The feisty lead in The Hunger Games is heiress to a tradition of meaty female roles stretching back half a century.
The Hunger Games' lead joins sisterhood of Hollywood heroines
Actresses have long complained that the film world offers too few opportunities to play strong female characters, or as Goldie Hawn quipped in The First Wives Club, the only parts up for grabs are “babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy”. So is Jennifer Lawrence’s star turn as Katniss Everdeen, the butt-kicking heroine of The Hunger Games (released in the UAE today), evidence that things are finally changing, or is this simply one of those rare exceptions that prove the rules?
Adapted from the hugely successful teenage novel series, the film is based in a dystopian-future North America, in which young people are selected to fight one another to the death on a bloody reality television show. In the cruel, poverty-stricken world, an expert hunter Katniss, 16, volunteers to take part in the challenge in place of her younger sister.
The Hunger Games has already won rave reviews, with many singling out the film’s brave yet vulnerable lead as worthy of special acclaim. With two more novels set to be adapted, it is likely that this is just the beginning for Katniss, and that the character is set to take her place alongside cinema’s toughest heroines. Here are some of them.
Scarlett O’Hara – Gone With the Wind (1939)
“If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” Vivien Leigh’s character may not have been an expert with a bow and arrow like Katniss, but if you’re looking for dogged determination, look no further than Scarlett. We first meet her as a spoilt 16-year-old, desperate to avoid the marriage that her father intends for her. But as the world she knows is destroyed by the American Civil War, her affronted self-centredness matures into a magnificently ruthless defiance.
Pussy Galore – Goldfinger (1964)
“You can turn off the charm. I’m immune.” Honor Blackman’s turn as the cheekily-monikered pilot Pussy Galore may not be as iconic as Ursula Andress’s appearance in Dr No, but the Bond girl proved herself capable of much more than simply looking good in a swimming costume. The part was written to take advantage of Blackman’s judo abilities, but there’s plenty of verbal sparring on offer, too, as Pussy proves herself the intellectual equal of Connery’s suave superspy.
Ellen Ripley – the Alien series
“That’s not all! ’Cause if one of those things gets down here then that WILL be all! And all this that you think is so important, you can just kiss all that goodbye!” Starting as a lowly crew-member on the spaceship Nostromo, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley has to become the heroine because of the terrifying reality that suddenly unfolds around her. From a preyed-on victim in Alien (1979), to the flame-thrower-wielding protector in Aliens (1986) and the almost mythic figure of Alien: Resurrection (1997), Ripley deserves to be recognised as cinema’s ultimate female action star.
Clarice Starling – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
“You see a lot, doctor. But are you strong enough to point that high-powered perception at yourself?” The highest-ranking heroine in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years ... 100 Heroes and Villains” list, the FBI’s Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, is given the unenviable task of interviewing the eminent psychiatrist and cannibal Hannibal Lecter. Thanks to her courage and honesty, she gets the life-saving information she needs from him, but not without being forced to bare her own emotional trauma in the presence of the psychopathic genius.
Jen Yu – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
“I am the dragon from the desert! Who comes from nowhere and leaves no trace!” Zhang Ziyi’s portrayal of a princess who becomes a fearsome warrior won her a slew of award nominations and helped the Chinese drama become the highest-grossing foreign language film ever in the US. Passionate, headstrong and nearly unstoppable with any weapon (even if it’s just her hands), movie heroines don’t come much more impeccable than Jen Yu.
The Bride – Kill Bill (2003)
“Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.” Quentin Tarantino took inspiration from 1970s revenge movies when he created the Bride (Uma Thurman), an elite assassin gunned down on her wedding day, and sets out on a mission from a coma years later, determined to kill those responsible. But if the sword-wielding, kung-fu-kicking heroine lacks compassion from time to time, you’d never blame her for it.
Lisbeth Salander – The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009, 2011)
“May I kill him?” Whether portrayed on screen by the Swede Noomi Rapace or the American Rooney Mara, the female lead of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is about as distinctive a heroine as they come. The victim of a traumatic childhood, the heavily-pierced cyber-genius and perennial outsider is perhaps the most damaged of anyone on this list, but also one of the most capable, headstrong and perhaps the most believable, too.
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