‘Hunger Games,’ ‘Divergent’: The new wave of strong female-led sci-fi

July 12, 2013

LOS ANGELES TIMES – Katniss Everdeen never intended to become an icon for a struggling people. Yet the scrappy, resourceful heroine at the heart of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling “The Hunger Games” trilogy, with her signature braid, incomparable archery skills and defiant spirit, became a rare sort of pop-culture touch point precisely because she came to be embraced by a sometimes lost, sometimes achingly restless tribe: adolescents.

But the wily teen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who trades places with her sister only to emerge as the unlikely victor in a battle to the death, didn’t only inspire Collins’ readers and the filmgoers who turned up for Gary Ross’ 2012 movie adaptation of “The Hunger Games” to the tune of $408 million. Her success has also helped fuel a continuing, voracious appetite in Hollywood for sci-fi inflected tales featuring young women in empowered roles.

“I’m a very strong advocate of taking charge and being a wild woman,” said Shailene Woodley, who stars in next year’s “Divergent.” Set in a dystopian future Chicago, Veronica Roth’s series of novels center on a world where teens are herded together based on specific skills and attributes — when 16-year-old Beatrice Prior finds herself gifted in multiple areas, she’s labeled as an outcast, one who finds herself in a position to affect the future of humanity.

“I think it’s really profound that right now there are so many opportunities in film that depict young women as strong, courageous and taking care of themselves,” said Woodley, who will play Beatrice in the Neil Burger-directed film.

“The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” will both take center stage at San Diego’s Comic-Con International next weekend, the annual pop-culture expo that routinely draws upward of 130,000 people from around the world for a celebration of movies, TV and comic books. The convention does not reveal precise attendance figures, the demographics for the event skew male, though the number of women attending has increased every year for the last 10 to 15 years, with the ratio now 60 to 40 male-female.

Fandom has never been off-limits to men or women, and science fiction and fantasy have long cast confident, competent women in starring roles — Sigourney Weaver’s legendary heroine Ripley is one of the most powerful examples. But at a time when genre properties are enjoying more widespread mainstream popularity than ever before, many find it encouraging that young women have more role models on the page and on screen— heroes as physically adept as their male counterparts but admired more for their internal strength than their fighting skills.

“I’ve always believed that Hollywood has a democratic streak, which means that whatever works, people will go for, and right now there is an audience for these young-adult books,” said Lucy Fisher, former vice chairwoman of Columbia Tri-Star and producer of “Divergent.”

“’Hunger Games’ helped ‘Mortal Instruments’ get made,” added Cassandra Clare, author of the bestselling young adult series that will see its debut novel “City of Bones” adapted into a feature film starring Lily Collins as a demon-fighting teen in August. “That movie proved that you can make a film with an adventurous woman at the heart of it, and people will see it. And she doesn’t have to be sexed up. People are willing to go see Katniss kick butt in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.”

Before there was Katniss, of course, there was Bella Swan, the pale, clumsy Everygirl who found herself in love with a brooding vampire in Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight.” That wildly successful franchise proved that an audience composed of young women could turn a series into a juggernaut. And though critics charged that Bella was too passive a character, a young girl too dependent on her boyfriend for her happiness, actress Kristen Stewart flatly rejected that view.

“Flop the roles. If Bella was a vampire and Edward was the human and you changed nothing but the genders, none of that criticism would exist,” Stewart told The Times last year. “It would be ‘Wow, he just laid everything on the line for her. It’s so amazing, and it must take such strength to subject yourself to that.’ Also, the relationship is entirely equal.”

Of the many places that the intensity of “Twilight” fanfare could be observed, Comic-Con was chief among them. Fans would sleep for days on the sidewalk outside the San Diego Convention Center in order to be assured a chair in the facility’s Hall H, the first-come, first-seated 6,500-seat arena where the majority of the major film and television presentations took place. Most sessions usually featured new footage from a given project and appearances from cast members and behind the scenes talent. The screaming of the “Twi-hards” excited to see Stewart and her costars, Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, were deafening.

This year it’s “Hunger Games” that might elicit the loudest cheers as Lawrence enters the San Diego arena for the first time on Saturday, as Lionsgate touts the upcoming sequel, “Catching Fire,” due in theaters in November. But what’s different about the “Hunger Games” is that, despite the presence of Katniss’ two male allies, fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), it’s Katniss that the audience is cheering for.

“The thing I like about this movie, which is different from many others, is Katniss is focused on survival, focused on a revolution and not focused on who is going to be her boyfriend,” Lawrence said in an interview with The Times before the release of the first movie in 2012.

It’s Katniss’ resourcefulness that keeps Peeta alive, and in the upcoming “Ender’s Game,” the adaptation of the 1985 sci-fi novel from Orson Scott Card, Hailee Steinfeld plays a similar type of character. In the film she plays Petra, the sole female fighter in the international child army who spends much of the film training Ender, played by Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”). Butterfield and Steinfeld will be among the actors making the trip to San Diego to promote the movie at Comic-Con.

It’s the first screen appearance from Steinfeld since she rocketed to stardom and an Oscar nomination with her portrayal of the plucky, determined Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ 2010 western “True Grit.” Choosing a follow-up role wasn’t easy, the 16-year-old said. She lost the part of Katniss to Lawrence, and other parts just didn’t seem as challenging.

“When ‘Ender’s Game’ came along with Petra, I found that I’m really attracted to the strong female roles,” said Steinfeld, calling from the set of the Civil War-era “The Keeping Room,” where she plays one of two sisters forced to protect her Southern home from a group of soldiers. “Not only do you have to look harder for those parts but you have to fight for them. But fighting for what you want is the best part of the job. It’s what I love.”

Steinfeld was in the middle of shooting “Ender’s Game” in New Orleans when she and her young cast mates took a field trip to the local multiplex to watch “Hunger Games,” which had just debuted in theaters. The movie did not have a direct bearing on “Ender’s” nabbing a greenlight, but Steinfeld credits it with putting some extra oomph in the cast’s performance.

“We all sat in the theater and we were all in awe,” said Steinfeld. “Most of us had read the book and we were excited. It was cool to see that ensemble cast just bring it 110%. It motivated us to really come together and make a great movie.”

Woodley, too, auditioned for the role of Katniss, but she said what drew her to play Tris Prior was the character’s drive to pursue a dangerous, unknown future that would separate her from her family yet allow her to find her own path.
“You can relate this to a lot of cultures today where women aren’t allowed to speak their minds,” said Shailene Woodley, right, of her role in “Divergent.” “It doesn’t seem like a reality for someone growing up in the U.S., but even in our world there are so many boundaries of what women can and can’t do.” (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

Shailene Woodley, right, in “Divergent.” (Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment)

“You can relate this to a lot of cultures today where women aren’t allowed to speak their minds,” said Woodley, calling from the “Divergent” set, weeks before production was set to wrap. “It doesn’t seem like a reality for someone growing up in the U.S., but even in our world there are so many boundaries of what women can and can’t do.”

Despite the inspiration — and revenue — generated by “The Hunger Games,” female roles in films are still a fraction of the total speaking parts in movies, according to a study released in May by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Among the 100 highest-grossing movies at last year’s U.S. box office, the study reported, 28.4% of speaking characters were female. That’s a drop from 32.8% three years ago, despite the box-office milestones achieved by female-dominated franchises.

Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, whose credits include HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and the latest draft of “Divergent,” is hopeful that the current wave of female-driven parts is indicative of something more permanent, however.

“There came a point when we all decided that the princess couldn’t be saved all the time. That it was no longer appropriate considering what girls and women were actually doing in the world,” she said. “Suddenly you saw this spate of the feisty princess. She actually has a weapon and can actually help save the prince. Then came these women and it’s their story and they are the prince.”

Producer Fisher, who worked at Warner Bros. in the early 1980s, remembers trying to get “Wonder Woman” adapted back when she started at the studio and admits it’s “a tough origin story.”

“That’s the only notion studios may still be hung up on,” said James Mangold, director of the new film, “The Wolverine,” which sees Hugh Jackman reprise his famous “X-Men” role for a stand-alone adventure. “It’s a different challenge, just like electing a female president, that will have to be broken.”

When adapting the comic book by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, Mangold sought to remain true to the number of women in his protagonist’s life: fearless sword-wielding sidekick Yukio (played by Rila Fukushima); mysterious martial arts-trained heiress Mariko Yasida (Tao Okamoto); his deceased true love from the “X-Men” franchise, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).

According to Mangold, the female characters are of paramount importance to Logan’s journey: “It’s not a matter of them pitching in here or there — Logan wouldn’t survive the picture without them. He is saved many times by the women in his life.”

Fisher, though, has some optimism. Katniss and her league of determined female survivors just might have helped blaze a path that other cinematic heroines can follow.

“I think that once something has proven there’s a market for it, it’s easier,” she said. “And this has been proven for sure. Big time.”