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Casting Katniss — the most important female role model since Buffy?

March 11, 2011

Hailee Steinfeld: True Grit was the perfect screen test for Katniss.

Let’s play “Cast That Movie!” The ever popular game in which we tell casting directors who should play the role of a beloved literary character! This time it’s Katniss Everdeen, the plucky (as a bow string) heroine of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.

In case you’ve been on a round trip mission to Mars for the past three years, The Hunger Games is the biggest YA series since Twilight. At least one commentator calls Katniss “the most important female character in recent pop culture history.”

That’s because Katniss is a brave, resourceful, impetuous and sometimes ruthless 16 year old, bent on surviving the dangers of life in a oppressive post-apocalyptic world. In other words, according to Meghan Lewitt, she’s the opposite of Twilight‘s wan, passive, “swoony” Bella.

Lewitt writes affectingly at The Atlantic about the strong fictional role models she had growing up, beginning with Rainbow Brite and ending with Buffy Summers, with Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pippi Longstocking and Nancy Drew in between.

“All of them shared several important characteristics: They were the tomboys and the rule-breakers, resourceful, whip-smart girls who were doing it for themselves with minimal parental supervision. Maybe it was because I was such a painfully timid kid that I

Jennifer Lawrence: Terrific in Winter's Bone.

drew strength from the boldness of my fictional heroines.”

Since Buffy went off the air in 2002, however, Lewitt finds precious few strong role models for tween and teen girls. Instead, the most prominent female pop culture icon is “blank slate” Bella. That’s why, Lewitt says, it’s so important to get the casting right for Katniss in the upcoming film adaptation of The Hunger Games and its two sequels.

Fortunately, a number of young actresses have emerged recently, any of whom could be reasonably entrusted with the task Lewit has in mind. I have a favorite, who I’ll tell you about in a minute, but my main concern is that filmmakers select an age-appropriate actress, which to me means 14-20. I am thoroughly sick of 20-something actors playing teenagers.

If producers follow my principle, that will elminate one of the names

Abigail Breslin: Too sweet?

in contention, Lyndsy Fonseca, of TV’s “Nikita,” who is 24. All the other actresses said to be in serious contention are 20 or younger, except Emma Stone and Emily Browning, both 22.

A trio of Oscar nominees leads the field, beginning with Jennifer Lawrence, star of Winter’s Bone. She’s 20. Close behind: Hailee Steinfeld, 14, of True Grit,  and Abigail Breslin, also 14, of Little Miss Sunshine.

Still in contention, according to some sources: Saorise Ronan, 17, of The Lovely Bones (and perhaps more to the point, the upcoming Hanna, in which she plays a bow-wielding assassin); Chloe Moretz, 14, of Kick-Ass; Kaya Scodelario, 18, of the U.K. version of “Skins;” Emily Browning, 22, of the forthcoming Sucker Punch; Shailene Woodley, 19, of the “Secret Life of the American Teenager.”

Of that group, I’d say you have to go with Steinfeld. Moretz is too conventionally pretty. Breslin doesn’t strike me as tough enough. Scodalario looks like she could be Kristen Stewart’s sister–I’d think filmmakers would want to get as far away from Twilight as possible —  and Emily Browning’s role in Sucker Punch is too much like Katniss — albeit, if the previews are any indication, in a lurid, sexualized, Sin City kind of way.

Besides, Steinfeld is astounding in True Grit. I went to see it in a mood a great skepticism, having a life-long allegience to Kim Darby’s take on Mattie Ross in the 1969 John Wayne version, but Steinfeld easily won me over with her convincing performance as the frontier farm girl out to avenge her father’s murder. I can’t imagine anyone else as Katniss.

Saorise Ronan: She could use this costume from Hanna.

Except for — well, if we wanted to go completely outside the realm of obvious choices, I’d love to see Kaitlyn Dever considered. I think Dever is 16–Google won’t give me a fix on her age — but she’s burning up the small screen in “Justified,” playing a tough-talking but vulnerable 14-year-old hillbilly girl.

As Graham Yost, executive produce for “Justified,” told Maureen Ryan, “We cast above our pay grade. We cast above the quality of our show, I would almost say. We’ve got such a great cast, but this girl Kaitlyn Dever is just stunning and is so good. And you can see in the scene with her and [a character in the season premiere], the way she held her own.

Kaitlyn Dever: My dark horse pick, perfect but no chance.

“We’ve got fun stuff for her.”

Dever has no chance, I’m sure, but she’d make a fantastic Katniss. By the way,  if you’re not watching “Justified,” then you might as well take a sledge hammer to your TV. Along with “Southland,” it’s one of the two truly great dramas in production right now.

Anyway: Who would you cast to play Katniss Everdeen, the most important role model for girls since Buffy Summers hung up her stake? Be quick, producers are expected to make a selection any day now.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Connie permalink
    March 11, 2011 7:12 pm

    Love this column…and love your suggestion of the girl from Justified. She’s probably not quite pretty enough for Hollywood, though. Jennifer Lawrence is too old, though she’s a fine actress. Chloe Moritz is too young looking, I think. I like the Steinfeld choice a lot – I think she’s light years better than Kim Darby ever was, though I think everybody in the new film is better than the cast of the original – and while I share your concerns over Breslin I hate to rule her out completely. After all, I never thought pretty Rooney Mara could transform into Lisbeth Salander, but the photos I’ve seen of her pierced and tattooed have erased all doubt from my mind. Maybe Breslin could cut it. Hard to picture her slaughtering other kids but…who knows!?

    I suppose in the end I don’t really care which actress producers choose; I’m just glad Collins created a female character who is smart and resourceful and concerned with her own life instead of a girl bereft of inner life and only concerned about which dreamy supernatural boy is going to make little monster babies with her.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 11, 2011 8:15 pm

      Thanks, Connie. I agree Jennifer Lawrence is too old — or, at least she LOOKS too old. In her recent red carpet pics she looks almost a decade older than she does in Winter’s Bone. On the other hand, I don’t think Kaitlyn is too plain for Katniss. They’ve hillbillied her up for “Justified,” (and as a born and bred hillbilly myself, let me say brilliantly). I should have used a different picture, but all the others I could find make her look about 10 years old.

      Generally, I think the best outcome we could hope for is Steinfeld. I just hope they let whoever gets the part be a smart, tough rural girl, and not some urban-wise sophisticate.

      As for Rooney Mara — I’m not convinced shaving the eyebrows, kohling her eyes and giving her an aggressively ugly haircut makes her Lisbeth Salander. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m boycotting this movie no matter what. IT HAS NO REASON FOR EXISTENCE, what with the excellent Swedish version, and it’s wasting a year of David Fincher’s career, a year when he could be making a movie that might actually matter.

  2. March 15, 2011 1:28 pm

    I’d rather see Lyndsy Fonseca even though you personally rule her out. She looks very young for her age and her turn as Alex on Nikita shows her to have the perfect qualities and acting chops for Katniss. She even looks younger than Jennifer Lawrence even though Jennifer is actually younger. Plus she is still a relative unknown which I find preferable. Too young isn’t better than too old to me, especially when there is a “love” aspect to this story… so that leaves out those under 16’s like Steinfield. But I doubt Fonseca will be cast based on her age and people like yourself who have a staunch resistance to it. That’s a shame as I think she would bring this character to life better than the rest.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 17, 2011 9:33 am

      Lyndsy Fonseca is an appealing and capable young actresses and she’s impressive on Nikita, and it may be unfair to rule her out solely on age. But if she’s cast now, she’ll be probably 25 before cameras role on The Hunger Games, and, given a two-year production cycle for each film, she’ll be pushing 30 by the time Mockingjay comes out. You make a valid point about the younger actresses, except that my bet is Steinfeld will be close to 16 by the time the first movie can go into production. A year or two can make a huge difference at this age. I agree Jennifer Lawrence looks too old now, even though she’s only 20. But in Winter’s Bone, which was probably filmed 18 months or two years ago, she looks quite young.

      That said, I have no doubt Lindsy Fonseca would make a splendid Katniss, as would every actress on this list. They’ve all proven their mettle, talent and charisma with past work.

  3. britty permalink
    April 8, 2011 5:14 pm

    well ive seen much more then justified with kaitlyn dever.she was in an american girl movie,many tv series such as the mentalist and modern family and she has done very well.i was suprised though,that you didnt suggest madeline carroll whos 15 and happens to be my favorite actress,and has stared in over 26 movies and tv series for example ncis,the spy next door,flipped, the cleaner,greys anatomy and supposedly going to be in up and coming movies with actors such as jim carrey in the new flick “mr poppers penguins” and gerard buttler in the new movie coming this summer “machine gun preacher”.being only 12 going on 13 myself(who also takes an interest in twilight) does know what child actresses are going to draw more attention to a film.

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