Friday, July 06, 2012
The Hunger Games
Last year I read The Hunger Games trilogy and I greatly enjoyed the books and was ultimately irritated at them. I am never someone to say that time was wasted with reading or watching something that is terrible. I am proud to say that I have only ever walked out of one movie and that wasn't my choice. It was The Tuxedo starring Jackie Chan and it was because the people I was watching it with were appalled at how stupid it was and wanted to leave. I pouted since I hate walking out of movies, but ultimately I was riding with them and had to leave.
I am notorious for being able to find some value in almost any ridiculous thing. Terrible movies hold interesting political and critical insights. Terrible books hold a similar empowering analytical social value. I remember a friend asking me if Tron: Legacy was a good movie. I said with a smile, yes it was, I would definitely recommend it. My friend and his girlfriend ended up watching it and later complained to me that the movie was terrible and they weren't sure why I would have recommended it. I thought hard about it, and admitted it was a poor movie, but I still had fun, and still thought it was an interesting continuation of the original Tron. The first movie didn't have a serious bone in its celluloid body, and this one attempted to be too serious in a way that wasn't much fun. But I still thought of it as enjoyable and beautiful in the way in which thinks that are overthought and overdone can sometimes be interesting to watch, precisely for the reasons that things are supposed to not be fun to watch. My friend was not amused by my confusing response.
I started to read The Hunger Games because my girlfriend's mother was using it in her class last fall. I had heard some of the hype about it, but had never given it much thought. I started to read it because it sounded to similar to a Japanese series I had read before Battle Royale. In that series a high school class in Japan is chosen every year to kill each other until there is a single survivor. It was later made into a manga and a movie. I also hoped that The Hunger Games might be something I could incorporate into my EN 111 class if I felt that it would be a good thing for students to analyze and write about.
I have to admit that I was immediately hooked on The Hunger Games after just a few chapters. Once it got into the terrifying politics of a world where districts offer up random children each year to slaughter each other in order to appease a central government they once attempted to overthrow, I was determined to read the entire thing as soon as possible. The character of Katniss Everdeen was so paper thin in terms her creation by the author it was astounding. But then when you really paid attention to the world that Suzanne Collins was creating, especially when it begins in district 12, it was very empty, very bland, very sad. So in a way the emptiness through which she gives us Katniss is expected, she reflects the world she lives in.
But, at the same time, unlike almost everyone else in the world, she gives Katniss purpose. She gives her a sense of responsibility and obligation to her sister, which is strengthened by a will to survive. Everyone else (with the exception of Gale) appears to just quietly accept the world and the way things are. Katniss doesn't have any grand designs for social change in the first book, but she chaffs against it in a way that she herself doesn't even appear to understand sometimes. Part of the genius of the first book for myself at least, was how the character of Katniss felt very real in terms of being a strong, yet generic teenager in an impossible situation. She had a very strong, tough spirit. Esta mesngon gui', esta sugat na palao'an. But at the same time there was an almost pathetic quality to her. She didn't understand much of what was going on around her. She resisted things in irrational ways. She was both self-sacrificing one moment and incredibly selfish and self-absorbed the next. In a life and death situation she was consumed with thoughts of her feelings and her love. In other words she was acting pretty much like a teenager.
In the first book this style works very well. There is tension, drama, and even if Katniss can sometimes be irritating in the very raw, confusing and self-obsessed emotions she feels, it is so understandable given the terrifying situation she is in. This changes however as the trilogy continues. The second book Catching Fire is much more interesting that the first, as things become much more complicated. The drama over whether Katniss will be with Gale or Peeta is irritating, but thankfully there is enough tension elsewhere to distract you from this. Part of the problem with Catching Fire is the self-awareness that Katniss soon creates, which leads to her becoming the character that was simply unreadable for me in the final book. In The Hunger Games she is shoved into the limelight and sometimes uses it to her advantage in the same way a child might perform a trick for its family in order to appease or please them. She makes use of her role at the center of all gazes, but she doesn't obsess about it. In fact, in the first book as she imagines the gaze that is following them, that is identifying with her and Peeta's struggle, she learns to manipulate it. She does this though with a careful and important distance. The gaze is there and she knows she can move it, she can make it follow her and she can influence those on the other side, but she does not make it her fetish, she generally hates it, but she does not feel overly oppressed by it. Ti ha dochon i sanhalom-na, it doesn't pierce her and who she is.
Although Mockingjay is an exciting book, it was almost impossible to read. The voice that Collins gave Katniss in the first two books that felt so authentic, becomes overly tiresome and irritating in the third installment. It is real in a way. It probably does reflect the way a child would react into being thrown into an important role they may not feel themselves ready for. I am not arguing that there is anything wrong with this, it is, given the way the author created the character the way she should sound and react. The problem is its just such a bore to read. With revolutions happening everywhere, and the world on the verge of radical change or oblivion, we get this exciting world in tiny chunks, drenched in endless pages of self-recrimination, self-doubt, self-hate, apathy, loathing. While it is very real, it just sucks to read. The revolution takes place with Katniss at the center, but while she appreciates this role in the abstract, she never achieves a consciousness where she can actually take on the Mockingjay role. In simpler terms, she never accepts the responsibility she is given, and thus chafes against it for page after page, refusing to ever accept the fact that a new world is being born around her, and she is playing a role in creating it.
Over the course of the three books Gale and Katniss tragically grow apart. Katniss experiences the most grisly form of combat and wants to shun it and move away from it. Gale however finds new purpose in revolution and starts to move towards it, using his hunting skills to help the cause in terms of developing new strategies and weapons. Although Katniss is at the center of the Cause and gives it life and form, the Cause is not within her, she is a void inside, searching only for meaning outside of the Cause that is oppressing her. Peeta, who is victimized in so many ways is the answer to her void. As someone who faked loved her and really loved her, someone who would no doubt swear off the Cause, abandon everything for her, he is what she needs and craves. This becomes saddening as the position Katniss takes is akin to the "mas paire yu' kinu umeskuela" or her being too cool for school. Her resistance to so many is the fact that they "believe" in something; guaha hinenggen-niha, which as we see in the duplicity and Janus nature of President Coin, is not something you can actually live your life according to. The heroes are just as bad as the villains when they believe in a great cause, and so Katniss rejects such things, choosing to only believe in the limited few she sees as "with her."
Ultimately the message of the trilogy is an anti-war message. Katniss avers war, even when it is in her own name. Even after her side has won, she cannot give herself over to it, she cannot celebrate it, she cannot enjoy it. The costs of war, the costs of violence are too great. They should not be celebrated, they should be forgotten, they should be moved on from. But at the same time, it is only through this violence that Katniss discovers the bonds that eventually sustain, nurture and inspire her. Peeta, Haymitch and herself create a book to commemorate those who were killed in The Hunger Games. There is no compulsion to create a book for those who died in overthrowing the Capitol. There is no nagging feeling that she needs to commemorate those, non-tributes who saved her from the Quarter Quell. The bonds of those who worshiped and looked up to her don't matter. The bonds with those who sacrificed for her don't matter. The bonds of those trying to create a better world don't matter. The only ones to be valued are those she shared with in the terrors of the Hunger Games. While Katniss continual resists violence and war and obsessively works to see no value in it, she at the same time cherishes the understanding that only emerges from those who share such violence together.