“I volunteer! I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!” With just one line, The Hunger Games (2012) went from a publishing outlier to mainstream phenomenon. Its success joined a wave of female-fronted, female-written speculative fiction best-sellers like Twilight, Divergent, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures and more, which went on to spawn their own film franchises, television adaptations and cement the Young Adult genre as one of the most significant in the publishing sphere. The line also made Jennifer Lawrence a movie star, which is not to say she wasn’t on the ascent already. At 20, she had been nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Winter’s Bone (2010) and co-starred in a series of other independent features like The Beaver (2011), Like Crazy (2011) and the then-forthcoming Silver Linings Playbook (2012) (which she would later win an Oscar for). She’d dipped a toe into the comic book blockbuster world with the role of Mystique in X-Men: First Class (2011) but in a cast of already established A-Listers, it was easy to be swallowed up.
Outside of the arthouse cinema audience who had seen Winter’s Bone, Lawrence as a leading lady in The Hunger Games was a revelation. There were no stars to draw the eye, with the supporting cast either made up of character actors like Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley and Elizabeth Banks or up-and-comers like Amandla Stenberg, Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson. The bulk of the responsibility for whether this high-concept, dystopian, science-fiction blockbuster would and could work rested on the shoulders of the woman who had volunteered for the part. As Katniss Everdeen, unlikely resistance fighter and face of the revolution, she becomes the unifying banner thirteen districts of Panem can rally behind in a bid to overthrow a dictatorship. Everything that follows – the wars, the battles, the deaths, the losses, the reshaping of a world – stems from this key moment in both the film and Suzanne Collins’ novel upon which it is based. In a world dominated by fear and self-interest, it’s this act – Katniss’s selfless volunteering in place of her sister Primrose – that captivates the minds and hearts of Panem.
With The Hunger Games taking place each year like somewhat of a ritual sacrifice as children from each district are randomly selected to fight to the death in a televised contest, participating is almost certain death. When Katniss fights against guards and screams that she volunteers in place of her younger sister whose name is drawn from the ballot, she does so knowing that it’s certain death. Those watching on understand this as well, making her sacrifice all the more significant. The story hinges on this moment, which is delivered with raw and emotional power by Lawrence, and the film hinges on it too. So much so that in the almost-decade since The Hunger Games became an international $700M box-office hit, it’s this scene and this moment that lives on more than any other in the four-film franchise. Memed and parodied and gifed into infamy, the “I volunteer!” snippet became instantly recognisable shorthand in the pop culture lexicon and still is … long after the credits have rolled.
– Maria Lewis