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?
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.