Curiously nerdy posts.
The time has come. No, it’s not dinnertime yet. No, it’s not my birthday.
No, I’m going to try to do the impossible: discuss a super mainstream blockbuster series, and not sound like a clearly critical hipster.
Simply put, I want to talk about The Hunger Games. The other day, I watched the movie on Netflix with my girlfriend. As you could probably guess by the timing, I wasn’t terribly motivated to seek it out and watch it. She wanted to watch it, because she told me her sister loves the books, and the movie. So she was curious, and you know how couples do. She wanted to watch it, and so we did.
I read the book months ago, and came away with an odd feeling. It wasn’t a badly written book, like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray. But it didn’t grip me, either. While I was reading it, I would feel my mind drift away with thoughts that I really shouldn’t have when I am reading a genuinely awesome book. Namely, thoughts like “I can’t wait until I’m done with this book.” Not so that I could move on to the next in the series, but so that I could move on to another book written by another author. There was just something about it that made it fall short to me.
Then as I revisited it in movie form, it struck me. It struck me so hard that I even commented to my girl on it while we watched.* It was sort of obvious after a while.
*She likes for me to explain plots to her. I wasn’t being loud and annoying, I promise.
I’m sure there’s a lot of people who dislike The Hunger Games for differing reasons. Is it a rip off of Battle Royale?* It’s pretty close, but I don’t have as big of a problem with that. Is it a bit full of high school drama? Well, yeah. It’s YA. Are most the character names silly to the point that you can have a lot of fun with simple sophomoric wordplay with them?** Well, yes.
*I haven’t read the book, but I watched the movie when it came out. Mostly because I love Takeshi Kitano’s work as a director.
**I plan on writing a post about silly names in the near future. Stay tuned!
But all that stuff, it comes with the territory. I’m not going to go into detail, but the adage that every story that can possibly be told is pretty true. I like to use a food metaphor to describe it, since I love to eat: everyone eats the same kind of steak, so you make it different and unique by what herbs and spices you use. The same goes for stories. The angsty stuff, it’s fine. And sometimes I enjoy using silly names myself, even if they’re unintentional at first.
No, the major problem The Hunger Games has is simple and fundamental: At no point in the book/movie, does any character have to make any hard choice whatsoever.
Just think about it. I’m just going to go over the major plot swings, but the whole book is plagued by this problem.
– When Katniss volunteers to go in the place of her sister, it seems like a huge sacrifice, right? She’s going off to her probable death. But she loves her sister, and probably would not live with herself knowing that her sister went to her death and she did nothing. Also by this point, the story has already established that she’s a pretty skilled survivalist, and a very good shot with a bow. In an event where alledgedly, as Portia says, “most of you will die from natural causes, ten percent from infection, twenty percent from dehydration. Exposure can kill as easily as a knife“, her skills seem uniquely suited to give her a much better chance to live than her typical girly girl Laura Ingalls styled sister. So yeah, she’s going off to her death. But having a 1/24 chance of winning is better than 0/24, and it’s pretty obvious her sister would’ve died almost instantly. It’s not exactly a hard decision to make, if you’re practical and realistic.
– When Katniss makes friends with Rue, the small girl from District 11, it’s a nice moment. Rue saves her life, and cares for her while she recovers from the wasp poison. They even team up to destroy Cato’s supply pile. But at the back of everyone’s mind, they’re wondering a simple fact: even if these two seemingly heroic girls took down everyone else, they’d have to kill each other at the end. But Katniss couldn’t kill her, right? She’s a friend. Rue saved her, more than once. Kat simply cannot kill her and still come out looking squeaky clean and sympathetic, as the author desired.
How convenient for her (and the plot) that some random dude comes out of nowhere to nail her with a javelin. Then we get to see that Katniss can indeed kill people, when she spins around and shoots him with an arrow, killing him almost instantly. While it looks nice for dramatic effect, all it really does is take away a fascinating philosophical question for the audience to ask themselves (can Katniss kill a friend to survive?) and replaces it with an easy and obvious one (can Katniss kill some guy in self defense that she’s never met in her life because he is trying to kill her?). The plot cannot do anything but suffer at that point. And of course, it’s an easy choice for Kat to make at that point.
You can make a similar point for Foxface. She wasn’t an enemy of theirs, obviously, but Katniss never had to deal with the issue of whether or not she could bring herself to kill her.
– Then we run into the EXACT SAME PROBLEM when Katniss meets Peeta again. The question that the story has been planting into our minds the entire time is simple, and straightforward, but classic enough to be interesting: Is Katniss willing to do anything to survive and go home, when anything means killing a boy who loves her and helped save her from starvation way back when? The story tries to make it easier to answer by having Peeta team with the elite District 1 and 2 contestants, thus making him look like an opportunist that just wants to survive at all costs. But when it’s revealed he secretly is trying to protect her, our sympathy for him gets even stronger. That’s actual good storytelling, to be fair. But again, for our heroine to survive, we know she has to kill him, regardless of their feelings for each other.
How convenient, then, that the people running the Games make an announcement out of nowhere stating that “If a boy and girl from the same District outlives everyone else, they both win!” It completely destroys any tension between Katniss and Peeta, and devolves it into a simple “us vs. them” theme for the rest of the games. If she had gone back for medicine for him when he’s seriously injured, all the while thinking about why she is risking her life for him only when she’d have to kill him in the end anyway, then that would’ve been a compelling bit of drama. Instead, it takes all that away, and makes it a simple “oh, she’ll go get the medicine and get him better. She might get stabbed, or stung, or get thirsty or something, but she WILL get the medicine and he WILL get better.” Which is, of course, exactly what happens.
By the time they’re the only two left, and the Game organizers say “Whoops, our bad. You have to kill each other after all,”, it seems like a hollow threat, because at this point we know the plot armor for both Katniss and Peeta is far too strong to let them die. And sure enough, they back down and let them both win when our heroes threaten to pull a Romeo and Juliet on them.
It just feels like any time in the story where there COULD be a really compelling, dramatic moment to be had, the plot takes it away and takes the easy way out.
I’m sure some people say “But you CAN have a good story without any hard choices to be made by the characters!” And you know what? I agree. You can. It’s not a hard choice for Batman to save Gotham City from the Joker, and let him get away to save a single person’s life in exchange. It’s not a hard choice for Marlin to go off looking for Nemo in Finding Nemo. It’s not a hard choice for Hamlet to kill Claudius.
But in a story that is centered around a deathmatch for children, where you know all but one of them is going to die, then you had better have a hard choice or two in there. Anything less, and you have a story that just doesn’t feel genuine or sincere. We’re not made to care about anyone who dies in The Hunger Games. They’re either nameless and faceless, or made out to be such jerks that we’re glad when we meet their doom. All that does is cheapen death in a story that should be trying to make death and killing people look as awful as it really is. Especially when it’s about killing children.
Is The Hunger Games a terrible story? No, not at all. The premise is genuinely interesting. But when you take away all the hard choices and possible plot twists, you’ve got something worse than a bad story. You’ve got a stunningly predictable story, and one that almost becomes… dare I say it?…
And that’s why you won’t see me reading any of the sequels. I’m simply apathetic to the idea, because I get the feeling they’re just as boring and predictable as the original. As for the movies…?
Well, maybe. If my girlfriend wants to see them. But that’s unlikely.
She didn’t like the movie very much either, you see.
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