Saturday, March 10, 2012

Violent Entertainments & Hungry Games

Yesterday I finished reading Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, which I thought was quite good. Collins has crafted strong, intriguing characters, and placed them in a believable fictional world. As I have two more volumes of the series to go, I shall keep my speculation on further developments to myself for the moment, though I shall say that I am eager to see what happens next. Also, I hope to keep this post free from spoilers.

So, instead of plot mechanics, I would like to touch upon theme this afternoon. For those unfamiliar with the narrative, it revolves around a future society in what was once termed "North America." In the aftermath of a crushed social revolution, the elite have instituted an annual competition (the titular Games) in which 24 youngsters between the ages of twelve and eighteen are tossed into the wilderness and manipulated into killing each other. The last remaining survivor wins. This contest is broadcast live throughout the nation for the great pleasure of well-off city folk and to the poorer classes as a reminder of their utter subservience. For the benefit of both audiences, the more bloody and harrowing the competition, the better.

One of the reasons this book works is that Collins gets the tone right. It is, after all, a fine line to write a critique of violence as entertainment without your story becoming entertaining violence itself. Collins' keeps her story dark, never portraying her main characters reveling in any of their kills. When death happens it is quick and usually gruesome. This is not violence that has been sanitized for your protection. What is extra chilling is imagining all the citizens of the nation's posh Capital sitting around their living rooms, munching on snacks (popcorn anyone?), laughing and simply having a jolly good time watching all the maiming. Roman gladiators are clearly one reference, as are more contemporary sports and pastimes -- even someone who has viewed as little reality television as myself can pick up on the tropes riffed on by the packaged presentation of the Games to the populace. It would seem once again that from the Coliseum to today to the future there is precious little alteration in human nature.

Which leads me to the fact that somehow this story has been turned into a "major motion picture." I do not believe that there exists an "unfilmable" book, though some offer more challenges than others. What Collins merely described in her novel must now be rendered into moving images. In the process, the filmmakers have to find a way not only to maintain the balanced edge of Collins' narrative in their screenplay, but also transfer that tone to the screen. In other words, for this movie to work, in my mind, it should disgust the viewer. The violence should make your stomach turn, sicken you. Like the novel, there should be no catharsis in the kill, even if it saves a beloved character's life. This is not the type of story to elicit an audience reaction of "oh man, did you see how the spear just pierced her throat like that? Awesome!" If it is, well then, what's the difference between you and the citizens of the Capital placing bets on these young kids and hoping that this year's bloodbath will be even more thrilling than the previous?

This is not to say that violence cannot be entertaining (I read superhero comics, OK?), but that I feel it is the wrong tone for this particular story and the message its author wishes to convey. It is also true that intentions and reception are two different things (i.e. those viewers who somehow thought that A Clockwork Orange was a fun film worth imitating).

While reading the book, my mind was brought back to Peter Watkins' film Punishment Park. Made in the early 1970s, the British director imagines an America where political dissidents (read leftists & hippies) are arrested for sedition. They are given the option of prolonged prison sentences or a short stay in "Punishment Park." The park, as it turns out, is a dessert that they must cross (without supplies) in order to win their freedom. Only, it slowly dawns on the viewer that the whole thing is a set up, as National Guard troopers start killing them off one by one. It is a highly brutal and disturbing movie, yet also the closest example I could think of what I believe a Hunger Games film should resemble.

Not that Hollywood would let anyone like Peter Watkins near a property with as much profit potential as this one. Nope, instead we get Gary Ross. Gary Ross? The guy who made Pleasantville, a film that copped-out at any & every opportunity at nuance? A film that refused to truly challenge the audience or ask of it any question for which the filmmakers did not have a ready-made pat answer? A movie that avoided addressing any real issue of how actions have their consequences, both good and bad? This is the director to whom they've entrusted the book? Sorry, I'll pass. (At least they didn't find some way to cast Tobey Maguire in this one. Come on, you know that he auditioned for Thresh . . . :)).

As I said at the beginning, I have only just finished book one of the trilogy, and apologize if anything I have written is contradicted by the following two volumes. (Though, if they are, please be kind and do not respond to this post in such a way that spoils them for me. Thanks). I feel as though I have a sense where Collins is headed and that "the center shall not hold." Oh wait, I said that I would avoid second-guessing the author at this stage . . .


Postscript, 3-22-12: So, I was on the subway yesterday, reading Catching Fire as part on my morning commute, when it suddenly occurred to me who should have been handed the job of adapting The Hunger Games: Alfonso Cuaron. The man has experience adapting children's/young adult literature (A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). The latter film also demonstrated that he can deliver profits on a big-budget fanchise Event -- gotta keep the accountants happy, you know?  At the same time, he has shown an ability to see into the more complicated aspects of young psyches (Y Tu Mama Tambien). Most importantly, there is Children of Men. One of the reasons I have always admired this film is the starkness of Cuaron's presentation of violence; it is sudden, often short, and always harrowing. In other words, just how I would imagine that The Hunger Games should be faithfully handled on screen, especially now that I have a glimpse of where the second book is going (only a little over a hundred pages into it so far). True, Cuaron has had his misses (though, if the only good thing that came out of his Great Expectations is Pulp's song "Like a Friend", well, then that whole movie might have worth it anyhow). Still, maybe, if I cross my fingers long enough The Powers that Be will give Senor Cuaron a chance at Catching Fire. One can hope at any rate . . .

I have yet to read any of the advanced reviews of the Hunger Games film, so it is always possible that my pessimism shall be proven wrong. We'll find out soon enough . . .