THE HUNGER GAMES opened this past weekend and made about $150 million dollars American. Guys, that's a LOT of money. Imagine the rose garden President Snow could plant with THAT! Whenever there's a "phenomenon," as it's called in the biz, people twist themselves into pretzels with their graphs and algorithms and equations and focus groups and whateverthefuckelse they use to so cogently and accurately explain why Things Are The Way They Are.
TWILIGHT was easy. Only crazy, stupid girls and sad, lonely ladies like TWILIGHT. It could be easily dismissed as outside the norm. An anomaly. Something that doesn't need to be repeated, THANK GOD, but will eventually just go the fuck away.
Or was that just how the TWILIGHT fans were treated at Comic Con? Maybe. I can't remember.
(For the record, I am not a TWILIGHT fan. It gives me hives. But I loved a lot of crap when I was a kid and if people love something, then they love it. We can stay away.)
THE HUNGER GAMES books are terrific. Well written. Great characters. A strong premise that is always reinforced and carried through the books. Suzanne Collins proves to be a fantastic world-builder, which is certainly not an easy thing to do (as the post-HUNGER GAMES books have proven). The movie looked like it was going to be a faithful adaptation, and it was. But the first HARRY POTTER movie was a faithful adaptation, too. It just wasn't a very good movie. HUNGER GAMES, though, is tremendous. Gary Ross didn't just ape the books. He got into the soul of the books and of the world. I thought the movie was gripping and inspired and I don't think Gary Ross has ever been better.
The economical choices he made were tough but I thought they worked well. I wanted more of everything but that, of course, is not possible in a movie. Katniss Everdeen is not Bella Swan. Katniss Gets Shit Done. Bella feels contemporary, in that she's an inward-looking girl without an identity, until supernatural boys give her one. That's not a problem if that's your experience, and it proved to be surprisingly universal. Katniss, on the other hand, is sitting quite near the bottom of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. For her, it's all about survival. Everything she does strengthens that. And it makes her a strong character, too. "Survival" is a more universal identifier than "passive." Unless you're a boy, of course. More on that later.
Bella and Katniss are female characters who star in their own blockbusters. So naturally, everyone has to scramble to figure out why the hell these movies are making so much money. Because there are GIRLS IN THEM. THE HUNGER GAMES is tougher to dismiss than TWILIGHT. Katniss isn't the usual girl. She can't be categorized like Bella. She's not the mother, the whore, or the symbol. She's not the man's sidekick. Her existence doesn't inform some male hero, so she's not the typical female movie character. But there are BOYS reading these books. And BOYS went to see the movie.
BOYS. AT A MOVIE STARRING AND FEATURING A GIRL WHO IS NOT SHOWING OFF HER BOOBIES OR FIGHTING ROBOTS WITH A MALE FANTASY CHARACTER. OH MY GODZ, WHAT ARE WE TO MAKE OF THIS???
Fear not! The Internet has figured it out. The Internet, Forbes in fact, was pretty stunned that the HUNGER GAMES audience wasn't comprised solely of teenage TWILIGHT fans. According to the research, it was a fairly even split between men and women. But what's so remarkable about this heinous article is that a WOMAN wrote this headline: "Single Cat Ladies and Soccer Moms Will Beat Teens At The Hunger Games Box Office."
A FUCKING WOMAN WROTE THAT.
Forget about the fact that MEN went to see it, too. Because I guess if you write that, then you can't make fun of 51% of the population. 51%, incidentally, who are currently being attacked by the right wing of this country. Dear Forbes Woman, WHAT THE FUCK? What is WRONG with you? How clueless ARE you? Single cat ladies? Soccer moms? Giggling sixteen-year-olds? Lovelorn Lenny Kravitz fans? THAT'S IT? THAT COMPRISES YOUR GENDER?
In the weeks leading up to the movie's release, there have been numerous articles about how THE HUNGER GAMES ripped off BATTLE ROYALE. First of all, NO. Dystopian science fiction has been around much longer than Japanese schoolgirls. When HARRY POTTER came out, the articles about what "inspired" the franchise were also numerous and -- no, hang on. They weren't. There was no mention of Jane Yolen, Diana Wynne Jones and the entire sub-genre of wizard school books that have existed for decades. HARRY POTTER, a book for a MUCH younger audience than THE HUNGER GAMES, was immediately accepted as adult fare. Embraced, even. People acted like they'd never even SEEN a thing like it before. Which certainly speaks to how limited people are in their reading material.
But Harry Potter shares a lot of the same characteristics as Bella Swan. He's passive, entitled, special for doing nothing, and the entire world revolves around him. It's okay with Harry, though, because he's a boy. It's not okay for Bella because of the uterus problem. And apparently, the deserved success of THE HUNGER GAMES has to be picked apart and challenged and denigrated because nobody can figure out why people (meaning MEN) would go see it.
There's a really fucking easy answer, people -- IT'S GOOD. Sometimes good things are hits, and then we should be happy and gratified and not denigrate them and the audience, okay?
It's really mystifying to me that people are so beside themselves about this being a young adult book. "It's so dark and violent! So not for kids!" Really? What the fuck were YOU reading when you were a kid? Kid's fiction IS dark. Family pets are constantly being killed by their teenaged owners. It's SO dark, in fact, that my parents got me THE RED PONY when I was a kid because they figured if a pony gets its eyes pecked out by a buzzard, it's GOT to be a kid's book. It is not, of course. But it's not like I hadn't already been scarred by WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS.
Back before young adult became its own genre, these books were called juvenile fiction. Robert Heinlein was the king of juvenile fiction and although he didn't think much of women (weird, given how smart and educated his wife is), he somehow managed to create some decent female characters, including Podkayne Fries in PODKAYNE OF MARS (yes, I KNOW about the ending). He treated the children in his books like human beings who were coming of age, which is kind of the point in juvenile or young adult fiction. And coming of age isn't all sunshine and rainbows. Some more literary people have cited LORD OF THE FLIES as a HUNGER GAMES inspiration, as if LORD OF THE FLIES isn't fucking namechecked ENOUGH. Heinlein, in fact, wrote a pretty terrific LORD OF THE FLIES type book in TUNNEL IN THE SKY.
It's funny how much attention there is on this phenomenon. It's already led to some seriously bad dystopian young adult books, and I'm sure it'll lead to some seriously bad dystopian young adult movies. And then people like this Forbes person will put THE HUNGER GAMES in a little "we don't understand why this was successful when the shit that came after it wasn't" box, and the next big hit will surprise the hell out of them. But just for a second, let's look at how many female leads there are on television. Off the top of my head: FRINGE, ONCE UPON A TIME, REVENGE, ALCATRAZ, UNFORGETTABLE, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, GCB, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES, SECRET CIRCLE, 90210, ARMY WIVES, GOSSIP GIRL, BODY OF PROOF, CASTLE, FAIRLY LEGAL, THE GOOD WIFE, GREY'S ANATOMY, HARRY'S LAW, HART OF DIXIE, LOST GIRL, MISSING, NIKITA, RINGER, SMASH, BONES, RIZZOLI AND ISLES.
That's 26 shows with female leads. Interestingly, only four out of the 26 are on cable, which is probably a whole other blog post. But where's the wonder at all the shows with female leads? Oh. Right. There isn't any. Because television isn't movies, and movies are the stomping ground of men.
Whenever a movie with a female lead makes money it's considered an anomaly, and the audience is denigrated. But whenever a big comic book movie with a male lead makes money, it's assumed that everybody is going to see it. Or, that only nerds and geeks are, but somehow that's okay because nerds and geeks are a more acceptable audience than women. The days of "geeks are fat mouth-breathers who live in their parents' basements" are long gone, which is good because whenever a stereotype can be smashed with a hammer that's a good thing. But let's not replace one stereotype with another. And let's be honest -- we KNOW why that stereotype has been diminishing. Because this shit makes MONEY. And whenever something makes money, it's welcome. Unless it's something confounding, like a movie with a GIRL in it.
It's implicit that entertainment is still geared towards men. It's acceptable that men won't go see movies with female leads. It's okay that the majority of women in these male-driven movies are one-dimensional symbols.