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The Hunger Games Upon Further Reflection

Upon further reflection of The Hunger Games (part 1 and part 2), I have realized what could have taken the books’ great potential to great heights. Getting the great premise was the easy part, but pushing that premise to its limits would have required some bolder choices.

Suzanne Collins claims that the tributes from the lower districts don’t have as much success as the “career” tributes, better off-districts. One would think this analogy is pretty straight forward, but I would say: look at high school and college football. For thirty years, the lion’s share of the top college football stars come from poor backgrounds, where football becomes their ticket to education and hopefully, to support their famialy. While the career’s training may help to set them apart, the lesser districts would fight harder to support their own families (again, Collins seems to be writing in a culture that has disowned the value of the family as a natural unit of provision). Once every eight or ten years, you’d get physically imposing tributes from Districts 9, 10, 11, and 12 who’d win. Katniss, in her pessimistic narrative, rarely looks at the winners of the games and hopes against hope she’ll provide for her mother and Prim, like she always does.

That leads me to one of my specific criticism of the book, mainly, the lack of payoff for two of the big accomplishments in the book. One, Katniss’ sabotage of the careers food supply isn’t directly paid off, and two, Katniss doesn’t seem to suffer from not killing Foxface, who dies in unceremonious fashion from eating the poisoned berries. My solution: have Cato die from eating the berries instead, and set up a finale between Thresh, Foxface, and Peeta and Katniss.

Consider it: Cato isn’t prone to hunting, and without a food supply, he’d probably be more apt to take someone else’s food rather than hunt for himself. And Foxface likely would have known which berries where poisonous and which ones weren’t

So much wasted potential….

The point of putting a bunch of teenagers in an arena in a fight to the death doesn’t just have to be about muscle. It can also be about choice, and what young people would do if they were pushed to the breaking point. When Katniss and Peeta face Cato, it’s not hard for them to kill him because he’s an obviously villian. But what if Katniss had to face Thresh, who spared her life? If Foxface was the one holding Peeta up at the top of the horn, threatening to drop, wouldn’t all the moments where Katniss had spared her flashed before her eyes?  When push comes to shove, would Katniss have even killed Rue if it meant providing for her family? The Hunger Games doesn’t give us that answer.

Part 2 on The Hunger Games: A Social Analogy

Since I first heard the premise of The Hunger Games, I debated whether or not I would want to see it, or if I had kids, whether I would let them see it. Teenagers killing each other? That itself sounds squeamish enough to make you wonder if it’s appropriate at all, let alone young people. Unfortunately, neither the book nor film is tell us how sadistic does a society have to be to put children in an area and tell them to fight to the death. All we know about the motivation of the Capitol for staging the games is that it demonstrates their control, but for what purpose?

In many ways, Collins seems intent on satirizing the manufactured love the entertainment industry gives America, and pro sports leagues for the way they manipulate violence and game play (NBA reffing, NFL rules that benefit passing). But as screwed-up as those industries may be at times, killing young Billy from down the street seems to be taking it too far? We don’t need to be told how schmaltzy the game-makers must be, just make them as cruel as possible.

This is where Katniss’ perspective as the narrator is limited: on the one hand, she, with the ninety-nine percent, observes hopelessness up the obliviously rich people with lavish hair, but she doesn’t give any insight how the Capitol has maintained day-to-day control on the districts for the last seventy-four years, other than their cruel tournament. Granted, many young people in poverty may, though no fault of their own, lack perspective, but that doesn’t help me as a reader trying to understand the world of The Hunger Games. This is why Jonathan Frazen says that if a character narrates a work, then that character has to add something insightful to it.

Violence on screen is a means of catharsis, whether it be the mid-aged man trapped in a separation from his wife (Die Hard), the terror of a senseless world we don’t understand (The Dark Knight, The Walking Dead) the unspeakable atrocities of war (Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down). For the violence of The Hunger Games to be cathartic enough to work, the world has to seem so cruel and arbitrary that the games seem strangely fair. Suzanne Collins only goes half-way there. If the Capitol was sadistic enough to enjoy the death of young people as entertainment, they wouldn’t have a problem of putting people to death arbitrarily on the street, which Katniss likely would have seen as a child.

But then I got to thinking: are the hunger games just an analogy for abortion? Are the teenagers being sacrificed in the arena just represented by the children the poor women sacrifice because our society has told them that they would just grow up to be criminals? Meanwhile, the rest of society just moves on and calls it a tough decision.

I digress. Would I let my kids see this movie? Frankly, I would have a hard time, at least until they were older and I could talk to them about it. I’m somewhat more disturbed by the fact that the film doesn’t know how to handle the violence then the violence itself.

Say One Thing, Do Another: Why The Hunger Games Narrative is Sorely Lacking

(Warning: the following post contains spoilers from both The Hunger Games book and film. Proceed at your own risk.)

Two years ago, I walked out of a theater having just seen Inception for the first time and was depressed because it was the best movie I had seen in about ten years, and I’d probably only see about eight or nine movies as good as it for the rest of my life. Few do what Christopher Nolan did with Inception:take a radically original premise and pushes it to its limits, all the while ignoring what any other film has done before it, all on a grand scale. But after reading The Hunger Games and seeing the movie, I was severely disappointed because I’d just watched a film that had an equal premise but took no such risks and offered a poor character.

Let me make a concession: The Hunger Games is commercially successful. There’s something in this movie that speaks to young people, and it is at some points pure spectacle, such as Rue’s death and the subsequent rioting in District 11, along with Katniss’ tears. Katniss’ voice, as she provides for her family, echoes the despair of the lower classes, and her character isn’t the spoiled brat Bella Swan is.  The whole idea of teenagers forced into a killing competitions breads the possibility to explore so many idea, and when you see the film half-explore them, it is maddening.

The Hunger Games frustrate as they seems to know what to do at times, and other times, they seem clueless, in virtually the same narrative situation. For example, director Gary Ross wisely keeps the violence off-screen in places where it’s needed: the bloodbath at the opening of the games, Cato’s mauling by the dogs, and death of the boy who rigged the mines after Katniss destroy the career’s food supply. But in other situations, the gratuitous material lingers, like when Glimmer’s mangled remains are overshown. Also, there’s the boneheaded move of showing the dogs in the control room before they’re unleashed on Katniss, Peeta, and Cato. The games control room itself is a nice addition to the film along with President Snow and the head gamesmaker, Seneca Crane. The all the capitol supporting players and Haymitch are well cast, although it’s not overtly to find an actor to play an over-the-top TV host.

Then there’s the film’s twist: a good plot twist is not just about the twist itself, it’s about the setup and fallout. Take Katniss’ decision to destroy the careers’ food supply. She mentions it right before she does it, in both the book and film. If I had been editing the manuscript, I would have told the author to have Haymitch suggest to Katniss to destroy the food supply before the games. Make his character look smarter; an action that important needs to be hinted at earlier in the work. And in spite of this action Katniss still seems to survive by dodging the action. Other plot misses: Katniss’ failure to kill Foxface not coming back to bite her (reading the book, I thought Foxface would find and kill Peeta when Katniss went to the feast) and Peeta never disclosing to Katniss why he joined the careers at the beginning of the games. If you’re smart enough to come up with the double attempt suicide to end the games, I expect you to figure the rest of it out.

Half-an-hour into the film, I wished the screenwriter would watch some episodes of 24 to understand how to pull off a good twist, only to see at the end of the film Billy Ray, who wrote a rejected screenplay for the 24 movie, was one of the writers. A yes-man writer if there ever was one.

But the real problem with The Hunger Games has to do with the central character and her arc, or more specifically, her lack of one. At the beginning of the story, Katniss doesn’t want to marry her friend Gale, and at the end of the story, she doesn’t want to be with Peeta. That isn’t a story arc. I don’t care if Katniss were to go being in love with Gale to denying love, or from not believing in love with Gale to believing in love with Peeta. Granted, I would prefer a view of marriage that respects the institution, but either way makes for a more interesting story that what I was subjugated to.

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