When identifying some of Jennifer Lawrence’s finest performances of the past decade the best place to often start is Winter’s Bone, which was incidentally my first introduction to her. It’s probably safe to say, as a relatively unknown actress (at that point), Lawrence’s breakout role as a head-strong young woman fighting to save her Ozarks Mountain home, while at the same time in search of her missing father, launched her career.
Looking back now, it was a dream role that garnered Lawrence her first Oscar nomination, setting the stage for an incredible run of commercially challenging roles with both the X-Men series as Mystique and Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games movies. The latter in particular gave fans of the young adult dystopian book trilogy, a strong relatable heroine to truly cheer for onscreen, ahead of the superhero women that would come to dominate the box office in the late 2010s, notably Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019).
It’s easy to see now that there could only ever be just one actress to play Katniss Everdeen. In truth, several notable upcoming actresses which included Abigail Breslin, Emma Roberts and Saoirse Ronan were seriously considered for the role. In the end, Lawrence was cast by director Gary Ross on the strength of her performance in Winter’s Bone, with of course The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins blessing. In a statement about the casting decision Collins said, “Jennifer’s just an incredible actress. So powerful, vulnerable, beautiful, unforgiving and brave. I never thought we’d find somebody this perfect for the role.”
There are many examples throughout the film franchise where Lawrence exemplifies the spirit of Katniss. One of the most talked about scenes that comes to mind is the chilling moment of the third instalment, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, which sees Lawrence sing “The Hanging Tree” which plays out against a bigger picture of oppression and destruction across Panem’s districts.
But first some context. When Katniss is rescued from the Capitol by District 13 rebels and reunited with her mother and sister, she is asked to become the symbol of Panem’s rebellion against ‘The Capitol’. She reluctantly agrees to do it because of her feelings for Peeta, who unfortunately did not escape from the Capitol. As part of her duties she is required to allow a film crew to follow her every move while traversing across the districts as part of their “hearts and minds” campaign of winning over the poor and the repressed. It is here in one of the quieter moments (of the film) in between visiting the sick and injured, that Katniss truly proves her worth to the rebellion, when a former slave-turned rebel named Pollux, asks Katniss to sing something to him on the surrounds of the rocky waters of District 12.
Please note while I don’t want to get bogged down in the deep-rooted meaning of the song, Katniss chooses to sing The Hanging Tree arguably because of its underlining sentiment to her. The important thing here to note is that it was first taught to Katniss by her father when she was a child. Moreover it was the first song she was later banned from singing by her mother because the Capitol deemed it revolutionary in nature.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see now in hindsight (and for those who have read the books) that Katniss is searching through her thoughts for a song worthy of singing. Underlining her dilemma are the things most important to her life – her family, Peeta, who is seemingly now being further manipulated by the Capitol and importantly her yearning for freedom. And so when she finally utters the first few lines of the forbidden tune of her childhood, its clearly very much representative of her current state of mind. Moreover when a wry smile beams across her face she is fittingly casting aside its censored hold upon her.
In doing so, she’s also inadvertently manipulating the meaning of the song into a rally cry for the rebels. Importantly as the scene cuts away from Katniss face, it expands to show the rebellion at large. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee in particular does his bit for the rebel cause by editing the songs line ‘a necklace of rope’ to ‘necklace of hope’. His ‘manipulation’ of Katniss singing The Hanging Tree for the rebellion in itself serves as a contemplative cause for concern for us (the audience) and how we will further view the rebellion and its win at all costs approach.
The understated brilliance of this scene of course also lies with Jennifer Lawrence and her real life reluctance to sing the song. “I knew (Jennifer) didn’t love the idea of singing, but I didn’t realize how nervous she was until when we started the first take, and she was in tears,” said Mockingjay director Francis Lawrence during the promotion of the film. Interestingly, in my opinion Lawrence’s reported nervousness and vulnerability is what really makes this scene work. There can be no doubt that Lawrence’s body language and vocal performance goes a long way to help heighten the importance of the scene as it breaks out in violence and bloodshed.