The mammoth, Titanic-like opening of the movie version of the first installment of The Hunger Games series (in what has now become movieland tradition, the other two books will be coming to you as three more films) has catapulted the already best-selling books into the Harry Potter sales stratosphere and has got everybody in a Hunger Games frenzy. Being a guy who pretty much always follows the crowd, I also read the books, saw the movie, perused the articles and listened to the soundtrack album (well, it's not exactly a soundtrack album but we'll get to that). Will it be a passing fad? Well, maybe. If so, will it be a passing fad with an awful lot of fascinating content? No question.
Just like with Harry Potter, it's the books that remain the center of this cultural phenomenon. But this trilogy could not be more different than J.K. Rowling's seven books. Rowling created an expansive and wholly lived-in altered universe only slightly different from our own, complete with entire casts of characters in different locations, both micro- and meta-politics, plenty of humor mixed in with the gruel, and a heroic battalion grouped around “The Boy Who Lived” (who grew from an 11-year-old kid to high school senior over the course of the books). In literature terms, it was something on the order of “War and Peace," except, you know, sort of for kids, with wizards and stuff. Suzanne Collins' Panem is something completely different - an unremittingly dark, claustrophobic world (actually just a single country - there is no mention of the world outside of Panem, which is the former U.S. destroyed and reconstituted after a catastrophic war) where much of the detail is only cryptically (or allegorically) rendered, and there is just a small, closed circle of characters who stand in for various philosophical worldviews. And everything is filtered through the first-person narrative of the main character. A classical literature comparison might be more like “Moby Dick," without the whales (I find myself making these literature comparisons as an argument against people like Joel Stein, who wrote that adults should only read adult books in the New York Times).
And like “Moby Dick” (and another “adult” book that The Hunger Games reminds me of, “Catcher In The Rye”) the main character is the heart and soul of these novels, and the single element that makes the the trilogy so compelling. Katniss Everdeen (named, for those following the classical literature score board, for a character in a Thomas Hardy novel) is one of those great literary creations that don't come along very often. Telling her own story in terse, economic prose, she ruminates on her hardscrabble upbringing as the oldest child of a widowed, damaged mother in a place that resembles coal-country Appalachia, and then is suddenly cast, through a combination of unfortunate happenstance and one of her momentary flashes of nearly supernatural courage, into the games that give the trilogy its name, and from there deep into the politics of a country on the edge of rebellion.
By turns she is willful almost to the point of arrogance, crippled by self doubt, brilliantly resourceful, naive about politics (both internal and external) and easily manipulated. She has moments of clarity where her confidence and self-awareness are more powerful than the entire established order of the country, and moments when she just doesn't seem to know what the hell is going on. She's frustrating, stubborn, charismatic, given to fits of both temper and intense affection, but always burns with a fierce, self-sacrificing loyalty to both what remains of her family and what she perceives as right. What Suzanne Collins has created is the most awesome but typical 17-year-old ever. She stays with you after you have finished the last book, and I think she will stay with me forever.
Although Katniss is the way in, and certainly what makes these books resonate the way they do, it's the concepts that Collins explores that give the books their heft. Despite the lack of detail, the structure of the Panem world is a thinly disguised thumbnail sketch of the modern world economic system, where the poorly-paid and cared-for labor mightily to maintain the wealthy and decadent “Capitol” in the style to which it has become accustomed. This is all enforced by both casual and systemic cruelty, backed up by the threat of devastating military force which is at the Capitol's command. Especially powerful is the contrast between the self-absorbed, shallow concerns of the people they meet in the Capitol with the daily struggle for survival of people in the “districts." Partly because of the tightly-controlled media (which includes the fight-to-the-death reality show that gives the books their name) and partly due to willful ignorance, even the most well-meaning Capitol dwellers have no idea of the price of their indulgence paid by others less fortunate. Collins deftly handles this through Katniss' bewildered (and increasingly angry) internal dialogue, never heavy-handed but always coming back to the question that hangs over the story: “Does it have to be this way?” This is another thing that distinguishes “The Hunger Games” from Harry Potter or “Twilight” - Collins wonders aloud whether there is a systemic problem with the way things are. She questions the entire status quo, and by implication, modern capitalism itself. Harry fights bigotry and xenophobia and “evil” but the Ministry of Magic happily cooperates with the British government, and poor Bella never really questions anything, even the very traditional gender roles she is playing out with a vampire and a werewolf. There have been some right-wing critics attempting to claim The Hunger Games as their own, saying how the Capitol's dictatorial presence represents “government overreach” or some such or a defense of free-market libertarianism but Collins' question remains larger than whether Obama is a socialist or whatever. Even her “good guys” who Katniss (as usual for her, only half willingly) aligns herself with in the later books are clearly a non-capitalist society, a slightly dour share-the-wealth group penned in by contingency, but pretty chipper about it nonetheless. She even brushes up against the race question, noting almost as an aside that in the agricultural “District 11” where most of the population is dark-skinned, the cruelties of the enforcers are amplified almost to the point of sadism.
Oh, and did I mention gender? Well, everyone else has and they are going on and on about it, with good reason. This is the quiet breakthrough of the book, and again, it's back to Katniss, who seamlessly and without much comment embodies aspects of what we think of as both “male” and “female” gender roles, and makes it seem normal. As has been well noted, she does kick ass when necessary, and has an almost McGyver-like resourcefulness in dangerous situations. But she's not a “kick ass chick with a rockin' bod” designed to combine young males' thirst for blood lust with their thirst for sex, like Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft. In fact, as described in the book she is thin and somewhat plain looking. Her moments of sensitive social interaction (when not blinded by anger or revenge), her distinctly non-macho self-doubt, and her desire to protect and comfort those around her blur the gender divisions even further.
But it's her uncertainty about, and almost indifference to, romance that provides the heavy artillery here. One thing that possibly could get conservatives excited about the Hunger Games is the lack of sex, and the fact that no one is obsessing over it. But this isn't about saving her virginity for the Lord's work - this is about not surrendering anything to the cruel circumstances. “I'm never having kids,” she says, subtly echoing Bob Dylan's famous indictment in “Masters of War." Despite this, there is something of a love triangle, and Katniss does have two suitors who are obsessed with her - but not with having her. Significantly, her two relationships are actual relationships - that is, two people who are actually communicating and creating something together as equals. And Collins mischievously also gives her arena cohort Peeta what might be otherwise considered “feminine” qualities - he's the one who is sensitive about social interactions, who knows nothing about using weapons, and whose chief skill is cake decorating, of all things (in the movie, casting Josh Hutcherson, who is shorter than Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss, continues that theme).
There is more, of course, but I'll let the endless chattering voices on the internet continue these conversations while I get to the movie. It's not as bad as some of these movies can be, but I think The New Yorker's David Denby said it best: “Making an exciting movie out of 'The Hunger Games' should not have been that hard.” But it seems to have been a challenge that director Gary Ross was not quite up to. I have no quarrels with the casting - I tend to like Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson in almost any old thing, and the critical casting of Jennifer Lawrence as the main character, even though she's not how I would have pictured her, works quite well. But the script, co-written by Collins herself, takes the point of view away from Katniss, and tends to emphasize the one thing I found tiring in the books themselves - the sort of video-game quality of the struggle in the arena, where each battle you win, and each level you climb up to, presents you with a new set of grisly challenges and another mean guy lunging at you with a sword. And Ross' inability to look the action square in the eye, with his endless quick cuts and hand-held camera, turn the book's simply stated but harrowing details of the struggle for survival into a blur. Happily, outside the arena, most of Collins' intriguing themes are kept intact - they did not try to bury the politics (unlike, for instance, the missed-opportunity “Golden Compass”) nor did they try to dress up the romances. With her usual resilience, Katniss manages to shine through. And with both Ross and Collins uninvolved in the next film, hopefully there will be improvement, as in the “Potter” films.
And finally a word on the “soundtrack” album: Why weren't these songs in the movie? They stuck a few of them on at the end. Whoever directs the next film needs to go back and watch Robert Altman's “McCabe and Mrs. Miller." That's how to score a dystopia! Taylor Swift (who looks more like the Katniss I imagined as I read the books) gets it right, as usual - why did I have to wait for the closing credits to hear this wonderful, evocative song?
Tony Are is a writer, critic, and occasional musician who lives in New York City. He started playing in bands in 1967 and finally gave up in 2003. Now he sits in a rocking chair and tells the young whippersnappers how much better it used to be in his day. His poetry is at http://tonyare.weebly.com/index.html.
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