c.e. taillefer

May 24, 2011

Hunger Games Race-Fail


(Note: this was originally posted at my old dreamwidth blog)

I have a secret: I love YA novels.  Some of my favourite books and series fall under the umbrella of young adult: Garth Nix’s Sabriel, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling/Fire, and particularly, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games.  This last one is causing me no end of grief, because of this recent news about its casting.  This article from Racebending is a great summary of the problems I’m seeing. Hollywood’s no stranger to white-washing; you’d pretty much be living under a rock if you didn’t hear some of the brouhaha over M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender complete failure to respect the original material.  N.K Jemisin, one of my favourite authors ever, has tons of links of various ways Hollywood lets down women, people of colour and other underprivileged groups at her blog.
In short, Katniss Everdeen, the main character of the Hunger Games, is a woman living in a dystopian future Appalachia, where many inhabitants are bi-racial or tri-racial, drawing from First Nations or black heritage, or both.  Moreover, she’s described as being at least bi-racial: having dark skin, long black hair and grey eyes, like most of the inhabitants of The Seam – the poor, coal mining region of her District.  Her sister and mother look like the upper caste merchant class, from where her mother hails: blond hair, blue eyes, lighter skin.  After the success of True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld was bantered around as being a possibility.  But the casting call was for a Caucasian woman, and while I don’t know if Steinfeld decided to try out or not, she’s of Filipino and Jewish descent.  The part has been offered to Jennifer Lawrence, another woman from the Oscars list, in Winter’s Bone.

This quote from Aliya is a great place to begin:

Why would the latter possibility [that Katniss is a dark-skinned white woman] upset me enough to hate the books? Because it disallows compassion and empathy. Instead of Northern readers seeing themselves as in the position of the Capitol, they see themselves as the oppressed, hungry girl from District 12 striving against whatever form their oppressions individually take. This would be a tragedy.
But when you look at it compared to the comments from the director:


There are certain things that are very clear in the book. Rue is African-American. Thresh is African-American. Suzanne had no issues with Jen playing the role. And she thought there was a tremendous amount of flexibility. It wasn’t doctrine to her. Jen will have dark hair in the role, but that’s something movies can easily achieve. [Laughs] I promise all the avid fans of The Hunger Games that we can easily deal with Jennifer’s hair color.

Well, it seems exceedingly likely that Collins is talking about the role people of colour play in her novel. Very distinctly, they are the supporting roles to Katniss’ heroism.  Given that the premise of the story is about young adults forced to kill each other in an arena, it’s not a big surprise that neither black characters will survive their roles.  Add this to the dismissive tone about the hair dye, and it just looks like a hot mess scraped off the sidewalk, and one unlikely to fulfill Aliya’s hopes for a protagonist of colour to be an agent and hero in her own right.  Instead we’ve got subtle affirmation that the latter reading of Katniss as a model for privileged young adults to imagine themselves as rebellious heroes is the one Collins intended.

It’s not a huge secret that Battle Royale is one of my favourite movies. Exceedingly troubled? Yes. Exceedingly troubling? Also yes.  A few years ago, around the time Quentin Tarantino was making Kill Bill, he made noises about how much he loved Takako Chigusa in Battle Royale (and in fact hired the actress to be Gogo Yubari in Kill Bill vol.1) and would give anything to remake it, but a story about children killing each other would never fly in America.

More to the point, we all breathed a sigh of relief, because the monstrosity that was the Shall We Dance? remake failed predominantly because the notion of the tightly-wound Japanese salaryman was not really something most North Americans could sympathize with, and a great deal of the paranoia and fear motivating the writing of Battle Royale (and then later, the filming) is different.

But if Hunger Games succeeds, if America finds movies about children killing each other palatable, what’s stopping a Battle Royale remake with a funky, ironic Tarantino soundtrack and all-white cast?  Japanese remakes have been happening for years – The Ring and The Grudge are two pretty major ones. All the same, a Battle Royale remake would be different than these.  Part of it is not bearing able to hear the dorky, sweet teen dialogue become slick Tarantino soliloquies.  But a bigger part is that, like the Hunger Games changes, it seems to tell young kids of colour that while their stories are tragic, movie-goers really only care about stories when they happen to cute little white kids.

As much as I love the Hunger Games novels, I only hope this movie flops as terribly as the ATLA movie did.


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