A little while ago, the editor of Videovista approached me to review the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ second Hunger Games novel Catching Fire. I had read the first two books in the Hunger Games series and reviewed the first one in a mood of profound ambivalence that carried me through into the first film. In short, I liked the way the book captured Katniss’s reactions to the world but I found both the world itself and everything that happened in said world to be somewhat tedious… hence my decision to interpret the books as a sort of psychological fantasia in which the emotional touchstones of teenaged life are recreated using the language of dystopian science fiction. The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t really survive the decision to adapt the books but drop the internal monologues. However, rather than simply being honest and describing Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as a typically dull and expensive-looking Hollywood epic, I decided to work through some of my feelings about The Hunger Games, Young Adult Fiction and Hollywood Blockbusters in an essay that runs to over 4,000 words.
On psychological fantasias:
This is why President Snow is little more than a vaguely threatening beard: Collins is drawing on a particular set of cultural images to create an image of patriarchal authority that will be comprehensible to her intended audience. Though not a particularly common approach to writing, this transition from psychological realism to metaphorical fantasy is fairly common in psychological thrillers as well as T.H. White’s children’s novel The Sword And The Stone (1938), where Arthurian knights sit around drinking port and discussing Eton because even though neither of those things actually exist in the world of the novel, the words ‘port’ and ‘Eton’ serve as placeholders for a drink, and a training establishment, with a comparable set of emotional and cultural resonances.
On the incompetence of the film’s direction:
As with the opening act, a savvy director might have played up the paranoia underpinning these scenes and turned them into simmering pots of tension that occasionally explode into violence, but Lawrence follows Ross in choosing to focus on the melodrama thereby depriving the film of any sense of lingering danger or tension so that, when the angry baboons and poisonous clouds do turn up, they appear more comical than harrowing. There is one particularly wonderful scene where Katniss’ group meets up with some other tributes and decides to make peace. Noting that they appear to be covered in sticky brown liquid, Katniss asks what happened and one of the female tribute rolls her eyes and talks about blood falling from the sky in the same tone of voice that one might talk about a ruined wedding reception or barbecue; a damp squib indeed.
On adults reading books aimed at children:
The reason that people respond to works like The Hunger Games is the same reason they cower in the shadow of their parents and feel empowered by mass-market therapy sessions written for a teen demographic: we are subject to a culture that encourages us to view ourselves as creatures that are as passive and as powerless as children. Works like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight benefit from this cultural mood as much as they contribute to it.
An interesting corollary to some of the ideas I explore in the essay is something written by Adam “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven” Roberts who ponders the question of why Young Adult fiction has become obsessed with Victorian imagery. I think that Adam reaches some of the same conclusions that I do but expresses them in a manner that is both more erudite and sympathetic to the materials in question. Another interesting corollary is Julianne Ross’s piece in the Atlantic which asks “Must Every YA Action Heroine Be Petite?” in which she ambles down objectivisation avenue and stumbles across a far more interesting truth:
But this is the same double standard that we’ve been subjected to again and again; just as women are expected to be sexual but not slutty, pure but not prudish, heroines should be strong but not buff. Powerful, yet still delicate enough to be cradled by their male love interests. Mature enough to lead those around them, yet so small that people confuse them with innocent little girls.
I don’t think this aesthetic has as much to do with sexual objectification as it does with the fact that Young Adult fiction is partly about allowing grown-up readers to escape into worlds dominated by melodramatic treatments of banal coming-of-age stories. Indeed, as I explain in the review, The Hunger Games is all about Katniss gaining access to the rooms in which grown-ups have grown-up conversations. Her rebellion against President Snow has less to do with real-world politics than it does with standing up to Daddy. I am not a fan of escapist fiction but I have a particular contempt for escapist fiction that presents banal teenage rebellion as something worthy of book, film and song. Stories like The Hunger Games shrink the horizons of our minds to the point where the banal seems heroic and the heroic seems impossible. Give it another ten years and adults will be reading books that make them feel empowered about the fact that they are potty trained.
Given the source, is great sage equal of heaven actually a compliment?
Anyway, sounds interesting, I’ll return once I’ve read your essay properly.
I dunno… I can imagine Adam Roberts twirling a staff with enormous sideburns :-)
I finally got to read your piece, which was excellent.
My own take on the popularity of YA fiction is simpler. I think many people, a great many people, are looking for essentially phatic fiction. Simple narratives with straightforward characters, no structural or verbal trickery and an ultimately safe and reassuring world. If there are issues they want them explored in a supportive and safe way.
Children’s ficton does all that. The problem though is most adults are aware they should probably try for something a bit more challenging than stuff made for kids.
Enter a stroke of marketing brilliance, born in large part of the adult adoption of the Harry Potter franchise. It’s not children’s literature, it’s young adult literature.
Previously, books for 14 year olds were still children’s books, they were just children’s books for older children. Now they’re YA, and twenty and thirty and older somethings can read them without feeling like they’re reading children’s books. They are though. They don’t want challenge, they want reassurance.
It’s not a trend I hugely respect. It’s not the narratorial voice incidentally that makes it YA, it’s the simplicity. The Tin Drum has a child narrator but it ain’t a children’s book.
I thought your point on the film missing the psychological reading by showing literally what in the text may be more questionable was a very good one. I saw a review the other day of the new film The Double, and it made the point that in the original text we can’t be absolutely sure the double is real, or if they are that they look as the narrator perceives them. In the film though he’s right there. What was slippery becomes solid, and in the process is diminished.
The point you pull out from Adam’s piece about the use of Edwardian etc. imagery is also very good.
Loved the last line. Ender’s Game though I’d argue wasn’t YA, it was adult SF with a child protagonist and as such went to trickier places.
Thanks Max :-)
YA pulls a similar trick to contemporary super hero movies: It tells simple reassuring stories but it borrows just enough from reality and culture to make the simplicity appear sophisticated. Hence the Occupy Wall Street stuff in the Batman film and the references to Rome and Fascism in Hunger Games.
I’ve read some decent YA (the first Holly Black Curse Workers book is pretty good but the second one in the series is awful) but, at the end of the day, I’m not reading because I want to escape to some idyllic world full of recognisable characters and simple moral laws.
Card has very cleverly repositioned Ender’s Game as a Young Adult franchise and I think that’s what got the film made but I agree with you, it’s not a YA novel… it’s a grown-up SF novel written to the political and aesthetic standards of early-80s American Hard SF that happens to have a child protagonist.
The Double’s the Ayoade thing isn’t it? I didn’t seek it out as I saw his first film and found everything other than the art direction unimpressive.
Good point on the just enough borrowing bit.
Ayoade, yes. I liked Submarine, but didn’t love it. It was fun, but slight. I don’t think that’s a problem since I’m not sure it was intended to be vastly more than that, though clearly for some critics it hit their nostalgia buttons and so they liked it a great deal more than either of us.
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