Anyone who has mainlined the best-selling young adult trilogy The Hunger Games can attest that the books are crackling and propulsive reads. Set in an apocalyptic future where teenagers are drafted by a totalitarian regime to battle to the death, the series is sophisticated and breathtakingly paced. And in her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, author Suzanne Collins has created an indelible young heroine—one who is poised to achieve crossover success now that she's coming to the big screen.
The news that cinematic tough girls and Oscar nominees Jennifer Lawrence and Hailee Steinfeld (along with almost every other working actress under 25) are top contenders to play the lead in the Gary Ross-directed adaptation has successfully ratcheted up interest in the upcoming film. Finding the right Katniss is a daunting casting decision—not only because the young actress will be endlessly scrutinized by a rabid fan base and must carry a movie franchise imbued with Harry Potter and Twilight-sized expectations—but because she will be portraying the most important female character in recent pop culture history.
Growing up, my own childhood idols—in chronological order—included Rainbow Brite, Pippi Longstocking, Laura Ingalls, Nancy Drew, Anne Shirley, and later, Buffy Summers. 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 drew strength from the boldness of my fictional heroines. In addition to serving up youthful wish fulfillment for independence and adventure, the characters provided a kind of road map to the woman I hoped to become. In the wake of the Twilight phenomenon, I wondered what had happened to the Buffys of the world—the kind of girl who wouldn't flinch at stabbing her vampire boyfriend through the heart if he got out of line. While I was languishing into adult decrepitude, had the girl power ethos of my own adolescence undergone an irreversible shift?
Yes, other admirable young heroines have appeared on the scene since Buffy slayed her last vamp. Harry Potter's Hermione Granger is brave, loyal and often described as the cleverest girl at Hogwarts. But she's also saddled with providing the scolding voice of reason, and never seems to have quite as much fun as Harry and Ron. Computer hacker Lisbeth Salander of the wildly popular Millenium trilogy (also coming soon to a theater near you) is brilliant and enigmatic, but too dark and damaged by her violent past to provide a viable role model for female empowerment. Feisty teen detective Veronica Mars snarked her way through three seasons of the eponymous television show, but the clever high school noir series never found the audience it deserved. It's been years since a young female protagonist has captured the zeitgeist to the extent that Katniss has—with the obvious exception of the Twilight trilogy's Bella Swan.
It may seem incredible that swoony Bella and tough-as-nails Katniss share the same literary universe, much less a share of the same audience, but in some ways they are similarly single-minded. Bella's driving force is to divest herself of her irksome soul so that she can be mated for eternity with her love, Edward. There is little else to her personality, aside from her propensity for falling into peril. When Edward leaves her for a large portion of the second book, she pulls increasingly dangerous stunts like crashing a motorcycle and leaping off cliffs because, in the fleeting moments before her possible demise, she has visions of Edward. Left to her own devices both she and the story languish.
In contrast to Bella's blank-slate quality, Katniss is a complex and sometimes destructive force of nature. When her beloved younger sister is drafted by lottery to compete in the dangerous Hunger Games, Katniss immediately volunteers to take her place. In the games—a gloriously violent obstacle course complete with walls of fire and mutant wasps—she proves herself noble, brave, resourceful, and a damn good sharpshooter. But she is also ruthless, impulsive, and generally maddening to everyone who tries to help her. Early in the first book, when called upon to demonstrate her shooting ability, Katniss sends her arrow flying at the "Gamemakers" who control the horrors that will be inflicted upon the competitors. It's not the smartest stunt to pull against the people who hold your life in their hands, but once in the arena she is as focused on survival as Bella is on Edward. Children die horribly in The Hunger Games—some at the business end of Katniss's arrows. She may be heroic, but she's no martyr.
It's also worth noting that male bibliophiles have embraced the series, upending the conventional wisdom that stories written by women about women are destined to be ignored or scorned by possessors of the Y chromosome. Stephen King called the series addictive and the first book a "jarring speed-rap of a novel." The secret to the trilogy's far-reaching appeal lies in the fact that its themes are sophisticated enough to satisfy adult audiences, while providing plenty of vividly rendered gore for action-lovers, and just enough chaste romance. There is an inevitable love triangle, and Katniss must eventually choose between two suitors. But she is often exasperated and flummoxed by their pursuit, and the romantic conflict, somewhat awkwardly stretched out until almost the very last page, is usually ancillary to the action. Her partner in the games—the amiable Peeta Mellark—is carefully crafted to serve as the yin to Katniss's occasionally abrasive yang. She hunts; he bakes. She's churlish and closed-off; he's unfailingly open and sunny. She's not looking to commit; he's eternally devoted. To put it simply, she's totally the guy in the relationship.
It's a sly twisting of gender roles in a story aimed at readers whose notions about such things are just beginning to crystallize. Casting for the secondary roles is also a hotly debated topic among fans, but without a strong Katniss the other characters circling in her orbit don't much matter. The young actress who is ultimately selected for the role will carry outsized expectations and the character's internal complexities on her inevitably slender shoulders. And it's vitally important that she get it right because Katniss Everdeen is more than just a teen idol of the moment. She is a heroine for the ages.