In case you hadn’t heard, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opens this weekend, and with it comes the Katniss conundrum for parents. As originally imagined by author Suzanne Collins, the second installment of the trilogy features more kids killing kids, a bloody public flogging and a beloved character being beaten to death with metal-studded gloves.
Obviously, your children stay home.
And then they will miss out on Katniss Everdeen, that rarity in cinema, a strong female lead and an exceptional role model for girls, who might also make a budding boy chauvinist think twice about ever using the phrase “like a girl” in a derogatory way ever again.
Obviously, your children need to see it.
(REVIEW: Catching Fire: Slow Burn With a Sizzling Star)
It’s a real dilemma. There is so much to admire about Katniss Everdeen. She’s strong, smart and willing to protect her family (mother and little sister Prim) at any cost, even her own life. She could care less about wedding dresses, makeovers or clothing, unless an outfit makes climbing trees or hunting easier. She’s all about feeding her family. This is not to say that either the books or the movies don’t dwell on the beauty of either the character or the actress playing her (Jennifer Lawrence). But Katniss always feels best when she’s at her most natural, when the “layers of makeup and conditioners and dyes” are gone and the hair on her legs has grown back. She loathes being waxed. She doesn’t get why boys don’t have to do it.
Speaking of boys: Katniss is cool about them too. In the first book and movie, she has to pretend to love her fellow Hunger Games contestant Peeta for strategic reasons. In Catching Fire Katniss starts to feel real attraction to both Peeta and her old hunting partner Gale. She’s not rushing into anything though. When she and Peeta arrive back home at the miserable coal-producing District 12 (think Appalachia), she’s psyched when her mother gives her a respite from the fakery by announcing that Katniss isn’t “old enough to have any boyfriend at all.” Caring for people — and treating them well — is her priority, not being someone’s girlfriend.
Then there is the matter of Jennifer Lawrence, the most refreshingly real and quick-witted actress to come along since Kate Winslet and before her, Julia Roberts. Onscreen as Katniss, she’s a study in courage. Off-screen she’s a 23-year-old Oscar winner who appears incapable of worrying about her weight or treating anyone she encounters with anything but grace and honesty. She might be funnier than she is beautiful. You never know what the future holds, but Lawrence appears to have been genetically engineered to counter every bad trait of celebrities. She’s the kind of role model who ditches the red carpet to hug a fan in a wheelchair without seeming contrived at all. Any parent who has had to explain Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus or Cory Monteith to their child knows that sinking feeling of matching the person they admire onscreen to the hard reality.
(MORE: Teen-Heroine Smackdown: 5 Ways Katniss Is Better Than Bella)
I’m in an odd position, advocating for Katniss/Lawrence. In March 2012, just as the first installment of the movie franchise was hitting theaters, I wrote an essay for TIME Ideas that argued against bringing elementary-school children to The Hunger Games. Kids fighting each other to the death for sport — and the sick pleasure of a dictatorial government — wasn’t the kind of entertainment I wanted my child to see. I still believe it’s better to wait for them to hit junior high before exposing them to this terrifying concept visually, even if they’ve read and loved the books. The big screen — and this movie features a major IMAX sequence — is too fearsome.
But as a film critic I’ve lamented the dearth of strong female leads in mainstream movies. It’s not just troubling; it is freakish, unrepresentative of life itself. Foreign films and independent films, where a woman can be the lead and/or write and direct the movie, offer a counterweight. The problem is that when you’re helping a kid make entertainment choices, a Nicole Holofcener– or Sofia Coppola–directed film isn’t likely to cut it. (Although, I fell asleep on the couch recently and woke to find my son, who had been seeking a cuddle after a bad dream, gazing raptly at what I’d been watching: The Bling Ring. Now that was terrifying.) If we want our kids to see women doing something other than playing the romantic lead to a man, what do we take them to? For us The Heat was too crude, Gravity too intense. Carrie?! All of a sudden, the movie with a strong female character but a high body count starts to make a strange sort of sense.
Last week I asked my son, who turns 10 this winter, about Catching Fire. Part of that was motivated by curiosity as to whether the massive marketing campaign worked on him: Did he want to go? This wasn’t an offer but more of a query. In the end my son said no way to Catching Fire — too scary. Based on my feelings about this 18 months ago, I should have felt only relief. Instead there was just a touch of disappointment. If and when he changes his mind, likely in a couple of years, I’m going to watch it with him. And I’m going to tell him that there are lots of girls and women out there like Katniss who are powerful and capable. Hollywood, I will tell him, just has trouble seeing them.