Episode 143 – Battle Royal vs. Hunger Games

March 31, 2012

Click to listen to Hunger Games podcast

This week we talk about the new Hunger Games movie and the twelve year old Japanese film it’s often compared to, Battle Royale. Clearly not having read the books, weeaboos have been deriding Hunger Games as a rip-off since the movie marketing hit fill stride. It’s an asinine statement and this IGN article explains why quite nicely. That doesn’t mean the Hunger Games, fantastic book as it is, is a good movie though.

Hungry for Hunger Games

Since the first rumours of a film version of Suzzane Collins‘ book The Hunger Games surfaced, I was both excited and concerned. Excited since in the post-Harry Potter world the prospect of a series of sci-fi/fantasy young adult novels getting reasonably faithful, big-budget film adaptations was a possibility. I was simultaneously concerned because in the post-Twilight world, the expectation Hollywood would would cock-it-up for the tweenest common denominator was just as much of a possibility.

One could speculate that the monumental success of the mary-sue vampire franchise is exactly what made The Hunger Games such a success. Without even consciously trying, it positioned itself as a quazi-fem-lit alternative to Twilight. As much of a love-drunk doormat as Bella Swan is, Katniss Everdeen is just as much a strong, crafty, self-possessed girl who is neither an androgynous butch nor a wilting wallflower.

So with both Hermione Granger and Bella Swan as precedents, there were two ways Hollywood could have taken Katniss Everdeen off of the page and onto celluloid (or whatever medium movie theatres use these days). It shouldn’t take three guesses to figure out where they took her.

But you’re wrong. They didn’t sell her out completely and have her curl up in a fetal position waiting for Peeta to rescue her. Almost worse, they split the difference. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss as… well, as nothing at all.

The real, or not real, Katniss?

In the book I read Katniss to be similar to another young heroine of popular fiction, Lisbeth Salander. Not so far along on the autism scale, but with a similarly insular, anti-social prickliness. Katniss is respected, but not particularly liked except by a few select people. She’s attractive, but in an unaware, chilly, aloof and tom-boyish way.

katniss everdeen

The producers made damn sure Lawrence is full of glowing feminine warmth tempered with only a calculated amount of endearing awkwardness. It’s the kind of “America’s sweetheart” role you’d have expected someone like Miley Cyrus to be cast in or perhaps Linsday Lohan circa Mean Girls. She’s so darn likable Woody Harrelson (as Haymitch) has to outright tell the audience that she’s unlikable. Up to this point she’s been cute, polite, brave, caring, capable and self-sacrificing. Maybe in Hollywood those are all qualities which are detestable in a human being.

I won’t fault Lawrence for not bringing the engaging edginess of Katniss to the role, I’m sure it was sanded and buffed off by the producers and marketing department. As they did with every other aspect of what makes Hunger Games interesting. I don’t think it would be appropriate to say they “castrated” Katniss Everdeen, but they gave the whole film a hysterectomy.

Hunger Games is in fact the Hunger Games

If you take one thing away from the book, its a message of how media desensitizes our empathy and controls the population with carefully crafted narratives that serve to strengthen certain attitudes and mores. Much like the Games are a tool by which the Capitol maintains a system of class disparity, TV shows have traditionally been designed to put viewers in a suitably consumerist state of mind in order to be optimally receptive to suggestion during the next commercial. Whether by malicious design or mere happenstance, commercial media has been a tool for controlling the population for nearly a century now.

So It’s only natural that the powers that be in Hollywood wouldn’t want to highlight this theme. Undoubtedly there’s warehouses full of Hunger Games swag just waiting to be unloaded on a Katniss-crazy population. It wouldn’t do to see the real Katniss, so we’re shown the Katniss the people in the Capitol got to see. The Hunger Games film has essentially been turned into our own Hunger Games.

Glossed over are the parallels between Panem and our own society in favour of a twilit version of the love story and a lot of shaky-cam action sequences. This might not have been such an issue except that the way Katniss manipulates the media manipulators by maipulating their own manipulations to survive the games IS THE WHOLE STORY.

The very core of what made Katniss and interesting, engaging character on the page is effectively removed from the film. And since Katniss pretty much makes The Hunger Games what it is, you could argue they’ve removed The Hunger Games (the book) from Hunger Games (the movie) leaving only a gladiatorial spectacle to entertain the masses.

But if I hadn’t read the The Hunger Games, I’d probably think it’s a good movie, right?

Probably not.

In CHUD.com‘s review Nick Nunziata points out, “Katniss almost never is given a chance to do anything good as characters come in from out of nowhere to give her the key to whatever needs to get her out of the pickle she’s in, balloons with gifts from the real world deliver an ingredient she needs, or worst yet a character saves her skin just before she’s killed or takes the fatal shot themselves. It’s lazy.

What is great about this review is Nunziata has clearly not read the books so he’s is able to see just what a mess the film is without rose-tinted glasses or the luxury of knowing what the hell is actually going on. In the books Katniss isn’t saved by “luck”, she has to work for those balloons. It’s clear she’s horribly outmatched and isn’t going to survive based on her one skill (archery) alone. It’s true, in the film she appears to pretty much just hide in a tree and let the Games roll over her.

Nunziata goes on to say, “A lot of how much an individual enjoys this film depends on how much of this world they’re willing to buy. Accepting that a populace is this willing to be held in sway by such a ludicrous peace solution. Believing that kids killing kids for televised entertainment would be even possible.

Another good point since the premise seems patently absurd in the film. The citizens of the Capitol come off as merely bloodthirsty ghouls but that’s not how they’re portrayed in the book. On the page, the people of the Capitol have become so entrenched in their class system that they can’t even see how unjust the Games are. They honestly believe the tributes are heroes and that the Games are a generous opportunity for the poorer districts to obtain more food rations.

The Capitol citizens’ disconnect from the reality of the situation chillingly mirrors our own disconnect with less fortunate demographics within our countries and those further abroad, such as African nations. Like all great Sci-Fi, Collins created an allegorical tale of the future that casts a critical eye on contemporary society. The book satirizes everything from reality TV to professional sports to the disparity between 1 and 99 percenters. It’s subtle, subversive, and hard-hitting. But, though it’s alluded to and flirted with (at least they kept President Snow‘s monologue on “hope” in), the message effectively lost from the film.

As I said before, all that’s left is a shallow gladiatorial spectacle to keep the masses entertained.

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