While the financial success of The Hunger Games franchise, as well as its undeniable cultural impact across the globe, has it made it a hit with readers and movie-goers everywhere, many of my fellow peers in Geekdom still seem hesitant to embrace the series for the important, powerful, and well-crafted sci-fi epic it truly is. Featuring a captivating and relatable heroine, a complex and fascinating post-apocalyptic society, and an undeniably powerful message regarding where we are now, as a people, and where the future, and our own actions, may take us, The Hunger Games novels and films are exactly the type of intelligent and engaging material sci-fi fan and self-described geeks regularly seek out. Yet, much like Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it, The Hunger Games has suffered from the prejudices of those who have little to no knowledge of the series and view it as something it is most certainly not: a poorly written, ultra-soapy YA romance resembling Twilight with bows and arrows.
While I’ve argued this point many times over the past few years and with the imminent release of the final film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, I state below a final case for why The Hunger Games deserves its rightful place as a sci-fi classic and respected component of Geekdom.
– Katniss Everdeen is today’s Ellen Ripley.
Many may misunderstand the above statement. Katniss being today’s Ripley doesn’t mean she is some badass female Rambo ready to go toe-to-toe with every meat-headed male challenger in the room. Despite the uber ass-kicking persona that many Alien franchise fans envision when they think of the heroine portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, I bonded with the character as a young geek, because she seemed so utterly real and human. As film critic and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America John Scalzi wrote back in 2011:
“Ripley isn’t a fantasy version of a woman. Science fiction film is filled with hot, kickass women doing impossible things with guns and melee weapons while they spin about like a gymnast in a dryer. As fun as that is to watch, at the end of the day, it’s still giving women short shrift, since what they are then are idealized, killer fembots rather than actual human beings. Ripley, on the other hand, is pushy, aggressive, rude, injured, suffering from post-traumatic syndrome, not wearing makeup, tired, smart, maternal, angry, empathetic, and determined to save others, even at great cost to herself.”
Scalzi’s description of Ellen Ripley could easily be applied to the character of Katniss Everdeen without almost any editing at all. Both Ripley and Katniss represent ordinary individuals placed in extraordinary situations (a description actress Sigourney Weaver has used to describe Ripley herself). The world Katniss exists in is fantastical, terrifying, and mind-blowing in many ways, but the girl on fire, while a hero and revolutionary icon to the people of her country, is just a normal, 17-year-old girl who’s a good shot with a bow. While I love the strength of characters like Black Widow, Hermoine, and Buffy Summers, it’s the normality and the unexaggerated, base human status of characters like Ripley and Katniss that makes them so powerful as heroes. Maybe we can’t relate to every action they take, maybe we’d struggle with some of the tasks they must undergo, but the point is that these characters are distinctly human and “break,” just like any of us would, but, as Scalzi put it, they are still determined to save others, even at great cost to themselves.
– The Hunger Games destroyed the idea that female-led sci-fi action franchises aren’t financially viable
While it might not yet be the case, The Hunger Games franchise has clearly delivered the final nail in the coffin for the idea that audience won’t flock to female-led sci-fi action franchises. The Hunger Games films weren’t the first to demonstrate the idiocy of this suggestion, but given that the first three films are ranked as the 10th, 15th, and 30th top-earning movies of all time in the U.S. (and over $2,000,000,000 earned worldwide by just the first three films), the franchise has delivered a stunning blow to the outdated concept. While I’m sure it will still take time to see the full effect take place, I believe we will be able to look back at The Hunger Games franchise as a herald of things to come in regards to the evolving attitudes about female-led action pieces in Hollywood and Geekdom.
– Gender role reversals and the male characters of The Hunger Games
The gender fluidity of the characters in The Hunger Games series is something that has been written about in great detail, both in fan and academic circles. As a male fan of the series and someone who’s, at many times, felt at odds with the accepted stereotypes of his own gender, the character of Peeta Mellark spoke to me in powerful ways. As NPR acknowledged in a piece posted during last year’s release of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1:
“…by the traditional Hollywood rules, make no mistake: Peeta is a Movie Girlfriend. Peeta is Pepper Potts and Gwen Stacy, helping and helping and helping until the very end, when it’s time for the stakes, and the stakes are: NEEDS RESCUE. Peeta is Annie in Speed, who drives that bus like a champ right up until she winds up handcuffed to a pole covered with explosives. Peeta is Holly in Die Hard, who holds down the fort against the terrorists until John McClane can come and find her (and she can give back her maiden name).”
Peeta easily accepts the typically “feminine” role in the story and his relationship with Katniss without any protest, loss of status, or even acknowledgement. It’s simply who he is. I expanded upon some of these ideas in a Peeta Mellark-focused piece I posted back in 2013, and one of the most important notions I touched on was an element that the male characters of The Hunger Games shared with the male characters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In fact, there is a Joss Whedon quote (from his now famous “Equality Now” speech regarding why he “writes strong women characters”) that cuts straight to the heart of the matter:
“Because of my father—My father and my stepfather had a lot do with it, because they prized wit and resolve in the women they were with—above all things, and they were among the rare men who understood that recognizing somebody else’s power does not diminish your own. When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men who not only had no problem with the idea of a female leader, but were in fact, engaged and even attracted to the idea.”
Peeta, Haymitch, Finnick, Gale, Cinna . . . the list goes on and on. These male characters have no issue following Katniss, in fact, many of them push her and encourage her to take the lead. They realize, as Whedon does, that recognizing somebody else’s power does not diminish your own, and Geekdom definitely needs more male characters that follow suit.
– Sci-fi with a message: The political and cultural commentary in The Hunger Games franchise
When it comes to big-budget science fiction film franchises, there seems to be a plethora of explosions, evil aliens, fantastic creatures, and other dazzling special effects, but a lacking of the serious content and societal commentary that science fiction once provided in excess. Even Star Trek, renowned for its status as a focal point for digesting and discussing complex political and cultural issues, has, in its most recent form, evolved into a flashy, action-packed Star Wars wannabe. The Hunger Games franchise is an entirely different animal, built on the back of political messages and warnings weaved into the DNA of the source material by author Suzanne Collins. It’s one of the initial elements that attracted actor Donald Sutherland to the role of President Snow, causing him to write to original director Gary Ross about how “power perpetrates war and oppression to maintain itself until it finally topples over with the bureaucratic weight of itself.” Sutherland has also been quite vocal during press for the films regarding his hope that the fan’s passion behind The Hunger Games will translate to positive political and social changes, and, at the very least, the franchise is providing the “meat” for discussions regarding financial disparity, exploitation of the weak, gender equality, the consequences of war, and much, much more. This place of discussion, debate, and theory is where the science fiction genre operates best and we fans can only hope that The Hunger Games marks a return to form for the genre.
– Example of the creators listening to fans, honoring source material
As the recent run of faithful superhero films adaptations seem determined to prove, listening to the fanbase is becoming more and more a factor in a franchises success. The creators behind The Hunger Games film series have minded this notion, and much of the acceptance and success of the movies has been due to this new, emerging understanding from those adapting beloved works for the silver screen. Gary Ross prepared for the original film by speaking with children and teens who were fans of the books. When Prim’s tattered feline companion from the first film left fans unsatisfied, the filmmakers made sure to replace the animal in Catching Fire with one that more accurately reflected the cat described in the novels. And, while I don’t entirely agree with the decision to split the third book into two films, the move has allowed director Francis Lawrence to remain extremely loyal to the complex and critical chapter of the saga. We’re now living in a world where fan opinion is an important factor in these enormous productions, and The Hunger Games franchise is just one example of this new trend.
– An unflinching, non-romanticized depiction of violence and war
I love Star Wars, but in my favorite of the films, Return of the Jedi, our lead characters spend the day after their final, revolutionary battle partying with loved ones to the space jams of the local Ewok cover band. The battle is not without loss in Jedi, but it’s a very idealized, glossy depiction of warfare that provides the filmmakers with the ability to end the trilogy on a celebratory high. While I appreciate this method of storytelling (and that things may get more complicated in next month’s The Force Awakens), the strength of Mockingjay is its commitment to the true horrors and consequences of war. Many characters fall. Main characters painfully lose their lives in a jumble of perplexing violence and action. Heroes kill indiscriminately during the heat of battle, abandoning moral principals in favor of pure survival. And, no one remains unscarred, physically or emotionally. Collins allegedly drew from her father’s military background and the coverage of the invasion of Iraq while penning her novels, and the grim reality and harsh frankness of real-world war is present throughout The Hunger Games series. The message is clear: War tears people apart, inside and out, there are always long-standing consequences, and there will always be debate as to whether the outcome was worth the outcome the price.
– Where to get started if you are new to The Hunger Games:
There’s also a huge fan community based around The Hunger Games, including a free-to-download audio drama adaptation of the books that I was involved with. Known as The Katniss Chronicles, there are over 60 episodes of this unofficial, unauthorized, and fan-produced audio drama available for free at the website or on iTunes.
May the odds be ever in your favor, my friends!