Friday, May 4, 2012

Starving: Katniss, the ultimate blogger

Paul D. Miller (http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/webexclusives/2012/may/starving.html?paging=off)

The Hunger Games was first published in 2008. Less than four years later it and its two sequels have 26 million copies in print, and a Hollywood blockbuster based on the first book in the trilogy sold over a half-billion dollars of tickets and set records for opening day. Billed as Young Adult fiction, the franchise is regularly compared to Harry Potter, the Twilight series, and The Lord of the Rings. Is the hype justified? Adolescent mania, or modern classic?

I.

The first aspect of Suzanne Collins' trilogy that has drawn attention is the violence. The story of the first two books revolves around children forced to fight each other to the death in a reality-TV show. The third book explodes into a blazing war epic, the brutality of the game-masters having provoked an equally brutal rebellion in response. Some critics, and many Christians, have criticized the violence as unhelpful for the young adults at whom the story is ostensibly aimed.

Indeed, once the Games begin, the violence is brutal and unremitting. Katniss Everdeen, our heroine, and her adversaries endure wasps, fire, freezing nights, blazing sun, downpours, spears, knives, broadswords, arrows, poison, hallucinations, hunger, wild animals, hand-to-hand combat, booby-traps, and landmines. That's just the first book; the third is much worse. The action gives the book its deserved reputation for thrills: the author pulls it off with a technical proficiency that is impressive and that translates extremely well to the screen. The violence sets The Hunger Games franchise apart from Harry Potter and should probably disqualify it for a pre-teen audience.

But of course violence has always been a staple of epic narrative. Many of the same critics who complain about the violence in The Hunger Games insist that our children read the classics in school, like the Iliad, Beowulf, or the Song of Roland. Here is a passage picked at random from a prose translation of Book V of the Iliad: "Meriones overtook him as he was flying, and struck him on the right buttock. The point of the spear went through the bone into the bladder, and death came upon him as he cried aloud and fell forward on his knees …. The son of Phyleus got close up to him and drove a spear into the nape of his neck: it went under his tongue all among his teeth, so he bit the cold bronze, and fell dead in the dust …. Eurypylus gave him chase as he was flying before him, smote him with his sword upon the arm, and lopped his strong hand from off it. The bloody hand fell to the ground, and the shades of death, with fate that no man can withstand, came over his eyes."

Even more significant than the simple presence of violence is how it is treated. The pre-modern epics overtly celebrated violence and war as the true test of a man. The Hunger Games, by contrast, is a wicked satire on violence-as-entertainment. The Capitol, which forces the games on the population, represents the arrogance of unchecked power; the spectators are mocked and ridiculed for their callousness and vapidity; the Games are roundly condemned by the protagonists; and the rebellion is inspired in part by the Capitol's disregard for human life. Near the end of the third book, Katniss murders a civilian in a cold act of self-preservation; the reader and eventually Katniss herself are horrified at what she has become. The film is almost quaint in its modesty about violence, keeping most of it off screen.

II.

More interesting is this: amidst the action and chaos, Katniss rarely stops to reflect on her situation. Like Homer's epic, The Hunger Games is full of passages that detail violent deaths accomplished in the spirit of competition. But The Hunger Games is the Iliad as told through Achilles' Tweets, if he were a teenage girl. Katniss certainly thinks and shares her thoughts via inner monologue with the reader—but her thoughts are focused on survival techniques, not on the nature of war, struggle, life, death, society, or anything else. The author has given us a thrilling tale about a strangely unreflective protagonist.

And that is perhaps the point: Katniss is a cipher for what we become when we are saturated in social media, unable to escape the eyes of digital observers. Katniss spends almost the entire trilogy performing for a TV audience. In the third book, she is co-opted as a symbol of the rebellion, which televises her "battles," choreographed for maximum propaganda value. Her every waking moment is thus recorded and broadcast. She is the spiritual heir to people who share their entire lives online by uploading photos to Facebook and recording what they had for lunch on Twitter. The Games are the last word in live-streaming webcasts. Katniss is the ultimate blogger.

And so the book version of The Hunger Games is a commentary on life-as-performance (the film leaves this theme almost entirely out). In this world, there is no distinction between a personal thought and a public performance. We, and Katniss, cannot have a solely private or personal moment. Every thought is mediated by how it will go over with the audience. Katniss can't even understand her own feelings towards Peeta and Gale, her would-be boyfriends, because she can't distinguish between what she feels and what she thinks the audience wants her to feel.
In this sense, The Hunger Games is kind of brilliant, even while Katniss is kind of maddening. It is a picture of how social media affects our thinking about ourselves. The picture—Katniss herself—is not encouraging. While she is courageous, skilled, and loyal, she is also confused and directionless she has little sense of identity. When a generation's main mode of self-expression is a Facebook post, it is unsurprising that we do not understand ourselves. It is impossible to practice the examined life through a Tweet.

The logical implication of this sort of world is to doubt the nature of reality and resort to role-playing rather than character formation. If all of life is performance, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the two. And there is nothing to ground a lasting sense of identity or purpose; people shift their personalities to adapt to the circumstance, playing different roles for different audiences. One character spends much of the third book fighting the effects of brainwashing, trying to determine which memories are true and which were invented. In the finale, Katniss and her companions disguise themselves as refugees as they race through the Capitol under siege; following a violent encounter, they keep the disguise but pick up weapons, a discordant mix. "Who are we supposed to be now?" Katniss asks. Who, indeed?

Yet somehow, the author has made Katniss into a very likable and sympathetic protagonist. Perhaps it is partly because she is something of a blank slate, so the reader can project onto her whatever we like. Perhaps also because Katniss endures so much suffering, which naturally engenders sympathy. This—the presence of a sympathetic protagonist in thrilling combat—is what made The Hunger Games so popular.

The first book holds out the hope that we can stay grounded. In one or two passages, Katniss begins to reflect on what the Games say about the Capitol and the civilization that inflicts them on the nation, and she commits small acts of rebellion. She is moved to hold an impromptu memorial service for a fallen competitor, an affirmation of humanity in the midst of barbarism and a signal that she has not entirely lost her sense of self. And the climax of the first book, wherein Katniss cheats her way out of the Capitol's Games by appealing to the audience's sympathy over the heads of the gamemakers, is especially well-done (though sadly rushed in the film).

III.

The third book dashes all hope. After a few surprising plot-twists, we continue to follow Katniss well after the action has ended in a heart-wrenching epilogue. It is a faint, dark echo of the end of The Lord of the Rings, when we follow the Hobbits back to the Shire, and ultimately follow Frodo to the Grey Havens. As The Lord of the Rings does not end with the destruction of the Ring and Aragorn's coronation, so Games does not end at the expected place, but follows the characters as they attempt to return to normal life, forcing us to consider the cost of what they have been through. Some passages are devastating.

Where this trilogy differs sharply from something like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter is in the kind of view of the world it conveys in this epilogue. There is no scouring of the Shire, no return of a king. There is not even a resurrection to do final battle with Voldemort, but something closer to the burning of Hogwarts. These books are morally ambiguous and cynical. It is not even clear if the rebels are actually good guys, nor who is responsible for one particularly horrifying event late in the final book (another example of the epistemological skepticism inherent in life-as-performance).

As the story fades out in an inconclusive and troubling ending, it is not clear if the battles were ever worth fighting. The cost of the war is extremely high, as most of the major characters end up dead or psychologically crippled. Nowhere in these books can we find the equivalent of Sam Gamgee's stirring declaration—"There's something good in this world, and it's worth fighting for!"—in the film version of The Two Towers. Instead, Katniss ends the trilogy as a kind of embittered pacifist misanthrope, damning all of humanity for its endless cycle of death and violence and unable to come to terms with her role in it all. This is a time-honored perspective on life, found in better writers like Voltaire and perhaps Hemmingway, and to Collins' credit it does not come off as trite or clich├ęd, but it is a view I, and most Christians, do not share. 
Despair offers precious little nourishment.

IV.

The books have weak points. The first book was essentially a good short story or novella capped by a 200-page climax: not enough of a foundation for an epic of Collins' ambition. An epic story arc would have required a fuller world and a larger foundation. Tolkien had to write Fellowship and Two Towers before he got to Return of the King. Additionally, the author made a poor choice in plotting out the first two books. The second book, Catching Fire, spends half its length trying to turn Katniss into Lawrence of Arabia. But the heroine was given every reason to turn into a revolutionary by the events of the first book, making her journey in the sequel entirely superfluous. Indeed, the first book would have been stronger had Katniss realized and grown to embrace the more explicitly political implications of her small acts of rebellion.

More, for large swaths of the second and third books, Katniss is inert. To the author's credit, the book and the protagonist know that Katniss is more a symbol of revolution than a fighter, but it makes for some boring stretches of story. This is like watching the American Revolution from the perspective of the Bald Eagle. Much of the action happens offstage. Then the latter half of Catching Fire , like all hopeless sequels, becomes entirely derivative of the original (although it is still the most entertaining part of the book). The premise of the third book—rebellion and war—is introduced so abruptly with so little preparation that it feels contrived.

And so the books are good, not great. The first book is saved by its brevity; it would be simply sadistic and boring if it stretched too much longer. In that sense, The Hunger Games is superior to nearly every entry in the Harry Potter series: J. K. Rowling's books are too long, plain, and rambling. Like Potter, Games seem to be more a prose screen treatment for a decent summer movie than a serious piece of writing. But of course, Tolkien and Peter Jackson showed that you do not have to choose between a beautiful piece of literature and a beautiful film. A pity more directors and authors haven't learned it.

Paul D. Miller is assistant professor of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
Copyright © 2012 Books & Culture. Click for reprint information.

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