le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Question of Perspective

For once I was somewhat ahead of the craze over The Hunger Games; I got hooked when Catching Fire was still just an ARC. This means I've had several chances to teach The Hunger Games, and each time has been - as teaching any book often is - revelatory.

Now, just a few weeks away from the opening of the movie - which I will go see, though I am nervous - I'm thinking again of some of the adaptational issues that worry me.

There's the obvious critique of reality television, of course, embedded throughout the series, but especially prominent in the first book. The betting, the voyeurism, the enforced spectatorship in the Districts, the pre-Games television circuit, the Gamemakers' work to create the most riveting Games - for the audience - all of that is, I think, important to the politics of the series, though not necessarily to the plot. But what happens when the critiques of that culture of spectacle has been transmediated by nearly an identical culture of spectacle?

The homepage for the film announces that the 74th Hunger Games are about to start. But they aren't; we're about to watch a film adaptation of a book published four or five years ago. Everyone knows that, of course, and it's almost painfully literal - after all, isn't it more compelling for the viewer to be drawn into the Secondary World of the books?

Actually, NO.

It shouldn't be.
Panem is an appalling place, filled with appalling people - either appallingly oppressed or appallingly oppressive and oblivious. We don't - we shouldn't - want to align ourselves with the people of that world at all.

And here's the thing that teaching the book made crystal-clear to me: it is ESSENTIAL that Katniss narrates. It may even be essential that she narrates in the present tense. The only way we as readers can avoid complicity in the horrific spectacle of the Hunger Games is to be inside that Arena, to be looking at everything through Katniss's eyes. Otherwise, we are voyeurs - maybe reluctant, unwilling ones, but we are watching the spectacle, we are guided by the media's editing, we are caught up in the excitement and the dazzle and the suspense. If we're out in the Capitol, or even the Districts, we are not innocent bystanders. If we're in the Arena, locked inside the head of a tribute, then we are not reveling in the spectacle of the Games; we're aware of, alive with, the fear and horror and difficulties and pain of the Games. And that's the part that's important.

And how do you translate, transmediate, re-present, first-person, present-tense narration in a film?
Since you can't replicate it exactly, how do you counter the effects of losing that perspective, the perspective that guides your affective response to everything that happens in the story?

This is what has been worrying me since before I knew there'd be a movie. In class, we talked about the narrative perspective, and how important it is that we see things from Katniss's perspective. A few people thought it would have been cool for Collins to split up the narrative amongst a few of the tributes - Peeta, maybe, Rue, perhaps?  It may have been a student - I honestly don't remember - or it could have been me who brought up the problem of being a spectator versus participant in the Games. And they agreed; virtually everyone agreed that locating the narrative perspective outside of the Arena would NOT be good.

So when I came across this tonight, I was horrified. Capitol Couture. "Whether you're a Capitol fashionista seeking inspiration for your latest look or a District citizen tracking rumors about the Tributes and other celebs, Capitol Couture is the only place to turn for pictures and news reports on the fashion, trends and lifestyle that make Capitol living so grand."

No. No. No NO NO NO NO.

We aren't meant to be Capitol fashionistas. We aren't supposed to want to know the rumors or the trends. To use an unfair analogy, this is like setting up a page about the latest trends and rumors in the Nazi capital Berlin. We aren't supposed to sympathize with the oppressive, privileged class. They're shallow, oblivious, voyeuristic people who excitedly watch children kill each other on television, cheering and betting and getting emotionally involved in the forced plotlines.

We don't want to live in the world Collins has created. It's a miserable place full of want and hunger and sadness and instability and violence. It's a place where children are selected at random to fight each other to the death on live, national television. Where these Games are celebrated, memorialized, commemorated; there is Games-tourism to past Arenas, there are products and styles and trends, there's a huge economy around the Games, entirely aside from the enormous political and social power of it. You don't even need to read Foucault's Discipline and Punish to see the way power and discipline are being enacted here.

This isn't Harry Potter, or Middle Earth, or Narnia; this is a broken, post-apocalyptic world. There is no subject position in that world that we can successfully inhabit; at best, we can want to see things through the filter of Katniss's selfish, stubborn mind. We don't want to be her. We don't want to hold a 12-year-old in our arms while that child dies. We don't want to kill anyone. We don't want to have to care for Peeta, always worrying that he'll die, that we'll die, that the final moment of crisis has arrived. We don't want to have to hunt to scrape together food for our families, hunt and sell the meat and still be hungry at night. We don't want to be pawns in anyone's Games.

But the studio (Lionsgate) evidently wants just that. They want us in the audience of the Games, laughing and gasping and gripping the arms of our chairs and betting and reminiscing.
They want us to be complicit.

And by doing this, by creating a spectacle that draws us in irresistably, they become, like the Capitol, wielders of power. And we become the Capitol people, we become the District people.

They give us bread and circus, and we buy advance tickets for the midnight opening.

I'm worried about this movie.

10 comments:

Libby said...

thanks for this post. I've been concerned about this all along, and am dismayed by the hype you cite (which I haven't yet seen). Also troubling is the fact that I keep raising this issue (of complicity in the voyeurism, at least)--for example, in one or two interviews on the series that I've done recently--and that is not the part of the interview that gets picked up.

Bridget said...

I've been confused about that Capitol Couture tumblr for awhile; I can't quite figure out if it is tongue in cheek or if the creator(s) or just enjoying a bit of role-playing. In any case, I wouldn't be too concerned about it.

Like I said on child_lit, I don't really see how the movie trailer encourages voyeurism, but I wouldn't mind you explaining to me how I missed what you so obviously saw :)

What DOES bother me about these books (not necessarily the movie, although that ties into it) is how much people (young and old) LOVE them.

I enjoyed reading them, in the sense that they are reasonably well-written and they gave me that pleasure of staying up all night with a book that I honestly hadn't felt since, maybe, the last Harry Potter book.

But the narrative itself is devastating, heart-breaking, punishing the soul. I was NOT a happy person at the end of the trilogy. And though I'm "anticipating" seeing the film, I'm not necessarily "looking forward" to it.

But all I hear from fellow readers (again, young and old) is "It was soooo good" or "You have to read it; it's better than Twilight/Harry Potter!" or (mostly from young readers) "Peeta is such the perfect boyfriend; I'm glad Katniss chose him over Gale."

That's what I meant about so many readers missing the point of the series, and that's what really troubles me. But it could be that people simply experience different levels of empathy, and perhaps you and I and others are more easily effected by narratives like this than the majority. I honestly simply don't know.

mcr488 said...

I really enjoyed this look at the series because I get so frustrated when a good story turns into a teen romance to make a profit. I'm mostly interested to see how the movies portray Gale and Peeta-- will the movie show more of Gale than the books do to try and sell "Team Gale" to all the girls in the audience? How many times will Gale and Peeta take their shirts off unnecessarily?

morgan said...

I am also upset/confused/concerned about all the hype and the lack of critical thought going into all of it. I am interested in the movie to see how they're going to do this - but I sincerely doubt that they are going to accurately portray the horror of 24 kids trying to kill each other.

If only I thought that all the media representation, plugs and portrayals were ironic...but I found this a couple of weeks ago and was horrified:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/fashion-and-beauty/beauty/beauty-features/3-products-to-give-you-a-hunger-games-inspired-style/article2363335/

You too can have Hunger Games chic.
People just don't get it and I fear for us quite honestly.

liz said...

What a wise blog post! However perhaps you are unaware(I'm sure actually you're not!) that since theh books first came out (even the first book in the series) the internet has had an enormous Hunger Games pop-sub-culture that didn't need media to fan it. People have posted images of themselves dressed as Rue, or Katniss etc. etc. The media has glomed on to all this and expanded it. It's the sad truth that when we writers create a fantasy or alternate world, heroic, or mythic, good or bad or evil, the fans (if we are successful) absorb that world and want to live it. I know opening night here in NY at the film many in the audience will be in costume...fashionista Capitol Style, or District 12 non-fashionista style, playing their own version of the Games.

Veronica Mitchell said...

So well said. I have missed most of the hype in advance of the movie, and had not realized it was so bad, but I've had concerns about the story being represented on film. You've nailed exactly what is disturbing about the change in medium.

Bea said...

I think there is at least one other point of view that we can responsibly take to this story (aside from Katniss's), and that is Cinna's. One of the most profound moments for me is the one where Cinna sees Katniss's reaction to the delicious meal he's summoned with the push of a button and says, "How despicable we must seem to you." I feel included in that "we," and it seems essential to me that we recognize that we ARE the Capitol, and how despicable we must seem to those whose poverty fuels our prosperity.

In some ways, what I fear most from the movie is that the over-the-top fashions will make the people of the Capitol look too alien, too easily dismissed as a culture not at all like our own.

Anonymous said...

YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE HOW IDENTICAL MY THOUGHTS ARE TO YOURS!!! As I read this itwas like an extreme de ja vu. I have been shouting about this book for three years with no success, and now EVERYONE is reading it! It is the oddest sensation, (Excuse me being posh), but it really is! I am in a constant state of ecstasy, whilst also being constantly plagued by worry and fear! What happens if they ruin my beautiful Hunger Games? What will happen then? I am going to see it next week, with my book club (who are all recent Hunger Games converts) and we are all sooooo excited. But because, to them, Hunger Games is something recent, something passing by, the success and loyalty to the book of this film, is not so, well it doesn't mean everything to them, lets just say that.
As for Capital Couture, its harmless fun for those who enjoy THE FILM and not the intricacies and fears of the book. Anyway I think it is funny.
But I agree this is not happy bunny land and 1984 would never get this sort of thing done to it, and we must treat it in a similiar light.
Anyway you probably didn't understand a word I just wrote, but no-one does at the moment, I'm kind of on cloud 9. Ok SEEYA!!!
YAY!!! Hunger Games is COMING!!!

Anonymous said...

YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE HOW IDENTICAL MY THOUGHTS ARE TO YOURS!!! As I read this itwas like an extreme de ja vu. I have been shouting about this book for three years with no success, and now EVERYONE is reading it! It is the oddest sensation, (Excuse me being posh), but it really is! I am in a constant state of ecstasy, whilst also being constantly plagued by worry and fear! What happens if they ruin my beautiful Hunger Games? What will happen then? I am going to see it next week, with my book club (who are all recent Hunger Games converts) and we are all sooooo excited. But because, to them, Hunger Games is something recent, something passing by, the success and loyalty to the book of this film, is not so, well it doesn't mean everything to them, lets just say that.
As for Capital Couture, its harmless fun for those who enjoy THE FILM and not the intricacies and fears of the book. Anyway I think it is funny.
But I agree this is not happy bunny land and 1984 would never get this sort of thing done to it, and we must treat it in a similiar light.
Anyway you probably didn't understand a word I just wrote, but no-one does at the moment, I'm kind of on cloud 9. Ok SEEYA!!!
YAY!!! Hunger Games is COMING!!!

Anonymous said...

As a fan of the book, I awaited the film with some trepidation but was quite pleased with the results.
In no way does the film, or the Capitol Couture tumblr, glorify the citizens of the Capitol or make us complicit in their cruelty. In fact, this portrayal achieves exactly the opposite by bringing to life just how cruel and vacuous they really are. In fact, I think the film does an even better job of highlighting the exploitative aspects of reality TV because we see what goes on behind the scenes in a way not expressed in the book.
As for narration by Katniss, it's really not necessary: the film is so obviously told from her point of view, and from Peeta's, as victims of the system and champions of change.
As for kids' unsophisticated enthusiasm for the books/movie -- well, they're kids. How articulate were you at age 12? Saying something is good is sometimes about as articulate as any of us get in conversation, while our thoughts and feelings usually run much deeper.