I was getting a haircut the other day, and the woman sitting next to me spoke about her reluctance to see The Hunger Games. “I just hate gorey movies,” she explained. “And the idea of children eating other children grosses me out.”

“They don’t eat one another!” I objected. “They’re forced to kill one another as part of a state-run reality TV show in a dystopian future!”

Okay, this is kind of a big difference, eating vs. merely killing one another — and for squeamish readers I can assure you that the gore factor is fairly low considering the subject matter. It’s strangely difficult to explain what made the books so compelling. Yet compelling they are: I’m pretty sure my set of books ricocheted amongst 9 different friends over the course of a 4-month period, each time resulting in late-night emails from those friends that said, “OMG The Hunger Games!”

Chalk it up in part to a powerful, driving narrative and a terrific central character in Katniss Everdeen. To quickly sum up the plot, Katniss has grown up in one of the nation’s poorest districts — so poor, in fact, that she and her best friend Gael have taught themselves to poach animals from the off-limits woods near home. Without her skills with a bow and arrow, setting traps, and scavenging for berries and other foods, her family would have starved long ago.

But then the annual Hunger Games begins. Long ago the nation’s 12 districts rebelled against the capital and when the federal government regained control, it instituted these “games.” Two children, a boy and girl, are chosen randomly from each district to compete against each other in a fantasy wilderness arena until only one is left alive. That battle is projected to every TV with the notion that it will somehow bring the nation together as they root for and celebrate the winner. But it also demands that the “tributes” make themselves TV-ready and appealing even as they kill one another or simply fight to survive — because the richest or most charismatic can get special gifts throughout the course of the games from sponsors who might tilt the balance between life and death with a packet of medicine, matches, or food. When Katniss is chosen alongside a baker’s son named Peeta, she is forced out of her “anything to survive” mentality, and must decide how much she’s willing to play the TV game.

Spoilers ahoy as you proceed!

As the blogger JustMeMike and I sat down to discuss the film, my first question to him is, have you read the books? and does the film seem to be the compelling document that I’ve described about the books?

JustMeMike: Thanks for the brief intro and plot outline. I only bought the book this past Thursday and did my utmost to keep it closed. I brought it with me on my trip to New York, but I should have left it home, as I never opened it on either flight. I will admit to reading the first three pages before I left. So at most, I went in with scant knowledge. So go right ahead, and call me a noob.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I will readily agree that it is compelling, and that I’m 100% certain that I will go through the rest of the books that follow in the series — asap.

Since you’ve read the book, and I haven’t — can you give me a sense of how the film and book compare?

Didion: That might wind up being the most talked-about subject of the day! And that’s too bad, since I’d theoretically like to think of this solely as a film, but let’s face it: I can’t.

I’d say two main things. First, I walked out feeling impressed that the film had done such a great job of covering a lot of ground in the books — my partner and I were really happy about the film overall. I especially thought Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss was just amazing — and I’d been skeptical, as she’s clearly a curvy 22-year-old, whereas Katniss is a skinny, half-starved 15-year-old.

I do have one criticism comparing the two (and this is my second point). For me, the most moving thing about the books was that Katniss agonizes about appealing to TV viewers; she’s spent her whole life feeling defensive and protective of her family, so she hates smiling and pretending to like Peeta in order to gain TV fans. I felt the film gave short shrift to that storyline. Yet again, I still feel satisfied with the movie overall.

JustMeMike: Ok — my question was really too broad for a short answer or even a longish one. But I was lost about the coal mining aspect of the Seam. The Capital seemed so advanced and Katniss’s area seemed so deprived. How does the Capital have super technology and yet there are still functioning coal mines?

Didion: The future imagined in the book is one in which many of the “districts” (states) are poor and conduct basic services on behalf of the few richest districts and the Capital. Her district mines coal; other raise wheat or whatever and are just about as poor.

So part of what the book does is to juxtapose the super-rich, superficial people in the capital of Panem (there’s a Latin phrase, panem et circenses, that means “bread and circuses”; capturing its superficiality and its likeness to Rome before the fall) with the incredibly poor, manipulated citizens of faraway districts like Katniss’s. When she gets to the capital and sees everyone with their elaborate clothes and makeup and plastic surgeries, it’s like a freak show to someone who couldn’t afford to buy bread.JMM: Okay, I’d like to talk about Katniss. What impressed me most was her strength before the games or even before the Reaping. She was the protector, the provider, and at the core of her family. Yet as the Hunger Games process begins she seems a bit weak at first but it’s only temporary. She is simply a rock going forward. I simply loved that part of her.

Didion: Doesn’t she make a terrific heroine? Especially in our age of Iron Man and Spider-Man and so on — without a single super-hero skill or supernatural gift, Katniss has been forced by circumstance into obtaining precisely some of the skills she’d need to succeed at the games.

Lawrence does a great job with this role. There were a couple of strange moments that perhaps make best sense vis-à-vis the book, but she made me cry. Fantastic. Did you think she managed to be her own person?JMM: I thought she went beyond gender. I think that if you think of the sister Prim, who was weak and timid from the beginning — then Katniss seemed even stronger. But what I meant was that it was her youth and the strength of her will and determination that was so impressive. My point is that if Katniss had been a boy with those same qualities, the film would have worked just as well. Yet, I was most glad that Katniss wasn’t a boy.

In fact, I didn’t much care for Peeta at the beginning, and I had no sense of what he would reveal later on.

Didion: Oh, that’s interesting — “beyond gender.” I’m not sure I’d go that far. I think there’s a part of me who sees a female form with a bow and arrow and it’s such a direct reference to Diana that I can’t help but think about all those classical myths. But you’re so right that she embodies a kind of strength that goes beyond typical representations of women in film.

Obviously the book takes a lot longer in telling the story of the Games, and during that time Katniss wrestles with the job of killing other kids. You see a lot less of that here. Ultimately she kills, what, one kid? the one who kills Rue? I wonder if perhaps her reluctance to kill also makes her seem more humane/feminine in the books.

Argh, I hate to keep making reference to the books, but Peeta was quite hate-able at first and then becomes a total mensch. Didn’t quite play out fully satisfactorily here, but oh well.

JMM: Of course he turned himself into something to be admired. But backing up a bit — the reference to Diana from mythology is correct but it might not fit all the viewers of the film. I watched the film and didn’t go there myself.

I think that since I hadn’t read the book, and came to the film without that background — I didn’t have the sense of her unwillingness to kill. In fact I thought that she bought into Haymitch’s strategy right away. He told her to run the other way — don’t go near the Cornucopia — so she was in a defensive mode from the jump. Sure enough, half of the Game’s participants were seemingly slaughtered immediately.  When she did kill it was also an act of self defense — someone rushed her position. Didion: So I’m curious, JMM, since you hadn’t read the books, did you see important themes coming through in the film? Or does it just seem like a really great action film?

I ask because the book lends itself easily to metaphorical readings. I have now referred many times to the tenure process for young academics as The Hunger Games. And grad school. But when I watched the film I was so nervous about it doing something “wrong,” that I’m not sure I have the wherewithal to tell whether the film throws itself open to multiple readings like that.

JMM: Of course it is an action film, but it’s clearly more. It is a cautionary tale, a tale of how consumption and inequalities could lead to rebellion, and I don’t believe that it was submerged or clouded over in the film. The President made it clear that the games were both a reality show as well as a way of keeping social control. By televising the Games, and by making the 24 tributes look and act their best (to attract sponsor support as well as fan interest) made everyone a participant. By having a rooting interest or a favorite — that meant tacit support of the system which really means that the Games were just another way to control the people. Didion: That’s a relief — because I think the broader meanings of the story are one of the reasons so many people refer to this as a phenomenon, something broader than just a film.

When I first read it, the deep fears and distrust of the government at Panem almost made me wonder whether this book was going to be a Tea Party or Libertarian favorite. But as the Games progress there’s a fascinating progressive tale — all those viewers in other districts get so attached to a couple of the tributes, like Katniss, that they start riots when the Games seem to tilt against them. Fascinating during an election year, eh?

So I’ve got another question for you: apparently the filmmaker did a lot of work to ensure a PG-13 rating (by not putting much gory detail into the killing scenes, for example) — even the scenes of hand-to-hand combat are quite fuzzy and oblique — such that kids might attend in greater numbers. But the fact is, this is a pretty dark tale even if you don’t see guts spraying all over the screen. Is this one of those cases in which parents should be wary of taking their kids to see it, even if their kids loved the books? (I’m remembering our conversation about the rape scene in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo here.)
JMM: No I don’t see parental concern arising at all. I’m an adult, and I just bought the book 4 days ago. Which means that 25 million books were sold before I bought mine. I think that in most family situations, the parents became aware of the books after their children did.

As for the lack of gore — I rather liked that. I don’t think the film needed a drop of blood except after the fact. We didn’t see the spear hit Rue, but instead saw what had happened only after the fact — and that worked fine for me.

But getting to the last part of the your reply — for sure it is a dark tale. What surprised me most was that a few of the characters like Rue and a few smaller boys seemingly had no chance at all. They were slaughtered seconds into Games. How was it that there were no volunteers to protect them?
Didion: That’s one of the most brutal and depressing parts of the book — who in his/her right mind would volunteer for something that means you’ve got a 1 in 24 chance of surviving? Some of the previous Games were particularly sadistic; one was set in a desert where no one could find any water and virtually everyone died of thirst within 24 hours. So if you’re poor and skinny and all your peer-age kids are skinny too, who’s going to volunteer?

But then there are the richer districts (as the film teaches us) who train their children from the earliest ages to be ridiculously powerful and skilled so they might win — and thereby bring back food and a certain degree of riches to their districts. No volunteers needed from districts where everyone looks like Cato.

Katniss’s love for her sister is the one true passion she feels for another human. It’s that love that makes her sacrifice herself.
JMM: Yet we heard in both Effie’s speech in District 12 as well as the President’s speech at the Games, talk of their “sacrifice.” So Katniss was the only one who would change places and enter the Games as a volunteer tribute. None of the other random selectees had that happen. I’m not objecting to Katniss being the heroic girl who protects her weaker and younger sister — I just thought other districts might have had similar events. From the author’s perspective, Is it possible that Katniss volunteered as a way or reason than to make her more ideal and heroic. On the other hand, maybe the sacrifice of the young and the weak would not be as significant as when a vibrant 17 year-old was the one to go…

Didion: Oh, I see what you’re saying. I think it’s just a function of Katniss living in District 12, and they choose the tributes from that District last.

So I’ve got another question for you. I sat next to a couple of very, very over-caffeinated girls (or were they just high on too much sugar?) who had an enormous debate before the film about whether Peeta or Gael was best. In fact, my 12-year-old TX neighbor had a t-shirt that read TEAM GAEL. After the film, these girls walked out surrounding themselves with a cloud of “OH MY GAAAWWWDD”s and “HE WAS SOOOO GORGEOUS”s. (Indeed, the dude who played Gael seems to have been created in a test tube by scientists from Tiger Beat magazine.)
But I liked the fact that the film scaled back on the lovey-dovey stuff — as the book did, I thought. Did you feel that the story was going to devolve into a story of “torn between two lovers”? Or was the love interest stuff less significant? You mentioned that you liked the way the Peeta character developed; does he seem like romantic hero material for the long haul (aka, 4 projected films altogether)?

JMM:  I don’t even want to think about Peeta in 4 more films (at least right now). Not having read the book, I was shocked when right at the outset (after the mass killings at the Cornucopia) that Peeta had aligned himself with the biggest and strongest kids. Not that he joined them, but that they took him in.

As far as the crowd of 12 year olds who were gaga over the male leads — I had the opposite experience. I sat next to some older guy who got up and headed for parts unknown (but easily guessed at) three times during the show.

Now I have a question for you: For about the first twenty minutes or so, I watched and I wasn’t moved by anything — but when when the clock announced thirty seconds to go, and Katniss stepped onto the pedestal — at that precise moment I felt my pulse quicken, and my heart raced. It was so electric a moment for me physically that I could not fail to notice it. Did you have a precise moment which gave you a strong kickstart?
Didion: I probably started getting jittery when they started training while in the capital. I quite liked the way the film handled the way each of the kids tries to adjudge the others, show them up, etc. I quite liked the way they showed Katniss and Peeta arriving in the stadium with their costumes on fire (even though, honestly, that fire looked like pretty cheap CGI).

But yeah, the beginning of the Games ratchets everything up when everyone’s life is on the line. That initial slaughter at the Cornucopia is pretty gritty. So are the fireballs that send Katniss back into the area where the other tributes are.
The film is also full of prominent character actors — from Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the designer; Woody Harrelson as Haymitch; Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, and so on — what did you think of them?

JMM:  When we first meet Woody’s Haymitch, he seems dissolute, like a man who cannot escape a terrible past — much like the Tom Cruise character Nathan Algren in The Last Samurai. Yet, seemingly, that was abandoned rather quickly. He took his role of advisor quite seriously. So why was he presented initially like a guy who didn’t care much about anything except where was his next drink coming from?
Didion: In the 75-year history of the Games, Katniss’s district has only had one winner — Haymitch. And now he’s a drunken, mean-spirited lout. You’re right that he’s a difficult character to fathom, and even more so in the books. You sort of intuit that the Games did this to him; he’s like a soldier with PTSD.

How about any of the other characters — Donald Sutherland as the very scary President, or that guy with the flame-like facial hair who did the behind-the-scenes work on creating the Arena?


JMM: Thought you’d never ask. Strangely enough Sutherland’s scariness wasn’t on his surface — it was his attitudes below his grandfatherly looking exterior. I didn’t care for Seneca but his role was pivotal no matter what kind of fancy beard he sported. In fact I was distressed when I realized that he and his staff were doing more than just monitoring and tracking — I was so surprised when he and the staff woman decided to send in the dogs. I thought that made the whole aspect of the games a bit false. I literally wanted Katniss to win a fair game. But the game was anything but fair. Seneca and company were actively participating in the creation of circumstances to alter the outcome. And that’s not even mentioning the rules changes.

I did rather like Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman character. He was so manipulative. That blue hair — those teeth — quite scary to me.

Didion: You have usefully fallen straight into what I was leading up to: the wonder that is Stanley Tucci. I suspect that his role is unusually generous vis-a-vis the roles of Haymitch, Cinna et als — but every time he appeared on-screen I just grinned and thought, ahh, I could look at that man hamming it up all day! There are a couple of scenes in which he’s framed by multiple screens, each of which is projecting his face with a slightly different self-serving and/or grinning expressions, and it was all good. He also has an eerily insidious quality, as if he’s got his own agenda beyond his state-appointed role. Fabulous!
JMM:  Maybe he was just thrilled by being paid to talk about the Games. Not bad work if you can get it.

Interesting comment — you can answer by referencing the book — was the character the ham, or the actor doing the hamming?

Didion: No, this seemed accurate to the way the book characterized him — it just seems we got a lot more Stanley than Haymitch, who was a much more crucial character in the book.

Okay, I have a confession (and this allows me to take one big step backward to look at the big picture here): it’s making me slightly depressed that you’ve got so many questions about the storyline, because I fear this returns me to one of my initial questions about whether this film is for True Believers (readers) like me and not newbies. The film version glosses over so much detail/context — and thank god, right? it would’ve been two times longer otherwise — that one feels a little lost in the shuffle.

You’re the perfect viewer in this respect: tell me, how would you ultimately rate the film on its own terms? Because as a reader (and using your own 5-star ranking system), I would give it a solid 4 stars; if I were grading it as an undergraduate paper, I’d give it a solid 86%. Of course, I can be a tough grader.
JMM: Great question. We approached this film from 180 degrees of difference. You read all three books, and I read none. So you have built-in reference points that I don’t. My questions about the film are not just about storylines or plot points. I gather that you’re saying you liked the film but won’t give it top marks.

I’d likely rate it similarly. But I think I have more gripes about the technical side than the gaps in the story. For example I hated the jittery, handheld effects whenever director Gary Ross showed the crowds.

Do you have any gripes about how they showed us the story?
Didion: I tried to avoid listening to any reviews of the film before seeing it, but the one I did catch called Ross a “hack” for the hand-held camerawork. So perhaps I went in fretting that it would look sloppy — and you know how going in with low expectations can lead you to like a film more than you’d expected.

Maybe I’m being unimaginative here, but the fact that Ross was trying very hard to maintain his PG-13 rating was always on my mind. The hand-held camera and the blurred, kinetic fight scenes were disorienting, but they conveyed the hellishness of those fights and those killings without showing explicit blood & guts. I don’t want to defend this as an artistic triumph by any means, but I wonder if maybe the real enemy is the US’s ratings system that forced Ross into making such choices in order to make sure that the book’s most loyal teen readers could see the film without their parents along. Or is there a better way of doing it?

JMM: I agree that he had to help sell the tickets – and that meant making sure the 13 and ups could go by themselves. And I’m okay with it because I understand it. Yeah, I would have like it better if there had been more explicit violence…but I don’t think that was the reason for giving this a 4 instead of a 5, or giving it a B+ rather than an A.

The story is really about Katniss’s heroic and brave character. We knew she would emerge victorious. But how she got there was not the key feature of the film. In fact when she first took to the high ground (up in a tree) I knew she’d wait for the action to come to her. And I was fine with it: more chances to have quality time with her. Even when she did nothing, her mind was still so alert. She was so admirable, and positive. That’s why the books sold so well, and why the film will also sell.

Think about it. We got no blood and yet I would have not missed this film for anything. I would have crawled to the theater if necessary. So basically, the flaws can be laid at the feet of the director and editor. That’s where I’m placing my blame for an 86 or a B+, or a 4.0 rating.
Didion: This is a perfect opportunity for me to ask my two final questions — but not before teasing you for your great line: “Think about it. We got no blood and yet I would not have missed this film for anything.” I like the way you sound like a horror film aficionado here, when in fact I know for certain that you have a wide appetite for many kinds of film, including the sweet and bloodless!

First question: setting aside the possibility that David Fincher would pick up this franchise and make a couple of brilliant films a la Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is Ross’s problem inherent to the struggle of bringing a rich and dynamic book to the screen? Or do you think his directing choices and the editor’s cuts made the film look amateurish?

And last, you say you would have crawled to the theater (cheers to that, as I saw it on opening day): this film made a record $155 million on opening weekend. That set a new all-time record for a non-sequel, and marked it as the 3rd most lucrative opening weekend of all time. Meanwhile, it also made the most money on opening day ever for a non-sequel and the most money for a midnight premiere of a non-sequel (it ranks 5th and 7th overall, respectively, in those categories amongst films that are sequels). This film made money.

But what do you expect for the long haul? Will this film still be making money down the line, and for The Hunger Games II?
JMM: I was wondering when that last question would emerge…

First, as you said, I like many kinds of films but there is one exception  – and that would be horror films. I don’t think Ross’s work in this film was amateurish, but yes certainly, some directorial choices were weak.

As to whether it’ll make money down the line, or in the long haul. Yup. I think I see a Potterish future for The Hunger Games and its sequels.

My last question: the way the story played out, and the the way that the film was designed that by film’s end, there only two likeable characters. Katniss and Peeta. Obviously this is the work of the author, Suzanne Collins. But do you think this was fair? Did you feel manipulated?

Didion: Quick Q: do you mean that other likeable characters like Rue are all dead?

JMM: I didn’t mean it that way. To rephrase: excepting Cinna and Rue, who else was likable and was that fair to the readers/viewers?
Didion: I kind of loved Rue, and I would have liked even a teensy bit more of some of the other Hunger Games tributes whom Katniss fears but respects (like Cato).

But you know what? I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your question — because it points out to me how much this is really the tale of a girl whose early life has already been hard, and who gets put into the most terrifying situation possible. We can’t help but root for someone who’s so determined to survive — but the book being told in Katniss’s voice also makes it a somewhat self-centered tale. And when I say self-centered I don’t mean to sound dismissive in the least — any tale told in the first person would be focused on one’s own emotional responses to horrible situations.

So ultimately the film rests on who they got to play Katniss. And here we come back to the fact that Lawrence nails the role. Peeta comes through as a very strong secondary character by the end; perhaps even more so because he has an almost feminine set of weaknesses when it comes to survival (I mean, he makes his cake-decorating skills work for him!) but he has a stronger sense of self, particularly in the books.

So in the end, this is a film that really is all about Katniss — and to a lesser degree about developing a Peeta who’ll get stronger as the films unfold.

Does that answer your question, or just raise new ones?

JMM: I’m satisfied with the answer. This is just the first film. As for the perspective of Katniss telling the story so it would carry the first person construct – I believe I read that Collins intended this to be a 3rd person narrative in the outlining and planning, but when her fingers met the keyboard it came out differently. I forgot one thing I meant to say – I said I would have crawled to the theater – want to know why? Because I wanted to be able to have this discussion – and that required me to see the film!

Didion: Aw, man — you mean you weren’t as excited as I was in anticipation?

JMM: Sure I wanted to see it – but I’ll bet, if it could be quantified in any way – that I couldn’t have matched you anticipatory-wise. I’ll let you have the honor of the final words.

Didion: Here’s my final thought: I’m so intrigued by your idea that the director is the reason for my giving the film a B+ that I hope this franchise takes a cue from the Potter empire: those films got infinitely better when they hired Alfonso Cuarón to do the third film. So I hope the producers hire someone more visionary to do the next one.

But speaking as a major fan of the books, I was IMPRESSED with the film, and particularly with Lawrence’s Katniss. My only hope is that Jennifer Lawrence continues to get Winter’s Bone-style art-house roles as well. I can hardly wait to see the next installment of The Hunger Games.

JMM, I can’t tell you what fun it is to chat about these movies with you! Let’s keep our eyes on the summer schedule as it becomes clear, and plan another one of these conversations. And I look forward to hearing what other viewers think of The Hunger Games.

JMM: Thank you so much. I do love this chatting about films with you.

Didion: One more thought: don’t you think it would be fun to review a film that we both hate? I’d love to do a pile-on.

JMM: Now that would be a novel idea. A pile-on. We’ll see. Cheers.

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My branch of academia is surprisingly often termed a “social science” — which funny if you know what most of us actually do — but I admit: I love numbers. (If you knew how bad I am at splitting a restaurant cheque between 4 people, you’d also find that pretty funny.)

Numbers are satisfying for feminists because they show conclusively how rampant are the inequities in today’s film industry. And here’s what I’m wondering: will the box office ultimately alter the skewed gender balance in film?

Have I mentioned recently how much I pour over statistics of women’s roles in Hollywood? Because it’s one thing to complain anecdotally that female characters are more heavily stereotyped and sexualized in film than male characters, and another to look at the numbers. And on the eve of the premiere of The Hunger Games, a film that pre-sold more opening-day tickets than any other film in history, it’s worth wondering why those numbers remain so skewed.

Let’s tick through a few numbers, shall we?

Women get fewer roles than men. Women get only 32.8% of speaking roles onscreen, meaning that there are more than 2 men for every 1 woman with lines appearing onscreen. In children’s film and TV the numbers are worse — about 2½ male characters for every 1 female character.

Fewer than 17% of films have a balanced gender ratio of male to female characters, as defined by featuring women in 45 to 54.9 percent of speaking roles. Only a tiny number of films have a majority of female speaking characters (2007=5 movies; 2008=6 movies; 2009=5 movies).

Female actors receive significantly lower pay than male actors. Just to give one example: as Melissa Silverstein points out, Jennifer Lawrence is making $500,000 for the first Hunger Gamesdespite having been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for Winter’s Bone, while Chris Pine of the recent Star Trek reboot made $3 million for his second big feature, Unstoppable. (See here for a nice assessment of the Forbes account of top-earning actors; for middle- and low-range earners the gender gap is just as stark.)

Behind the screen the numbers are, if anything, worse. In 2011, only 5% of the 250 top-grossing films were directed by women. That number has dropped since 1998, when the percentage was 9%. When it comes to nominations for Best Director, an even tinier number gets noticed by the Academy. In the 84-year history of the Academy Awards, 4 women directors have been nominated for Best Director. Considering that there have been some 413 nominations in this category overall, that means that women directors have received 0.9% of all nominations. The number of female directors of films screened at film festivals is significantly higher but still a fraction of overall films — 22% of all films screened at major film festivals between June 2008 and May 2009. But let’s keep in mind that sometimes festival films fail to get picked up by distributors, no matter how appealing they are to festival attendees.

Women make up 28 percent of TV writers and 17 percent of film writers, as a Salon story indicates. Their salaries also showed a discrepancy: white men $98,875, versus women $57,151 — for a whopping wage gap of $41,724.40.

These number differences are just as stark at other levels of the industry — in children’s film and TV content, in animation — and behind the scenes it worse; it is estimated there are 4.8 men for every 1 woman in that area of the industry (see the Geena Davis Institute’s findings in various fields).

Yeah, I wondered about gender disparity when I saw the ads for Chris Pine’s new movie, This Means War, too. Now I know why.

*****

So why — how — can I possibly ask a question like the one I’ve posed about the box office changing things? Because The Hunger Games isn’t the first box office hit to feature a female star.

Johanna Schneller of Toronto’s Globe and Mail (thanks again, Tam!) has a great piece that analyzes the Oscar-nominated films and shows wide discrepancies between what the women-oriented films earned and those prominently starring men:

The top three films starring actress nominees were The Help, Bridesmaids and Dragon Tattoo, which made $170-million, $169-million and $101-million respectively (all figures U.S.). The top three films starring actor nominees were Moneyball, The Descendants and Extremely Loud, which made $75.6-million, $71-million and $29.5-million respectively. You don’t even have to be able to add to see that discrepancy.

And remember how I don’t like to add?

Schneller concludes: “So what does this mean? Well, it seems to suggest that pictures headlined by women are finding a way to be both commercially successful and lauded by their peers. Perhaps women’s pictures have to try harder – to be richer, more thoughtful, more satisfying – to get made in the first place, but, in general, those are the kinds of films Oscar favours.”

And, we might add, audiences like them too.

*****

So now The Hunger Games is due to open. As a big fan of the books, I’m bracing myself for disappointment — how could they possibly do justice to this novel, with its rich interior monologue? But here’s the thing: whether or not the film succeeds with the critics, it’s obvious it’s going to sell a hell of a lot of tickets.

Here’s my question: at what point will the box office force Hollywood executives recognize that films with female leads sell tickets AND often get Oscar love? When will they get over their obeisance to male audiences between the ages of 13 and 45, as if those viewers only want one sausage fest after another?

Maybe you’re ambivalent about this film, too — but believe me, buying a ticket to see it on opening weekend makes a difference to how Hollywood views female-oriented films. If you’re going to see it, see it this weekend — and make a point.

Normally I like fall semester.  Students are enthused and hopeful (even the seniors, before their sad descent into apathy during the spring), the nights start to get cold after a long hot summer, I make unrealistic plans to focus on my research even though the teaching gets overwhelming.  But this semester’s tough.  It started with a student in true emotional crisis, continued when I frantically pulled together a public talk in three mad days, and now that I’m in the middle of an exceptionally bureaucratic period of paperwork, I feel buried alive.  No, it’s worse than that:  especially after a long, whiney, cranky dinner conversation in which my poor best friend listened to me patiently, I feel as if I’ve become some kind of demon zombie.

How poetic, then, that I’ve been watching “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” for the first time.  And let me ask:  how did I never watch this show before?  I think I’ve made it clear how much I love films/TV with strong women; love scary stuff; love to immerse myself in long-running TV shows; love to look at pretty men, etc.  This one has it all, yet somehow during the late 90s when it was on, I was distracted (and had a TV with only one channel, as I remember it).  No, this one has MORE than it all, for there’s an entire academic sub-discipline of Buffy Studies including the peer-edited (!) online journal, Slayage: The Online Journal of Whedon Studies, which apparently branched out due to the show’s creator’s subsequent projects.  (Disclaimer:  I’m being facetious, honestly, and don’t really think there’s enough to this fun show to spark much academic blah-blah-blahing, so I won’t be spending much time with Buffy Studies.  I’d much rather keep watching the show than reading quasi-academic prose about it.  And with that I promise to keep my big words to a minimum.)

It took me a few episodes, but I really get it now why people raved about this show all that time.  What a brilliant analogy for high school, what a brilliant quasi-feminist show.  Even my hero, Susan Douglas, raves about it in her terrific book, Enlightened Sexism:  The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done.  For Douglas, “Buffy” was that crystalline example of a female-centered moment of 90s media and popular culture that held up women as powerful and kick-ass.  It might not have been a feminist dream, but it wasn’t the horrors that we have now, like “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”  “Buffy” takes all the things that are horrible about high school and characterizes them as demonic, which must have been crazily therapeutic for people who were actually in high school at the time.  Let me just describe the first episode that clicked for me:  “The Pack,” in which a group of high school kids already prone to petty cruelty and mockery becomes inhabited by the evil spirits of hyaenas.  Not only do they continue to prey on the weak, but they might actually eat you if they get you alone in a room.  They won’t prey on Buffy, because they sense she’s too strong for them; they focus, instead, on the shy and small.  “Buffy” would have helped to explain a lot about high school for me.  (My new favorite character is the town’s mayor — an okily dokily, Ned Flanders type who makes plans to end the world in the same sentence as reminding you to get more calcium.  OF COURSE such a man is a demon.)

But that’s the thing, isn’t it?  Old people like me like “Buffy”  because it’s a metaphor for our lives, too.  I’ve entertained myself for hours with the fantasy of stocking my office with wooden stakes and kicking a certain colleague in the head with Sarah Michelle Gellar’s taekwondo finesse.  That’s why Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series appealed to me so much this summer, too — these tales of a world turned upside down and the necessity for extreme female action in a time of crisis are inherently attractive when one works for large, bureaucratic institutions and deals with soulless bureaucrats (and senior colleagues!).  And they’re healthy reminders to me to keep the demons at bay lest I be turned to the side of evil.  (And yeah, I’m fairly certain that the dude who plays Angel was created in some kind of test tube designed to infect the dreams of viewers.  Not that I’m complaining.) 

I’ve got papers to grade and letters of recommendation to write and applications to fill out and lectures to finish, and my department is at each other’s throats more than usual.  I’m beat.  Thank god I can explain all this by understanding that my department sits atop a new Hellmouth.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better way to conclude my summer than to read some terrific young adult fiction — and I’ve just discovered Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (to be released this week).  It’s the most riveting young adult series I’ve read since the magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.  Lionsgate is developing a film (eagerly anticipated by the book’s fans, many of whom have released their own versions of what the trailer should look like).  If you ask me, the best part of these books is the way they trace a teenage girl’s core struggle — a struggle over how to be true to herself in an environment that demands she appear to be a more stereotypical kind of girl.  Whereas Harry Potter got solipsistic and repetitive as he considered his own inner struggles, Katniss doesn’t have a moment to spare in the dystopian world she inhabits:  she’s been chosen to participate in the Hunger Games — a brutal televised reality show in which each of her country’s twelve districts send one boy and one girl, twenty-four in all, to fight to stay alive by killing one another until only one is left.

Partly inspired by the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, The Hunger Games explains that some seventy-five years earlier, one of the nation’s districts rebelled against the government, only to be utterly destroyed in a show of federal force; the Hunger Games thereafter became at once a reminder of the government’s absolute power and a riveting TV opiate for the masses.  The inhabitants of Katniss’s district are so poor and malnourished that only one has ever won the Games — traumatized by it, he’s now a drunk who can’t stay sober long enough to provide much coaching for Katniss and her co-participant, a shy baker’s son named Peeta.  That’s too bad, because they need help in both survivalist strategies and TV self-presentation.  Luckily, Katniss has some talents up her sleeve.  For years since her father’s death in a mining explosion, she’s supplemented her family’s meager food supplies by illegally poaching meat, fish, and berries from the woods.  The details of her skills with a bow and arrow — and the way she’s taken on conventionally male tasks in providing meat and pelts for her family — evoked for me similar passages in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, a book I re-read dozens of times when I was 10.  Collins manages to explain methodically Katniss’s forest knowledge while also plowing ahead with a fast-paced narrative.  It might be a cliché, but this is the truth:  I read each book in less than 24 hours and then lay awake at night thinking about them.  If I were 10, I’d have created a variety of outdoor imaginary games in which I play the role of Katniss.

If this recap of the books’ dystopian elements makes you fret about its author’s political commitments (is she some kind of Tea Bagger, with these calls for rebellion against the government?), it’s cold comfort to remember that the book was written during the final year of the Bush administration.  In the end, Collins’ own beliefs don’t matter:  the same anti-Obama forces who bark about taxes and authoritarianism might well embrace these books.  But if this makes me depressed, I have to remember that the same people use the Constitution to claim there is no separation of church and state:  this is a group singularly weak in reading skills (and logic).  I have read the books carefully, and I see less a political allegory than a great read about a girl in a tight spot.

It’s more likely that girl readers eager for another Twilight-like Edward v. Jacob faceoff will obsess about Katniss’s confusion about two boys — but the books aren’t really a love story.  It’s true that she finds herself torn between Peeta, the meek boy she competes with in the Games, and Gale, the boy she used to hunt with back before the Games started (I even found a “Team Peeta” t-shirt when trawling the web for images).  Rather, the books seem to me more a reflection on how some girls find themselves thrust into romance before they’re ready.  From the outset of the series Katniss announces that she will never marry or have children; nor is she prepared to have crushes on boys, fall in love, much less deal with sex.  It’s only when she feels a make-believe romance with Peeta might help win the hearts of the reality-TV audience — benefiting them both during the competition — that she agrees to it.  Boys become impossibly confused with the crazy logic of the Games, and she wrestles throughout with the implications of that lie; she doesn’t have much time to think about her own feelings or what she wants.  As a result, the books offer a fascinating commentary on how hard it is for a girl in her teens to set her own terms for engaging with romance.  Some girls simply take a while before they’re interested.  

Oh, if only there were more of this rather than the syllabus-writing, the committee meetings, and the specter of the fall semester looming before me — good thing that final volume comes out on Tuesday.  But be assured that my enthusiasm for the series isn’t simply a distraction from my more quotidian responsibilities.  This is the best young adult heroine I’ve discovered in a long time — and with a good director and production team (go, Lionsgate!) we could have a riveting series of films before us in another year or so, too.  Here’s hoping.