Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Stay Hungry

The Harry Potter books were a lot of things, but their most enduring accomplishment may have been to shine a light on the young adult book market as a fertile breeding ground for film franchises. The gold rush has already spawned the Twilight movies, as well as scattered almost franchises like Percy Jackson and the Olympians and A Series of Unfortunate Events. I don't want to suggest that I'm looking down on this category of fiction. I'm not. I loved the Potter books as an adult, and I loved Ender's Game (soon to be another franchise), and I've enjoyed books by writers like Scott Westerfeld and Philip Pullman. I mean, I see the appeal even for adult readers. These books are surprisingly sophisticated and they don't indulge in some of the more obscurantist tics of adult literary fiction. More than that, though, I understand the appeal because young adult authors have become surprisingly good at the "masking effect," something young adult fiction shares with comics. According to comics theorist, Scott McCloud, the masking effect occurs when a central character is abstracted relative to its surrounding such that the reader can imprint themselves on the character. A good example of this occurs in the Twilight books. These books receive a good deal of criticism for having a largely colorless central heroine, but that's exactly the point of Bella Swan. If you read how Stephanie Meyers describes Bella, she's completely vague to the point that she could be, literally, anyone. In contrast, Meyers describes Bella's paramours in minute, almost pornographic detail. It's the reason that devoted readers of the Twilight are so fervid. They have imprinted themselves on Bella. They are Bella. So criticisms of Twilight are seen by its fans as personal attacks on themselves.

Given the level of identification readers have with young adult books, it's easy for writers to create shifty allegories that appeal to a young adult mindset. They share this, too, with comics. Consider The X-Men: The X-Men are a protean kind of allegory given that you can assign them just about any outsider narrative you want. Do you want to see them as emblematic of the trauma of puberty? That works. Do you see a racial allegory? That works, too. The movie versions of the characters explored a queer reading, which is also totally justifiable. Young adult books do this sort of thing, too, and this brings me in a round about way to The Hunger Games (2012, directed by Gary Ross), the latest film franchise to springboard out of young adult publishing. The movie version of the first book is an ideal example of what I'm talking about. I say that these stories are surprisingly sophisticated because there's a post-modern participation with the audience. The audience, as the saying goes, completes the picture. That's totally true of The Hunger Games.

The story one finds in The Hunger Games postulates a totalitarian future after some undisclosed apocalypse. The nation of Panem is composed of thirteen districts and the capitol. Several decades before the events of the movie, the various districts rose up against the capitol, but were quashed. As a reprisal, the capitol imposed on the remaining twelve districts (the thirteenth having been destroyed utterly) an annual "Hunger Game," in which two teens from each district are offered in tribute to be placed in an arena where they combat each other until only one survivor remains. This serves a multifold purpose: it demonstrates the power of the capitol, it demonstrates the subservience of the districts, it provides the population with a bloodsport to keep them docile, and it offers a taste of hope by providing the populace with a hero at the end of the games. It should be noted that the name "Panem" is derived from "panem et circenses." The victims of The Hunger Games are chosen by lot during a "Reaping," and it's here that our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, enters the games by volunteering. Katniss is a skilled hunter. She has been feeding her family with her bow as her mother falls apart. She's sweet on Gale, a local boy who hunts with her sometimes. Katniss lives in District 12, the poorest of the districts, where subsistence is the best anyone can hope for. It's Katniss's sister, Primrose, who is chosen for the game, so she chooses to replace her. The boy who is chosen is Peeta Mellark, who is secretly in love with Katniss. They're both swept off to the capitol, where they are received like celebrities. There, they are groomed for the games, which involves training with weapons and in survival techniques, but also involves working the crowd in order to find helpful sponsors. Then they're dropped into the games, where it's everyone for themselves. In the games, a core of more affluent tributes, led by Cato, the male tribute from District 2 form an alliance and hunt down the more vulnerable tributes. Cato and his female counterpart, Clove, have trained for the games all their lives. Katniss evades them, but soon enough, the game develops into a hunter/prey game in which Katniss is the prey. She's aided by Rue, the tribute from District 11, who is the same age as Katniss's sister. Also in the mix is Peeta, who has joined the hunting pack and is leading them to Katniss, or so they think. They mutually deceive each other. The relationship between Katniss and Peeta unbalances the game, and the powers that be, begin to manipulate the conditions of victory in order to forestall any appearance of hope...

The world-building in The Hunger Games is kind of slapdash. A goodly amount of the information I've listed in my plot summary is taken not from the movie, but from the book's wiki entry. I should note that I haven't read Suzanne Collins's books. There's something to be said for throwing the viewer into a new world and letting them figure out how that world works, but The Hunger Games isn't very good at that, unfortunately. Whatever the virtues of the book's world may be, the movie's world strives to be a demonic reflection of our own society rather than building an internally consistent world in which real characters live. This is a flaw, though it does speak to the broader intent of the movie to provide a kind of Rorschach test for the audience. The images and social structures in this movie can represent, well, anything you like. The movie is conveniently free of ideology, so if you want to see the conflict between the poor districts and the wealthy, decadent capitol as a conflict between the rural American states with the more affluent urban states, then you can. If you want to see it as a clash between family values and decadent "San Francisco values," you can. If you want to see this as a conflict between the 99% and the 1%, that totally works, too. This is a movie that will play to the Tea Party as well as it plays to the Occupy movement. As an incidental bonus, it lampoons the contemporary appetite for reality tv. The movie it reminds me of most* is Rollerball, in which another totalitarian regime has engineered a bloodsport to manipulate the ideology of the masses. In that film, there was a very definite anti-corporated ideology, as the game of Rollerball was engineered to demonstrate the futility of individual effort. This movie has no such strength of conviction one way or another. The power structures at work are vague at best.

The Hunger Games is canny, too, in so far as it provides a love triangle for its trio of young stars that plays well to the tabloid and entertainment press. Liam Hemsworth (Gale), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta), and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) are the new Bella, Edward, and Jacob, if you catch my drift. Essentially, you have a movie that has been perfectly synthesized for a studio hype machine. The quality of the movie itself is secondary, though it's not as bad as that might suggest. There's real talent involved with this film, particularly in front of the camera. Behind the camera? Well, there's talent there, too, though director Gary Ross is a middlebrow talent at best and his visual ideas are kind of half-baked. This is the guy who provided the color coding (literally) of Pleasantville, after all. He does something similar here.

The film is in three movements, each with a distinct visual design. The opening movement takes place in District 12, in which we see Katniss's life before the games. This part of the movie is filmed with a roving hand-held camera that I found nausea inducing. Apparently, the inhabitants of District 12 are so poor that they can't afford a friggin tripod. It's during this part of the movie that the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss becomes kind of inevitable, because in her circumstances, Katniss is a variation of Lawrence's Ree Dolly from Winter's Bone. Seriously, it's the same character: She hunts for her family. Her mother is dissociative. Her sister is too young to care for herself. There's the same oppressive poverty.

In the film's second movement, we follow Katniss and Peeta to the capitol, where we get a riot of flamboyant characters. Where these characters look out of place in District 12--particularly Effie Trinket, the woman who runs the Reaping--they're all at home in the city, where flamboyance is a social sport, it seems. Basically, you have a society of drag queen, where androgyny is a sign of decadence. The least decadent characters in this part of the movie are the ones who are the most heteronormative. These are Hamitch Abernathy, a former winner of the games who is charged with prepping our heroes for the game, and Cinna, their personal stylist. I should mention that "heteronormative" is a relative thing, because Lenny Kravitz rocks the m-f-ing gold eyeliner in this movie in a way that makes him look like the baddest gay stylist on the planet. Franky, I find a lot to object to in this part of the film, but I digress. Everything in this segment is done to excess, except, it seems, for the camera movement. The camera in this segment is usually static, and what symbolism is to be found in the structure of this segment is found in the production design and the shot compositions rather than the camera's movement. This is actually kind of a relief after the first act.

The third movement is the game itself, and this is filmed in a run and gun style when there's action and a slower, more nuanced style when characters are hiding or waiting or whatever. The action scenes in this movie aren't going to enter the canon of great actions scenes. They're the Hollywood standard in which the camera shakes a lot, the shots are rapid to the point of unintelligible, and the geography of the action is incidental. Even so, they're not as bad as most action scenes these days because the geography is usually fairly clear. One side effect of this is that it gives the filmmakers an out with the ratings board. By confusing the eye as to what's going on on screen, the film dials the violence back to the point that the studio could get the ever-important PG-13 rating. There's a genuine horror involved in this movie's premise, given that it's ultimately a cross between The Most Dangerous Game and The Lord of the Flies, and that this film goes out of its way to suppress that horror is one of its most morally dubious accomplishments.

Whatever else The Hunger Games may be, it's a coming out party for Jennifer Lawrence. Katniss Everdeen is NOT an easy role. The part requires an actress that can be credible as an action star, as a fashion plate, and as a tragic heroine all at the same time. Lawrence is already an Oscar nominee, so she already had the chops for the last part. She demonstrates the rest with an exclamation point here. This is a movie that has turned her into a superstar. She's going to be Hollywood's "it" girl for a while. It's also good to see an action film anchored by a woman. This is an ongoing irritation for those of us who like seeing women in all kinds of films, so I hope this represents a breakthrough in an industry that likes to relegate women to "hero's girlfriend" and "chick flick" roles. And apparently, boys are responding to the movie, too, so this is a movie that demolishes Hollywood's conventional wisdom. All to the good. There's another lesson in adapting young adult fiction for the movies to be had in this: by far the largest consumers of young adult books are women and girls. Hollywood would be well-served to take this as a word to the wise.

*Note: Yes, I've seen the most obvious point of comparison to The Hunger Games. I've just chosen to ignore it, because it doesn't really feed my reaction to the film. Other people have descanted upon this similarity all over the interewebs and I don't have anything to add to those critiques, so I don't feel the need to rehash it just for the sake of rehashing it.


Deborah said...

"Apparently, the inhabitants of District 12 are so poor that they can't afford a friggin tripod."

HAHAHAHA! Brilliant!

I noticed she was the same as the Winter's Bone character too, especially when her mother "checked out."

I like your comparison to Rollerball. I mentioned Running Man, Series 7: The Contender, and Soylent Green in my review, but Rollerball belonged in the mix.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Y'know, I always think of your blog as a Mad Men blog, so I never visit. I've never seen Mad Men, so there's not an incentive. Serves me right for making assumptions.

Laura said...

"They have imprinted themselves on Bella. They are Bella. So criticisms of Twilight are seen by its fans as personal attacks on themselves."

Yyyyyyyyup. In a big way. When I realized this after watching the first movie (accompanied by RiffTrax, thank the Lord), I felt all high and mighty for not falling into that trap. But it did make me think about whether or not I too was guilty of that imprinting in other books/movies I liked. Did I root for some characters based on how much I related to them, and dismissed characters that were too different from my personal perspective? Yeah, actually, I might have. I've been more watchful about that, so Twilight's good for keeping my critical objectivity on its toes, I guess.

My mom recently read The Hunger Games books (I still haven't, either). She really liked the first two, but was frustrated by the lack of a grounding philosophy by the end. To her the series started leaning toward an Ayn Rand "every person for him or herself" slant that she wasn't too fond of, but she wasn't sure if that was really there or not.

Heh, The New Yorker's review of Hunger Games had the same complaint as you about the handheld camera. Nobody really likes that trick anymore. Why do they keep doing it? Cheap "excitement" effect?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Laura

Shakey cam is popular because you don't have to block and direct your shots to the same degree as in more classical filmmaking modes. It's not because audiences like it, it's because directors do like their shortcuts.

Also, it's always good to recognize one's biases.;)

Aubyn said...

Yay, I was hoping to see you review this one.

I do remember reading that the love triangle hype was pushed by Collins' publisher, who was clearly aiming for something along the Bella/Jacob/Edward success. The author wasn't too focused on it and the books kind of reflected that, with Katniss telling her two men, "Knock it off, we have bigger things to worry about." You can see why YA publishers like the love triangle business. It gets fans excited, and it's far easier to market than a downbeat, dystopian story line.

I think my main criticism of Hunger Games is that, for my tastes, it pulls too many punches. Yes, the author is trying to make a dystopia for a young teen audience but it still seems awfully convenient that a)our protagonists aren't forced to do much in the way of real cold-blooded killing and b) most of the other tributes are strangers to the audience so we don't care about them. Still, I do think it's an enjoyable series, with a compelling story and premise and I'll probably see the film at some point.

Still dislike the name "Katniss" though.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rachel. Yeah. "Katniss Everdeen" seems a bit on the "cute" side for my tastes. I think I might have liked "Rue" as a name for the lead character instead of a supporting player. But what can you do, eh?

And, yeah. The Hunger Games is handcuffed by the need for a PG-13 rating. The violence should have more punch than it has. This is one way in which the Japanese equivalent that shall remain nameless is a better movie.

Deborah said...

We started as a Mad Men blog and have gradually expanded. We do several TV shows regularly (Walking Dead, Downton Abbey, Falling Skies, Hell on Wheels...), and I moved my movie reviews off my personal site and onto Basket of Kisses as well. We have another movie reviewer starting up with us too. There are also occasional book reviews.

Come visit!

J Luis Rivera said...

I would have prefered a bigger fuss about the Game itself. I don't know if the book does it (probably does), but I was expecting greater drama on the fact that the kids had to kill other kids.

It treated it like a videogame.

I guess that would be my main complain, which is good, because I was sure I wasn't going to like it. And I did.