I won’t pretend to be the world’s biggest Hunger Games fan. I’ve only read the first of the trilogy—which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite having some misgivings about some of the world-building—and while the news I heard about the film all sounded good to me (casting, the fact that author Suzanne Collins was involved in the screenplay) I wasn’t all that excited about seeing it.
Until this week. And suddenly, for some reason, I got on board with the buzz and when my good friend Nicola emailed me and said—hey, let’s go and see The Hunger Games—I suddenly became very excited indeed. (There may have been wooting involved.)
Then a fascinating conversation was struck up on the child_lit listserve (an email group I have belonged to for more than 10 years), with many members expressing anxiety about the forth-coming film. Now, many of those expressing concern were/are fans of the book, several have taught it in children’s lit courses, but felt a growing disquiet—and I hope I accurately paraphrase what has been at times a very serious and complex series of arguments—about how the audience would be positioned when viewing the film. Would the film’s audience be positioned as spectators of the Games themselves, rather than experiencing them through the eyes of Katniss, the first person narrator and protagonist. (I am going to pretty much assume you know the books, probably better than I do, but will also include some details that may seem obvious, given how successful the series has been. Hope that works for you!)
Would we, the viewing audience, be positioned as members of the audience in the Capitol? In other words, would we find ourselves cheering on certain Tributes and hoping for the deaths of others? Would we, in other words, be entertained by the spectacle of children killing children? And now I look back at some of the emails, I should be accurate and say that what contributed in large part to the disquiet was the “hype” and marketing that came with the advent of the movie. (And as the person who raised the topic on the listserve pointed us back to her blog post of February where she first mused on her discomforts, I shall point you to that blog post here. Read it and then come back.)
I found the discussion fascinating, especially when an alternate position was put by a list member who found himself amused by what he described as the “pearl-clutching” of those expressing their disquiet (a phrase I love, although I do recognise the gendered nature of it… and yes, it did come from a male writer, and I think all of the disquiet was expressed by women). This poster talked about our “lizard brains” (where we secretly do want to kill people and be famous for it!) and why he DIDN’T see it as problematic that we would be enthralled by the spectacle. Another listserve member, an African American teacher from Detroit, linked the world of Panem to the world many of her inner-city students live in everyday, and to the recent murder of Trayvon Martin, the African American teenager killed by a neighbourhood watch-type vigilante for the crime, as Ebony put it, of “existing while Black”. Panem, Ebony argues, looks much more like her student’s world than does the world of Hogwarts.
It was a fascinating conversation that got distracted off the main point a bit by some arguments about the female gaze and the two-dimensional nature (as argued) of the male characters (Gale and Peeta), and a spirited defense of books like The Hunger Games and Twilight as spaces for girls to explore desire and romantic fantasy—god, I love child_lit!—in itself a really challenging conversation but one rather off the original point about audience perspective and complicity, which was what really challenged me about the discussion.
Because t never occurred to me to be worried about the movie, and I never once expected to be placed in the audience in the Capitol. Partly because of Collins’ involvement in the screen play—because as Nicole said, if the film DID do that then they would have %#*@ed it up big time. And we all know that Hollywood has done plenty of that! But while reading—and viewing—scenes of violence is always potentially an ambiguous experience, it just never occurred to me that my own essential moral/ethical position could be shaken, much less fundamentally challenged, by a film.
And call me morally bankrupt, but I LOVED EVERY MINUTE OF IT.
In her blog post, Kerry (who I consider a friend, although we’ve never met, and whose opinion I deeply respect, and I thank her for making me think about these things) says this:
And here’s the thing that teaching the book made crystal-clear to me: it is ESSENTIAL that Katniss narrates. It may even be essential that she narrates in the present tense. The only way we as readers can avoid complicity in the horrific spectacle of the Hunger Games is to be inside that Arena, to be looking at everything through Katniss’s eyes.
I agree 100 percent with that. In my teaching, I talk a lot about the critical importance of finding the right narrative position for a story, and I think Kerry is completely correct in this assertion. It is essential that the story be told in the first person, and that it be in the present tense (the latter if nothing else but to maintain the suspense). Kerry’s concern, if I have understood her correctly, was in large part about how this narrative position would be replicated in the film.
I’d just add here that I also think—and it is ages since I read the book, so I am going on memory—that there is ambiguity in the book’s narrative perspective, and that is in fact an essential part of it too. We’re positioned to empathise with Katniss from the very narrative choices Kerry describes, and so once she is in the Games, we want her to win. We want Peeta to survive too, but we’re willing for him to die if he has to in order for Katniss to win. That essentially means we want 22—or 23—other children to die. We may be repulsed by this (and assuredly plenty of critics of the book are) but if we engage with the story that’s essentially the position we have to take by virtue of that very narrative position.
It’s the ambiguity of our desires in this respect (our “lizard brain” kicking in) that is what I think makes the book so interesting. And at certain points Katniss wants people to die—if only to save herself or others—so at that point I disagree with Kerry when she says “If we’re in the Arena, locked inside the head of a tribute, then we are not reveling in the spectacle of the Games”. I think at times we are, just as adrenaline and the fight instinct takes over Katniss and she is also, even if reluctantly, revelling in it. I think that it’s possible to both revel in the spectacle and, to again quote Kerry, be “aware of, alive with, the fear and horror and difficulties and pain of the Games”. I don’t actually see a contradiction there.*
But let’s go back to the question of narrative position.
Now, I’m no film student—apart from the obvious stuff anyone with an English lit degree and an enthusiasm for the movies knows—but it seems to me that the film very effectively replicates the first person, present tense narrative, and without the use of annoying voice overs. It is almost completely positioned from Katniss’s POV, in the framing and the physical perspective. But even more so by the (at times giddying—Nicola had taken motion sickness medication as a precaution and was very glad she had) über-handheld-camera technique. And when we’re not viewing scenes from Katniss’s POV—the audience shots, and those scenes in the tech room where we see the active manipulation of the Games by Seneca Crane (with, it must be said, creative relish by his tech team, the one portrayed by the African American actress in particular)—there’s absolutely no way that the film asks us to admire their advanced technical virtuosity (or, rather, what they do with it), or ally ourself with the citizens of the Capitol—who, it must be said, are got to up to look like a ludicrous cross between the Rocky Horror Picture Show, an 80s music video and the worst decadences of the Weimar Republic.**
And there are no young people in the Capitol audience—no Hunger Games readers. I think it’s important to note that. If there are no young adults in the Capitol audience—who are there purely for the pleasure of the spectacle, unlike the people of the Districts, who, it is quite clear in both book and film, are forced to watch—then there’s no obvious point of connection for the young adult audience of the film.
So I rest quite easy that the film does not, as Kerry and others feared, make us the Capitol people, avid consumers of the carnage. At least, no more than the book does.
So having got all that out of the way, let’s just return to this:
I LOVED EVERY MINUTE OF IT.
I thought the performances were uniformly terrific. Jennifer Lawrence is remarkable. Stanley Tucci is a gem (literally—did you SEE those teeth?!). Lenny Kravitz was understated and touching. That boy from Summer Bay (Gale) didn’t have much to do, but I believed him in every moment. Jesse from Bridge to Terabithia—Peeta—wore his knowledge of his shortcomings with dignity and courage. And all those unknown young people who played the other Tributes—especially Rue—also encapsulated their roles beautifully. Oh, and Donald Sutherland. Woody Harrelson? Oh yeah.
The film did for me what the book didn’t, entirely—it filled in the details of the world-building that seemed sketchy to me in the book. I no longer thought about the economy or the society or the technical advances of the Capitol that felt elusive to me in the book—the film did a grand job of showing them.
But mostly? I loved it. I was moved, entertained, challenged, angered, scared and triumphant. As a film, as an adaptation, I think it succeeded on almost every level. My quibbles? I remember there being more ambiguity around the love triangle in the book, and frankly, I just wanted Katniss to give President Snow a good kick in the how’syourfather. But they are small quibbles. It’s a film that remained true, and even improved, I feel, the book’s narrative and ethos.
What the hell. Go and see it and decide for yourself.
*(I think this is especially true, in both book and film, in the scene where Rue points Katniss to the tracker jackers. We want her to set those suckers on to the Tributes below, even as we—if not she—are appalled by the thought, the action. I’m glad the film showed how difficult the physical action of cutting that branch off was, and I’m glad that even with the elliptical nature of the handheld camera, combined with Katniss’s hallucinogenic reactions to her own stings, we saw the result of Katniss’s act when we saw the bloated body of the dead Tribute. )
** And that’s also why I also depart ways with those who find the marketing, such as these fake ads, and the Capitol Couture site, problematic. I think they are gloriously witty and knowing and I think the very smart audience of YA (along with the very smart YA author Kristin Cashore) will enjoy them for what they are. Kids are smart, they don’t read, or view, the same way adults do, and they don’t relinquish their ethical position very easily.