Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games

To get the boring stuff out of the way first: The Huger Games is a good movie.  Tense, fast-paced, and riveting, its nearly two and a half hour running time passes effortlessly and with a white-knuckle intensity that leaves one feeling almost breathless when the credits roll.  Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss Everdeen, the girl forced to compete for her life in a gladiatorial contest with twenty three other children, including one who is in love with her, crafting a character who is both heroic and overwhelmed, savvy and naive.  The film's world, a future America called Panem in which a hedonistic, wealthy capitol lords over the dirt poor districts that produce its food, goods, and energy, is a perfect blend of the familiar, the futuristic, and the backwards--Katniss's home, district 12, looks and feels in many ways like a Depression-era mining town, but with enough touches or modernity to make it believable as a backwater of a futuristic empire, and the capitol is opulent in ways that are both enticing and strange.  A strong cast, with standout performances from Woody Harrelson as Katniss's alcoholic mentor Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks as the vapid but strangely affectionate capitol representative Effie, help to bring that world to life.  It is, in short, an excellent evening's entertainment.

Now to the more interesting discussion: I watched The Hunger Games with my brother, who hasn't read Suzanne Collins's book, and where I found the film excellent he was sorely disappointed.  Katniss had it too easy, he complained, the plot never forcing her to compromise herself in order to survive, and never asking her to kill anyone who hasn't been heavily signposted as evil (and even then, quite rarely).  This is, of course, exactly the complaint I made after reading the book, and the film indeed does nothing to address it.  On the contrary, it plays up the bloodlust of "Career" tribute Cato (Alexander Ludwig), who has been training for the games since childhood and volunteered for them rather than being chosen in a lottery like the other contestants, and the sweet innocence of district 11 tribute Rue (Amandla Stenberg), whom Katniss adopts as a surrogate for the beloved younger sister whose place she took in the games, and whose death justifies Katniss's first kill.  The sequence in which Katniss first bonds with Rue, then avenges and mourns her death, which concludes with her laying out Rue's body and strewing it with flowers, is one of the weakest in the film, because so blatantly--and insultingly--manipulative.  (Also, the fact that both Rue and her fellow district 11 tribute, who later saves Katniss's life in Rue's honor and is then killed by Cato, are black while Katniss is white adds an extra layer of discomfort to this subplot.)

Having read the book, however, and having learned to expect a certain slavish fidelity whenever Hollywood tries to leverage a popular book's fanbase into a new blockbuster film series, I went into The Hunger Games expecting it to repeat the book's manipulations.  Which left me more able to appreciate the ways in which the film does deviate from the book, and address--if incompletely--some of its problems.  First and foremost, the film is forced to lose Katniss's first person narrative, which some fans might view as an impediment but is, to my mind, all to the good.  First person narratives are fashionable in YA right now (I've even heard some YA authors complain that they've had trouble selling books in the third person), but in a novel as rooted in complex, painful history as The Hunger Games, the narrator is often drowned out by the infodumps they are required to deliver.  The film lets Katniss breathe, moving through her world as someone who already knows it while people around her--mainly the games' administrators and commentators--explain its rules to the audience.  An even bigger problem with Katniss's voice is that Collins presents her as a blunt, uncomplicated person who is uncomfortable with her own emotions and has trouble understanding others', then uses her as our viewpoint on a world whose inhabitants are a great deal more subtle and sophisticated.  Another author could have shown us things through Katniss's eyes that Katniss misses or misconstrues, but Collins doesn't seem to have been up to the task.  Instead, she endows Katniss with a selective knowingness that seems to have more to do with the demands of the plot than with the character's organic growth.  Katniss is oblivious one moment, and psychologically astute the next, with no discernible reason for her shifts between the two states.

By stepping out of Katniss's limited perspective, and even depicting scenes in which she is not present, the film is able to preserve Katnis's naiveté while showing us the more complex world that she is only beginning to discover.  Even better, it allows her to grow and learn from her experiences in the capitol.  When Katniss is first selected for the games, she is combative and headstrong, because those are the skills that have served her well as her family's breadwinner.  Both Haymitch and her stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) explain to her that winning the games is less a matter of martial skill and more of being able to win over an audience, and over the course of the film we see Katniss slowly learn, and then master, that skill.  She goes from hanging back from the crowd when she and fellow district 12 tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) arrive in the capitol, to gingerly courting the audience by showing off her dress and talking about her sister in a pre-game interview, to gamely parroting the party line in a post-game interview, playing the role of star-crossed lover, through which she and Peeta were able to win the game jointly, to the hilt.

Another advantage that stepping away from Katniss's point of view confers on the film is that it forces the filmmakers to play up the book's most interesting aspect, its take on the games as reality TV taken to its illogical conclusion.  So much of the details of the film's plot are explained to us through the interviews and commentary that are being broadcast across Panem that we become viewers of the Hunger Games, which, through those scenes of commentary, emerge less as Katniss and Peeta's traumatic, life-changing experience and more as a longstanding sporting tradition, in which the current batch of tributes are but the latest participants.  References to previous games and victories, and comparisons of the events in the current games with those of previous years, not only have the effect of making the film's world seem more real and more layered, but reinforce the sense that the games are entertainment, and that the high stakes that the characters feel are nothing but an evening's amusement to those watching them.

It is perhaps for this reason that the one place in which moving away from Katniss's point of view hobbles the film is the love story between her and Peeta.  In the book, Katniss is thrown not only by her own confused feelings but by the fact that her life depends on being able to successfully perform infatuation, but the film doesn't bring across the complexity of her feelings.  Her romance with Peeta in the games arena feels rushed and unconvincing, and though this is at least in part a problem with the transition from page to screen--Peeta is probably the most shortchanged of the film's major characters--given the importance of performance, and especially the performance of romance, to the story, this failing can't help but reflect on The Hunger Games as a whole.  It's possible that the film intends for us to conclude that Katniss and Peeta's romance is purely a play for the audience's sympathy, though this is to simplify the book's version of the relationship quite considerably.  What I think, however, is that the film actually expects us to think the opposite, and take the romance as wholly genuine.  And therein lies the problem, as a story that emphasizes the falseness of everything that Katniss does and says expects us to accpet unquestioningly that this one behavior is genuine.

This, even more than the manipulative way in which it guides Katniss through the games without compromising her, is the core problem of The Hunger Games, book and film--and both are rooted in the same unwillingness on Collins's part to take real risks with her characters or her story.  The film presents us with a scenario whose artificiality it trumpets at every turn, and then expects us to selectively accept parts of that scenario as genuine.  Nor is this expectation of selective credulity limited to the love story between Katniss and Peeta.  In the film, as in the book, Katniss is the heavy favorite to win the games, both among the people who know her and the ones she meets in the capitol.  In the book, this feels like the natural conclusion to be drawn given Katniss's courage and skills (and, of course, the fact that she is the protagonist), but what the film emphasizes is that, as far as the characters in the story are concerned, the reason that Katniss is tipped to win is the fact that she's captured the public imagination--by volunteering to take her sister's place she's put herself at the center of a heroic narrative, and the people watching at home want that narrative to end satisfyingly.  One of the most interesting deviations the film makes from the book is Cato's final scene.  Where in the book he's triumphant all the way to the moment that Katniss vanquishes him, in the film he's despairing.  "I'm already dead," he says.  "I didn't realize it at first but now I do."  It's a puzzling line--Cato is close to winning to game--until one reads it as Cato's realization that, like so many reality contestants before him, he's been cast as the story's villain, someone the audience enjoys but doesn't want to see win.  And if Cato's villainy is, at least in part, a story imposed upon him, what does that say about Katniss's heroism?

It's a question that the film doesn't seem interested in addressing.  Much like her romance with Peeta, Katniss's heroism is something it expects us to accept as genuine, even though both are more complicated.  What's missing here, I think--what could have defused the sense that The Hunger Games is trying to have its cake and eat it too, to decry the violence and artificiality of the games, but also to revel in them as a meaningful contest of skill and courage--was some sense of the games' audience.  Not the people who manage the games, nor the ones, like Katniss's friends and family, who have a direct stake in them, but the ones who consume them as entertainment, for whom the story of Peeta and Katniss's doomed love and triumph against the odds is the best show on TV.  The equivalent, in the other words, of the bored security guards following the story in The Truman Show.  The bread and circuses reference in Panem's name almost requires that such people exist, but we never see them.  Instead, the people of the districts watch the games in solemn silence (giving way to riots in district 11 after Rue's death) while in the capitol they are a cause for celebration, which among other things feels unrealistically stark--surely there would be people in the capitol who recognize the games' barbarism, and people in the districts who enjoy rooting for their favorites and against the districts they dislike.  To show us such an audience would have been to make it clear that the games are a show, and that their artificiality infects everything that occurs in and around them--Peeta and Katniss's love story, and Katniss's heroism, included.  But this, I think, would have been a great deal more cynical than the film is willing to be, and the fans are willing to tolerate.

In the end, though it addresses many of my problems with the book, and though it is such a massively entertaining film, The Hunger Games can't--or possibly won't--escape the hollowness at the center of its original.  As Hollywood's looting of geek culture becomes ever more frenzied, I find myself repeatedly falling into the trap of thinking that a new take on an interesting but flawed work might chip away at those flaws and bring to the surface what was interesting and worthwhile.  What I keep bumping up against is the fact that in the new world of book-to-film adaptations, the ones looking to court a preexisting audience that numbers in the millions, fidelity to the source material is, for better and worse, the highest virtue.  The Hunger Games could, and should, have been a meaty, thought-provoking film, but only by stepping away from its source.  By remaining faithful to the book, the film is merely a very good piece of entertainment.  That's by no means a small accomplishment, but it's hard to watch the film, enjoyable as it is, without lamenting what might have been.

34 comments:

lavanyasix said...

I'd never read the books, and went to it with my sister who had, and we both enjoyed the movie. But I agree that Katniss had it easy in a moral sense. She bloodied her hands, but never before someone gave her a reason to. If the movie had really wanted to demonstrate the brutal, exploitative showmanship of the Hunger Games, I think a braver choice for the last kill would have been the Redheaded Girl (who died on those berries) rather than Cato.

Cato, to be blunt, had it coming. Despite his eleventh hour turnaround, he'd gleefully indulged in the murder of his fellow competitors, and even snapped his fellow teammate's neck in a fit of anger. And on top of Katniss not directly having to murder him, she offers him quietus! His turnaround didn't feel justified. But then, maybe it wasn't genuine. A killer grappling with his conscience after the unexpected death of a foxhole buddy would make for good TV, no?

The Redhead, on the other hand, was basically a mirror Katniss; neither enemy nor scrappy sacrificial lamb, just a girl trying to survive. Heck, Katniss would have been dead three or four times over if not for the Redhead Girl taking a risk while Katniss dithered, like at the minefield. The District 12 duo being forced to kill somebody who didn't deserve it to complete their story, as a prelude to their abortive Romeo & Juliet routine, would have been a meatier cap on the story. While that would have been a downer ending, I think it would have felt truer to the movie's premise.

Foxessa said...

The entire Rue arc is worse than manipulative: it ignores that at some point Katniss would have to kill Rue in order to win. You can game the system once, for Peeta, but not twice.

What the book and the film adapted from it also ignore is, as you put it the consumer of the games. That's because it's us who buy and adore the book of children forced by adults to kill each other and pay the 13 dollars to watch that killing played out on screen (well, not me -- I won't, and I read the books because I had to, to speak knowledably of them). We're the mass consumers of violence, from the football leagues to Dexter.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

lavanyasix:

I didn't mean to imply that Cato is redeemed or has a moral turnaround at the end of the film - his last words are, after all, something like "I like to kill." I did, however, find him pitiable, because the sense I got was that it was only at this point that Cato figured out the lesson that Haymitch had taught Katniss from day one - that winning isn't about being the best killer but about winning over the audience. So that scene is the moment in which his arrogance and self assurance are demolished as he realizes that all his strength and training can't save him. Which to my mind humanizes him, making an - admittedly despicable - person out of what had previously been nothing but a sneering obstacle in our heroes' path.

Foxessa:

It's been a few years since I read the book, but I do have a vague recollection of Katniss acknowledging the fact that she and Rue will eventually have to turn on each other. Technically, the film has an excuse for not raising the issue, as temporary alliances that devolve into backstabbing once the herd had been thinned are a hallmark of reality TV. But, once again, the story makes things easy on Katniss, killing Rue before either she or Katniss are forced to decide whether to betray the other.

lavanyasix said...

Abigail:

I see your point now. That makes sense.

belledame said...

overall, it was pretty enjoyable. it manages to be both earthy in the district, sterile in the capitol and bleak in the arena. a number of things have to leave non-readers confused. katniss and gale discuss how many times their names are in the bowl, but not the context for what that means. an explanation would neatly point out why this is called "the hunger games" and why it is so brutal. it isn't just the brutality of the children-turned-gladiators. it is the built in aspect of all eligible kids being able to put more tickets in the lottery in exchange for more food - of the population being kept so desperately hungry that the kids would actually risk it. that is the humdinger that spells out the outrageousness of the hunger games. i think if a viewing audience sat back an listened to a voiceover of that, or watched as prim's blood print went on one slip while katniss' blood print went on 25 slips... the impact would be stunning.


breaking from katniss pov was brilliant. seeing how the games is actually run and how the people who control it and the country regard it was brilliant. don't tell us the capitol is heartless. let them show us with their own actions and words. how many does seneca crane make it clear that these kids' live mean NOTHING to him. that was frankly amazing. and i'm personally thrilled that they condensed the all night horrorfest of cato being gnawed by werewolves into a few minutes. i'm pretty sure that's the thing that broke katniss overall. in the book i can't understand why she waited all night to shoot him. and i like that he had that little comment about only knowing how to kill. he and the other careers are cast as evil, but we're explicitly told that their entire upbringing has been about winning the hunger games. that doesn't make them evil when it's all they've ever known. who knows what they might have been if they'd been given choices.


my opinion about rue stretches through the three books to the very end. so i'm SPOILER WARNING non-readers:

rue is a foreshadowing for prim. it isn't about the fact that she and katniss join forces without examining the hard truth that one of them will have to die in the end. rue's story shows us that there are too many other factors in motion. katniss cannot guard against that much chaos. any number of things might kill them. rue might not have survived the forest fire-herding tactic. she might not have had the reflexes, speed or strength to survive the burns. heck, she might have up in the trees when it started.

the most agonizing thing about the series, for me, was the realization that all katniss' sacrifice on her sister's behalf failed to save prim in the end. it was simply not within katniss' control. and her first taste of this is with rue. obviously, katniss is an agent of fate. but she didn't know that and she didn't set out to be that. all she tried to do was keep her little sister alive. which no amount of arrows could accomplish.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

belledame:

Yes, one of the things that are really missing from the movie is any emphasis on hunger. I was particularly struck by Katniss and Peeta's non-reaction to the food on the train that takes to the capitol, when in the book they are overwhelmed by how rich and plentiful it is.

I haven't read the sequels, but from what you're describing it sounds as if they do some of the things I wish the first book had done. Of course, the main complaint about them, and especially the last book, is that they revel in misery and death to an alienating degree, so possibly there's a middle ground to be found.

Anonymous said...

Definitely agree with your conclusion. I enjoyed the books, though I had plenty of problems with them, and I found the movie very well put together and incredibly emotionally intense during the two and change hours I was watching it.

But I really went in hoping that it would be a great deal better than the books. Okay, normally I get pretty stuck in the classic geek mindset of the greater fidelity the better, but I figured the switch to a visual medium could be really effective for the story while also giving them the chance to work out some of the narrative and technical kinks.

Chuk said...

Yeah, I have read other comments about them not being hungry enough in the film and I do agree, although I'm not sure showing people pigging out would have been good. They didn't look very hungry, either, but more like young people who have great health care, food, and exercise.
I am wondering if Katniss' ceremony with Rue after her death might have been something calculated to look good to the viewers? I might just be reading that in to it, though. It's been a while since I read the book but I thought I remembered her thinking about Gale a bit more while in the arena.
(Also, they totally miscast Buttercup.)

belledame said...

@chuk - no, they only made a few changes to rue's death scene. like making it so that the guy was aiming for katniss and hit rue by mistake. in the book, she arrives after he has intentionally speared rue.

katniss did sing for her and weave a crown of flowers for her and give the district 12 salute. the scene of the response in district 11 was not in the book.

@ anonymous - totally agree, film should have given them tremendous opportunities to show-not-tell. to some extent they took advantage, as with allowing seneca crane and president snow to show their particular brands of ruthlessness through their own deeds.

@ abigail - i dunno how you could stop at one. i was so devastated by the final books, i'm not sure whether to agree or disagree with that assessment. i tend to view the story in terms of katniss' own journey since she - as the hero - is essential to the unfolding events. the hunger games wounds her very, very deeply, the second book takes her into a nightmare she never knew existed and almost drives her insane. by the time she reaches the third book, katniss is broken. she's a shellshocked soldier who cannot get discharged. she loses more and more freedom and choice as the story progresses, having almost no choice but to take the heroic role laid out for her. the death and misery are just aspects of the war. katniss' struggle to not be owned by government (the "the" is missing intentionally) is the real story.

the price of freedom is steep and lots of people pay dearly, including the girl who was on fire.

jh said...

But the revenge kill -- I saw it as a self-defense kill, which generally even more morally acceptable -- was the second kill Katniss made. Dropping a nest of genetically engineered killer hornets on Cato etc was the first, and I thought that in the film it was played up as deliberate intent. It was possible, of course, that it would only injure them all, or kill more than one of them, but it was planned as a murderous attack.

I enjoyed the movie, and enjoyed hearing the reactions from the audience who had not read the book. Though it did some things better than the book (the lack of first person narration, the focus on the gamemakers and Seneca Crane, playing up how we are the audience), some things no worse than the book (the infodumping), and some things less well (the costumes, the hunger), it was an interesting parallel.

L. Rookwood said...

Unfortunately, a film the scale of the Hunger Games officially puts the kiss of death on my fond hope that Josh Hutcherson would be one of those child actors that simply drops off the face of the earth upon reaching adulthood and is never heard from again. I hate him so much.

Kit said...

I'd cautiously recommend the second two books. The first half of Book II is mediocre, but after that the series improves markedly and Collins fixes the various having-her-cake-and-eating-it-too issues that afflict Book I and the first half of Book II:

- Katniss is a tomboy who is too cool and ungirly to care about her appearance, yet every outfit she wears is a gorgeous dress that is described in excruciating detail

- Katniss is a badass killer who wins a deathmatch against 24 innocent children, yet somehow manages not to kill anyone who doesn't deserve it

- Katniss magically becomes socially astute whenever it is convenient for the plot, and is completely oblivious the rest of the time

- Katniss is in peril of her life and her world is on the cusp of revolution, yet her primary concern is a love triangle (this is probably not wholly unrealistic for a teenager but dear God is it tedious)

- Panem is a totalitarian dictatorship, yet there's a clean divide between good people and evil ones, with no collaborators or ordinary people just muddling along in their society

Almost all of that gets sorted out from the second half of Book II on. Collins doesn't really understand how totalitarianism works, but it turns out she understands revolutions pretty well. I was pleasantly surprised. I was also impressed by her willingness to deny Katniss agency- there are several points where it looks like Katniss will get to be a standard action hero and then things go wrong and the foreshadowed heroics fail to occur. (This is probably the reveling in death and misery people were complained about, but I was too busy reveling in the realism of a revolution in a YA novel in which a 17 year old girl doesn't do all the work to notice.)

I also think Collins improves a bit as a stylist as she goes along, so there's that to recommend the later volumes.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most insightful (and well written!) critiques of the movie that I have come across. You make a number of extremely thoughtful and thought-provoking observations, and I agree with many of them. Yes, Collins makes it too easy on the protagonist because she never faces a difficult choice about when she has to kill. And, yes, I found the Rue sequence terribly manipulative as well -- truly the weakest part of the film (and one, as you may have heard, that has given rise to a great deal of racist commentary on the internet).

But you make one observation that I do not find persuasive: the story, you write, "emphasizes the falseness of everything that Katniss does and says" but then "expects us to accept unquestioningly that this one behavior [her romance] is genuine." Yes, I do think that the audience is expected to "buy" the romance, and also that it is much more ambiguous in the book. But: why do you believe that the story emphasizes K's falseness? Yes, she "learns" to play the game and "work" the audience as the book (and movie) progress. But, on the whole, she remains an extremely "genuine" character. Are there are points in the story (apart, say, from the TV interviews) where she seems false? I know this is subjective, but I didn't catch them myself.

What I found most intriguing about your review was the following line: "And if Cato's villainy is, at least in part, a story imposed upon him, what does that say about Katniss's heroism?" That thought chilled me. But I do wish you might have developed it a bit further. After all, Cato chose to be part of the Games; she did not -- apart from volunteering in order to dave her sister. Her heroism is central to (and necessary for) the story, but she is, indeed, a heroic character. It is not a persona imposed upon her, or one she merely "assumes." Or do you see it differently?

I came upon your blog while doing some research about Being Human Season 3 -- and wish to comment as well on that piece, which I also found very persuasive, except for your criticism of Mitchell. But that can wait for another day...

Finally: is English your first language? I know that all Israelis learn English from a young age, but still: your writing is phenomenal (and as a university professor who has to read a great deal of poor prose, I have some idea what I'm talking about!).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Anon.:

Surely Katniss's heroism is undermined at every turn of the story? She's undeniably a brave, self-sacrificing, intrinsically heroic person, but the world she lives in doesn't have room for heroes. Her heroism is tainted and undermined by the system that manipulates her and turns her into entertainment for the masses. My problem with the book and the film is that they don't go far enough in acknowledging how compromised Katniss is simply by her attempts to survive - we're expected, ultimately, to cheer her victory in the games even though it represents the culmination of a horrific ritual of slaughter, and despite her "triumph" in being allowed to win jointly with Peeta being a PR stunt that further entrenches the games' popularity. For all her heroism, Katniss literally plays the Capitol's game - that she must do this in order to survive is tragic, but it doesn't make her heroic. According to belledame and Kit, the next two books complicate and ultimately dismantle Katniss's heroism, but I think the first book could have stood to do the same.

Andrew P. said...

I think that's a very unfair take on her heroism. I mean, what choice does she have? She should just jump off the pedestal at the start to blow herself up and end it all before she has to make any compromises? She is put in this position (even if she 'volunteers'), and knows that her family's future depends on how well she does. I don't think we're necessarily expected to 'cheer' her victory, though we are all relieved that she 'wins' in the end. And I think the reason we are not expected to cheer is this: we are given an inkling of what happens to the 'winners' in the character of Haymith, who is a broken person. One of the most poignant scenes is his subtle reaction to the Capitol children 'playing at' the Hunger Games. For some reason, this idea of a 'winner' brings to mind the disturbing ending of Life Is Beautiful, when the boy is sitting on the American tank (even though it was the Soviets who liberated the death camps in the East...), sees his mother under a tree, runs to her, and says 'we won!' What exactly did HE or any of the survivors really win in the end? Primo Levi would surely have disagreed. A sad attempt to make a Hollywood ending of a 'foreign' film...

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The very fact that Katniss has no choices is what undermines her heroism. A hero isn't someone who is forced, bullied, or compelled to act in certain ways.

As I've already said - in the review and in my previous comment - I'm not denying that Katniss is brave and resourceful, nor that she does the best she can in a bad situation. But this makes her a victim, and the film doesn't do enough to acknowledge this.

Andrew P. said...

One more quick point: I actually think that the romance between the two protagonists *is* genuine. And if that is true, what really *is* sad is that that dystopian society (which is not unlike our own Western entertainment society) makes everything seem phony -- which means that even genuine things take on a certain pretense. And that, dear Abigail, is something I find truly scary.

Andrew P. said...

Oh, I do agree that she is a victim. But can't victims also be heroic? I think that a 'hero' (obviously an inflated term, much like 'martyr') does the best that he or she can in the situation into which he or she is thrust. And besides, taking the specific example of Katniss, certainly no one forced her to volunteer in order to save her sister. And all of her other acts arguably flow from this initial act of, well, heroism.

Martin said...

The entire Rue arc is worse than manipulative: it ignores that at some point Katniss would have to kill Rue in order to win. You can game the system once, for Peeta, but not twice.

On the contrary, you can game the system as many times in as many ways as you want. The controllers who make the changes are responding to ratings and want to keep the star in the game. She isn't playing their game so they have to compell her to and who knows what that might entail.

And there is no reason to believe that Katniss would kill Rue in order to win. Since Rue is her surrogate little sister - a sister she volunteered for death to save - I don't think it is farfetched to say she might well die in order to save her. Equally, if the choice was saving Rue or Peeta, I don't think it is obvious that she would save Peeta.

On that point, I actually prefered the film's treatment of their relationship. Yes, it compresses the ambiguity of the book but that is a very mechanical ambiguity drummed into the reader by the author and, by unshackling it from the first person point of view and Collins's prose, I think the film achieves something subtler in its depiction. I certainly don't think it wants us to take it at face value (and in support of this are the repeated less than subtle inserts of Gale.)

As for Collins and the film making things easy on Katniss, I'm not sure I buy that. She makes a conscious decision to take Haymitch's advice and not run into the cornucopia which I think is the key decision of the film (after actually volunteering, of course). Had she done so and been immediately blooded (as was clearly her inclination) then I think it would have been unrealistic for her to have got through the film without killing in cold blood. But this isn't the story Collins is telling and instead Katniss decides to opt out, to concentrate on her own survival rather than the elimination of her peers. For this she is punished by the controllers, psychologically and physically tortured. Having been almost killed and then captured she commits a desperate act of murder to escape. The film then forces her to directly confront the consequences of her actions when she picks up the bow. Of course, Collins could have made things even harder but there is no rule about how hard decisions have to be and Katniss's didn't seem unrealistically easy to me.

I do agree that it is highly convenient that the Fox-Faced Girl eats the berries and hence avoids a confrontation. However, since everything we are shown suggests the Fox-Faced Girl could have slit Katniss's throat without her even noticing, it is probably for the best in terms of the story.

All this defensiveness on my part surprises me because I didn't particularly care for the book and never read the sequels. I thought this adaptation was excellent, however, and really look forward to the next film (particularly given Kit's comments). I'm starting to think that YA fiction really benefits from being freed from its prose.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

On Rue, I think you're being a little too forgiving of Collins's manipulation. Yes, within the story's world it's possible that Katniss will lay down her life to save Rue, or that the rules will be changed to accommodate them as they later are for Katniss and Peeta. But we the readers know that Katniss has to survive to the end and that Rue isn't a sufficiently important character to justify the Peeta treatment, so we're expecting Rue's death at another player's hands. This needn't have been a problem - Katniss doesn't know that she's the heroine in a book and our access to her thoughts should have given us a window on her dilemma - does her surrogate sisterhood with Rue outweigh the promise she made to her real sister (not to mention her survival instinct)? But as I recall the book never addresses this problem, except in the vaguest and most passive of terms - I'm sad because Rue and I can't be friends forever, not I'm sad because I need to decide whether and when to detach myself from/betray Rue before she does it first. The film, though it can't portray Katniss's thoughts, still had the chance to inject some ambivalence to their relationship, but chose not to in a way that ultimately strikes me as part and parcel of its general manipulativeness.

I'm also not convinced by your reading of the cornucopia dilemma. In both the book and the film, Katniss and Haymitch describe the question of whether to run to the cornucopia as a choice between strategies for survival and escape - can she make it to the bow and away without being killed? The possibility that she might kill other tributes in order to gain the bow is never even raised - and in the film, Haymitch argues that Katniss's chances of achieving this are slim, as she is disadvantaged in a melee.

Not that this matters, as my complaint is less that Katniss chooses not to kill when she has a choice, as that she's rarely placed in a situation in which she has no choice but to kill, and that when she is her victims are signposted as unambiguously evil. But I think the two examples you give are instructive. It's possible, as you've done here, to read into Katniss's behavior in both cases a consideration of the possibility of killing, because this is what a reasonable person in her situation, and possessed of her drive and determination, would do. The fact that both the book and the film elide over such thoughts is yet another way in which Collins avoids the tough implications of her story.

Martin said...

I know that Katniss has to survive to the end because I've read the book. However, watching the film I found enough space to read counter narratives into it so Collins's intentions and obvious manipulations are less important to me. I think for you the problems with the film are active (it "elides") whereas for me they are passive (it doesn't directly address questions it raises) and hence can be overcome.

On the cornucopia dilemma, I poorly phrased what I was trying to say. I don't think Katniss's inclination is to be blooded (though I think the film allows this reading - witness the knife in the buffet car) but rather that her inclination to get the bow would end in the sort of melee situation in which this was inevitable. From there I think it is easy to construct a Battle Royale-style counter-narrative in which she is psychologically unbalanced to a degree were you are not at all surprised by violent, cold-blooded actions. In a way this would be liberating - it is what is expected of her, she would not be blamed for her actions - but she rejects it. She fights the system rather than accepting it.

belledame said...

"She's undeniably a brave, self-sacrificing, intrinsically heroic person, but the world she lives in doesn't have room for heroes. Her heroism is tainted and undermined by the system that manipulates her and turns her into entertainment for the masses."

"The very fact that Katniss has no choices is what undermines her heroism. A hero isn't someone who is forced, bullied, or compelled to act in certain ways. "

I dunno. The core of the issue possibly is that THE HUNGER GAMES is not a complete story. The three books make one complete tale. The first two actually end on cliffhangers - my absolute least favorite - like tv shows.

Katniss hits too many of the points of the heroic journey to discount just because she operates within the confines of a controlled system. is neo less heroic because he operates within "the matrix?" no, because the point of his heroism is to change that system. katniss' destiny is the same. it isn't that there is no room for heroes in her world, it's that panem desperately needs a hero who can transcend the barriers imposed by the capitol to keep the districts divided, and thus, conquered. she is the rallying point they people have been waiting for.

when katniss follows her reflex to protect her sister, she does so in the public eye. she's a spark everyone notices. and her behavior is something that the people in the districts can truly empathize with. put another way, katniss accepts the initial call to adventure.

insofar as fictional heroes are servants of destiny, they are all being compelled by some force whether divine or earthly (i'm loosely paraphrasing THE EPIC HERO/Miller). frodo doesn't volunteer to take the ring to mount doom. he is passively trapped while his mouth opens and some other force seems to speak the words through him. but once committed, he does his duty.

Kit said...

the point of his heroism is to change that system

That's not the point of Katniss's heroism, though. I actually find that to be one of the strengths of the books, especially the later ones- she's disgruntled but fundamentally apolitical, and she remains that way even when she's caught up in the middle of the revolution. Gale is a revolutionary. Katniss is just aimlessly pissed off at absolutely everyone: the Capitol, her mom, Haymitch, Coin. She'd rather collaborate than fight, because her only real goal is to keep her family from getting hurt. (The weakness of the later books is that Snow refuses to give her the opportunity, which strikes me as both unrealistic and less interesting from a plot standpoint.) The berry incident only occurred because she'd adopted Peeta into her family by that point and killing him violated her prime directive, so she short-circuited. If had been her vs. Foxface she wouldn't have hesitated to kill her and play the Captiol's game for them.

If heroism requires you to be actively trying to bring down an evil system, then Abigail is right, Katniss doesn't qualify.

I'd argue Frodo does, not because of his volunteering to take the ring (although if that was Iluvatar speaking through him rather than his own will, Iluvatar is an absolute psychopath) but because he elects not to kill Gollum. Some of that was pragmatism, since they needed a guide, but I think most of it was an attempt to break out of the "We kill them, they kill us" binary that had ensnared everyone else apart from Shelob and Tom Bombadil.

belledame said...

My point about Neo isn't exactly that he's actively trying to bring down the system. The point of his heroism was determined by the Oracle, unbeknownst to him. Neo thinks he will disrupt the system within, never realizing that he has to do deal with the matrix from the outside. The revolution he thinks to lead is part of the programming that created him. His heroism lies in brokering a truce with the construct in exchange for bringing down the rogue Smith program.

Katniss is similarly being used by duplicitous forces to achieve their own self-serving ends. She thinks she's recruited to a revolution she doesn't want to join, but thinks needs to happen. But really in the end her destiny serves the people by freeing Panem from manipulative tyrants. She's more than Coin's figurehead. With her last arrow she fulfills her true destiny. I would argue Katniss's destiny is not determined by Snow or Coin or chance but by Fate. Her biography uniquely prepares her to be the tip of the spear that changes Panem and pushes it out of an era of despair and into a hopeful future.

That none of the characters realizes their part in this is beside the point.

(I thought Frodo saved Gollum because he'd come to identify with him and to understand a bit of what the Ring had done to him.)

Andrew P. said...

Shelob?!

Kit said...

But really in the end her destiny serves the people by freeing Panem from manipulative tyrants

This seems to be relying rather heavily on an assumption that Paylor will be better than Coin, an assumption that I'd say is at best weakly supported by the text, especially when you consider Katniss's penultimate big moment in the Capitol. If I recall correctly the Capitol Games are never canceled by the new administration. The narrative of Book III undermines Katniss's position as the Big Damn Hero virtually every single time she encounters the enemy.

I think you're trying to force the story into a Heroic mode that works okay for Book I, but which Book III was explicitly written not to map to very well.

(PS, Abigail? Remember that awful scene in Kings where David stands up on a tank and gives some idiotic speech to the enemy that we both hated? In Book III Collins writes that scene the way it should have gone.)

I thought Frodo saved Gollum because he'd come to identify with him

Sure, but that's a way of refusing to play the game of soldiers- you don't see Elrond saying, "Well, I'm using my Ring of Power to unnaturally prolong the vitality of Rivendell after the divinely ordained lifespan of the Elves in Middle-earth; maybe I should have some sympathy for the Nazgul who are using theirs to do roughly the same thing with their short mortal lifespans." Frodo's empathy with Gollum is a recognition that what virtually everyone from Sauron down to Sam is perceiving as a straight forward battle between Good and Evil is really something a bit more complex.

Shelob eats everyone, orcs and hobbits alike. She and Tom are non-partisan. ;) (Which as Elrond rightly points out is not a solution to the Sauron problem, so I'm not blaming everyone else for getting drawn in to the war. They're still mugs for it though, especially Sauron, since the overwhelming conclusion of LoTR is that real time strategy is his single biggest weakness as an evil overlord.)

Bobbie Wickham said...


This seems to be relying rather heavily on an assumption that Paylor will be better than Coin, an assumption that I'd say is at best weakly supported by the text, especially when you consider Katniss's penultimate big moment in the Capitol. If I recall correctly the Capitol Games are never canceled by the new administration.


They are canceled--it states that the Hunger Games were abolished, and there's no mention of a final one. Katniss's penultimate big moment is a feint, a way of hiding her intention to assassinate Coin. We know this because she says she agrees to the Capitol Games "for Prim," but she's just found out that Coin and not the Capitol is responsible for Prim's fate.

I'd also say there's pretty good evidence that Paylor is better than Coin. Coin is portrayed as particularly ruthless and power-hungry. Paylor isn't, and she also is the one to let Katniss talk to Snow and discover Coin's betrayal.

I otherwise agree, though, that Katniss is consistently undermined as a Revolutionary Hero. She's not a revolutionary at all. In fact she's a bit of a wild card, who can influence policy in unpredictable ways, precisely because she has symbolic significance but no real political agenda or skills. I think she's a hero, because political heroes aren't the only kind, but she's definitely not a political or revolutionary hero.

I disagree with the contention that Katniss only has to kill the "evil." She only kills Career Tributes, but they're not portrayed as simply evil (Katniss thinks about the pain of the family of the boy who killed Rue, hears Cato pleading with Clove to stay alive, cannot help but be horrified at the deaths of Cato and Glimmer, and has to meet the Careers' grieving families and mentors in Book 2). It would have been more painful for her if she'd killed non-Careers, certainly, but there's also no reason why she would have to. It makes sense for the unwilling, untrained tributes to run and hide and avoid killing unless they have to, and it also makes sense that they'd only have to kill those who forced a confrontation. And those would most likely be the Careers. Indeed, we know from Katniss that in most Games the Careers kill everyone else off and then turn on each other. The first book isn't really about Katniss making the 'hard decision' about whether to kill another unwilling tribute or not (we know how she'd choose--she's about to kill Peeta at the end before he throws down his knife). It's about her preserving (or trying to preserve) the people she loves. As for Rue--Katniss does think, explicitly, that she and Rue may have to turn on each other at some point, but puts off the dilemma. Which is emotionally realistic and pragmatic. I don't really see how that's a manipulative authorial choice, since the reality of the Hunger Games is never absent.

I also disagree that we're expected to cheer Katniss's victory in the Games, or that the books don't acknowledge her victimhood. We're relieved that Katniss and Peeta are both still alive, yes, but cheer? No. Katniss is too shellshocked and scarred, and the other 23 tributes are still dead, and she thinks about them persistently. Her stunt with the berries made the Capitol look silly, but didn't actually hurt it, and she still has to live in its world. Her relationship with Peeta is a mess because she doesn't know how much of it is real. At the end of the first book, she's isolated and has the life of Haymitch to look forward to. Not really a spectacle to inspire cheering.

Bobbie Wickham said...

Her stunt with the berries made the Capitol look silly, but didn't actually hurt it

As far as she knows, anyway. At that point Katniss is not aware of her symbolic importance to the rebellion, or even that there is a real rebellion.

Kit said...

it states that the Hunger Games were abolished

In the epilogue, long after the end of the war. The cancelation or non-cancelation of the Capitol Game is never mentioned in the final chapter, and Katniss never asks. Presumably the policy was announced after the vote, and after all the victors had voted it through, so I think the new administration would have been hard pressed to find a pretext for canceling it, assuming there was actually popular support for it and Coin wasn't just doing it on a vengeful whim. And Coin didn't really strike me as the whim type.

Re. Paylor, for all we know she was the commander who signed off on the parachute trick. And it's not like Katniss assassinated Coin intending to clear the way for her- she had no plan at all for Panem's future post-Coin. The successor could have been anyone. That's what I mean when I say she's apolitical. She just lashes out at people; she doesn't do it with a long-term strategy in mind.

I think someone needs to be acting with a bit more conscious intent to really fill the role of an Epic Hero. Whether Katniss is a small-h hero is a separate question- she's certainly willing to risk her life to protect the people she loves, which generally qualifies someone.

It would have been more painful for her if she'd killed non-Careers, certainly, but there's also no reason why she would have to.

That's a situation set up by Collins, though. Even if she'd pitted Katniss against a Career who wasn't a) camped out with a pack of other Careers under a tree waiting to kill an unarmed Katniss, b) the person who'd just murdered Rue or c) portrayed as a psychopath, it would have been a fairer fight, as far as the narrative was concerned. Collins didn't even let her kill Clove.

I wasn't as put off by it as Abigail was (well, obviously not, since I went on to read the next two books), but I do think it's a bit manipulative, and something of a failure to explore the premise. (The Quarter Quell was better about this, I thought.)

Bobbie Wickham said...

Presumably the policy was announced after the vote, and after all the victors had voted it through, so I think the new administration would have been hard pressed to find a pretext for canceling it, assuming there was actually popular support for it and Coin wasn't just doing it on a vengeful whim. And Coin didn't really strike me as the whim type.

Well, if we're going by what is presumably true, then I think Katniss would have mentioned the Capitol Games in the final chapter or in the epilogue. As opposed to stating that the Games were done with, but not mentioning that one last Game was held in her description of post-assassination events (that would be weird, given the significance of the idea of the Games). I also don't think we can really presume the Capitol Games were popular. There's something very bizarre about the way Coin got the victors to vote on it, as if to legitimize it. If it's popular, why not just announce it? Coin may not be whimsical, but I think she's portrayed as vengeful. She wants to prosecute the victors imprisoned in the Capitol as war criminals, after all. I think the Capitol Games are presented as her brainchild.

Also, after the Coin assassination, the new government has far more to deal with than setting up expensive new Capitol Games--including elections, generally rebuilding society, and Katniss's trial.

Katniss is not at all an Epic Hero, I agree.

As for the Careers, I think their existence and role is a logical part of the universe, and I also don't think they came off as evil as you did. Killing Rue wasn't portrayed as something that made her killer evil, but as something that made the Capitol evil. Her killer is described as someone who probably had a family, friends, etc. who would be out for Katniss's blood. Nor is trying to kill Katniss portrayed as especially evil. Cato's the only one who seems evil, and even he gets his moment of humanity when Clove dies and later when he dies. Katniss never feels okay, or even better, about those deaths because they're Careers.

A failure to explore the premise? I can see that. But given the books' themes and Katniss's character, I never thought the prospect of Katniss killing a non-Career was a particularly interesting part of the premise, so it doesn't bother me.

I actually really disliked the Quarter Quell as a plot twist, but you're right that Katniss's competitors are more sympathetic in it.

surliminal said...

I've come to your post after seeing the film, enjoying it hugely, and running and consuming most of the 3 books even in a frantically busy week. (I should add I am a femme de certain age, and not exactly a 14 year old.) I agree with your assessment of the books - they are utterly but solely page turners by someone whom one suspects is an intuitive storyteller, shallow in intent and execution, but for better or worse , topical and unputdownable - but I actually think you, as someone who had read the books before seeing the film, unfairly downplay the value of the film. Not yet having experienced from the inside of her head Katniss's uncertainties and pretenses (and what my friend Nuala nailed as "curiously affctless kissing") I truely did not know what I was expected to believe of the Peeta relationship, and what was "acting" whether by actress or protagonist. In fact the comparison which came to mind - and this suprised me - was the best and second last episode of Homeland I've yet seen (please don;t spoil me), where the Danes character and the suspect US soldier are circling around each other as supposed by chance lovers, with the audience not knowing which , either , both or neither, is pretending to be in love (or at least sexually intrigued) and for what purposes. That ambiguity , the ability of the objective screen as opposed to the first person voice to present all concerned as unreliable narrators - makes for compelling viewing both in Homeland and in the Hunger Games. I am almost sad to have seen the acting and the uncertainty pretty much nailed in print in the books themselves - though not enough not to run off now and finsh volume 3 :-)

(It occurs to me it would be interesting to survey a wider sample of viewers who had or had not read the book first...)

Also I'm vaguely surprised you didn;t allude to Hunger Games in your review of A Cabin in the Woods (which slightly oddly I saw on preview just before it, rather than other way round.) CAn Hunger Games be seen as the more imaginative take on the meta genre of watching young people being maimed and tortured for our passive amusement? Wouldn;t it be funny if unlikely if Collins had the whip hand on Whedon at social insight?

surliminal said...

ps ag, sorry for the typos - no way to edit comments here?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

An interesting comparison to The Cabin in the Woods, which I confess hadn't occurred to me. Perhaps because I find Cabin to be fairly problematic as an indictment of its audience. As I just wrote in the comments to that post, to position the audience as all-powerful gods who will destroy the Earth if the story handed to them doesn't run along precisely the right predefined grooves, and the writers as office drones who are merely following an ancient script they are powerless to change, is a pretty unconvincing - not to say whiny and self-justifying - argument. As you say, if you compare the two stories on that front (and on several others, I suppose), Collins comes out far in the lead.

It's interesting to hear your reaction to Peeta and Katniss's romance, and the comparison to Homeland is particularly intriguing. As I say in this review I found the romance wholly unconvincing but that may very well be because of the expectations raised by the books. Nice to know that someone without my baggage found the same thing in the film that I did in the novel.

Dragonchild said...

I know I'm late to the party and this may have been addressed above, but considering you have such a keen eye for any film's take on feminine roles, I'm shocked that you thought "The Hunger Games" was a good film at all. I suggest stepping away from the book for a moment and taking the movie for what it is.

"she endows Katniss with a selective knowingness that seems to have more to do with the demands of the plot than with the character's organic growth. Katniss is oblivious one moment, and psychologically astute the next, with no discernible reason for her shifts between the two states."

This is mentioned almost as an afterthought, but what might've been a mere flaw for you brought down the entire film for me. It's not the questionable sincerity of her actions as much as her mental awareness that matters. I'm not holding a naive, scared teenager to Special Forces standards here. I'm saying a girl who was supposedly toughened by adversity (miner's daughter, useless mother, hunter, etc.) seemed to have all the sense of when to take a situation seriously as a coddled trust fund baby. Was the whole flower burial thing manipulative? How about, how does a girl raised in the shadow of a fascist plutocracy even get the idea of picking flowers near a red-hot kill zone -- which is only red-hot because she blew up the eeevil gang's base? One minute she's dodging fireballs like a champ, the next moment she's getting all gooshy over some guy. I get that it's a YA romance at heart, but if you're going to introduce a lethal danger element, you can't just dismiss a very basic survival instinct for dramatic convenience. The end result is a girl who runs around with a bow and a cut on her forehead but I find just as fake as a symbol of strong feminism as Chun-Li's flying skirt in the Street Fighter games.

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