So there’s a lot of discussion around the interwebs about casting for the upcoming film version of The Hunger Games. Some fan favorites are Hailee Steinfeld or Kaya Scodelario for Katniss, and Hunter Parrish for Peeta. Deadline.com is now reporting that 20-year-old Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence is the frontrunner for Katniss. All are fine actors and undoubtedly have the chops to carry out the role – but that’s not my only concern.
Katniss is repeatedly described as having olive skin, dark hair, and gray eyes. The descriptor “olive skin” isn’t very specific and covers a wide range of skin tones. Let’s try an experiment: do a Google Image search for “olive skin” and you’ll see women ranging from light-skinned (Kim Kardashian, Jessica Alba) to dark skinned (Halle Berry, Beyonce, Iman). These women have very different skin tones, but none of them would be described as “white”. They could be described as ethnic, mixed race, black, or people of color. Now do a Google Image search for Hailee Steinfeld, Kaya Scodelario, or Jennifer Lawrence. What do you notice? They’re all white. (Jennifer Lawrence is even blond, but hair color can be changed easily.)
Why does it matter?
An actor should be chosen for their skills and not for their looks, right? Well, in some cases it’s easy to overlook physical differences in a character. Fans were initially outraged that Daniel Radcliffe had blue eyes, not the infamous green eyes Harry Potter is known for. But hardly anybody notices that anymore because Dan has played the part of Harry so well. There is little doubt in my mind that any of these actresses would do a great job as Katniss, despite their appearance not matching the one given in the books.
But race does matter in The Hunger Games. It’s an indicator of class in District 12. Most of the people who live in the poorer part of town, called the Seam, look like Katniss: dark skin and dark hair. The people in the Seam are manual laborers who work in the coal mines and trade on the black market for food and other goods. The upper class in District 12 is still poor, as designed by the Capitol, but they are definitely more comfortable. They have more to eat, they don’t work dangerous jobs, and their children don’t have to sign up for tesserae. Katniss’ mother, Peeta, and Madge Undersee all come from this merchant class. It’s no accident that the upper class is mostly white and the working class poor are people of color.
Let’s look at the people from other Districts: Rue and Thresh from District 11 are black. The people in 11 are even poorer than those in 12, and they’re forced to work long hours in the fields harvesting food. District 11 is likely located in the south or midwestern United States. Does this sound familiar to anyone? Especially when we learn about how the citizens of 11 are punished for acting out, with whippings or executions – is it an accident that there are a lot of black people in this district and that they’re treated rather like slaves or sharecroppers? Furthermore, all of the characters we meet from the prosperous Districts 1 and 2 are white.
Collins doesn’t directly address race much in this series, and I think that’s okay because she’s primarily writing a story about war. But the series is also about poverty and oppression, and I really don’t think you can discuss those concepts without discussing race. All of these factors are intertwined, and they’re crucial to the story Collins is telling.
So why does Hollywood seem so insistent on casting a white girl as Katniss? Why not find a great young actress of another race? There’s no real reason to specifically cast a white girl – and yet that’s exactly what Lionsgate did.
Katniss is 16 in The Hunger Games, and Peeta is about the same age. However, the favorites to play them, Jennifer Lawrence and Hunter Parrish, are 20 and 23 respectively.
Why does it matter?
We’re used to 20-somethings playing high schoolers on TV and in movies. But in The Hunger Games, the real horror and tragedy of the premise is that the people involved in the Games are CHILDREN. Children between the ages of 12 and 18. When the main characters are involved in bloody battles and are fighting for their lives, it’s easy to forget how old they are and start thinking of them as adults. But I think it’s very important to cast teenagers who look their age for The Hunger Games. If you cast adults as children, you lose the horror factor. The children need to look young, and innocent, and vulnerable.
Think of how shocked and disturbed people were by Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl in Kick-Ass. She was so young and people thought there was something inherently wrong about her portraying a young girl capable of that kind of violence. The Hunger Games doesn’t need to have such graphic violence or language as Kick-Ass, but I think it should evoke that same feeling about the children involved. You should be angry on those kids’ behalf, shocked that they’re forced to behave that way. As the movie’s producer Nina Jacobson says, “There was a version of the movie that could be made that would in fact be guilty of all of the sins of the Capitol and portray this violence among youth irresponsibly.” I fear that the filmmakers could fall into this trap if the main cast is too adult or the violence not taken seriously enough.
While some have said that at 14 Hailee Steinfeld is too young to play Katniss, I would rather see someone her age cast in the role and have room to grow as they film for the next few years. Someone who’s already in their twenties is just going to rapidly outgrow the role.
So who would I cast in my ideal Hunger Games movie? Probably unknowns, and definitely a young actress of color for Katniss. From what I’ve read from director Gary Ross, he has a good grasp on the characters and issues the book centers on, but I don’t want to see the cast whitewashed or aged up significantly. It wouldn’t do the story justice, and this story deserves to be done the right way.