Children’s Fiction, Female Stars
and Contemporary Hollywood Blockbusters
by Peter Krämer
In December 2015, I visited the local multiplex for the final instalment of the Hunger Games saga, which centres on Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who – variously known as ‘the girl on fire’ and ‘the mockingjay’ – becomes the figurehead of an uprising in a post-apocalyptic America. In both expected and unexpected ways, this outing provoked reflections on the status of women in contemporary Hollywood, especially in relation to its most expensive and most commercially successful productions.
To begin with, the film is a reminder of the fact that today the best chance for a woman to shape the story of a major Hollywood blockbuster is probably to write a bestseller (rather than becoming a scriptwriter, director or producer). Since the release, in 2001, of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US), an impressive share of Hollywood’s biggest hits have been derived from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, with the authors having had varying degrees of influence on the adaptation of their books.
As is evidenced by Box Office Mojo’s all-time chart of the top 200 films at the American box office, which adjusts revenues for ticket price inflation and, as of 11 February 2016, includes six Harry Potter, two Twilight and three Hunger Games movies, the adaptation of female-authored books has long been central to the American film industry. The chart lists Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), an adaptation of a novel by Anne Fine, at number 90; Mary Poppins (1964), which is based on P. L. Travers’ stories about the magical nanny, at number 26; One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), from Dodie Smith’s novel of the same title, at number 11; and, of course, far ahead of the competition, Gone with the Wind (1939), an adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, at number 1.
Two observations about this long-standing tradition are in order. First, as I have just listed almost all of the 20th century films based on female-authored books in Box Office Mojo’s top 200, we can note that the importance of such books for Hollywood has increased dramatically in the new millennium. More frequently than ever before, their adaptations appear at, or near, the top of the annual charts with worldwide box office earnings of up to (and in one exceptional case – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2  – even far in excess of) $1 billion (all worldwide box office figures in this blog are taken from Box Office Mojo, as of 11 February 2016). Second, across film history, the vast majority of female-authored books adapted into all-time top grossing movies were originally written for young children and/or teenagers (the latter in recent times separated out into the ‘young adult’ category).
What is more, most of these books were primarily written for girls. This orientation towards young female readers may be due to the fact that the books focus on female characters and on issues traditionally associated with femininity; or, more recently, due to the fact that the publishing industry generally assumes that the vast majority of its readers are female so that the default assumption now (more than ever before) is that a novel has a female readership.
As a consequence, it is not only the case that female bestseller authors shape some of contemporary Hollywood’s biggest hits, but also that, in this way, they create some of Hollywood’s most popular characters, certainly its most popular female characters (and none of these has a more exalted status than Katniss Everdeen). Since the popularity of a film character is, in most cases, closely tied to the popularity of the actor playing that character, the bestselling novels of Collins and Meyer (Rowling’s work being less influential in this respect) have also facilitated the rise of two of contemporary Hollywood’s biggest female stars – Kristen Stewart and, most especially, Jennifer Lawrence. In addition, it is partly due to Collins and Meyer’s bestselling novels that, during the last few years, Hollywood has been more willing than it had been for a long time to invest huge amounts of money in films centring on (young) female characters and primarily addressed to (young) female audiences.
The screening of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 which I attended included three pointers to the evolving gender dynamics of Hollywood cinema in recent decades. There was the trailer for the first in the new series of Star Wars movies, which was a reminder of the still unfulfilled promise of George Lucas’ original trilogy. In 1977, the opening scroll of Star Wars, the very film that has come to define the contemporary period in American (and indeed world) film history, focused on Princess Leia. She was the only character named in that now iconic opening text, being introduced as the ‘custodian of the stolen plans’ of the Death Star and thus the potential saviour of the known universe from domination by the Evil Empire. Yet instead of the film then telling mainly her story, Star Wars and its two sequels came to revolve primarily around Luke Skywalker, while the three prequels focused on Luke’s father Anakin (who becomes Darth Vader).
In 1980, dialogue in The Empire Strikes Back teased the audience with the prospect of a female-centred story, which was to be embarked upon once the present male-centred story was concluded. When the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi states that Luke ‘is our last hope’ for defeating the Evil Emperor, Yoda responds: ‘No, there is another.’ This answer implied, but never explicitly stated, that it is his sister Leia who, like Luke, presumably has a special relationship with ‘the Force’. Lucas never filmed this story of a female Jedi changing the course of galactic history.
As it turns out, the new Star Wars movie does indeed focus on the story of a female, who will no doubt develop into a powerful Jedi knight and make history. This focus has by no means limited the film’s success; quite on the contrary, it has become only the third movie, after Avatar and Titanic (1997), to make more than $2 billion at the worldwide box office.
The second pointer to the potential for change in Hollywood’s gender dynamics during the recent Mockingjay outing was the trailer for Allegiant, the conclusion of the Divergent trilogy, which is based on Veronica Roth’s bestselling novels about another tormented teenage girl making her way in a post-apocalyptic society. While nowhere near as successful at the box office as the Hunger Games films, the first two films in the series – Divergent (2014) and Insurgent (2015) – did have impressive worldwide grosses (of c. $290-300 million – as compared to around $650-850 million for each of Katniss’ four appearances).
These grosses suggest that Hollywood will continue to invest heavily in adaptations of recently published young adult and children’s novels written by women, focusing on teenage girls and primarily addressed to female readers. (There are dozens of these yet to be adapted, and I have read a fair few of them, despite uninvited advice such as the following comment from a female customer in a bookshop: “Don’t buy this one. It’s for girls.”) The most expensive, and also, probably, the most successful, of these adaptations will be fantastic or dystopian movies along the lines of Twilight and The Hunger Games.
However, the influence of female-authored novels about and for girls can be felt across Hollywood’s output. For example, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015, worldwide gross $571 million) was adapted from a novel by female writer E. L. James which had started out as Twilight fan fiction. Then there are adaptations of recent children’s/young adult books with female protagonists which were written by men (e.g. The Fault in Our Stars [2014, $307 million], based on John Greene’s novel and starring Shailene Woodley, who also plays the lead in the Divergent films); films about girls which are not based on books (e.g. Brave [2012, $539 million] and Inside Out [2015, $857 million]); and, perhaps most importantly, films based on fairy tales and male-authored classic children’s books which focus on young females (e.g. Alice in Wonderland [2010, $1,026 million] and Frozen [2013, $1,277 million]). Across a broad range of films, then, girl protagonists have come to dominate many of contemporary Hollywood’s biggest hits.
Part Two to follow next week…
Peter Krämer is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of East Anglia. He has published several essays on female film stars and producers (Audrey Hepburn, Sherry Lansing, Jodie Foster and Sandra Bullock) and on female audiences. Two of his recent publications on female protagonists in science fiction cinema and adventure stories can be found here and here. His books include the BFI Film Classic on Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (2014) and the edited collection Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives (2015).