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This Week in Genre History: The Hunger Games' big winner was, no question, Jennifer Lawrence
Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
There aren't many gigs more daunting than taking on a role as the signature star of an adaptation of an established, beloved franchise. Whether it's Harry Potter or Twilight or even Watchmen, you are required to both embody a character that millions of fans have already cast in their imaginations (and their imaginations don't look anything like you, a real, live person) and actually carry this whole franchise on your back. If your casting doesn't work, if you don't pull it off, the franchise will suffer and everyone will consider it your fault (ask Hayden Christensen). And heck, even if it does work, no matter what you do the rest of your life, you'll be known for that franchise and that franchise only. (Ask Daniel Radcliffe, who may be taking lots of fun roles but is always going to be The Boy Who Lived.) In many ways, you can't win.
Which is why it remains so remarkable what Jennifer Lawrence pulled off as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. The astronomically successful books by Suzanne Collins demanded a strong Katniss, just as the rabid fans of the books demanded the perfect actress to play their Katniss. Lawrence had to sign on for multiple films, in an extremely demanding role, and handle the intense scrutiny that would come with it, both onscreen and off. (Suddenly the press cared deeply about the star of the indie film Winter's Bone.)
Not only did Lawrence pull it off… now she's somehow bigger than both Katniss and The Hunger Games itself. It feels like a magic act. As we look back at the original release of The Hunger Games, nine years ago on March 23, it's instructive to see how it happened.
Why was it a big deal at the time? The Hunger Games remains one of the best-selling series of young adult novels ever; more than 65 million copies have been sold in the United States alone. Moreover, they seemed perfectly suited for a film adaptation. They're episodic, they're full of action and romance, they're epic in scale, they have countless juicy supporting roles, and, most of all, they're aimed at teenagers. You can't lose, right?
Well, the only way you could lose was by casting Katniss wrong. Hundreds of actresses went for the role, from Saoirse Ronan to Chloë Grace Moretz to Hailee Steinfeld to Shailene Woodley. But Lawrence, as she had shown in Winter's Bone, had a certain self-assurance and ferocity that no one could deny. The books' author, Suzanne Collins, gave her the ultimate stamp of approval, saying she was "the only [actress] who truly captured the character I wrote in the book."
That's great and all, but also, no pressure.
Lawrence was only 20 when she accepted the role, four years older than Katniss, but also, you know, still only 20 years old. She went through intense physical training, including learning archery. (From an Olympian, no less.) However, training and preparation are one thing. It is quite another for your face to be on every poster, with four films prepared, with hundreds of millions of dollars being spent.
But Lawrence, who had been in high school in Kentucky just four years earlier, never seemed the least bit fazed. Heck, in the time between movies, she went out and filmed Silver Linings Playbook, which would end up winning her an Oscar. So how did you spend your summer?
What was the impact? The movie was a historic smash, immediately. It broke records for the highest opening weekend and highest first-day gross for any non-sequel in the spring ever, records it still holds. But what was most impressive is that people loved it. Critics raved — Roger Ebert made a point to note just how "strong and convincing" Lawrence was — but the much tougher critics to please — and the most important ones — were the hardcore fans, and they swooned even more. It felt as if Lawrence had been specifically created just for this role; Collins had been right, as it seemed like no one else could have possibly played Katniss. Not everything in the film worked (such as Wes Bentley's casting), but it didn't matter with her at the center.
Which was a good thing, because there were three movies left to go.
But a funny thing happened over the course of those films: Lawrence became the biggest movie star in the world. Between the release of the original Hunger Games movie in 2012 and the final one, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 in 2015, she made Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle — earning Oscar nominations for both (and winning for the former) — as well as multiple X-Men movies and signing up for films with Darren Aronofsky, David O'Russell, and Adam McKay.
By the end of the series, the question was not, "Did the movies pick the right Katniss?" It was, "Wait, does Jennifer Lawrence really have to keep doing these movies? Isn't she too big for that now?" She had transcended the franchise.
Has it held up? Gary Ross directed the first film, and it's obvious that he storyboarded every single second to make sure every single fan of the book got exactly what they paid for. (Chris Columbus did something similar with the first Harry Potter film.) He would hand the subsequent films off to Francis Lawrence, who would open them up and give them a little more vision (this series got so big that Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman joined in). Ross' movie feels staid, a little like it's baked in amber. It just wants to hit every step precisely right.
But even Ross' caution can't contain Lawrence. That's the thing about her: She seems too big for the movies even when she's establishing them. She's such an obvious star that you find yourself ignoring much of the rest of Collins' universe and just focusing on her. It's no wonder she ended up outlasting the franchise. The Hunger Games producers thought they were picking the perfect actress to play Katniss, but they may have just picked the perfect actress, period, who was going to nail whatever role she had at that time.
They thought the movies were about Katniss. They ended up being about Lawrence all along.
Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site