No matter your personal preference of the genre, I think everyone can agree Young Adult novels (YA) can get pretty repetitive. Whatever trend happens to be popular at the time, be it supernatural vampire romances or totalitarian dystopias, YA pounds these themes into the ground until we as an audience are willing to pay authors to stop writing books with one word titles and mystery-shrouded, angsty teens on the cover.
But there is one YA franchise in particular that has caught my attention: “The Hunger Games.“
For the lonely few who have had their head stuck under a rock these past few years, “The Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins is a massively popular YA dystopian series. Since the first book was released in 2008, this juggernaut of a franchise spawned into highly successful films, multiple media tie-ins and even a recently announced stage show.
As far as YA goes, “The Hunger Games” differentiates itself from other novels in the genre in that it tackles topics often considered unsuitable for younger audiences. True, there is a cliche love triangle in the books, but this romantic subplot never takes over the main story, unlike in other YA series that shall not be named.
The books cover topics such as racism, classism, post-traumatic stress disorder, desensitization to violence and the moral complications encountered during war, all within the package of books aimed toward 12-year-olds.
Then there are the movies.
“The Hunger Games” films are well written. They’re well directed. They’re entertaining.
That’s all they are.
The biggest problem with the movie franchise is that it strips away all that makes this series unique and poignant in favor of telling a generic, guaranteed blockbuster hit.
The biggest offender of this is none other than Katniss, the series’ strong-willed, sharp-tongued female protagonist. Here is an excerpt of how Katniss compares her appearance to that of her mother’s and sister’s in the first chapter of “The Hunger Games”:
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 …
In Katniss’ home of District 12, the wealthier 1 percent are represented with blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes, while the less fortunate 99 percent are laborers with much darker skin. Combine this with the fact that District 11, the agricultural and poorest district of Katniss’ world, is populated mostly with black and other dark-skinned people, and it becomes clear that Collins was intentionally trying to make a point on the intersection between race and class with regard to poverty.
Yet the Katniss of the films do not reflect this. In the movies Katniss is played by Jennifer Lawrence, who clearly does not match the description in the book. Now, one could argue that the best actress was chosen for the role, but how can that be true when the casting call for Katniss deliberately called for only Caucasian actresses to apply?
Now, this is not a personal attack against Lawrence in any way.
She is an amazing actress, and I personally think she does a good job with the role. If the casting call had truly been open and she still had been chosen, then fine. But you can’t really say that the best actress was picked for the role when the casting office specifically asked for underfed Caucasian girls.
The YA genre often receives a lot of flack for being shallow.
Yet, here is the perfect example of a book that touched on a deeper, more controversial theme for once. Unfortunately this theme was overlooked for the sake of a quick buck. This isn’t an aesthetic change like in the Harry Potter movies when they moved Harry’s scar from the center of his forehead to the side; Katniss’ race is central to the overall theme of oppression.
This is not solely an issue of race either.
In the novels, both Katniss and and her love interest Peeta suffer intense physical loss from their time in the arena, Katniss losing her hearing and Peeta his leg. These are elements that are completely absent from the film. It is very rare in any sort of action film that we see our protagonist obtain victory while still dealing with some sort of disability. As S.E. Smith of the blog “Tiger Beatdown” put it, “Peeta becomes a prominently disabled character in the series, and his disability becomes part of his experiences. At the same time though, he’s not defined by the disability. By neatly cutting that entire plotline away, the filmmakers avoided some tangled and thorny issues.”
Like it or not, these books and movies reach millions of people. The audience that YA specifically targets, mostly the adolescent, are in a formative time in their lives, a time where they are beginning to develop lasting views on the world around them. If we’re going to throw films like “The Hunger Games” into the spotlight, then we must be aware of what messages we are, and, more importantly, are not, sending.
Rosie Brown is a sophomore prospective journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.