Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Hunger Games and Jennifer Lawrence: Is This Going To Work?

Commissioned by and crossposted on Film.com

On the heels of the announcement that Jennifer Lawrence won the role of Katniss in The Hunger Games has come a lot of discussion as to whether or not the naturally blond, 20 year old actress is right for the role of the 16 year old, olive skinned brunette. Many fans (mostly purists, natch) are complaining that Lawrence is poor casting for these reasons. But how much does it matter that Lawrence is four years older and has the wrong complexion? Is it really warranting all this uproar?

I too was bothered when I first heard the announcement, but not because of Lawrence's hair or hue of skin, the cosmetic aspects aren't a huge deal as far as I'm concerned, they can be altered easily. What did made me uncomfortable was her age. Part of what made The Hunger Games so harrowing for me to read was imagining a 16 year old - a Nicola Peltz, a Hailee Steinfeld, someone who is young enough to still *look* like an actual teen - forced into Katniss' situation. Part of the reason the upcoming Hanna is so effective is because the teen assassin is played by a 16 year old. It's difficult, yet thrilling to watch. Imagining the images coming alive as I read, I feared for Katniss, was amazed with Katniss, wanted to protect Katniss. Casting a 20 year old, even a 20 year old who just played a 17 year old, as Lawrence did in Winter's Bone, immediately does away with all of that. When I imagine Jennifer Lawrence in the part, I am suddenly not concerned for Katniss' safety, I'm not questioning her ability or moved by the fact that someone so young only knows how to do what she can do because of the poverty she was raised in that forced her to grow up so quickly. Instead, I see a woman. A young looking woman, sure, but a woman nonetheless.

However, these were the thoughts I had when I had only read two thirds of The Hunger Games.

A few days after the announcement that Lawrence got the part, I sat down to finish The Hunger Games with only part three of the first book, entitled "The Victor," to go. And boy did that change things. Imagining Lawrence and rumored contender, Hunter Parrish, in the roles of Katniss and Peeta during the last third of the book just about sealed the deal for me that when it comes to casting, The Hunger Games may not in fact be an epic fail. The Jennifer Lawrence and Hunter Parrish in my mind have *amazing* chemistry, you guys. And it made me think of something no dissenters seem to be discussing.

While casting actual teenagers would certainly provide an audience with that unique, frightening feeling of seeing children, more or less, forced into an awful situation like the hunger games, something important would be lost: the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. The sexuality. The romance. The chemistry. The maturity. It's the reason all "teen" shows are cast with twenty somethings. No one wants to watch an actual fifteen year old make out with another fifteen year old. That's when something that should be exciting to see come to fruition becomes sweet at best, child porn at worst. Do you really think there would be however-many-thousand videos dedicated to the kisses of Chuck and Blair if the roles were played by high school juniors? Are you telling me you don't feel even a little dirty watching the younger characters on Skins? How many people are going to watch 90210 if the "hot new sophomore" who sleeps with someone's thirty year old sister is an actual sophomore? Have you seen an actual high school sophomore lately? If sexuality is important for the characters to posses, the casting will skew slightly older, plain and simple.

I didn't realize how important chemistry would be until finishing the first book, but now I can't imagine having anyone younger than eighteen in the role, and even most eighteen year olds look too young for me to want to watch them have chemistry with anyone. Even Logan Lerman, who I think is adorbz town central, has too much of a baby face for me to want to see him in any sort of sexual situation. In a few years, sure, but not right now. And I can safely say I do *not* want The Hunger Games film to shy away from the violence or the romance.

Which brings me to Katniss' counterpart. Obviously if our leading lady is to be played by an actress slightly older than teenage years with a maturity way beyond teenage years, the actor playing Peeta must have a similar sensibility. Lawrence's casting immediately rules out actors too much younger than she is. Aside from Hunter Parrish, Alex Pettyfer is apparently under consideration. But let's nip that in the bud before producers put an offer out, shall we? While Jennifer Lawrence is blond and no longer a teenager, everything else about her is Katniss. We know she can be tough, we know she can be vulnerable, we know she can look like dreck, we know she can look drop dead gorgeous, we know she can skin an animal and we know she can cry. And to hear the way director Gary Ross talks about her audition, you know Lawrence will bring it and subsequently kill it. Still not convinced? Here's an except from author Suzanne Collins' letter on the casting, published in EW (If you've read the first book, read the rest of the spoiler-tastic letter here),

“Jennifer’s just an incredible actress. So powerful, vulnerable, beautiful, unforgiving and brave. I never thought we’d find somebody this amazing for the role. And I can’t wait for everyone to see her play it.”

Which is why I worry about all this Pettyfer talk. The ALREADY notorious jerkface (trying to keep my language clean here), after only TWO studio films, could not be more wrong for the role of Peeta. Pettyfer reads as mean as he is rumored to be, as well as cold, stiff and humorless, the opposite of everything Peeta is supposed to embody. And despite being three years younger than competition Hunter Parrish, he looks about five years older. Let me tell you, the Jennifer Lawrence and Alex Pettyfer in my head have zero chemistry. Zip. And if we're going the route of casting slightly older so the audience is invested in the romance, whether or not this film will work now relies entirely on who gets cast as Peeta.

I like the idea of Parrish so much because of his natural warmth and sweet sexuality. He isn't classically handsome, he's unique, bridging on goofy, but tall, built and good-natured, exuding sort of a "you simultaneously want to make out with me and cuddle me" sort of vibe. I can buy the necessary vulnerability and I can buy the necessary snark. Blandy McDoucherson Alex Pettyfer? Not so much.

With a movie like say, Let the Right One In and its American take, Let Me In, casting actual 12-14 year olds was essential because the film hinged on the vampire trope of an older soul stuck in a pre-adolescent body. At the start of Marvel's Runaways, most of the characters are 15 and while there is a kiss between two of them at one point, sure, the important relationships don't happen until a bit later, so there is some freedom to actually go the young route, to see what it looks like when real teens are fighting super villains and let them grow into young adults with feelings and sexuality and romance over the course of the films a la Harry Potter. But because so much of the first Hunger Games book really does focus on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta, I ultimately am in support of this casting and recommend re-reading the book with them in mind. You may be surprised with how naturally you can imagine them in the roles.

So to answer the question if this going to work, I say if it doesn't, Jennifer Lawrence won't be the reason. Her casting is actually a great sign that despite the fact that The Hunger Games is technically a Young Adult novel, this movie will be leaning more on the side of an adult sensibility than that of kids or tweens. Now we just have to cross our fingers and hope the rest of the casting falls into place. And you know, the script and direction and production design and special effects....But I'm optimistic for now.

What do you think of Jennifer Lawrence at Katniss? Who would be your preference for Peeta? Looking forward to your thoughts, readers.