Epic fantasy The Hunger Games (2012), the story of Katniss Everdeen’s overthrow of a tyrannical empire after starring in a gruesome reality show, and intimate drama Winter’s Bone (2010), the story of Ree Dolly’s fight to save her starving family from eviction after her father’s disappearance, appear to have little in common except for their star, Jennifer Lawrence. Strangely, though, Lawrence’s characters in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games (which just released its final installment, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2) have striking similarities. Katniss and Ree come from communities whose extreme poverty has been written off and vilified by wealthier neighboring states. Katniss’ District 12 lies within the nation of Panem, built on the ruins of North America in an unidentified future time, but it’s noted that District 12 is in a coal-mining region that was previously Appalachia. Winter’s Bone’s Ree Dolly lives in the meth-ravaged Ozark mountains, a community equally ignored by prosperous parts of the US. IBTimes writes, “While it’s a bit of a stretch to compare a post-apocalyptic world with the meth-infested Ozarks, both are desolate environments where people resort to illegal activities to survive (and gorge on the occasional rodent to get by).”
Both young women have an absent/deceased father — Katniss’ father was a coal minor who died in an explosion when she was 11; Ree’s father is driven into criminal activity (cooking meth) due to his impoverished society, before he is killed by distant relatives for collaborating with the police. Both have a mother who has broken by severe depression, leaving Katniss/Ree responsible for raising the younger siblings. Katness and Ree both hunt to feed their families (Katniss breaking the Capitol’s laws against hunting; Ree teaching her kid siblings to cut open squirrels). In both situations, although the act of hunting shows a healthy relationship to nature, the need for each young woman to hunt is unnatural—a sign that their societies have failed them by not providing even enough food to eat. Both teens look to a questionable older male mentor (Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch and John Hawkes’ Teardrop), who is damaged by his perverse society but still retains enough good will and insight to do the right thing and guide Katniss/Ree.
The parallels are striking, considering these are the first roles for which Jennifer Lawrence became well-known (Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone gained Lawrence her global name recognition and her first Oscar nomination, respectively). But beyond the factual, there is also a spiritual continuity in the character Lawrence plays. She is strong, self-sufficient, internal—until a moment of crisis calls on her, at which point she is suddenly bold, resourceful, strategic. She speaks bluntly, in the down-to-earth phrasings of the regions she represents; sparingly, only when communication is productive; yet eloquently with fiery passion when the key moment comes. She sings soft, moving songs from her heritage when others need comfort. She sacrifices herself for the safety of those who depend on her. She avoids conventionally “girly” concerns like romance or fashion, highly aware that she has far more urgent worries to address (The Hunger Games forces Katniss to dress up and gives rise to a love story, but the romance is secondary to her larger quest).
Adding together these characteristics, both Katniss and Ree appear to incarnate the virginal Artemis, or Diana to the Romans, goddess of the hunt. (Katniss especially, with her bow and arrow, takes on the weight and image of the mythical figure.) Artemis is associated with chastity and purity. The Hunger Games features an ongoing discussion of purity: white-haired villainous tyrant President Snow (Donald Sutherland) surrounds himself with white roses, a purity symbol, which he gives to Katniss. Rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), once she abandons her revolutionary principles, or show of them, and seeks to grab power, is similarly clothed in blue icy tones. The politicians’ snowy visual indicators of the absence of life calling itself “purity” stand in stark contrast to Katniss’ dark-eyed, unpolished youth, vitality and her inviolable aura of virtue. Equally pure-hearted Ree, moving through her world in the Ozarks, is conspicuosly unentangled with men, whereas the other women she encounters are all tied to (and trapped by, it seems to Ree) a male partner. Ree’s proud, untempted chastity suggests strong feelings against marriage — a stance that is more than reasonable given her society’s non-existent livelihood options for men and the communal expectations for them to act out their masculinity in unproductive ways.
Lawrence’s Diana has now travelled across five films and two filmic universes, playing for years in audience’s minds.
Most significant, though, are the worlds we enter through Katniss and Ree. Both young women expose us to the personal reality of poverty and the misery of having to battle daily just to survive (and ensure the survival of younger innocents). Something is deeply wrong with a world that would ask of Katniss and Ree what they do — a world that would doom them to destitute poverty or death, if they were not so exceptionally resilient. One of those worlds is the contemporary USA; the other is a fantasy that still reflects much of our world.
Winter’s Bone shines a light on a world that is too rarely shown onscreen. The naturalistic look at a deprived, depressed community is unremitting, although the film’s beauty and humanity softens the experience. Hunger Games is less daring in its social message, as a function of its setting in a distant “other” universe, which — because it is extreme and fantastic — can be used as an escape without forcing comparisons to our own (although they are easily enough made). Still, it is noteworthy that an American big-budget blockbuster centers on an underprivileged young woman overturning an unjust society based on gross wealth inequality and mistreatment of the poor.
In Mockingjay Part 2, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) eats some food in an abandoned house in the Capitol and claims to suddenly understand why loyalists support the tyrant Snow — because if you eat this well, you can make yourself believe anything. This is a direct challenge to anyone in the audience who does achieve a comfortable lifestyle: what are we allowing ourselves to believe in order to preserve that lifestyle? Of course, the makers of this blockbuster are taking in a great deal of money as a result of telling this story, and a Brechtian would say the happy ending of the film, through catharsis, removes our impulse to act in rectifying the wealth gaps and injustices in our own society. Yet we are still seeing this issue addressed in a blockbuster movie, and it is Katniss — her story, her will, her exceptional power against the backdrop of the extreme adversity she is born into — who opens us to hearing this message.
Lawrence has played other kinds of roles — her lively, impulsive, quirkier characters in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013) could not be more of a departure. Likewise, her tongue-in-cheek, candid, playful persona in public appearances as “Jennifer Lawrence” could not be further from Katniss or Ree.
Yet her Ree and her Katniss embody a forceful young woman who has moved us and alerted us to aspects of our culture that are broken. The New York Times writes, “What makes the material still feel personal — other than the yearslong investment and love that transform entertainments into fan communities — is the combination of Katniss and Ms. Lawrence, who have become a perfect fit. Ms. Lawrence now inhabits the role as effortlessly as breathing, partly because, like all great stars, she seems to be playing a version of her ‘real’ self.”
Indeed, Katniss and Ree (far as they are from the actress’ fun-and-games talk show persona) feel to us to be the real inner Lawrence. It will be interesting to watch Lawrence’s most resonant roles in the next few years. Will her understated incarnation of the mythic Diana with an edge for social justice renew itself in some iteration? Or will she move away from that persona with more expressive, comic, extrovert roles? As she moves to the next stage of her career, Lawrence may feel the need to outgrow the youthful huntress and leave her behind.