Resisting the rule of Capitol

April 5, 2012

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field reviews a much-awaited film version of The Hunger Games.

THE HUNGER Games is a highly enjoyable adaptation of Suzanne Collins' novel of the same name, the first book in a trilogy that I think is still the most interesting among the current wave of dystopian young adult novels set in totalitarian regimes where the U.S. once stood.

In Collins' take, the post-U.S. is Panem, a central Capitol surrounded by 12 economically specialized districts. In the three-quarters of a century since a failed revolution, the regime has reminded the districts of their powerlessness--and provided reality-TV entertainment to the wealthy in the Capitol--with the annual Hunger Games, where one boy and one girl are chosen as "tributes" from each district to compete to the death in a booby-trapped arena.

Our hero is Katniss Everdeen, who comes to the games from an impoverished mining district in the former Appalachia. (NOTE: I've worked hard to make this review relatively spoiler-free, but sticklers should just take me at my word that the movie and, especially, the books are very much worth it, and come back afterward.)

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games
Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

The appeal of the story is four-fold, beginning with an intensely suspenseful plot, propelled by inventive dangers and, above all, Katniss' resourcefulness. It is almost a bodily relief to see a movie featuring a female bad-ass who is as little sexualized as Jennifer Lawrence is in this role (however ludicrously clean and glamorous her face remains throughout her lengthy fight for her life).

Panem is also a sometimes-biting satire, with the decadence and frivolity of the Capitol resting on violence and poverty in the outlying districts. The movie does well with this contrast, particularly in the characters of the silly, striving Games functionary Effie Trinkett (played by Elizabeth Banks) and the slick media personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).

The Hunger Games belongs in color, and the movie does this right: the muted grays and blues of Katniss' district; the vivid greens of the forests; the stark, menacing white of the Peacekeepers; and the saturated neons of the opulent Capitol fashions are fun to watch.

Review: Movies

The Hunger Games , directed by Gary Ross, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, starring Jennifer Lawrence.

More generally, the movie does well in conveying how Panem works. The movie, since it isn't confined to Katniss' point of view, can more directly show how and why the games are being manipulated by the Capitol.

In the books, since the reader's understanding of the Capitol's strategy almost all comes from Katniss understanding it herself--requiring the Capitol's machinations to be relatively transparent--you get the impression that this dictatorial society is held together entirely through fear, and it isn't wholly convincing.

The movie leaves it slightly more open for imagining the ways that fear, hope and lack of information might together discipline the Districts. (Also, it will perhaps surprise no one that the dystopian future runs on Apple.)

Several of these scenes feature a convincingly menacing President Snow. Actor Donald Sutherland owns every scene he's in, but I thought Snow ought to have a kind of visceral repulsiveness that doesn't come across. I'm hoping that the next movies will amp up Snow's horror (and Gale's dangerousness).

THE MOVIE has a harder time capturing the books' other two strengths. The first book sets up one of the more compelling love triangles I've read. And above all, the power of the trilogy is the way it explores strategies for resistance, reflected in Katniss' struggles for her own and her family's survival.

The difficulties that the movie faces here are not entirely its fault. It has to walk several tightropes strung in the books, and in all cases, the strain is evident.

The first is that the books try to have it both ways on adolescent dress-up fantasies, lingering over the description of Katniss' fancy dresses while assuring us she's not the kind of girl who cares. In the movie, this preoccupation has the effect of muting the sense of danger during the long act in the Capitol, in between the powerful scenes when Katniss is chosen for the Games and when she first enters them.

The second tension concerns whether one particular character is motivated by love at first sight or by a deeper set of moral principles, whether he is congenitally calm or whether he is full of anger but finds a certain kind of refusal of violence the best among limited means of directing his anger at its target.

The movie doesn't draw out his resistance as powerfully as the book--mostly, it doesn't have time--but neither does it simplify his motivations to just romance.

Katniss, however, is another story. The book's plot goes to great lengths to limit the moral costs of the violence she engages in, and the movie takes this even further, with director Gary Ross having her avoid drawing her weapon in two key moments where she ought to be planning to use it offensively and, most egregiously, tacking on an absurd speech to limit any qualms arising from her most direct kill.

The problem is that, without fully feeling Katniss' potential for ruthlessness, you don't feel the significance of her solidarity. You also don't understand how intensely traumatizing and alienating her position is, as she simultaneously resists the Capitol by recognizing some other tributes' humanity and cynically uses one of those tributes to act out a part for the televised audience that will partially determine whether she lives.

It was the reader in me, not the viewer, who understood during the movie the stakes of the characters' decisions to forge genuine alliances, and why and how Katniss resists this much of the time.

The movie gives enough glimpses of this depth that fans of the book who are willing to fill in the blanks can experience the story with its meaning intact (personally, I was enthralled). But I suspect that viewers going in cold will find too much abrupt, unmotivated love story and too little battle between the ways that deprivation and desperation harden Katniss against other people and the ways that, surprisingly and incompletely, they enlarge her struggle beyond herself.

ONE STORY making the blog rounds--and for good reason--is the horrific racism some fans of the books have expressed toward the movie.

The impetus is the racists' discovery that a certain beloved character is Black. Racist books fans who were surprised by this tweeted reactions like, "Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn't as sad #ihatemyself" and "Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blond innocent girl you picture."

As the anonymous anti-racist who set up the Tumblr collecting these reactions commented, "Remember that word 'innocent'? That's why Trayvon Martin is dead."

These racist reactions have been well discussed elsewhere , so I have only two things to add.

One is that, despite its minimally multiracial cast, The Hunger Games very much follows traditional Hollywood race logic when it comes to its leads. Katniss is described physically in the books as having dark hair and olive skin, a combination consistent with any race. But only white actresses were given a chance to audition for the part.

The other is how profoundly the racists missed the point of the books. It isn't only that Rue is described in the books as having dark brown skin and eyes. It's that, in the same way that Katniss' district blends America's mining history into Panem's dystopia, Rue's district very clearly draws from American slavery.

In that district, agricultural workers live in small shacks in the fields, overseen by armed guards, punished by whipping if they sample the food they harvest. They signal one another in song. The architecture of their public spaces is the architecture of Southern plantations.

That's why the two characters we meet from that district have dark brown skin (and why I was startled, when we see that district in the movie, by how many white people were in it).

Collins' refracting of American slavery through her dystopia is, in fact, one of the most moving parts of the books, for me. It adds resonance to the inter-district solidarity that becomes a central piece of the plot, linking Katniss' personal alliances to a wider potential resistance.

And although Collins always leaves the demise of the U.S. rather vague, it invites you to imagine the struggles arising in its wake, the ways that American traditions of racism, consumerism, and state violence would be mobilized to cement the new order. Panem isn't meant to be just any dystopia. It is our dystopia.

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