Jennifer Lawrence and Hollywood’s Coming of Age Dilemma

Mocking Jay

It isn’t hard to understand why “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” flopped at the U.S. box office compared to earlier installments. The fourth film fell from the $158 million blockbuster level of the second installment to a disappointing $101 million this past weekend. It is easy to argue the many flaws of young-adult film adaptations, but this franchise had one ace in the hole many other similar films lacked: Jennifer Lawrence.

An incredibly skilled actress, Lawrence’s strong screen-presence was an indispensable asset to the films. What the film lacks in plot, originality, or script, only heightens her good acting. However, in the last two films – and specifically this one – she appears older and more complex than the part she plays. This works against the film’s goal of portraying a hardened youth. In short, Lawrence portrayed herself above the character she played.

From beginning to end, her role in the movie didn’t seem quite right. In the first book, Katniss was 16 years old, so the role wasn’t hard to accept when the casting director presented Lawrence in the spring of 2011 at age twenty. However, when she took on the part of the “Mockingjay” movies at age twenty-five, the discrepancy in age difference became more noticeable, because Katniss was only seventeen.

Lawrence did well to appear youthful through her public persona, but away from cameras, she evolved much faster than appearances suggested. This deep inner strength showed up while playing roles in “American Hustle” and “Silver Linings Playbook”. In these films, she starred as characters up to fifteen years older than her age. For instance, her collaboration with David O. Russell, as a housewife in “Joy,” saw her in a role a full ten years older.

Put simply, a twenty-five-year-old actor capable of portraying a thirty-five or forty year old often has a difficult time following up these roles with one of a seventeen-year-old girl.

Harry Potter

This wasn’t simply a case of Lawrence physically growing up too fast for the films’ production. Actors such as Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in the “Harry Potter” films, or Kristen Stewart in “Twilight,” have all aged through the production of their respective film series. But while for Lawrence this damaged the effect of the films, for the others, aging enhanced their authentic effect.

Stewart’s public persona changed very little in the four years between her first and last “Twilight” film, yet throughout the ordeal her public image remained the same. Unlike her, Lawrence underwent a change, particularly on women’s rights. Her first act was forced after a hack of her private images was released. But she later got more involved with issues of equal pay. This public evolution simply outpaced Katniss’.

The filmmakers of “Hunger Games” inadvertently rediscovered the problems of casting actors who’ve yet to reach their prime, physically, professionally, and publicly. While using a young actor for a series with multiple installments allows for the continuous growth effect, there really is no fool-proof method for predicting who these young actors become when they grow up.

Lionsgate took the smart route by cramming the development of all four Hunger Games Movies into just forty-four months. But no matter how hard they tried, this measure cannot guarantee full damage control.

Many producers argue that any physical maturation in the actor compliments the maturation of the characters. However, because of Hunger Games’ plot, this doesn’t work. If Katniss went through such a major transition, it would not occur between the second and later films, but between the first two. Better yet, it would happen within the first film itself, since that is when most of Katniss’ traumatic maturing happened.

The illusion of change can still make for a good argument in these situations, but if the actor’s public achievements are too big and too varied, the character’s modest fictional changes are hard to view as foreground.

Hollywood may have jumped the shark, as it were, when it came to casting Lawrence in the Hunger Games franchise, but since it wasn’t a complete box office loss. Lionsgate probably won’t leave this project with sunken heads. And Lawrence, can now move on to other films that suit her personality and acting style better.

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