Monday, March 26, 2012

Hunger Games--response to critics

When I was first offered The Hunger Games to read, shortly after its publication, I looked at the blurb on its cover and was so instantly turned off that I refused. It was only in the wake of the publication of Mockingjay, when I understood that this book had spawned a series that many of my students had read passionately, that I decided that it was a book I ought to read. And I am very glad that I did. I have read many novels about dystopian futures in my life, and several in the YA category, but none (at least in that category) that has been able to accomplish what Collins accomplished in The Hunger Games and its sequels. It would require a post a lot longer than the one I am prepared to author right now to discuss the many levels of her social commentary, but even in its most overt levels--the ubiquity of our television-dominated culture and how easily we can be manipulated through the media, as well as the unparalleled imbalance of wealth and power between the few and the many in our world today--Collins goes so much further than most authors of such books ever manage to. And in creating the character of Katniss, someone for young girls to see as a literary figure whom they can look up to, a worthy successor to Buffy Summers (unlike Bella Swan, whose single goal of being with Edward Cullen drives her to abandon education, family, even life itself) who can show them that females can be winners in the world. 

Not only that, but (as has been pointed out elsewhere) Collins manages to turn gender roles upside down almost everywhere in her novels: Peeta is the sweet half of the couple who is a baker, the commander of the rebels is a woman, the incredible dress-maker is a man, etc. Katniss may not show obvious growth in her character arc in this part of the story, as some have complained about, but this is only the beginning of the trilogy. And it is a beginning in which her entire focus has been on surviving...not to decide between a pair of lovers (as is the case with Bella) but to get back home to her sister, whom her mother cannot provide for. She has not truly had much opportunity for that kind of growth. But within the narrow confines of the opportunities she has had, she has managed to foment the beginnings of a revolution that have become obvious to President Snowe, which is why he has Seneca Crane put to death at the film's end.

I have read the complaint that not enough time is given in the film to the characters of the other tributes. I would argue that it is exactly the point: Katniss (from whose point of view the book--as well as the film--is told) does not know them. She *cannot* know them. She thinks of them only by pseudonyms like "Foxface." They are other teenagers in her plight, but they are her enemies; they stand in the way of that single purpose of survival. Some of them, as is made clear to her in the film, are "careers"; that is, they are tributes from somewhat wealthier districts whose life purpose is to be in these games and to win them. Does Cato seem overly eager, overly happy to be here? He is. His whole life has been spent preparing to bring back this victory for the glory of his district. Developing these characters any more than Collins does would not only be unrealistic--how would Katniss possibly know their stories?--but would make this a story about the games themselves instead of what it actually is: a story about the world that could create such an atrocity. It is not a mistake or a coincidence that the games take up such a relatively small portion of both the book and the film: it isn't about them. And as the trilogy goes on, the games themselves become more a symbol of the Capital's horrific rule than anything that Collins chooses to dwell on in her narrative. Been there, shown that, she seems to be saying. Now let's focus on what's really important.

The (few) negative reviews I have seen of The Hunger Games have basically come in three categories. First, there are those who simply felt that it was not a good movie, that it was dull or uninteresting or not well done. These people are, of course, entitled to their opinion, even if it is utterly wrong. (Please insert winking emoticon of your choice here.) The second variety are those who feel that, though well made, it is not a good adaptation of the film because too much was confusing or unexplained. And the third variety, linked to the second, are the reviews that seek to take a moral high ground: this film glorifies what it seeks to condemn, they scream; in that it fails to a greater degree than if it were simply a bad movie.

I acknowledge that a good film adaptation should not leave a non-reader confused, so if you found yourself uncertain of what was happening or why, it would make sense that you would feel this to be a poor adaptation. But if you react to the film with disgust about its premise, then I suggest that your own horror over what you were seeing was something similar to what I felt when I first read that blurb: it colored your perceptions to the point where you missed some of the film's (admittedly perhaps subtle) explanatory elements. Katniss's desperate need to help Prim was explained in her trackerjacker vision, when we see her father killed and watch as her mother falls to pieces, recalling her words to her mother as she left after the reaping to the effect of "You can't break down again" and her screaming to Gale to watch over Prim because she did not trust her mother to do it. The whole "career tributes" thing was discussed and handled very quickly, and I can see how it might have been easy to miss, but it was definitely there if you were paying attention. Many of the significant philosophical concepts were handled in the quiet garden conversations between Snowe and Crane, as Katniss's actions begin to pull further and further from the standard script of the Games. 

Ultimately, Katniss manages to do something that makes a statement that she knows is going to make the President very unhappy. She forces his hand, and she knows that everyone in the entire country is watching her do it. This, I think, is shown with absolute clarity in the film, and if that is not character growth, I am not sure what anyone could want from her. She is a girl who never wanted to be a leader or a revolutionary, and at the end of the film still does not. But she is capable of anything. And that is a message that any viewer--especially any young female viewer--ought to be able to take away from the film.

This film by itself does not complete the character arc of Katniss Everdeen. It merely begins it. At the end of the Hunger Games, both book and movie, she is returned to her beloved District 12 and her family, significantly more aware of the world of politics around her, but once more feeling fairly safe. She has been through their little circus. She is untouchable. It is when Panem pulls her back into its gory trap in the aptly titled Catching Fire that the spark already lit in this first book begins to erupt into flame. And in Mockingjay, when she is the symbol of a revolution but--here's the rough knock of reality for you--not really trained to be a part of it, she spends much of the book simmering before the fire once again explodes. Katniss may be an accidental hero, but she is a worthy one. And to complain that she does not undergo enough major growth in the first book of her trilogy is akin to asking why Frodo Baggins doesn't in Fellowship of the Ring or why Harry Potter is still a naive kid at the end of Sorcerer's Stone. There is simply more story yet to come.

So, for the record, I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation of The Hunger Games, but then I knew I would the second that Jennifer Lawrence was named as its star. Having seen her in Winter's Bone, in which she was nominated for an Oscar for playing a tough-as-nails teenager trying to keep her impoverished family together despite having no father and a broken down mother and the need to wade into territory that was dangerous and potentially fatal (sound familiar?), I knew that she was perfect for Katniss. Every second I saw onscreen bore out my expectations. This film perfectly   depicted the world I read in the books, and I am excited that it did it so well that I will be assured to be able to see the rest of the series. This is one YA series that, I think, is truly more for adults than for the kids who make up its target audience. I think that everyone should see this movie and read these novels. And it seems as if the world has made a pretty good start at it. 

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it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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