From shelf to screen: Keeping an eye out for what sells

Venue: Entertainment Weekly 

With the close of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises, filmmakers are hunting for the next big Hollywood hit, and what better place to look than in the young adult book section where it all began? With narratives and whole worlds already snatched up by loyal fanbases, the young adult genre is a treasure trove for starving box offices. Movie trailers are already out for “Beautiful Creatures,” “City of Bones” (“The Mortal Instruments”) and “Catching Fire” (“The Hunger Games”) to name a few young-adult-novels-turned-film. It’s crazy how much power young adult audiences have in determining the direction of Hollywood’s next projects.

But when those stories get turned over to the silver screen, what does it mean to put a physical face on a book and its characters? More importantly, on its leading ladies?

Here, as in every other venue, it all comes down to spectator gaze. The women of novels and their film adaptations are constantly shaped by the ones viewing them, whether in print or in person. In the words of John Berger in his text on art, “Ways of Seeing,” a woman is forced to “[turn] herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight” (47). And we certainly see this happening with the two most recognizable female protagonists of young adult literature these days: Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen.

The two characters boil down to what would seem like extreme opposites: Twilight’s pale, awkward Bella stumbling alongside Hunger Games’ dark, stoic and righteously angry Katniss. Yet despite their stark differences, Bella and Katniss share the status as objects of vision in both novel and film versions of their narratives.

In “Twilight,” Bella describes herself as “ivory-skinned, without even the excuse of blue eyes or red hair” (10). Aside from this, we get that she has brown hair and is slender. Nothing particularly out of the ordinary. But Edward’s words change our perception of Bella and Bella’s own sense of self-worth in the novel: “You don’t see yourself very clearly, you know. … You didn’t hear what every human male in this school was thinking on your first day” (210). In a few short lines, Bella’s image has shifted to match what every human male constructed of her. Her own vision is dismissed as unclear. And critically, it is Edward’s vision that matters most, not only to Bella’s attractiveness as a person, but also to her ability to survive. She ultimately fulfills Berger’s claim that how she appears to men “is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life” (46). Her life, indeed. If she held any less interest in Edward’s eyes, she’d be sucked dry of her blood.  

Similarly, Katniss must rely on an audience’s gaze to survive in the Hunger Games. When she protests against Peeta’s public declaration of his love for her, Haymitch snarls that Peeta has “made [her] look desirable” (135). Without Peeta’s male gaze objectifying and showing his appreciation of her, Katniss was “about as romantic as dirt until he said he wanted [her]. Now they all do” (135). And as Katniss watches herself later on television, she sees herself “made beautiful by Cinna’s hands, desirable by Peeta’s confession, tragic by circumstance, and by all accounts, unforgettable” (138). The shaping of male actions transfers the qualities of beauty, desirability and tragedy onto her, reiterating Berger’s point that “all images are man-made” (9).

And the construction from gaze doesn’t stop there. The books may have been written in first-person narrative form through Bella’s and Katniss’ eyes, but Hollywood needs them in the frame as those precious objects of vision. The end result? Kristen Stewart cast as Bella and Jennifer Lawrence cast as Katniss. And audiences had a lot to say about these decisions as well.

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Jennifer Lawrence – Too robust for Katniss?

Some were upset with the casting of Jennifer Lawrence for a number of reasons based on appearance: In their eyes, she was too white, too blonde, too old, too big-boned to play the young, olive-skinned Katniss from the Seam. Katniss had to be darker. Skinnier. Less of a starlet. Fans criticized the decision to cast a woman who played the sexy shapeshifter Mystique in “X-Men: First Class.” In their eyes, the “man-made images” of Lawrence didn’t mesh with their ideals for the Girl on Fire.

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Kristen Stewart – Not clumsy enough?

Similarly, I felt estranged when I saw the first “Twilight” movie and Stewart’s portrayal of Bella. In a strange, patronizing way, I found she wasn’t nearly clumsy enough for me to see her as endearing. She slips perhaps twice in the film, each instance coming across as extremely staged and therefore almost calculating for our supposedly naïve Bella. But was this not another construct of the gaze in turning Lawrence and Stewart into sights to critique? Lawrence and Stewart may not have matched the leading ladies some fans envisioned, but the bottom line was that both actresses are undoubtedly attractive. These are films. This is Hollywood. They have to sell, right?

Katniss. Bella. Hell, even homely Jo from Louisa May Alcott’s beloved “Little Women” gets put through cinema’s beautification filter to come out as Winona Ryder in the 1994 film version, and the sultry, pouty-faced Keira Knightley plays a sensualized Elizabeth Bennett in the most recent “Pride and Prejudice” (2005). It’s a tough call for Hollywood to cast women who are described as plain or even unattractive in books, but if said women are the objects of desire in the plot, directors have chosen to make sure that audiences are, well, on the same page. 

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