Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Occupy the Hunger Games

A few friends kept raving about The Hunger Games trilogy, a series for young adults by Suzanne Collins, so I checked it out. It's well done, certainly markedly superior to what little I've read of the Twilight series (ouch). The first book is the strongest and most self-sufficient, and features some artful and memorable touches. It's not for young kids, though, given the plot: gladiatorial games involving teens fighting to death, serving as "tributes" to atone for their twelve districts' past rebellion against the almighty Capital – and the whole affair is televised. Katniss Everdeen, the heroine, is passionate but generally unsentimental, a survivor fiercely dedicated to her remaining family and justifiably skeptical of authority. Although she winds up in a love triangle with two young men, she doesn't seek it, and her honest ambivalence (even indifference) over the whole thing is a refreshing change from tween swooning. The first book especially is a page-turner.

There's been some controversy over the originality of Collins' concept, particularly in comparison to the Japanese Battle Royale (which I still haven't read/seen, although I know the premise). However, I'd say The Hunger Games is basically the umpteenth version of "The Most Dangerous Game," except with teens (and written for them) and set in a sci-fi dystopia. The core concept is not new at all, but in such cases, it's all about the combination of elements and the execution. Collins herself claims she was inspired in large part by the Greek myth of Theseus, the Minotaur, and the youths sacrificed every seven years. Certainly Collins' take resonates emotionally with that tale.

Gary Ross is directing the film adaptation of the first book (due out March 23rd), and worked with Collins on the script. Ross is a skilled, underrated screenwriter (his Oscar nominations notwithstanding), with a talent for visualizing character moments and plot developments, often unobtrusively and naturally. Many of his past films have had a sentimental touch, though, and a good adaptation of The Hunger Games should be gripping and exhilarating, but not exactly heart-warming. (You should care about the main characters, but the warm fuzzies are few and far between.) I'm less concerned about Ross than the studio, however. Since the movie reportedly will be PG-13, which isn't a surprise given the book's audience, I have to wonder how much of the book may be cut, and whether fans will rue the film's treatment of a few key events, which would be more stark and disturbing on screen than on the page. (Ross claims he'll be true to the source material.) The cast seems pretty good (we'll see), although tapping Donald Sutherland for President Snow is absolutely perfect.

There have been some fun and thoughtful pictures based on the Occupy movement involving fictional characters. If you read the Hunger Games trilogy, there's little doubt that Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mallark (portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson above) would be firmly with the 99%.

Here's one of Collins' best early passages. (It's so early in the book, involving the inciting incident that's also portrayed in the trailer, it can't really be a spoiler, but don't read it if you don't want to.) District 12 is one of the smallest and poorest, made up mostly of miners, and Katniss' father was killed in an accident several years back. Her mother went into a deep depression, so Katniss has been supporting the family, hunting game illegally beyond the district fence with her friend Gale. They sell some of it discreetly in the trade district, the Hob. In this scene, the people of District 12 have gathered for the annual selection of the tributes, one teen boy and girl. Both Katniss and Gale have extra selection chits in the pot as the price for buying more food for their families. Vapid Effie Trinket from the decadent Capital leads the proceedings, bubbly despite (or because of) the stark reality of sending young people to their death. Against the odds, Katniss' younger sister Primrose is selected, so Katniss volunteers to take her place, which for District 12 tributes means almost certain death:

I steel myself and climb the steps.

"Well, bravo!" gushes Effie Trinket. "That's that spirit of the Games!" She's pleased to finally have a district with a little action going on in it. "What's your name?"

I swallow hard. "Katniss Everdeen," I say.

"I bet my buttons that was your sister. Don't want her to steal all the glory, do we? Come on, everybody! Let's give a big round of applause to our newest tribute!" trills Effie Trinket.

To the everlasting credit of the people of District 12, not one person claps. Not even the ones holding betting slips, the ones who are usually beyond caring Possibly because they know me from the Hob, or knew my father, or have encountered Prim, who no one can help loving. So instead of acknowledging applause, I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong.

Then something unexpected happens. At least, I don't expect it because I don't think of District 12 as a place that cares about me. But a shift has occurred since I stepped up to take Prim's place, and now it seems I have become someone precious. At first one, then another, then almost every member of the crowd touches the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and holds it out to me. It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love.

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