Writing Race in Hunger Games
Posted on March 28, 2012
Yesterday, the internet exploded with outrage over racist remarks made over Twitter about the casting of Rue and Cinna for the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games. In one of many posts or articles, Dodai Stewart at jezebel.com collects most of the tweets that include not only disappointment in the casting but also comments that spark racial controversy. I want to take a look at the original source and clear statements from the author and director before addressing the question of intentional race in writing, specifically in fantasy and science fiction.
There are two clear statements made in Suzanne Collins‘ book that contain direct content about physical appearance. Collins introduces Cinna when she writes, “…Cinna’s close-cropped hair appears to be its natural shade of brown…The only concession to self-alteration seems to be metallic gold eyeliner that has been applied by a light hand. It brings out the flecks of gold in his green eyes” (63). While there is no overt intent to assign Cinna any race or skin color, the question to ponder is how to interpret him when you read them. Rue’s description is more direct when Katniss notices, “…[s]he has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin” (98). Her fellow tribute, Thresh, gets a similar description from Collins as, “…Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there” (126). The chosen descriptive words do not explicitly paint race. My question is whether or not that is important?
Interestingly, Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth do not garner the same casting cricism in their roles as Katniss or Gale. In the book, you could interpret his physical description as biracial as they could be seen as brother or sister since Katniss tells us, “…Straight black hair, olive skin,we even have the same gray eyes” (8). Again, there is an intentional ambiguity assigned by the author.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly in April 2011, Collins answers the question about race and biracial intention when she says, “They were not particularly intended to be biracial. It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing.” So she gives a clear answer to her intentions to be ambiguous due to a choice she makes of how race exists in her dystopic world. However, when asked directly about Thresh and Rue, Collins states clearly, “They’re African-American.” The director of the film, Gary Ross, in the same interview adds, “It’s a multi-racial culture and the film will reflect that. But I think Suzanne didn’t see a particular ethnicity to Gale and Katniss when she wrote it, and that’s something we’ve talked about a lot. She was very specific about the qualities that these characters have and who they are as people. Having seen Josh and Liam and Jen perform these roles, that’s really the most important thing. They’re very much the characters to us.” He suggests that the important aspect to the characters is not their outer appearance as the quality of the characters, and the casting came from that intent.
However, the controversy over the internet suggests that it is more than just the quality of the characters for some readers. There are two levels to the issue. One is how we as readers react to the actual reading. I know that I create pictures in my head that accompany the entire book, so my Katniss probably did not look anything like the Katniss in your head. The second level happens when they adapt the book into a visual narrative and assign specific people to embody the characters. We as readers are extremely loyal to the characters we have grown to love in our own heads. So we pay special attention to the casting and hope that they choose not only good actors but also the right ones so that we can go to the movies and enjoy it even further.
What strikes me as surprising is not the reaction but the racial outrage. I did not picture Cinna as African American, but when they announced the casting of Lenny Kravitz, I thought he was a brilliant choice. After watching the film, I know that he should have had even more scenes. Now that I’ve considered web posts that include incredibly emotional reactions, it has me thinking about race in books like Hunger Games more actively. The trend exists to not have any racial diversity in many of today’s popular fantasy or science fiction choices. How would it change the readership and reception to those books if there were? I think it’s naive to assume that race doesn’t matter, but I think the shift in thought has to move to how it matters. When I reflect back to my reading experience of the book, I now realize that my imagination’s choices have the same void of race. I am now wondering why, and to what extent is it important?
These questions shift me over to the writer’s role in the controversy. When we write, we make specific choices. One of the more important choices is the full embodiment of our characters. I want to include the question that I am now asking myself: Is it important to intentionally include race into my writing?
I don’t think there is an easy answer to the question, and it breeds other questions just as important. It definitely requires more time than just a reaction to reading web posts. And I think it requires discussion with other writers and readers. For that purpose, I will include the conversation more pointedly from a writer’s perspective in a separate blog post, so for now I leave you with the questions and state: To be continued in Writing Race Part 2.