Thursday, June 14, 2012

Books Into Movies: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
By Suzanne Collins
Movie Directed by Gary Ross
(Also discussed in this review: What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes)

“I am by nature warlike.  To attack is among my instincts.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

     Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few months, you probably know the basic story line of The Hunger Games.  The book is the first of a young adult trilogy written by Suzanne Collins and set in a futuristic North America.  The country of Panem has a capital city in the Rockies.  The extravagant and self-indulgent citizens of The Capital City are supported by twelve districts which are held in captivity and forced to send the majority of their resources to The Capital.  The citizens of the districts live in abject poverty and the elderly often starve to death while younger adults and children do their best to survive.  This is the perfect recipe for revolution, which indeed occurred 75 years prior the time of this story.  The Capitol City prevailed, and as punishment and as a reminder to the Districts as to who is in charge, the tradition of the Hunger Games was proclaimed.  A male and female child (called “Tributes”) is chosen annually from each district to fight to the death in a contrived battle zone concocted and manipulated by the Game Masters in The Capital.  The one surviving Tribute brings great glory to his or her district as well as increased rations for the following twelve months. 
       The main character is Katniss Everdeen, an older teen who is fiercely independent and protective of her younger sister Prim.  Katniss has held her family together, hunting for food in the forbidden zones using her advanced archery skills and psychologically supporting her despondent mother.  Katniss lives in District 12 which was formerly Appalachia.  District 12 supplies coal and minerals to The Capital but still is one of the poorer Districts.  Katniss’ father was a coal miner and died in a mine accident.  When the time comes for the annual “Reaping” (selection of Tributes) Prim’s name is drawn but Katniss volunteers to take her place.  The male selected from District 12 is the son of the local baker and has a romantic interest in Katniss.
     The remainder of the story, told by Katniss, carries the reader through the preparation for and, finally, the Hunger Games themselves.  Katniss and the other Tributes are fed like royalty and put through vigorous training.  Katniss and Peeta Mellark (the male Tribute from District 12) are coached by the only previous District 12 Hunger Games winner, Haymitch Abernathy.  Haymitch is a bumbling alcoholic and is very pessimistic about the survival chances of the current two District 12 tributes.  He does convince Katniss and Peeta of the importance of providing good entertainment value for all of the citizenry who will be watching the games live.  They play up the romance angle and Peeta and Katniss become known as “The Star-crossed Lovers.”
     The Games are dominated by Tributes from the richer Districts, many of whom have been trained since birth to fight.  Katniss uses her unique cunning and archery skills to remain in competition.  Each time a Tribute dies a cannon sounds and at the end of the day pictures of the Tributes who perished that day are projected on a giant screen which takes the place of the sky.  The obstacles to Katniss’ survival go beyond the other Tributes and include forest fires orchestrated by the Game Masters, unpredictable weather, genetically altered killer bees called Tracer-Jackers and, finally, the dead Tributes themselves who are reincarnated as huge dog-like carnivorous beasts. 
     The movie is extremely well done and follows the book fairly closely.  Several minor characters and plot lines were not included, but they added a television commentator who narrates the events of the day to TV audience watching in The Capital City and in the Districts.  This character allows a lot of detail to be revealed at a fast pace, keeping the story in motion.  The characters of Katniss and Peeta are played very convincingly by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, and Woody Harrleson (yes, the same guy from “Cheers”) does a marvelous job as Haymitch.  The cinematography is wonderful and most of the outdoor scenes were shot around Asheville, North Carolina.  Charlotte was used for The Capital City, but I didn’t see a lot of resemblance.
     For a 200+ page Young Adult book, this story packs a huge punch and the areas for discussion here are almost limitless.  Much has already been written about the political and social issues brought forward by The Hunger Games.  What can be said for a society which lives of the back of its poorer citizens, each year increasing the gap between the wealthy and the less fortunate?  What can be said about a society which receives thrills from watching the “agony of defeat” on live television reality shows?  This story speaks volumes about the ability of a few to control the many by abusing their position of power by economic means.  Panem is an extreme, but is it really that different from our current culture of greed?
     There are also a plethora of religious symbols in The Hunger Games.  There are churches that have started Bible study groups based on a discussion of this story.  There is the self-sacrifice which Katniss exhibits early on, volunteering as Tribute to spare her younger more fragile sister Prim.  There is also the theme of placing the good of a group over individual goals.  The survivor endures a terrible ordeal, but at least for twelve months, the lives of citizens in his or her home district are much improved.  Katniss also makes many decisions based solely on what she thinks is the morally right thing to do rather than what she feels society or others expect of her.  As Krishna states in the Mahabharata, “It is not right to stand by and watch an injustice being done.  There are times when active interference is necessary.”

       It is purely by coincidence that I was reading Karl Marlantes’ new book What It is Like to Go to War at the same time as I was reading The Hunger Games.   Marlantes, you may recall, is the author of Matterhorn,   the monumental novel of the Viet Nam War reviewed in these pages a few years ago.  This author is an Ivy League graduate, served as a Marine Lieutenant in the Viet Nam war and has struggled to understand his war experiences ever since.  He notes how societies send their young men (and now women) into combat very poorly prepared psychologically and spiritually for this experience.  Soldiers are trained in the efficient use of more and more lethal weapons, but are never counseled in how to deal with the anguish of violence and killing.    In this new non-fiction work Marlantes calls on Jungian psychology to state that we all have an evil inside of us (a “shadow” person) which under normal circumstances we are able to suppress.  In the extremes of stress, such as in combat, the evil side can surface and enable a human to kill another.  This “shadow” can also explain atrocities such as My Lai during Viet Nam or, more recently, the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib .  No soldier really “gets over” the experience of combat and killing and Marlantes feels this is the main cause of the high rates of suicide and incidence of alcoholism and drug abuse among veterans.  As Marlantes says:  “Warriors will always have to deal with guilt and mourning.  If we perform with a noble heart and dedicate our efforts to some higher good we minimize the suffering of guilt afterward.  This unfortunately will not eliminate the suffering of mourning.   Guilt is different from mourning.”  Even more telling, Marlantes says further:  “To survive psychically in the proximity of Mars, one has to come to terms with stepping outside conventional moral conduct.”
       It is enlightening to read The Hunger Games book and even more startling to watch the movie through the prism of Karl Marlantes’ important work.  I think that what Suzanne Collins has forged is an incredible anti-war statement.   Katniss Everdeen certainly is forced to step outside conventional moral conduct to survive.  The character of Haymitch (again so ably performed by Woody Harrelson) is really the symbol of the prototypical veteran consumed by survivor’s guilt and regret and drowning his later adult life with alcohol.  The evil side of human nature is Exhibit A in The Hunger Games.  There is even one time in the movie where Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, referring to Rue, a younger Tribute who is following Katniss around The Capital City during training exercises, stares into Katniss’ eyes and says “You have a shadow!”  There is a long pause which seems to me to be a reference to the “self-preservation at all cost” nature hidden inside the outwardly humble and backward Katniss.   Marlantes describes night terrors where he sees North Vietnamese soldiers he killed years earlier.  The demons at the end of the story, the snarling, mad, flesh eating monsters created by The Game Masters from the killed Tributes have to represent the combat survivors’ nightmares. 
       Young Adult literature?  The Hunger Games has been pegged as such.  I think that this story deserves a much larger audience and greater discussion.  It succeeds on so many levels.  I recommend the book and the movie interpretation highly.

“Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.” – Carl Jung, from Psychology and Religion

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