Around this time last year I was working on my thesis, and I came across this line in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda: “Who can deny that bows and arrows are among the prettiest weapons in the world for feminine forms to play with?” The contrast between “weapon” and “play” within this seemingly innocent musing on the narrator’s part spells out a cruel irony: in the nineteenth century, when Eliot was writing, female archers didn’t wield weapons. They “played” with them, while the spectators admired the female form on display as the archers drew back their bows. Though the archer held the weapon, she was, in fact, the target, the arena a stage and the spectators the real sportsmen. It’s the same dynamic in the countless action films where women with weapons are something to be laughed at, oggled or both, but rarely taken seriously as action heroes (with some notable exceptions!). And this is why Katniss Everdeen rocks my world. In her hands a bow is anything but a toy. She wields it like it’s an extension of her own body, and judging by book and movie ticket sales, no one is laughing. Maybe that’s because it’s finally not a big damn deal that a female action hero is carrying a wildly popular novel film franchise. Maybe the gender of the protagonist has nothing to do with it. Whatever Suzanne Collins intended when she created Katniss, I think it’s absolutely perfect to have a female archer at the heart of a narrative that can as easily be described as an extended meditation on the politics of spectacle as it can be classified as Young Adult fiction.
The first installment of the Hunger Games introduces us to Panem, a society in which the Capital city’s only contact with its 12 outlying districts is a series of propaganda videos and the annual The Hunger Games. In these games, two “tributes,” a boy and a girl from each of the 12 districts are chosen at random to fight to death in a strategically crafted arena while the bloodbath is edited and packaged as must-see reality TV. Once in the arena Katniss uses her wits and her bow, along with a fair amount of help from some fellow tributes and her mentor, to re-write the spectacle of the Hunger Games so that it becomes a weapon against the government that created it. Ever since I read the first novel I have been really excited to see the narrative brought to life on screen via a medium capable of visualizing what the novel can only describe . . . and I absolutely loved what they did with it.
I liked the books. They hooked me from the first page, but if I’m honest they read like a first draft, as if Suzanne Collins was making notes to herself within the text about things she would come back to later to develop further or smooth over. Often I felt like she was shouting at me: KATNISS IS CONFLICTED ABOUT PEETA AND GALE, BUT THEY BOTH THINK SHE IS THE BEST THING EVER AND WILL LOVE HER ALWAYS, BUT WAIT, SHE DOESN’T HAVE TIME TO WORRY ABOUT THAT BECAUSE OPPRESSION, AND NOW SHE HAS TO GO FIGHT PEOPLE TO THE DEATH BUT I STILL WANT YOU TO BE REALLY INVESTED IN THIS LOVE TRIANGLE. Or perhaps even more obviously: RUE REMINDS KATNISS OF PRIM. ARE YOU GETTING THIS? PRIM, HER LITTLE SISTER? RUE = PRIM, GOT IT. . . . I’M NOT SURE YOU’VE GOT IT (credit to Stubman for this point).
Now I suppose that might be a little unfair to Collins. Her vision of Panem and it’s annual hunger games does as much to comment on the narrative cliches it utilizes as it does reinforce them. The most obvious example being that the first hunger games, which takes up a good three fourths of the first novel, offers up as much in entertainment value as it does in social critique. After all, to get invested in the outcome of the games and route for Katniss and Peeta is to hope for the death of 22 other children, thus demanding that even the least critical of readers engage with the moral ambiguity of the narrative at some point. So I agree with the critics who praise Collins for trusting her young audience (and let’s be honest, everyone) to be critical readers. I just wish she had trusted her audience to get the subtler moments within the narrative as well.
The film is at once shorter and denser than the novel. It trims, expands and reorganizes where necessary, the most important change being a shift in perspective. In the novel, Katness shows us Panem. We experience the narrative with her and her alone, but Collin’s vision is bigger than the frame she’s given herself to work with so that some of the strongest components of her vision thematically speaking – the political manueveings of President Snow, the omnipotent power of the gamemekers, and the uprisings within the districts – are the clunckiest in terms of narrative. In the film, we don’t see Panem through Katniss’s eyes; rather, we watch Katniss in Panem. It is a broader perspective that allows the film to more vividly develop both the dystopian world of Collins’ imagination as well as the supporting cast of characters.
Take Peeta for example. In the novel Peeta is obnoxiously impossibly good. This is established early on as Katniss describes the time she was starving in his yard and he gave her some bread he burnt intentionally. In her head this is a one-way debt she feels she has to repay. The film tweaks this encounter, alluding to it in a series of three different flashbacks so that the audience only knows that Peeta came to her aid until the last segment is played about a third of the way through the film. We are left wondering until the last part of the flashback in which Peeta rather coldly throws the bread into a puddle of mud for Katniss to pick up herself. Later on during the games when it is Katniss saving Peeta’s life, she acknowledges the bread and he expresses remorse that he just threw it to her instead of coming out into the rain to give it to her. This is a subtle deviation from the events in the book, but an important one. Peeta’s attachment to Katniss is not a juvenille infatuation as it is in front of the Capital’s cameras, nor is he “the boy with the bread” as Katniss thinks of him in the novels. The film lets him define himself as “the boy who should have done more.” The power dynamics shift ever so slightly, and all of a sudden Katniss is not just someone he wants. She is tied up in the moral question of who he wants to be. In this moment, for me at least, Peeta becomes infinitely more interesting, as does his relationship with Katniss.
Just as a sidenote, Peeta also had the absolute best line of the film when he and Katniss emerge from the cave to hunt and he tells her, “I’ll take the bow . . . just kidding I’ll go pick some stuff.” A cookie for the screenwiter because that moment was all things lovely.
But the film goes even further than just fleshing out the supporting cast of characters. There are several moments when the camera and audio align with the first person perspective of a character, and in the film, unlike in the novel, these moments don’t privilidge Katniss’s perspective exclusively. There is one very important moment that belongs to Rue. In the book, Rue’s death is heart-wrenching for several reasons: she’s twelve, smart, kind, and because she reminds Katniss of Prim. Rues death does more than that of any other tribute to individualize the barbarity of The Hunger Games. But the Rue of the novel is entirely innocent. The Rue of the film, however, is something more. She sees that Cato is the most senselessly aggressive of the tributes and plays a clever trick on him the first day of training. As we see her laughing from the rafters of the training area holding Cato’s knife while Cato accuses another tribute of stealing it, Rue gives the film it’s first real moment of levity and for this reason her death also packs the biggest emotional punch. In the novel, the reader experiences Rue’s death through Katniss’s eyes. In the film, after Rue has been stabbed the camera lingers on her face. She begins to cry softly, tells Katniss she has to win, and asks for a song. All of a sudden the camera cuts away from Rue’s face and aligns with her eyes. We see the light and hear Katniss’s song, both fading into nothing, and we die with Rue. Her death in the film is significant not just because it is devastatingly sad, but because it does what the novel cannot: it demands that the audience, even if just for a moment, see the games through the eyes of a dying tribute, not just the victor.
In the novel, Collins has to spell out every little impact moments like Rue’s death have on the people in the different districts. In contrast, the film takes us to District 11, to the crowd of spectators watching Rue die and actually channels the sadness at her slaughter into the rage of that first revolt. The film shows us the gamemakers manipulating the arena, playing with the lives of the contestants, both in the name of justice and for the sake of good TV. During the games, shots of the Capital watching and betting on what to them is a sporting event are followed by shots of the different districts watching their young citizens slaughter and be slaughtered. And because Katniss knows that the games are first and foremost a spectator sport, she is able to subvert the intentions of the government and gamemakers who would make a plaything of her humanity.
So yes. I’m really looking forward to what they do with the next two books, both of which involve much harder decisions about using spectacle for good and for evil. And if you’re craving more YA fiction now that you’ve finished The Hunger Games, read The Chaos Walking Trilogy already. You won’t regret it! Meerkate out.
Update: A link to some feminist ponderings on The Hunger Games that articulate much better than I can what Collins may be doing with “spectacle” in the novels.