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deborah ([personal profile] deborah) wrote2012-03-23 12:16 pm

bread, circuses, and mirrors: The Hunger Games

I wanted to make a post about The Hunger Games trilogy before I saw the movie, because I didn't want this post about the trilogy in general to be colored by how much I'm having reactions to the film right now. Instead, I will break it into two parts. And if I wait until I have all of my thoughts coherent before I make this post, the second movie will be out, so maybe I should just go ahead and post it.

Here's what I thought I was reading when I finished The Hunger Games for the first time: a book where the desperately poor fight and struggle simply to survive while they produce material goods for the upper classes. A book where the top tiers of the producing classes are given to believe that they can make their way into the upper classes if they only dedicate their children's lives to doing nothing but training, ultimately risking death, with the understanding that anyone who doesn't make that effort deserves what they get. A book where even the working folk among the top strata of society live in luxury unimaginable to the people at the bottom, a luxury whose every bite of food and scrap of cloth relies on the direst poverty of the people at the bottom. A book in which the malicious and cruel control by the people at the absolute top would be unmaintainable without the complacency of individuals -- often genuinely nice, kind, well-meaning -- lower down in the upper echelons.

In other words, I thought I was looking at a vicious condemnation of us .

When I read Catching Fire, I still thought this might be the trilogy I was reading. As in book one I had seen that evil comes from systems, in book two I saw that heroism comes from large groups of people who have been working together and struggling for some time. Those people were choosing Katniss as their necessary figurehead, not as their rebellion's leader. And I loved that, the idea that a young adult heroine could be perceived as not necessarily the savior of the world, but as somebody who could play a part in a larger struggle. (If you haven't read Herbert Kohl's She Would Not Be Moved: How We Tell the Story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott you really should; there's a lot in there about how desiring a certain kind of heroine removes agency from systems of people who fight and organize and coordinate in a struggle for liberation.)

My sadness at Mockingjay was primarily about how I felt both of these dynamics broke down. Instead of the evil being the responsibility of everyone who profited by it, no matter how well meaning, the evil was the responsibility of villainous President Snow. And instead of the rebellion being the frustration of oppressed people leading them to work together with the help of media hype generated by an excellent figurehead, it turned into Secret Missing Rebel Forces and ultimately decisions made by Katniss, the kingmaker.

Not to mention my negative feelings about the romantic plot's resolution. (A secret which will surprise no one at all: I was on Team Katniss all along.)

Media Issues:

My reaction to the film was complicated by my reaction to the media frenzy around it. Peggy Orenstein has an excellent takedown of the fairly obvious irony around the spectacle of the movie, with "Panem-is-Us? Thoughts on The Greed Games". Even before I saw the movie, I was prepared for how much the disturbingly self-referential nature of the cultural critique presented as blockbuster culture were going to cause cognitive dissonance.

One example: I was prepared for the general fact that Katniss was going to be beautiful and mostly clean, leaning over a sweaty, filthy Peeta with visible lip gloss and an artistic slash on her forhead. But I admit I was thrown when District 12 is introduced with crowd scenes chock-full of despairing workers wearing clothing that would have looked appropriate in any Dorothea Lange photo, and we see Katniss switch to her hunting clothes: a gorgeous boutique jacket and boots most of us could never afford. In fact one site put together some suggestions for people attempting to cosplay Katniss's District 12 hunting costume and come up with an outfit which collectively (not counting wig or weapons) would cost either a little over $200 -- and that's if you don't include the $328 boots which the site claims are the exactly the ones worn in the movie.

So already I had this cognitive dissonance at the very beginning of the movie, this attempt to enjoy the movie which is part of a media spectacle while realizing that spectacle is exactly what is being critiqued by the book (if not by the trilogy as a whole).

[ profile] diceytillerman pointed out, among other things, that the painted, glittery, somewhat queer representation of the people at the Capitol makes them so alien, compared to the very recognizable people of the Districts, that it is even harder to see ourselves as judged. We can't relate to the people of the Capitol; they are as genuine as the Transylvanians doing the Time Warp in Frank-N-Furter's castle (whom they fairly closely resemble). Ideally, we should be relating to the people from the Capitol, and finding ourselves wanting in that portrayal. (While I've not personally seen Natural Born Killers, I've been told that's basically what happens in that film; you identify with the killers and don't feel good about yourself for it.) The lost relationship with Katniss's stylists really hurts this part of the film. The stylists are one of the primary ways readers of the book can insert themselves into the life of the Capitol -- and this is maintained well for all three books.

I really can't wait for Amy's post about the film, because she's a media scholar with a focus on reality television, and she's going to have smart things to say about that aspect of the text that I can't even begin to approach.

Race Issues:

On the one hand, I was annoyed at how much the Rue storyline was cut down, and I thoroughly wanted the scene in which Katniss receives bread from District 11. On the other hand, even as it stood, the explicit whiteness of Katniss (and the world as a whole) made the Rue's death/grieving scene seem very much to be one of those Black Girl Dies so White Girl Can Learn moments, which with the more vague racial representations of the book doesn't happen. And, as [personal profile] sanguinity made eloquently clear, with that new racial dynamic the bread scene would have read as a white girl getting cookies for grieving the death of a black girl.

Thresh came off as scary, overpowering, terrifying, and generally playing into a lot of nasty stereotypes about black men, which made me fairly queasy.

(I thought Rue was incredibly well acted and characterized, and I wanted more of her.)

General non-spoilery positive thought: if this movie and trilogy of movies do as well as it looks like they might, perhaps it could be the end of the of no female action heroes or superheroines in film? Television realized a decade ago that there's money to be made with high-quality female action heroes; will film finally catch up? Where the studio realizes that not only do women have plenty of money that they like to spend on movies marketed to women, but also men show up for these movies and buy tickets as well?

And for a completely non-academic note: when I was talking to my boss about how awesome Lenny Kravitz's portrayal of Cinna was, she said "everyone wants a Cinnabon".
tahnan: It's pretty much me, really. (Default)

[personal profile] tahnan 2012-03-24 02:38 am (UTC)(link)
the painted, glittery, somewhat queer representation of the people at the Capitol makes them so alien, compared to the very recognizable people of the Districts, that it is even harder to see ourselves as judged. We can't relate to the people of the Capitol
I don't find that all that different from the books. I'll admit that the three stylists, with what can really only be called First World Problems, felt uncomfortably familiar to me. But Effie? And the people of the Capitol in general? I read the book as wanting us to identify with Katniss (and Peeta and Gale), telling us that we too could be scrappy heroines if the world suddenly became post-apocalyptic, and Effie (at least in the first book, and as I recall most of the second) never felt like anything more than a glittery alien to me. It didn't feel like "as a white middle-class privileged reader, you should realize that you're just like the Capitol citizens and the poor of this country are like the Districts", but more as "even as a white middle-class privileged reader, you should realize that you're precariously close to District life, while the 1% are the Capitol citizens".

I suspect I'll feel differently when I read Katniss's Shadow, about a girl living in the Capitol who watches the Hunger Games with enthusiasm and slowly grows to realize that she identifies so strongly with the archer from District 12 that she realizes how awful she's being. But this book wasn't that book.
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[personal profile] afuna 2012-03-25 05:29 pm (UTC)(link)
*eyes last paragraph* So, uh, is that a real book or fic? Because uh. Oh man.
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[personal profile] tahnan 2012-03-25 05:37 pm (UTC)(link)
Neither; the title is just a play off Ender's Shadow, the idea being "here's the same story from a different perspective". It...well, I'm not likely to write it as fic myself, but it would probably work, wouldn't it? Much like Natural Born Killers (which I haven't seen).

There must be other works of fiction in which we slowly realize that the protagonist with whom we've been identifying might be on the wrong side of things, but none come to mind. (A couple of interactive fiction games do, though one isn't really an example and the other is...excellent but not something I'd recommend.)
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[personal profile] afuna 2012-03-25 05:53 pm (UTC)(link)
Hmmm, there is this one book I read, which is split into three parts. The first part is a fairly standard hero narrative, where the heroine wants to be a $super_elite_person_thingy, but she can't because she wasn't born to the right family / doesn't have the right training, etc etc, but by natural talent and hard work she eventually proves herself and becomes a $super_elite_person_thingy.

In the second part she meets someone who goes "okay you're a hero, you got in. But that hasn't changed anything for *the rest of us* who were in your position. You won a place in the system, congrats, but that hasn't changed the way the system works." and the rest of the book goes ahead and deals with that.

It's not quite the same as what you describe, but it's one of the few I can think of that's addressed the point of the protagonist winning doesn't automatically equate to progress, or them being *right*.

I have a vague idea that I may have seen fantasy series where the protagonist gets things wrong -- but usually it's to show that the protagonist was pretty spoiled near the beginning and grows up, or it's a inaccurate / biased narrator thing, and not *quite* along the lines of what you're referring to.
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[personal profile] tahnan 2012-03-25 06:20 pm (UTC)(link)
There's also Stephen R. Donaldson's Gap series, but in this case (like in the case of the IF I was thinking of), the reason that the protagonist you identify with is on the "wrong side" involves fairly unspeakable actions. (In the first of the Gap books, a character kills her entire family because of a secret she was hiding. That's kind of the high point for her; life goes downhill after that.)
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[personal profile] afuna 2012-03-25 06:51 pm (UTC)(link)
Hm is that the same as the Thomas Covenant series? Or did Stephen Donaldson write another book with a main character who does horrible things?

...that reminds me of Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series actually, but in that case, the protagonist doing horrible things is not intentionally written as them being horrible.
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[personal profile] tahnan 2012-03-25 08:44 pm (UTC)(link)
Though I think a major difference, when it comes to the Covenant series, is that you're not supposed to identify with Thomas Covenant when he does all these terrible things. Whereas in the hypothetical Katniss's Shadow, you'd be supposed to identify with the young capitol girl, and then wonder why you identify so much with her.

At least, I assume you're not expected to identify with Covenant. I didn't; but I also assume you're not expected to read the books, based on my experience with them.
tahnan: It's pretty much me, really. (Default)

[personal profile] tahnan 2012-03-25 08:53 pm (UTC)(link)
One of them is kind of a bad example anyway (while controlling the character, you don't explicitly do anything morally reprehensible), and to name it would spoil it.

The other is De Baron, which I just played last night. In it, you play a lumberjack who has to free his 12-year-old daughter, who has been kidnapped by the baron for possibly immoral purposes. I can't do much better than the author's note:
"The Baron" is about a tragic and possibly shocking theme. Therefore, it is not appropriate reading for children; I advice an age limit of at least fifteen years. In addition, anyone who does not want to be confronted with fictional misery would do better to avoid this story.

For the Spring Thing competition, wherein you will have to read a given number of works in order to be allowed to vote, this may mean that you will have to give "The Baron" a one when you decide to avoid it for this reason. Don't hesitate to do so. I would much rather have a one than a reader who reads on against his or her wishes.
Also, from the in-game note:
"The Baron" is not a traditional text adventure. There are no puzzles to solve, and you cannot win or lose. It is quite literally interactive fiction, not a game. The aim is to experience the fictional world and its disturbing themes as intensely as possible.
It's a terrific use of medium, it's really very well-written, and it's very, very dark. The upshot is that, on your way to saving your daughter, you encounter a number of obstacles, and how you have the lumberjack deal with each may end up having you sympathizing in places you don't want to be. (Irrelevant caveat: the author's first language is Dutch, so if you play it, don't be too thrown by the hints of non-native speech. They aren't overwhelming, but they stand out all the more when they do pop up.)