Fans of The Hunger Games — the dark and addictive YA trilogy that is the hottest kid-lit read this side of Twilight — have been avidly following casting rumors for the forthcoming film adaptation. But while director Gary Ross initially told Entertainment Weekly that the actress playing resentful revolutionary heroine Katniss Everdeen needn't be a "star," now it's being reported that Oscar-nominated Winter's Bone breakout Jennifer Lawrence is close to snagging the coveted role.
Lawrence is unquestionably a talented actress, widely acknowledged to have the grit to play Katniss. But the process which seems to have led to her selection is problematic in other ways –- in particular, the film's casting call contained the following criteria: "She should be Caucasian, between ages 15 and 20, who could portray someone ‘underfed but strong,' and ‘naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.'"
Seeking actresses who look "underfed" is fraught for obvious reasons but, to be fair, that quality does reflect the book's portrayal of Katniss as perennially malnourished. But it's the blunt "Caucasian" requirement that comes as a surprise. Those who read The Hunger Games slowly enough to savor its descriptive language know that Suzanne Collins gives her heroine "olive" skin, grey eyes, and dark hair. Katniss' looks in the novel are typical of her fellow residents in "The Seam," an impoverished area populated by coal-miners like her deceased dad. The wealthier merchant class, including Katniss's mom and sister, generally are described with fair hair and skin.
Collins' allusions to race aren't exactly subtle, and the filmmakers apparent decision to ignore this aspect of the novel has led some fans to make an inarguable point: given Katniss's description in the book, why wasn't the casting call open to actresses of color or mixed ethnicity? "As long as they fit the [book's] physical description, nonwhite actors should at least get a chance," says Marissa Lee, co-founder of the web community Racebending.com, where fans have protested the "whitewashing" of Hollywood film adaptations like last year's The Last Airbender.
Lee and others at her site worried that diversity would be ignored in the Hunger Games casting call early on. Back in November, they created a FAQ about race in the novels and wrote a letter to the brass at Lionsgate, the studio behind the film:
The Hunger Games heralds an unprecedented opportunity for young actors of color to star in a tentpole film, particularly since it is heavily implied that the lead character, Katniss, would be considered biracial by "real-world" standards. We ...hope that the final cast will reflect the author's intent of diversity. full pdf here]
As Racebending notes, that intent is clearly communicated by Collins in the novels, even if some readers (including, perhaps, the film's casting team) breezed by it. While most of the discrimination in Collins' fictional world is based on from where a character hails rather than said the character's race, the author pointedly emphasizes the dark skin tone shared by Katniss and her fellow Seam residents in contrast to their more privileged neighbors. For example:
He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin, we even have the same gray eyes. But we're not related, at least not closely. Most of the families who work the mines resemble one another this way. That's why my mother and [sister] Prim, with their light hair and blue eyes, always look out of place. They are. My mother's parents were part of the small merchant class...
Collins' world includes several more key characters who are either explicitly non-white or whose ethnic background is left more ambiguous, including love-interest Gale, mentor-figure Haymitch and a young black girl named Rue, Katniss's closest and the star of some of the novel's most gripping action scenes.
If Jennifer Lawrence is indeed cast as Katniss, it's a missed opportunity, but there are still plenty of chances left for the filmmakers to honor the diversity in Collins' fictional world and, in turn, our own. Whether or not this happens, who can say — but either way, Hollywood will be sending a message, and in this particular case, a message that is inherently directed at our youth. Which, depending on what way things go, could be a wonderful thing.