The Moth Chase

Elevating the Art of Procrastanalysis – Academics wasting time on pop culture

The girl on fire

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This is a response to Natalie’s fabulous first post on The Hunger Games. Read her post first to catch up on the conversation.

Dear Natalie,

I am sorry it took me so long to respond to your excellent first post on this movie/series/phenomenon. It was not out of lack of interest. Nay, after finishing my dissertation last month and entering that blissful and often illusory state of Free Time, I read this entire series twice in ten days and have since seen the movie twice. The first time through the books (and I think we talked briefly after I had just finished them once), it took me until the very end to decide if I really liked them. I was clearly addicted, but the whole way through I kept thinking “does Suzanne Collins know what she is doing?” Does she, in fact, realize that she is writing a trilogy about the trauma of war and the devastation of violence and loss, or is she just playing around with dystopia? By the end of Mockingjay, I decided she did know what she was doing, but then I worried that it was all too subtle, that the final desolation of Katniss’ future would seem somehow like a happy ending instead of the refutation of that very idea, at least in the way we might have come to expect from The Absolute Bliss of (Vampiric) Eternal Love.

Then I read the books again and decided that I was the one who had it all wrong. The books are about trauma and loss and violence and the impossibility that war is possible without exacting these tolls, no matter whose side you’re on or what the cause you’re fighting for. But it is about the cost of this on one life in particular, one young woman’s life. For a while (and here I am veering into Catching Fire and Mockingjay territory but will do my best to resist major spoilers) we might think the real action is with the rebels, or with the war itself, or even with Katniss’ own role in the rebellion. And there is plenty of violence, plenty of death and loss, some of it enough to throw anyone over the edge and Katniss wrestles with her part in all of it, and suffers as much as anyone. But the real trauma, for me, of Katniss’ story is that she is a pawn, of everyone, on every side, until the very end. She is traumatized not just by violence, but because she never knows if what she feels is authentic. She doesn’t even know what it might mean to feel something authentic. She shuts herself off from most human connection and all desire for teenage romance long before she volunteers at the reaping. Throughout the series her biggest concern is not knowing if what she feels is real or just part of the games that are being played with her life. This is, of course, what makes her story read at times like a parable of adolescence and what made it hard for me to tell if Suzanne Collins knew what she was writing. But if most teenagers don’t know how to trust their emotions, few of them are playing those emotions for their very lives, on TV, for an entire blood-thirsty country to watch.

So what of this particular movie? Like you, I loved it. I loved Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. I loved Amandla Stenberg as Rue. The violence of the cornucopia battle was, as you say, much harder to watch than to read about. In fact, the entire world translated powerfully to film, since much of the horror of the Hunger Games is in the fact that they are televised entertainment for an entire country. One of the great challenges for adapting young adult fiction for the screen is that much of it is written in first person and the film makers have to figure out how to legitimately convey needed info to the audience that the reader gets in the thoughts of the narrator. Using Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith as reality TV show narrators was brilliant. Not only did it fill us in on the history and nature of tracker jackers and the booby-trapped pile of food (to think of two examples that worked especially well), but it drove home that everything we were seeing in the arena was being consumed, dissected, and gossiped about by eager viewers. The same effect was had by those few careful shots of family and friends watching the action back home. Gale’s quick look away from the screen as Katniss kisses Peeta conveyed plenty about the convoluted nature of that triangle.

It also was one of the few visual reminders that we can’t trust anything we see in the arena, and that Katniss can’t trust anything she feels. As you’ve probably guessed from my long rant above, the one thing I wanted more of in the movie was the Katniss/Peeta relationship. Not because I care about more teenage kissing on screen, but because it is Katniss figuring out that faking her love for Peeta is what will save them both. The movie tried to convey some of this (with the shot of Gale watching and with the note from Haymitch included with the pot of broth), but I wanted more. How they could have done it without annoying voice overs I’m not sure, but listening in to Katniss as she tries to figure out what Haymitch wants, what being in love looks like, what a good kiss is, felt like one of the most central parts of the book. As far as Katniss’ character goes, faking it with Peeta in that cave is the most fateful thing she’s ever done and it sets her up as a pawn in everyone’s game, not to mention creating her lingering worry that everything she feels is for the sake of survival or winning or a cause.

The whole second book revolves around whether or not she can keep up the act, so I have hope that the importance of the fake vs. authentic emotions will become central in the next movie. That said, I also loved the invented scenes in District 11 and the hint of the rebellion to come. For those who haven’t read the books, it clued us into the violence and anger boiling in the Districts compared to the gaudy and superficial Capital and it let us feel the snake-like qualities of President Snow, who I must admit appeared as too important a character too late in the novels for me to really hate him the way I knew I was supposed to.

And I must admit, I am pretty psyched to get to live with and think through this series for a few more years in movie life.


Written by themothchase

April 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm

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