Questions for Katniss

You may have noticed that the Hunger Games came out this past weekend, a swiftly-paced, sharply etched film based on Suzanne Collins’s novel of that same name.  If you happen to be among the three or four people yet alive who are unaware of the story’s pretext, here’s the skinny: the tale tells of two “tributes” sent from an outlying district—District Twelve—of an imperial power, Panem, to fight to the death with other tributes from other districts in a massively mediated, hyper-real arena, while all the world looks on. Think of it as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” meets George Orwell’s 1984 meets The Truman Show—with just a dash of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer tossed in.

It also, for some reason, brings Yeats came to mind:

Surely some revelation is at hand;
   

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

Maybe those lines whisper up, because the film has plenty of rough beasts waiting to be born, plenty of pitiless glares, plenty of slouchings towards Bethlehem.  But you know, what may be more interesting than the film itself is the apocalypse this dystopian tale has evoked among us North American viewers.  A few random unveilings hither and yon:

  • The online commenter who said she needed to go out for a jog to get in shape for the real hunger games, whenever they begin. I kept thinking about that remark while I was out jogging this afternoon.  Really?  Is that we’re readying ourselves for?  Is that what our fitness plans aim towards–the sweet adrenaline of unavoidable violence?
  • Peter Sagal on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me saying that now we have finally figured out what to do after Harry Potter with its adventure story about children flying around on broomsticks.  We take those kids and put them in a ring and tell them to kill each other.
  • The girl in my Sunday School class who watched the movie trailer over and over and over again, rather like the way the Baptist church of my childhood read the book of Daniel so many that times that when the Rapture happened, we’d all be standing in line already, tickets in hand, wearing our District Twelve tee-shirts.  (For the twelve tribes of Israel.)

These moments have me thinking—maybe even more than watching the movie did.  They have me asking what was the second coming that this wildly talked about movie has brought forth among us? What has been disclosed about us by this film? I mean, besides the rather obvious fact that well-acted movies based on tightly plotted books tend to speak to the better aesthetic angels of our nature. And maybe it’s worth mentioning the movie, though less compellingly crafted than the novel, does at least release us from hearing everything through the hard bantering voice of Katniss Everdeen. But let me ask again, what does this movie unveil?

Kenneth Burke said that a story offers answers to questions raised by the situation in which it arises.  What are some questions this movie is answering?

  • How do we, in our pervasively mass-mediated times, maintain authenticity when we are simultaneously watching and being watched at all times?  The most memorable conversation in the movie showed the change-on-a dime, media-savvy Peeta confessing to a fear of losing his essential self in the game, and the oaken essentialist Katniss saying that she couldn’t be bothered with worrying about being true to her self.  Did anybody else see the game-player and the serious self switching places?
  • What should we fear most about the Capitols of our time—totalitarianism or decadence? I can’t help judging stories by how they portray the contemptible characters.  I’ve always disliked J. K. Rowlings for her impatient rendering of Muggles.  But this movie’s Muggles were the unbelievably stylized citizens living Brave New Worldly vacuous lives.  Was there a tincture of hope for them, as the dire obverse of the grimy citizens in the outlying districts watching the same melodrama?  I’m not sure.
  • How long can we prop up our sagging belief in the shrewdness and surety and strength of individualism? That’s the tougher question behind the “Gale or Peeta” debate: how long can we continue to put our faith in the newest variant of Katniss Competence?  How long can we be so sure that a swiftly moving agent for change will save us?
  • Why is primitivism so reassuring?  Is it a nod to a kind of pagan religiosity, to something beyond the dome of the Games?  The benediction, “May the odds be always in your favor” evokes something piously Star-Warzian in us, no? Or are we pretty sure that the ever-growing ectoplasm of mediated life can only be answered by passing out bows and arrows? I respect the fact that Suzanne Collins offers a fairly complex answer to this question.  She combines primitivism with rhetorical savvy.  Katniss’s martial skill needs Peeta’s knack for adroit presentationalism. But still.

I’d be interested to hear what questions you think this film is unveiling today.  Why and how does this film speak with such strange force into our cultural moment?

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