Saturday, June 25, 2016

Revisiting the Hunger Games

Back in 2012, I went to the cinema with my wife and watched the first Hunger Games movie without having read the book. I blogged about my impressions here; the tl;dr is as follows: mediocre writing and inconsistent worldbuilding let the premise fall flatter than it needed to be. A while later, we also watched "Catching Fire", but beyond the fact that they were thrown in the Hunger Games yet again (yawn), I didn't remember much. I mostly forgot about the franchise until I had to teach 8th graders in literature this year and decided that the Hunger Games are a book that could be interesting to them and to me and have the added bonus of being age-appropriate, so I got the book and read it for the first time (ok, I listened to the audio book, but that counts). And oh boy, did my opinion change*. 
Three books, four movies. Bad idea.

It has become a staple criticism to say "the books are better", but hell, that's the case most of the times. I still hold firm that the Lord of the Rings movie surpass the books by a longshot, but apparantly, I'm alone in this, and I haven't read those in over a decade, so what the fuck do I know? Anyway, after reading "The Hunger Games", I did of course rewatch the movie as well, and after that, I read "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay" as well and watched the corresponding movies. Since you read until here, I guess I'm fairly safe in assuming that you're interested in my thoughts on the matter. 

As I said, it's kind of cheap to say the books are better. The weird thing is that the movies actually improve once you read the books, which tells you everything you need to know about why they largely fail as movies. The Hunger Games are the rare case of an adaption that is actually way too faithful to the source material, a fate that is much more common in history movies. No matter how accurate you translate stuff from page to screen, the different media necessitate stuff getting lost or added and the pacing changed. 200 pages isn't the same as 200 minutes. When you read the books, though, you will fill all those blanks in the movies' character and world-building development, which provides a much more rounded picture. Unfortunately, that's not how movies are supposed to work, so most of my criticisms about the movie(s) still stand. 
Catching Fire and burning herself
However, I gained a totally new appreciation for the story. As I mentioned in my first review, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of a stupid love triangle, and the story stays mostly clear of that. The closest it gets to that is a love-hurt Gale, who soon correctly identifies that the problem is Katniss herself who's just really not a nice human being, something Peeta will agree in later. Katniss is a weird-ass protagonist for sure, and that makes her rather compelling. 

Suzanne Collins also takes the bold choice of not making her the hero of the story. She is the protagonist, sure, and the tight focus of the novels on her perspective alone greatly enhance this (a point the movies also can't replicate and therefore lose). While it's pretty straightforward in "The Hunger Games", where she wins the damn thing, you could already get ticked off by the fact that her costume designer seems awfully invested in her victory and that her rebellious acts (volunteering, allying with Rue, mourning her, the Nightlock) have to actually mean something to more than us readers. 

But those issues get pushed more to the fore in "Catching Fire", where another of Collins' mechanisms becomes more apparant: Katniss isn't really the sharpest tool in the box when it comes to politics, PR and strategy, and often, she's the last to get what's happening. Therefore, she doesn't really get what Snow's trying to achieve while everyone else does, and she isn't getting the plan developing around her. It's precisely her naivitee and spontaneity that make her valuable, and that of course has drawbacks in her personality that we as reads experience directly. In the movies, she sulks a lot and doesn't get stuff, which is an accurate depiction of her character from the outside but not really compelling. At least they didn't decide on voice-overs, for which I'm grateful. 
The Mockingjay isn't all black because it's cool, btw.
"Cathing Fire", therefore, isn't the lame rehash of the first novel I thought it was when I watched the movie - you know, yet another round at the Hunger Games - but rather the setup for the resolution in "Mockingjay". However, Katniss really doesn't get that it's that setup. She just acts as she's supposed to because it's in her nature, and while most people around her, notably Haymitch, Johanna and Plutarch, know what's going on and intentionally egg her on (which is blatantly obvious in the movie, by the way, where the writing isn't doing Philipp Seymour Hoffmann any favors). You might catch this as the reader, or not. Most likely not, given the target audience is adolescents. The reveal of the ongoing rebellion is satisfying either way, heavily subdued in both versions by the fact that District 12 was destroyed and many are already dead before the war really started. 

It's only in "Mockingjay", though, that it becomes apparant what an ambitious projects the books really are. One has to give Collins credit for her metaphorical balls. Instead of letting Katniss take on an important role in the rebellion shooting people with arrows, she's relegated to the sidelines and has to produce propaganda videos. An important task, to be sure, but not exactly what you expect from a hero. It's as frustrating for the reader as it's for Katniss, especially since we get only fragmental news from the war effort that seems to hum along quite nicely without Katniss' arrows. After all, what are they going to achieve in a war? This isn't the arena anymore. 

This point is driven home mercilessly everytime Katniss visites the frontlines. In District 8, where she produces her first incredibly succesful propaganda video against the backdrop of the capitol firebombing a hospital (cheery material, there), her presence leads to the deadly attack on the wounded, and when she joins the effort in District 2, trying to save some enemies from the increasingly brutal methods the rebels (and Gale) employ in the Total War, she gets shot for her trouble. When she goes on her unauthorized mission to kill Snow in the Capitol, she fails utterly. Most of her team are killed and Gale's captured, and she only succeeds in watching her beloved sister die.
Not much of that to be had.
But Collins adds one more layer on top of this, as they never directly encounter enemies. In District 8, they shoot at distant bombers. In District 2, they bury invisible foes and civilians alike alive. In the Capitol, their worst enemies are deadly traps. There's a strong parallel to the IEDs that plague soldiers in the Iraq War, and the enemy remains aloof and invisible all the time. If you think that's depressing, Collins has even more kicks in the gut for you. It turns out that rebel president Coin only used her and the districts to do the fighting for her and to take over the control of Panem for herself. She even is responsible for the death of Katniss' sister and tried to kill Katniss herself because she didn't judge her loyal, which isn't exactly false.

District 13, the secret rebel base that the Capitol couldn't kill, is also far from a beacon of hope. The whole district is situated in underground bunkers and organized like the ant hill it feels like, with every aspect of life regulated, entertaintment practically outlawed and equality ensured by the same saggy grey overalls for everyone. There is no individualism in District 13; tellingly, most named characters come from the District or the Capitol. District 13 is basically Panem's Soviet Union, ca. 1921, but with atomic weapons. It is even engaged in a Cold War with the Capitol and uses the underdeveloped Districts as proxies against the Capitol, in case the stuff before was too subtle. 

"Catching Fire" and especially "Mockingjay" also extensively deal with the problem of PTSD, a subject that fantasy/SciFi series for young adults rarely indulge. Katniss is a broken character, destroyed by the Hunger Games, and when she's thrown back into them it damages her again. But that's nothing compared to the intense stress of the events in "Mockingjay" that utterly break her. Peeta, who was been captured by the Capitol and intesenly tortured and turned, is used as a weapon against her. Snow and Coin both use psychological warfare to a frightening extent against her, and her being only 17 and, again, not really understanding what's happening anyway contribute heavily to the breaking. 

On top of that, all the sacrifices were not only for naught, as the rebels win the war regardless of Katniss' actions. President Coin is also revealed to be of the same coin (see what Collins did there?) as Snow, as she proposes that instead of targetting all the Capitol leaders individually and without a clear end in sight, they should hold Hunger Games one last time, this time with the children of the Capitol. If you don't get that this is exactly how the Hunger Games started in the first place, you were really not paying attention. 
The things we do for love...
At the end of Mockingjay, books and films diverge. The film ends on a rather happy and hopeful note, whereas in the books, Katniss' assassination of President Coin leads to a trial that she only survives by being declared mentally unstable (again not necessarily false), therefore basically annahilating her Mockingjay persona. She is then exiled to District 12, where she lives alone with her nightmares, only insufficiently supported by an equally (and more consistently) broken Haymitch. Later, she's joined by Peeta, and they recuperate far enough that they can live on, but the epilogue heavily implies that they both remain intensely damaged. One can't really describe Katniss' thoughts that her children are playing on top of a graveyard of Plutarch's statement that they live in peace "for now" as hopeful. 

The books are depressing, and deliberately so. There isn't that much hope to be had, only glimmers of it. Maybe, just maybe, the peace will hold. There's not much confidence that it will. Maybe, just maybe, the scars will heal. There's not much confidence that they will. 

I got a totally wrong impression from the first movie in 2012, I have to admit. This isn't a story about the Hunger Games as an action-thriller at all; the themes are much more mature and prescient. I can't shake the feelings that Collins touches themes that we had once learned, but did unlearn. You know, when Frodo returns to the Shire, he also suffers from PTSD, finally deciding to leave for Valinor (a heavy metaphor for dying). Tolkien as a veteran from World War I. World War II taught us different stories, and it's those heroic tales that have dominated for quite some time, not the "All Quiet on the Western Front" variety. It seems like we're relearning Sherman's old dictum that "War is Hell". 

* I still don't like the mutations and the traps, though. They're too over-the-top for my taste, but I get their thematic role, which I approve. 


  1. Sorry for my bad english, I haven't sleep much^^
    I didn't watch all movies but I really love the books and I'm jealous of your students, we only had Huck Finn. ;)
    It's a bit like Breaking Bad, great quality but it hurts to watch/read. For me it's not just that Katniss isn't a hero. For me, she is a victim which is trying to take back control. You are right about the naivité but she is aware of it and tries to act, especially in the end but without salvation. The end is really heartbreaking.

  2. I think Collins did a wonderful job inventing a world like and unlike our own. Although she was clearly inspired by general topics associated about war and politics, I found the lack of a religious element or specific political connections very refreshing.