone listen?


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.

I dunno.

Fingers crossed.

  1. They probably will just realize that they can make movies from really really popular books and people will go see them. Which doesn’t seem like a major jump in logic.

    I will cross my fingers that this will lead to a (good) Wonder Woman movie.

  2. Could be as simple as a good story getting good word of mouth while NOTHING else is. Good luck with the sequel, though. They aren’t likely to get the male audience out for a story where the plot is literally “Oh noes! The president will kill my family if I don’t travel the country and pretend to be in love with a pretty boy that loves me!” Worst sequel in the history of words.

  3. I’ve been writing movies for a living here in Hollywood for 22 years. As a black writer, I have had many experiences similar to the one Todd Alcott writes about. You can meet these chowderheaded executives in any studio on any day of the week. You can shake their hands, you can pitch to them, but you can’t listen to what they say or you’ll get the overwhelming urge to throw them out of the window.

    And 99% of the ones you meet aren’t even the decision-makers, they’re minions of minions of decision-makers, empowered only to make you feel bad about your ever having had the temerity to try to make your living in the show business.

    Thank god for comics. I’m writing and drawing a sci-fi series featuring people of color now because a studio head stopped me and my wife (two black writers) in the middle of a pitch and told us helpfully “black people don’t like science fiction.” We did not kill him, luckily. We got the hell out of there there and created a book that Mike Richardson of Dark Horse had the confidence to publish after seeing one page. That was a day that made up for a lot of Hollywood heartbreak.

    That said, as the cost of making and marketing films continues to rise, it will be up to all of us who think of ourselves as creatives to find newer and smarter channels to distribute our work. Jim Lee was tweeting yesterday about how for new comics artists, the barriers to showing your work have fallen to precisely zero. He says, and I agree that in this new creative economy, good work will find an audience. With self-publishing, shockingly cheap video tools and you tube, the next Rowling or Coppola may be that chubby little black girl with the braces at the mall, or it may be you or me.

    ps. glad you’re furthering this discussion.

  4. Wow Jack – you couldn’t be more wrong. I thought book two was better, had more action and the Hunger Games were far more interesting and awesome. It’ll be bigger than the Hunger Games shown in the first film. More sci-fi – more danger, etc. And if all you got out of the first half of the second book is what you wrote – you read it too fast.

  5. “The film was shown in 2D and triumphed anyway.”

    Seriously? I thought it was becoming generally accepted that, with a few exceptions, the latest foray into 3D has been as much a novelty-based fad as the one in the ’50s, and is actually driving away viewers thanks to the higher prices and blurry images.

  6. What will happen is that I expect whoever has been shopping around the US movie rights to Battle Royale will start getting their calls returned, which doesn’t mean that it will automatically be as popular as Hunger Games. I’m not the audience for Hunger Games as I don’t care for Dystopian stories unless the Dystopia is destroyed at the end. Plus the idea of watching a film about teenagers killing each other is not appealing to me either. The concept of people watching the government sponsored deadly game on TV reminds me of Stephen King’s The Running Man (the novel, not the ridiculous movie which turned the idea of the book on its head). The whole point of King’s book was that the protagonist wins and then turns on the sponsors of the game and destroys them as his final act of defiance. King makes it clear that the whole idea of people watching this reality show (before the term existed) is repugnant. Unfortunately the movie of the book turned the viewer into the audience for the game and made it exciting instead of hideous. So I’m not the audience for a snuff movie, no matter how well made or how attractive its stars are. I’m with King’s Running Man concept on that one.

  7. “That said, as the cost of making and marketing films continues to rise, it will be up to all of us who think of ourselves as creatives to find newer and smarter channels to distribute our work.”

    @ Tony Puryear – Can we amend that to say, “the cost making and marketing films THE STUDIO WAY continues to rise… ?” The cost of the actual technology to make the movie is dropping rapidly especially since Adobe CS6 will have a video editing capability. Combine that with After Effects and free CGI tools like Blender and you have the infrastructure to make films that can dazzle without destroying your budget.

    The cost of distributing a film is also exactly zero thanks to online distribution, the rapidly evolving online advertising business, and the video-on-demand market. The marketing costs are also dropping rapidly as you no longer need to try and reach a wide audience on opening day, but can instead target your audience via social media, and build it.

    When I was at York I kept pitching a female action movie because we didn’t have anything that really hooked our female audience except a few urban romantic comedies. They would watch their boyfriend’s urban action movies, but weren’t as involved in them. I was shut down every time (by the boss – a woman, and by several of our retailers) because ” guys don’t want to see a female action movie.” I said, “that’s because we haven’t given them a GOOD one.”

    We now live in more interesting times…

  8. Fantastic article! Lots of interesting observations, from both sides of the argument.

    For the first time in a long time, I went into this movie knowing literally next to nothing about it (hadn’t seen any of the TV spots or commercials, and didn’t even realize it focused on a female lead rather than more of an ensemble), and enjoyed it immensely! I’m so glad it was a hit at the box office.

    @James Van Hise: You make it sound like you think The Hunger Games is a celebration of violence, when the movie is actually more a criticism of reality television. Maybe you should see it before jumping to conclusions about the tone.

  9. I read the Battle Royale novel several years ago and enjoyed it immensely. I read the Hunger Games novel last week and thought it was blatant plagarism. However, I’m really happy a movie with a strong female lead is having such great success and I really, truly hope it’s the start of a trend.

  10. James Van Hise: “King makes it clear that the whole idea of people watching this reality show (before the term existed) is repugnant.”

    Which is not too different from this movie. Those who run it and the main fans in the capital are shown to be very repugnant.

    The other major theme is how the games are made to distract the working class of how bad they have it. Because without the distraction they might raise against their masters in the capital. The hunger games are made out to be brutal and those who survive it are forever emotionally scared for life. The main character has an older mentor who survived the games and is a raving alcoholic trying to forget living through the games.

    Take a closer look at the story and you will see it is nothing like what you described.

  11. Does this statement “the best non-sequel opening ever, only behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 and The Dark Knight” (which I’ve seen on many sites) seem like an intentional, hilarious oxymoron? How can a movie in a series with “Part 2” in its title not be a sequel?

  12. Note that the statement didn’t say “the third best non-sequel opening ever.” It’s the best non-sequel opening ever, as the only movies ahead of it are both sequels.

  13. Hollywood is to movies, as DC and Marvel are to comics. The may dominate the industry, but they are not the channel thru which an aspiring creator should strive to produce their work. Because there are now better and practical alternatives.

  14. “She also explained that girls won’t go to see science fiction movies, or action movies”

    This always kills me. Throw fantasy into the mix and that’s pretty much all the TV, movies, and books that I read!

    I remember years ago a show called Fastlane was on Fox. It had fast cars, action, cops, etc. One of the reasons they cancelled it was because men weren’t watching it- women were!

  15. There’s a direct lineage from Potter top Twilight to Hunger Games: YA novels that become publishing phenomena far beyond what YA novels normally do. Other movies won’t imitate Hunger Games because Hunger Games isn’t simply a movie, it’s an adaptation of an immensely well-selling series of books that guarantees making lots of money on three or more films.

  16. “There’s a direct lineage from Potter to Twilight to Hunger Games: YA novels that become publishing phenomena far beyond what YA novels normally do.”

    The timeline goes back even further than this; how many people initially read Tolkien back in their formative high school years? I know that I did, many years ago.

  17. There’s an argument to be made that mainstream cinema should be focusing more on young women because that 15 – 21 male demographic that used to be the ones that went to movies doesn’t go to the movies anymore, having found other things to do (Modern Warfare 3, $375m first week sales) but a lot of film producers are still convinced that’s who’s going to movies.

    So, maybe they should reconsider from this perspective if nothing else.

  18. My headline: “Girl On Fire Beats Glittering Vampires”

    From Box Office Mojo:
    Action Heroine blockbusters:
    1 Terminator 2: Judgment Day TriS $204,843,345 7/3/91
    2 Mr. & Mrs. Smith Fox $186,336,279 6/10/05
    3 The Hunger Games LGF $152,535,747 3/23/12
    4 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Par. $131,168,070 6/15/01
    5 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon SPC $128,078,872 12/8/00

    Terminator 2 ranks #113th of all time. Of course, most people will say that’s because of Arnold Schwarzenegger, not because of Linda Hamilton. (And yes, that is THEIR classification, not mine.)

    The movie was made on a budget of about $78 million (with tax support from the state of North Carolina, which will reap BILLIONS in tourism from the movie). This is Lionsgate’s biggest film ever, surpassing Fahrenheit 9/11 rather quickly.

    Lionsgate did everything lean, including the marketing ($45 Million), which should become a textbook example. They built up a viral strategy rather slowly, using social networking to build buzz. (The scavenger hunt for poster puzzle pieces via Twitter was genius!)
    They even created the “official” Panem website, which is brilliant! (TheCapitol.pn)

    Then they took some old forgotten techniques, and dusted them off for success, like the inspired-by “District 12” soundtrack which you only hear during the credits, but which has sold 150-175,000 copies to debut at #1 on Billboard.

    I admire the Bollywood model of filmmaking… include something in the film for everyone! Romance, adventure, a few musical numbers…

    Hey, wait a moment… Hollywood doesn’t like heroines? What about Disney? Matter of fact, they’ve got a movie coming out this June from Pixar, about a girl proficient with a bow and arrow…
    (Alice In Wonderland made $334M, Tangled $200M, BatB and Lilo & Stitch $146M)

    So… how soon before the babymen start complaining about the “Tributes” clogging the aisles at Comic Con? Sports + strong female characters = threatened nerd egos.

  19. ““There’s a direct lineage from Potter to Twilight to Hunger Games: YA novels that become publishing phenomena far beyond what YA novels normally do.”

    The timeline goes back even further than this; how many people initially read Tolkien back in their formative high school years? I know that I did, many years ago.”

    Was LotR an “event” in the 1960s, like Harry Potter? (I’d say not, since the book was originally published in 1955, and it took another twenty years for a film to be made (ah… The Beatles directed by Kubrick…)

    There wasn’t much merchandising until New Line Cinema (taking over from a budget-conscious Disney…hmmm…) released the blockbusters.

    In elementary and junior high school(-1984), my friends devoured the Narnia series. Was there a publishing franchise in the 1980s? Choose Your Own Adventure, perhaps? Pern didn’t register on our radars, even with the Harper Hall YA novels McCaffrey wrote. I don’t recall any “cool/hot” books during junior high, although a friend did read and collect Stephen King. Not even The Outsiders, with the movie.

    Young Adult novels didn’t have any huge bestselling novels until Harry Potter, which is why it got so much press. YA books didn’t have strict on-sale dates back in 1997.

    Actually, if you want to trace “Hunger Games” back through YA fiction, don’t use “Lord of the Rings”. Instead, pick a novel which has remained under the radar of most science fiction/fantasy fans ever since it was published, even with five books in the series, major awards, and multiple film adaptations (including fan films!) One which stars a brilliant but socially awkward 13-year old girl with glasses and braces, who must rescue her father who has mysteriously disappeared. Anyone want to guess which series I refer to?

  20. I mentioned Potter and Twilight specifically because the movies came out while the books were still new; it’s not to disrespect LOTR or Narnia, but they’d each been around for decades before they became movies.

  21. I would like to point out that both Resident Evil and Underworld did better than “all right”. They might not have set any records on their opening weekends, but they performed well enough to turn into franchises with four entries each. (And a fifth RE movie is coming out later this year.)

  22. But the female stars of those movies (as well as most of the other examples cited -Alien, Pirates, etc) are seen as secondary. Resident Evil and Underworld films are seen as successes because of the subject matter (zombies, werewolves/vamps), not because people want to see Milla and Kate kicking ass. Likewise, people did not go see Alien, or Aliens, because they wanted to see Sigourney Weaver. Hunger Games is a success because the books sold gajillions of copies and the filmmakers didn’t screw up the adaptation. All those movies prove is that people will not actively stay away from action films with female leads, and the take away in Hollywood is that such films need an additional (and powerful) hook. Recent examples like Hanna and Salt did not really have that hook, and while I believe both did at least decently (and I thoroughly enjoyed both) neither did well enough to spawn franchises or encourage studios to commit resources to similar films.

    There will be no opening of the flood gates until a studio nuts up and commits a large aount of time, talent, and money to establishing a female action hero franchise. Marvel took a huge gamble on Iron Man, did it right, and paved the way for a string of superhero films based on “second tier” characters. If WB is ever able to nut up and do something similar with WW, and do it right, we will see a crapton of female superheroes coming to the screen.

  23. To everyone saying the film is a success becuase it was based on a very successful YA book series. Of course. And who reads YA books? Well, it’s mostly girls. I don’t see why it is so hard to admit that a huge segment of the movie going population that has money to spend likes going to see entertainment about a protagonist they can identify with.

    Unless that protagonist is a white male, that is.

    Comic books are rapidly becoming The Boy Ghetto for reading. Boys read less than girls and comics are a kind of “safe space” for them. I’m sure that is why Disney does not want to allow anything even the teeniest bit Princess-like to the Marvel movie franchises — that would KILL their attempt to finally get the boys coming in.

    Disney’s Princesses, if taken as one big movie franchise, would almost certainly be the most successful of all time, licensing wise.

    The truth is, girls shop, girls buy, girls are the default. Men must be specially targeted to lure them in.

  24. “The truth is, girls shop, girls buy, girls are the default. Men must be specially targeted to lure them in.”

    Except, as you yourself state above, one of the reasons THG is posting such impressive numbers is that it actually has something to offer the male demo: an action driven storyline with some tolerably engaging secondary male characters — as opposed to Twilight, which was poorly written drippy vampire romance with no relateable male characters in sight.

    The Harry Potter series did well with girls/women because it was well written and provided them with capable and likeable surrogates (Hermione, and with other members of the female supporting cast) to identify with. THG is similarly well-crafted, and provides boys with Peeta, Gale, and others root for — and while there are romantic storylines in the series, they don’t displace the action driven and dystopian elements from the foreground.

    Male viewers don’t have to be ‘targeted’, they just need to be alienated — IMHO, the success of THG proves that rather nicely.

  25. These series aren’t just “very successful,” they’re among a very rare class of books that are enormous pop culture phenomena and thus sell many orders of magnitude more copies than most books, even most bestselling books, ever will. They’re YA books, yes, but YA books that adults as well as kids read, and they’re books whose movie adaptations follow the books so closely as to be part and parcel of the phenomena of the books themselves. The lesson that will be taken from this is that adapting a massively popular series of YA books more or less faithfully will sell lots of tickets.

  26. @Irwin – exactly. Hunger Games will be looked at as a unique phenomenon, a movie/book series with “four corner” appeal. It will not be used to justify future female driven action films any more so than the success of the Harry Potter films is used to justify a flood of movies about magic and wizards.

    What it has done (there was an article in the LA Times today) is to ensure Hollywood continues to snatch up the rights to every fantasy/sci-fi YA book series out there. Maybe the answer is to have Warner/DC put out a trilogy of WW young adult novels, and hope the WB studio execs think it’s a brand new property.

  27. @Joseph: My wife would disagree with you about not wanting to see Mila kicking ass. She loves the RE movies. (She also enjoys the Underworld movies, but not as much as RE.)

  28. Twilight is romance with action thrown in.

    Hunger games is action with minimal romance. I read the book based on the premise. The gender of the main character was irrelevant except that it made me worry about it being too mushy like Twilight. Luckily, I had nothing to worry about after all.

    I enjoyed Hanna, as well. Haywire was crap.

  29. This has been an interesting discussion. I particularly like that it raised the question “did Alien, Terminator, Resident Evil, Underworld et al do well despite female leads? Because of them? Were the leads’ genders simply irrelevant in the context of all that action?”

    Speaking just for myself, I return to these enjoyable pictures again and again largely because of the charismatic heroines kicking major alien/cyborg/zombie/vampire ass.

  30. @Tony – my personal opinion is that the gender was irrelevant in those films, some (Alien, Terminator) more than others (RE, UW). Of course there are people drawn to those films specifically because the leads were (hot) females, but I don’t believe that was the main draw, as the non-monster/alien action movies with female leads (Hanna, Salt as previously noted) were less successful.

    Also, the box office numbers needed for movies such as RE and UW to be considered a success are significantly lower than the numbers that would be needed to make a film like Wonder Woman a success. No one wants to see a WW film made with a Resident Evil budget.

  31. The Beat wrote: ‘And who reads YA books? Well, it’s mostly girls. I don’t see why it is so hard to admit that a huge segment of the movie going population that has money to spend likes going to see entertainment about a protagonist they can identify with.’

    I assume that’s why the protagonists in YA books are almost always female. The readers want someone to identify with. However, girls are far more likely to read books with male protagonists than boys are to read books with female protagonists.

    I guess this goes back to childhood, when girls don’t mind reading the Hardy Boys but no boy will be caught dead with a Nancy Drew.

    The New Yorker film critic described Hunger Games as “the sort of rugged girls’ adventure story that used to be written for boys.” Now that so many boys read NOTHING, I guess adventure stories have to be written about for for girls.

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