Given the recent splurge of YA fiction properties (and, more specifically, dystopian YA fiction properties) in both bookstores and cinemas, it’s easy to understand how even a dedicated geek and proud Whedonite could dismiss Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series as just another part of the latest pop culture trend. As a life-long geek and hard-core Whedon fan since Buffy: Season One, I wish to stress that Collins’ unflinching and imaginative novels are closer to Orwell’s powerful 1984 than Meyer’s sparkle-infested Twilight books, and Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen is following in the footsteps of everyone’s favorite blonde vampire slayer in more ways than one!
The Hunger Games tells the tale of a young, teen heroine thrust into the position of great sacrifice and violence at an early age. (Remind you of anyone?) Katniss is forced to take her younger sister’s place in an annual televised, barbaric death match between 24 child tributes, and when her actions inspire a divided nation to unite, she unwillingly becomes a symbol of rebellion against the oppressive oligarchy in place. While The Hunger Games series has a number of elements Whedon fans will dig (terrifying, genetically created monsters, futuristic technologies, vicious battles to the death, etc.), the biggest draw has to be the wonderful and endearing cast of characters, especially the heroic and inspiring lead of Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is one of the most grounded, sincere depictions of a complex female heroine available to today’s audiences, and given the huge financial success of the series, she and The Hunger Games are just about EVERYWHERE in American pop culture. Just like Katniss strived to topple the unjust Capitol that kept the nation of Panem in its iron grip, the character of Katniss and the success and prominence of her story are hopefully the spark needed to ignite the flames that will finally burn away the outdated beliefs attached to female-led action flicks and the audiences that support them. And, you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Joss Whedon, himself, had to say to The Hollywood Reporter in regards to The Hunger Games and Hollywood’s attitude towards strong female characters:
“I think they’ve been peripheral for a long time, and I think The Hunger Games is about to change that in a big way . . . I really like it; it’s my kind of thing. And, more important, I like what it’s doing, which is millions.”
And, this isn’t just one offhand comment by our favorite writer, director, and slaughterer of beloved characters. Whedon clearly is not only a fan of The Hunger Games but sees the popularity of the films and novels as a way to help change Hollywood for the better. When Whedon talked to Entertainment Weekly about his upcoming film, Avengers: Age of Ultron, the importance of The Hunger Games came up again:
“Studios will tell you: A woman cannot headline an action movie . . . After The Hunger Games they might stop telling you that a little bit. Whatever you think of the movie, it’s done a great service. And, after The Avengers, I think it’s changing.”
Whedon brought up the YA series again when talking with The Daily Beast regarding action figures and the decisions behind them:
“Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, ‘You see? It can’t be done.’ It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift. It’s frustrating to me that I don’t see anybody developing one of these movies. It actually pisses me off. My daughter watched The Avengers and was like, ‘My favorite characters were the Black Widow and Maria Hill,’ and I thought, Yeah, of course they were. I read a beautiful thing Junot Diaz wrote: ‘If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.’”
The Hunger Games series has a number of awesome and well-written female characters, but, like beloved Whedon properties like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the books and films feature a number of great male characters, as well. The two male leads, for example, are well rounded, charismatic, and completely fine following Katniss’ lead. One of my favorite Whedon quotes ever comes from his now famous Equality Now speech regarding why he “writes strong women characters:”
“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, Gale, and a number of other male characters are “. . . engaged and even attracted to the idea” of Katniss leading them (especially when she accepts the mantel of the rebels’ Mockingjay in the third novel), and this is just as important in enacting the change Whedon hopes The Hunger Games heralds.
This week will see the opening of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Lionsgate decided to split the final book into two films.) in theaters across the country in what will surely be another record-breaking release. This film has another strong Whedon connection beyond his praise in general for the series. Danny Strong, who Whedon fans will remember as the actor who played the lovable nerd, Jonathan, on Buffy, is now making a name for himself as a screenwriter in Hollywood and is credited on the screenplay for the third Hunger Games film. (His other writing credits include Game Change, Recount, and next year’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2.)
At this point, do you really need any further reasons to see Mockingjay Part 1 this weekend? If not off my advice, surely Joss has convinced you, right? And, remember, even if a strong box office is guaranteed, the bigger the numbers, the stronger the message that is sent to Hollywood regarding the potential of female-led action franchises and what they can achieve. Buy your tickets. Watch the first two films on Netflix, if you need to catch up. Do what you have to and join the rebellion!
Finally, for those who have already got a full-fledged Hunger Games addiction (like myself), I will leave you with one final suggestion, and that is to seek out the fan-made audio drama known as The Katniss Chronicles while you wait for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 to arrive. Spread out over more than sixty individual episodes, this award-winning audio drama has the luxury of sticking closer to the plot of the original novels, features a talented and impressive cast, and is available for free at The Katniss Chronicles website or on iTunes. The Katniss Chronicles: Part I, Part II, and Part III cover the entire book series and are all currently available. For the sake of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a writer, actor, and executive producer on the project, but I can assure my fellow Whedonites that it is the Hunger Games fan equivalent of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog in the sense that The Katniss Chronicles is a high-quality, low, low budget project born of pure, “do-it-yourself” creative passion and a high level of respect and love for the source material. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as the fans who left the following reviews on the official Katniss Chronicles iTunes page:
“It’s a very professionally produced show, but created by true fans. Their passion for the series is evident through the script (which is faithful to the book) and acting. This is a must listen for anyone interested in The Hunger Games series. It’s a fantastic way to enjoy Suzanne Collins’ stories!”
“I just listened to episode 4 of The Katniss Chronicles: Part II, and I have so many feels. The cast did an amazing job of capturing the essence of the emotions Suzanne Collins detailed in the text, and it was much more difficult to deal with Katniss’ nightmares in audio form. I continue to be a fan.”
“The writing is spot on, and the voice actors never disappoint.”
“This is the perfect way to get ready for the Mockingjay movie. Absolutely amazing.”
“This is a great podcast; my whole family enjoys it.”
“Fantastic job of capturing the essence of the Hunger Games trilogy.”
The Katniss Chronicles is an unofficial and unauthorized audio drama based on the bestselling book series, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Download each free episode at www.thekatnisschronicles.com or on iTunes. You can also follow The Katniss Chronicles on Facebook and Twitter.