From lethal Lara Croft of "Tomb Raider" to marauding Beatrix Kiddo of "Kill Bill," pop culture has provided plenty of action figures with Barbie-doll forms. But "The Hunger Games" might be a game changer, giving audiences the first megahit fantasy series led by a character whose soul is as important as her survival skills.
"She's this girl that feels empathy when nobody else does," said Jennifer Lawrence, the "Winter's Bone" Oscar nominee who plays the story's heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence said the film is more than flying braids and slashing weapons. Like millions of readers, she fell in love with her character's steadfast individuality and the story's resonant themes.
In Suzanne Collins' bestselling science-fiction trilogy, Katniss lives in a totalitarian future America where the rich are too rich and the poor too powerless.
Each year, disenfranchised boys and girls are picked by government lottery and forced to battle in "The Hunger Games," a televised fight to the death. Competitors not only have to kill their adversaries, but they must appear likable and relatable, acting out manufactured romantic story lines. A winning image attracts sponsors, who provide tools, medical supplies, even body armor. The media machine doesn't just want to broadcast Katniss' death; it wants to devour every morsel of her emotional life.
Collins' blockbusters represent a sharp change of direction for young adult novels. While a love triangle is part of Collins' books, Katniss resents and resists the conventional trappings of romance and femininity. Her objective is to keep herself and her family alive. Unlike vampire-loving Bella Swan, she acts rather than being acted upon. With dark alternate realities, political themes and riveting action alongside a strong female character's emotional journey, the story appeals to crossover audiences.
That diverse fan base is the reason Hollywood backed the female-led franchise. Advance ticket sales for the Lionsgate Entertainment film, opening today, are stratospheric. Anticipating the rush, the studio put tickets on sale a month before the opening, and theater owners have pushed the feature onto additional screens. It's expected to lay the cornerstone for a film fantasy franchise on the scale of "Harry Potter," with the sequel's script already in play.
And "The Hunger Games" has cast its halo over other projects, as well. With December's release of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and the upcoming "Snow White and the Huntsman," American studios are offering a slate of female-oriented, big-budget adventures unlike anything they've backed before.
"It's this terrible reflection of our past, our present and our future," Lawrence said. "It shows what happens when we lose touch with our empathy and our humanity. . . . When we're not careful, history repeats itself. Before it was Roman gladiators and now it's reality TV. I'm as guilty as anyone. You look at these poor people go into a room and get made fun of, laughed at, their entire dream shattered, shot out the door, and you're eating popcorn and laughing like it's the funniest thing. And so am I. I'm not judging, because I'm every bit a part of it."
What the critic's say
In his 3-star "Hunger Games" review, which ran in Wednesday's Newsday, our movie critic, Rafer Guzmán, said the movie was "solid and serious-minded, particularly for an aspiring blockbuster." Here's a sampling of what some other critics had to say:
* A science-fiction movie of the blandest, most generic order, technically adequate but devoid of any wit or insight. -- Miami Herald
* The games have begun, and so far they're pretty gripping. -- Chicago Tribune
* A muscular, honorable, unflinching translation of Collins' vision. -- Entertainment Weekly