A note on The Hunger Games













A few years ago, I was involved in developing a movie based on a popular series of YA novels, a science-fiction thriller series set in a dystopian future and featuring a female protagonist trying to make her way in an oppressive, brutal society.

Because it was not just one novel but three, it was incumbent upon me to lay out not just one movie but a whole trilogy, describing the arc of the protagonist and her journey from helpless waif to leader of the revolution.

It was a lot of work, but the producer was very pleased with my take and we took it to the studio.

The studio executive we went to see was a very nice, very kind, very intelligent young woman.  I pitched to her not one movie but three, I pitched to her for over an hour, laying out a tapestry, a world of intrigue, action, spectacle and personal development.

The studio exec was fascinated and very impressed, and then, at the end of the pitch, said “That’s really great, Todd, you really nailed it, it’s perfect.  I’m just wondering — is there some way to make the protagonist a boy?”

I was dumbstruck.  No, there was no way to make the protagonist a boy.  The books were very much about a female perspective on this strange futuristic world — the two were inseparable.  You literally could not tell the same story with a male protagonist.

But the studio exec explained, “We can’t make a movie with a female protagonist.  Boys won’t go to see it.”  She also explained that girls won’t go to see science fiction movies, or action movies.  I explained to her that one recent movie franchise — Pirates — very much had a female protagonist and had done very well indeed, that another franchise — The Terminator — also had a female protagonist and had done very well indeed, that another franchise — Alien — was also a futuristic sci-fi series with a female protagonist, and had done very well indeed.

The studio exec’s hands were tied.  Word had come down from above, “No big-budget movies with female protagonists.”  The only movies that could be made with a female protagonist were intimate personal dramas and romances — that is, cheap movies.

My guess is that today, this very day, in offices all over Hollywood, studio executives are still telling writers “We don’t make science-fiction movies with a female protagonist.”  And when the writer says “But what about Hunger Games?” they will make an excuse — “Well, but that’s The Hunger Games, it’s a phenomenon, it’s its own thing, you can’t hope to repeat that.”



36 Responses to “A note on The Hunger Games
  1. Claire Ryan says:

    Sadly not news, because Hollywood sexism is alive and well.


    Would love your opinion on that, Todd. Is it really because they’re clueless?

    • Todd says:

      They are not clueless. They are, however, extremely risk-averse. And in every regard. It’s not just that the marketing people are worried about losing too much money, it’s that the development executives are worried about losing their jobs. No one wants to be the one to stick his (or her) neck out. I specifically add “or her” because, sadly, a lot of these executives, a lot, are women, and all very bright women too.

  2. Laur says:

    How frustrating! Speaking as a geeky girl who loves movies and great stories, it’s quite depressing to hear about this kind of mentality. It blocksproduction of more diverse stories and everybody loses out in the end.

  3. Sojourner says:

    I agree. Although substitute the word “female” for “black” and welcome to my world.

    • Todd says:

      Another thing I don’t understand. Will Smith is, by any measurement, the biggest star in the world. Why has Hollywood not spent a dime on trying to find the next Will Smith? Why is an actress as great as Viola Davis being nominated for an Oscar for playing a maid? I have no idea.

  4. sroman says:

    “Boys won’t go see a movie called ‘A PRINCESS of Mars.’ Girls won’t go see a movie called ‘John Carter OF MARS.'”–Andrew Stanton, director of John Carter.

    Also, I once pitched my own “Pandora Zwieback” YA novel series (with a girl as the lead!) to a literary agent. My favorite question (not counting “Can you make it like Twilight?” “No.”): “Does her boyfriend *have* to be a Puerto Rican? That’s the wrong kind of Hispanic if you want a foreign rights sale.”

    Stupid *is* catching.

    • Todd says:

      The John Carter thing I find particularly baffling. John Carter of Mars tells us a lot, A Princess of Mars tells us a lot, John Carter tells us absolutely nothing, which is, in the end, I think why people didn’t go to see it, they didn’t know what it was.

      • planettom says:

        I almost wonder if they’d have done better if they’d lopped off both JOHN CARTER and A PRINCESS and just called it OF MARS.

        • Todd says:

          Or, for that matter, why not call it John Carter and the Princess of Mars? That sounds like an Indiana Jones movie, which the movie at least compares to.

    • And apparently nobody will go see a movie just called “John Carter.”

      Exaggeration, of course. I saw it, and so did a number of my friends. But the movie has performed abysmally. As I said elsewhere, I have a dyed-in-the-wool geek friend who works for NASA, and she didn’t know until we told her — about a month ago, after lots of advertising — that the movie took place on Mars. She should have been dead center in the target audience, but they missed her entirely. And failed to hit just about anybody else.

      As for The Hunger Games — yeah. ::sigh:: Everything’s an exception, and not valid evidence for doing things that way ever again.

      • Todd says:

        I would think that the philosophy would be: “Look, Hunger Games is a giant phenomenon, all we have to do is make a decent movie at a reasonable budget and we should be fine,” but unfortunately “decent movie at a reasonable budget” is still too difficult and too expensive. Again, it’s not stupidity or sexism, it’s simple risk aversion. As William Goldman says, if there was suddenly a hit movie about Strauss waltzes, we would be deluged with movies about Strauss waltzes, Hollywood doesn’t care, they just want to make money.

        • mimitabu says:

          but the risk aversion is itself sexist. even if it’s based off market research, the interpretation of the research is sexist.

          you point out that exceptions don’t faze the reasoning. this is because the shape of the risk aversion is influenced by sexism / racism / etc.

        • Brian Lynchehaun says:

          “Again, it’s not stupidity or sexism”

          If the risk aversion is taken to the point where saleable movies are not being made: that is stupidity.

          If “female protagonist” is automatically equated with “risky”: that is sexism.

          If “person-of-colour protagonist” is automatically equated with “risky”: that is racism.

          You seem confused as to what these words mean.

          • Todd says:

            If you like. But I don’t think the people making these decisions are driven by racism or sexism, I think they’re driven by fear of losing their jobs.

            • Somebody in the chain is being influenced by sexism/racism/etc, and in most cases it’s happening at multiple points, not just one. It might be the exec, or the exec’s boss, or the bean-counters, or the marketing guys, or the audiences, or, or, or. It’s probably lots of those people. And that’s why this problem is so hard to get rid of: contrary to what most people assume, it isn’t enough to get a writer or director (or even both) who will Make A Stand and champion a movie with a female (or black, or gay, or etc.) protagonist. They’re going to run into the effects of the -isms at every turn.

  5. Sadie says:

    what book was it?

  6. jhembach says:

    The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
    Tomb Raider
    Aeon Flux
    V for Vendetta…

    • Todd says:

      If you’re thinking of “movies with female protagonists that didn’t do well,” you’re on the right track. These are all movies that studio executives would bring up as examples for why not to go forward with one.

      • Claire Ryan says:

        The interesting thing about it is, action movies with white guys as the protagonist fail all the time. But that is never brought up as a reason to not make action movies with white guys as the protagonist.

        They’re pretty much spinning it like the reason a movie with a female protagonist fails is because of the female protagonist, whereas if a movie with a male protagonist fails, it’s because of any number of other factors. You’re really damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If it succeeds, it’s a fluke that won’t happen again. If it fails, it’s because guys won’t watch women in lead roles. Either outcome means films with female leads don’t get made.

        I’m not sure what else you can call that except really blatent sexism.

        • Todd says:

          This is very true, although if the same white guy continually fails in a genre, he will, eventually, be called out. For example, Tom Cruise, “everybody knows,” is too old to do action movies any more and is no longer a box-office draw. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was supposed to be his swan song, they were going to hand the whole thing over to Jeremy Renner. Then the movie was the biggest hit of Cruise’s career.

          • Damn! Does that mean we won’t get more Jeremy Renner? (Seriously, that film was “The Simon Pegg Show, Featuring Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Some Other People Who Are Only Half as Fun to Watch.”)

            • Todd says:

              I’m sure they’ll find room for Renner in the next one, if he’s not too busy doing Bourne movies.

  7. Lis Riba says:

    Looks like the upcoming Snow White & the Huntsman also has a female protagonist. If that gets good box office, will it help?

    I suppose my question is – how many exceptions will it take to break the rule?

    Any other examples of similar “adages” (no audience will see X, so no studio will make them) that have since been overturned, and how that change came about?

    • Todd says:

      Well, back in the day, everyone knew that science fiction was a dead genre. Then Star Wars came out.

  8. Jud says:

    Alien, The Fifth Element, The Terminator etc. Look at the heroines and you’ll see why they are interesting for wide male audience.





    “When I made The Devil Wears Prada, it was the first time in my life that a man came up and said, ‘I know how you felt. I have a job like that.’ First time. … ” – says Meryl Streep. The character was like a man who had to make hard decisions.

    What The Hunger Games would be like if the (female) protagonist were Katniss Everdeen’s mother?

    • Todd says:

      If you’re implying that men go to see women in action movies because they’re sexy, that doesn’t really indicate anything. Anyone goes to see anyone in any movie because they’re sexy.

      • Jud says:

        It’s not about they are sexy or not. 🙂
        It’s about they appear, behave and act like a man.
        It’s not about women should go back to their gathering lifestyle.
        It’s about adaptation.


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