March 24, 2012


So I took the older kids to see Hunger Games last night, and read the book in preparation. The adaptation is sufficiently faithful--given time constraints--that we need no quibble over the variations, though they were nearly all the book-obsessed Daughter cared about. Instead, two of the great weaknesses of the story stand out even more starkly in the film. Them we really should address.

The first concerns one of the most difficult tasks that faces any writer of science fiction/fantasy: the creation of some depth to the world that is created to frame the story. Of course, anyone working in the genres will inevitably be measured against the impossibly high standard that JRR Tolkien established in the Lord of the Rings. There every character and his people had a voluminous backstory, traditions, language, art, etc. No one is just a plot device or window dressing. Great themes twine throughout the whole history of Middle Earth. Nothing is merely surface. And, as a result, Tolkien's story is always internally coherent and consistent. It does not matter whether there are elves and dwarves in real life. Within the four corners of the narrative they not only exist but behave in ways that make sense.

Susan Collin's world of Panem, on the other hand, makes no sense. Here we have a world that has developed technology sufficiently advanced that trains hover above their tracks and whisk you from outlying districts to the futuristic Capitol, where hovercrafts can deposit troops at a moments notice, where communications screens are omnipresent, where bioengineering produces a range of mutated livestock, and where computer programs generate material goods. And yet, we are asked to believe that provincial coal mining, timber harvesting, farming and the like are all vital to the survival of the regime. Huh? That train was not being pulled by a steam engine (the visual is especially damning in that regard). And if you want more food why don't the game programmers just adapt their code?

Importantly, the problem here is not just that the folks running The Capitol could feed the masses more easily than the masses supposedly feed them, but that this is exactly what an authoritarian government would do. Just as the games are the circuses with which the patricians keep the plebians quiescent, so too would they give them bread. If a simple reality tv show has managed to keep the internal peace for seven decades, imagine how much more docile the people would be if you fattened them up a bit? 

Which raises an awkward question, that flows from such an underdeveloped mythos: what is the point of the repression, such as it is, in Panem? It seems to be just a function of preventing another rebellion, but rebellion against what? The regime is not terribly harsh. It's not homicidal/genocidal. Its security services hardly seem a factor in every day life. There's so little surveillance that the heroine and her boy friend can routinely sneak out of their District to hunt and can freely trade what they kill or capture on the flourishing black market. It is a government that has the capacity to observe and track people at every step, yet oddly chooses not to do so for the general population it is supposedly terrified of. There's a camera in every tree on the game set but not a one in anyone's home?

But if the motivations and rationales of The Capitol are annoyingly opaque, those of the dwellers in the Districts are fatally so. These are people who have no culture, no metaphysical belief, no nothing that we care about them preserving. Sure, it would be nice if the kids didn't have to die violent deaths in the Games or starve back home, but if all their existence amounts to is feeding themselves, then Katniss's friend, Gale, is pretty much right that killing what is left of the human species is no different than killing other animals. 

Here Ms Collins and company run into the same problem that plagued Ridley Scott's Gladiator: the story has a void at its core because the Christianity is removed. Just as Maximus was stuck with little clay figurines that meant nothing, Katniss carries a crucifix-substitute, a mockingjay pin, that is devoid of any meaning. And there's one scene that captures the emptiness of the lives lived in Panem with a haunting clarity. Lenny Kravitz plays Cinna, who starts as the stylist for District 12 but becomes a fan of Katniss. As he's wishing her farewell before she heads into the arena, he reveals that he put the pin on her garment, tells her he would have bet on her if he could, and then a deafening silence descends. In the absence of culture, he has nothing to say to her, nor she to him, that has any meaning. She should live just because she should. But, of course, she's going to die sometime. If that's all there is, then who cares when she dies, or why? 

We know what they should be saying to each other, what is required that they say to each other. But they don't, which makes them startlingly hollow. 

What we ultimately have here is another instance of how misshapen a story becomes when the teller tries to escape the truth of the One Story

Posted by at March 24, 2012 8:41 AM

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