The teenage hero of "The Hunger Games" is a post-apocalyptic butt-kicker with heart and soul.
From lethal Lara Croft of "Tomb Raider" to marauding Beatrix Kiddo of "Kill Bill," pop culture has provided plenty of action figures with Barbie-doll forms. But "The Hunger Games" might be a game changer, giving audiences the first megahit fantasy series led by a character whose soul is as important as her survival skills.
"She's this girl that feels empathy when nobody else does," said Jennifer Lawrence, the "Winter's Bone" Oscar nominee who plays the story's heroine, Katniss Everdeen. While visiting Minneapolis earlier this month, Lawrence said the film is much more than a frenzy of flying braids and slashing weapons. Like millions of readers, she fell in love with her character's steadfast individuality and the story's resonant themes.
In Suzanne Collins' bestselling science-fiction trilogy, Katniss lives in a totalitarian future America where the rich are too rich and the poor too powerless.
People eat pine-needle broth and entrail stew just to survive. Each year disenfranchised boys and girls are picked by government lottery and forced to battle in "The Hunger Games," a televised fight to the death.
Competitors not only have to kill their adversaries, but they must appear likable and relatable, acting out manufactured romantic story lines. A winning image attracts sponsors, who provide tools, medical supplies, even body armor. The media machine doesn't just want to broadcast Katniss' death; it wants to devour every morsel of her emotional life. As she is prepared for her debut, Katniss enters a world of PR experts, paparazzi and stylists who transform her into a glamorous, dehumanized facsimile of herself.
No passive heroine
Collins' blockbusters represent a sharp change of direction for young adult novels, a genre that only a few years earlier was dominated by "Gossip Girls" fashion and frivolity and "Twilight"-style supernatural romance. While a love triangle is part of Collins' books, Katniss resents and resists the conventional trappings of romance and femininity. Her objective is keeping herself and her family alive. Unlike vampire-loving Bella Swan, she acts rather than being acted upon. With dark alternate realities, political themes and riveting action alongside a strong female character's emotional journey, the story appeals to crossover audiences.
"It's technically a love story, and that's what grasps so many girls," said Kayla Westling, 19, a University of St. Thomas biology major. "The apocalyptic aspect attracts older people. The fact that it's not just lovey-dovey, that there's an action aspect to it, interests so many others."
That diverse fan base is the reason Hollywood backed the new female-led franchise. Advance ticket sales for the Lionsgate Entertainment film, opening Friday, are stratospheric. Anticipating the rush, the studio put tickets on sale a full month before the opening, and theater owners have pushed the feature onto additional screens as auditoriums fill to capacity. It's expected to lay the cornerstone for a four-film fantasy franchise on the scale of "Harry Potter," with the sequel's script already in play.
And "Hunger Games" has cast its halo over other projects, as well. With December's release of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and the upcoming "Snow White and the Huntsman," U.S. studios are offering a slate of female-oriented big-budget adventures unlike anything they've backed before.
'I'm not judging'
"It's this terrible reflection of our past, our present and our future," Lawrence said of the film. "It shows what happens when we lose touch with our empathy and our humanity. When society starts to use people's pain and suffering for entertainment -- as we have in the past, do now and will again."
"When we're not careful, history repeats itself. Before, it was Roman gladiators and now it's reality TV. I'm as guilty as anyone," Lawrence said. "You look at these poor people go into a room and get made fun of, laughed at, their entire dream shattered, shot out the door, and you're eating popcorn and laughing like it's the funniest thing. And so am I. I'm not judging because I'm every bit a part of it.
"It says so much about young people and their voice and what we can do when something's wrong and we're not quiet. People are such sheep. We always have been. We find some leader and if enough people believe them the rest will follow. Think about school and bullies and somebody hurting -- can you not feel that when you see somebody's picking on another kid and people are laughing? It's very rare that an entire group of people can stand up and say, 'That's wrong,' and start fighting back. That's what this is about. It's a girl who stands up for what's right, even when it's scary. People fall in love with that. It feels good."