Note: This is NOT really a review of Catching Fire, but it is a reaction to the character of Katniss in the movie. This should also NOT be taken as a criticism of Jennifer Lawrence. I adore her.
Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert!
The most promising scene in the movie Catching Fire was in the introduction of Johanna. She stands in the elevator, and just as she does in the book, she strips down in front of Peta, Katniss, and Haymitch (who was not in this scene in the book.) This scene was the last in a sequence in events, with Finnick taunting Katniss with sugar and Chaff kissing her, made me hopeful that my favorite exchange in the book was actually going to make it into the movie. Unfortunately, after Johanna leaves the elevator, the three from District 12 simply snicker.
Here is what happens in the book (as I said before, Haymitch does not appear) after Johanna leaves, and Peta begins laughing.
“What?” I say, turning on him as we step out on our floor.
“It’s you, Katniss. Can’t you see?” he says.
“What’s me?” I say.
“Why they’re all acting like this. Finnick with his sugar cubes and Chaff kissing you and that whole thing with Johanna stripping down.” He tries to take on a more serious tone, unsuccessfully. “They’re playing with you because you’re so…you know.”
“No, I don’t know,” I say. And I really have no idea what he’s talking about.
“It’s like when you wouldn’t look at me naked in the arena even though I was half dead. You’re so…pure,” he says finally.
“I am not!” I say. “I’ve been practically ripping your clothes off every time there’s been a camera for the last year!”
“Yeah, but…I mean, for the Capitol, you’re pure, he says, clearly trying to mollify me. “For me, you’re perfect. They’re just teasing you.”
“No, they’re laughing at me, and so are you!” I say.
“No.” Peta shakes his head, but he’s still suppressing a smile. I’m seriously rethinking the question of who should get out of these Games alive when the other elevator opens.
Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins, pages 215-216
I was disappointed, though not entirely surprised that this exchange did not make it into the film. But it made me think back to an article that made the rounds a few months ago. It’s called, I Don’t Like Strong Female Characters, and I’m posting it down below, because what I will write about will not make much sense without reading this article.
The point of this article is that women in film are rarely complex characters. She asks the question, “Is Hamlet Strong?” As someone who spent the previous summer observing The Summer of Hamlet (everyone should do this at some point) I would answer, “Hamlet is many things.” For a class, I described Hamlet as “verbose and indecisive” though I would now describe him as “verbose and insightful.” Strong wouldn’t be the first adjective I would use, but that does not mean that Hamlet is not a fully realized, fascinating character. He certainly is.
However, women are very rarely fully realized characters in major blockbuster films. Major blockbuster action films tend to be action/superhero films, and in such films, women are rarely (and have always rarely been) fully realized characters. The author of this article points out that Hollywood pays lip service to the idea of women in films by making “strong” female characters. These women fight, run, drink, and hang with the boys. The women also only react with other men, usually because there are no other women in the films. When they do interact with other women, it is not to become friends. Rather, it is to experience jealousy over the affections of the main character. The women are not allowed to cry or express any self doubt or weakness or frailty of any kind, or any traits that would make them seem human in any way.
Natalie Portman also commented about this phenomenon in a recent interview, when she talked about feminism and film.
The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”
I was thinking about that as I watched Catching Fire this past weekend. It was a good movie, don’t get me wrong, and I once again enjoyed Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss. However, I started thinking about how she is portrayed in the films as opposed to the books.
In the films, Katniss is very much the warrior woman in the model of Artemis and St. Joan of Arc, both virginal women engaged in men’s pursuits, such as hunting or war. She bears the most similarity to Artemis, of course, the virginal goddess of the hunt. Katniss loves to hunt, having been taught by her father, and frequently must hunt to sustain her family. She is also romantically naïve, and is disassociated from her own sexuality. This is true of both the book’s Katniss and the film’s Katniss.
However, the film is eager, overeager, to portray Katniss as strong. Katniss is strong, there is no doubt about that. However, her strength is also her weakness. Katniss is capable of loving the people in her life (especially her sister) but she is not capable of being loved. Or rather, she cannot allow others to love her. Before the events of The Hunger Games take place, Peta performs a selfless act of love for Katniss. When she is starving to death, Peta, the son of a baker, burns loaves of walnut raisin bread so that he can toss them to her. He is well aware that his mother will beat him for this, but he does not care. He willingly endures the beating from his mother so that he can save Katniss. Katniss, for her part, is incredibly uncomfortable with this action. For her, the sacrifice of Peta is simply something she owes him. She is terrified to be in his debt.
Katniss has other weaknesses and foibles. She is painfully aware of her romantic and sexual inexperience and views this as a liability, a source of embarrassment. (It is, to some extent, in the Capitol.) She is almost severed completely from her own sexuality, as I stated above, to the point where she cannot even recognize her own desires and feelings. When Katniss experiences arousal as a result of kissing Peeta, she is mystified. This trait is actually crucial in the first book, creating much of the dramatic irony. The reader is several steps ahead of Katniss in the book. The reader understands that Peeta is in love with Katniss long before she realizes it, but is unable to tell Katniss this. (It’s torturous at moments, it really is.)
Katniss is also not impervious to pain and suffering. After her victory in the Hunger Games, she suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She has violent nightmares and struggles to sleep through the night. When Rue dies, she slips into depression. (Suzanne Collin’s depiction of depression is one of the best I have ever read. I mean that.) Katniss also lacks the healing talent and temperament of her mother and sisters. She struggles to care for Peeta in the arena, because she panics at the sight of injuries and does not know how to respond. Her little sister, Prim, so frail in other ways, has the calm of a surgeon in medical emergencies. (The movie shows this briefly, to its credit.)
The films do manage to stay true to some of these elements of Katniss’ character. In the film, Katniss struggles with flashbacks and violent nightmares. She is also permitted to do something in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire that strong female characters are rarely allowed to do, something absolutely central to the experience of a teenage girl: cry. The film does not portray her tears as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of her enduring humanity, despite the inhumanity around her. She retains her moral sense, she is still her, as Peeta would say. This is not a weakness, but a triumph.
Still, Katniss in the movie lacks the full degree of frailty of the book. I blame this not on Jennifer Lawrence, but on the screenwriters and the Hollywood culture in general. Hollywood wants to be seen as feminist and caring about women’s issues, and they believe that this means making women “strong.” The irony is that the women who are strong are really masculine. In doing so, Hollywood continues the belief that “masculine=strong” and “feminine=weak.” They ignore the many ways in which masculinity masks weaknesses, and in which femininity demonstrates unfathomable strength.
They also make the women characters somewhat flat compared to the men in films, and as a result, they are frequently less memorable than the men. The writers and directors are afraid to portray women with foibles and weaknesses and even moral failings, because they mistakenly believe that this is misogynistic. It is far more misogynistic, in my opinion, to portray women as either perfect or evil, with nowhere in the middle.
In short, I love Katniss. I love Katniss in the books, and I love Katniss in the movies. When I pick up the books, I admire her, relate to her, and want to help and protect her all at the same time. In the film, the complex relationship with Katniss does not completely come through. I think part of this shows the failings of Hollywood studios and writers to understand how to create rich female characters. Hollywood did take a great leap by understanding that women could do more than simply faint and scream out for a man to save them. But grasping the delightful mixture of bravery, frailty, virtue, and failings that comprise most women (as Anne Frank once called it, “a bundle of contradictions”) still seems beyond major Hollywood films at this point. Still, I have hope that this will change in the future, as we have more women screenwriters, directors, producers, and (dare I say it?) studio executives.
These are pictures that I found online via Google images. I don’t own them, other people do.