Hunger Games

Hunger Games – Film

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Main Cast:

Jennifer Lawrence – Katniss
Josh Hutcherson – Peeta
Liam Hemsworth – Gale
Woody Harrelson – Haymitch
Elizabeth Banks – Effie
Lenny Kravitz – Cinna
Donald Sutherland – Pres. Snow
Stanley Tucci – Cesar Flickerman

I want to warn you readers right now that I will be talking about the movie here as if you have read the books or seen the movie.  If you don’t want spoilers on plot lines, steer away.  (For those that have read the book but not watched the movie, there’s nothing to spoil in the movie really.)

Jennifer Lawrence was superb.  Already an Oscar nominee at 20, Lawrence has a stellar reputation as an actress with an immense natural talent.  You might have seen her in last summer’s blockbuster “X-Men: First Class”.  Even as a young Mystique she was very good, though the role did not give her as much chance to showcase her talent as “Hunger Games”.  You are transfixed by Lawrence and you never see her act.  After the movie my friend pointed out that she simply embodies the part, she is Katniss, or at least she makes you believe that she is.  She makes you believe in Katniss’s fear so much that your heart cannot stop pounding.  There are intense scenes throughout the movie, but it is her performance that makes you feel the fear of this 16 year-old girl.

You don’t see much of Gale (Liam Hemsworth, brother to “Thor” actor Chris Hemsworth) in this installment, but what we do see is ok.  His acting is fairly subtle and informs enough of things to come, but he cannot compete with Lawrence when they are on screen together. Actually, not even Stanley Tucci could compete with Lawrence and that’s saying something.  Josh Hutcherson was good as Peeta, and for his part you can tell how Peeta feels about the Girl on Fire.  I thought Hutcherson brought some good nuances to the part, and I’m interested to see how he’ll portray the problems coming his way.

For the mentors of the “kids”, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and even Lenny Kravitz were pretty amazing.  Banks particularly disappeared into Effie so much that you were struggling to believe it was really her.  While I love Haymitch as a character and thought Harrelson was good, it was really Kravitz that you are drawn to, probably because our heroine finds more comfort in his friendship.  Who knew the rocker could act?

Now, as to the movie itself – wow.  I have a friend, Joni, that will tell you until your ears bleed that books and movies are two different mediums.  She is absolutely right.  But when it comes to adaptations, this has probably been one of the best book-to-screen jobs I have ever seen.  Books like Harry Potter suffer partially because of the extensive source material, partially because of poor directorial choices (I’m looking at you, Chris Columbus).  Hunger Games is a relatively short, fast-paced novel, so it is much easier to get the important pieces into the film.  While we might miss out on some of the nuances, such as Katniss’s playing up the romance in the arena, you still get a pretty good picture of it.  Not only that, with the movie we were allowed outside of Katniss’s mind and that gave us a very interesting look at the Games behind the scenes.  I particularly loved the exchanges between Donald Sutherland’s President Snow and Wes Bentley’s Seneca Crane.

I was glad that the violence was short and not graphic.  It would have to be to secure the PG-13 rating, especially since it is kids killing other kids.  If you could call violence tastefully done, “Hunger Games” certainly did it.  It was enough to bring out the outrage you should feel, but not enough to glorify the violence you are supposed to be hating.

After the movie last night, I was discussing it with a friend and she was questioning why Katniss becomes this symbol for hope.  I expressed to her that Katniss is the result of this horrific tradition – she is closed off and will not allow herself to have normal human emotions, besides her sisterly affection.  She is the type of person the Games creates, whether or not she would ever compete.  Her open affection and rescue of her sister coupled with the love story with Peeta allows the average watcher in the districts to feel there is hope for Katniss, hope for these children whose futures have been robbed by the Capitol.  That hope spreads like a fire, burning in these forsaken districts that things could be different.  Snow makes an interesting comment in the movie about how the tiny seed of hope is necessary, but too much hope causes problems.  When Rue dies, instead of sending bread we see District 11 break out into a riot.  Katniss and her determination has sparked outrage and a hope that if Katniss can prevail against the Gamemakers, they could against the Capitol.  She shows how bleak and terrible things really are, but she survives.  That is what lights that fire.

I am not sure the books really got that across as well as the movie was able.  That might be because we were always with Katniss in the books, and she does not understand why she must be the symbol.  But in the film, with an omniscient view, it is so much easier to gauge the emotions and reactions of Panem, and especially how they view this very interesting 16 year-old girl.

Now, for you critics of the film.  If you didn’t like Hunger Games because it was violent or because you thought it was only about kids killing kids, you have entirely missed the point.  While some critics thought the movie version downplayed the satire, I thought it did a very good job of holding a mirror to our current society.  We put a man on television and make him act like a jerk while he dates 25 women.  People are pitted against each other, showing their worst characteristics, in a remote location so one person can win money and fame.  For money, people will do degrading acts in front of millions of viewers.  We call this entertainment in our world.  Jennifer Lawrence made a very insightful comment a few weeks ago about watching the Kardashians (don’t pretend you don’t know who they are).  She was sitting there watching this woman’s short marriage crumble in front of cameras and it was all so we as a society could be entertained?  I am not saying that Hunger Games is solely an indictment of our so-called reality television, but even Suzanne Collins will tell you that it started that way.  Hunger Games is no different from any other piece of fiction that is meant to shock us out of a terrible behavior.  Books such as 1984 or Brave New World were not written to shock us for the sake of it – they were written to warn us of the reality that could be ours if we do not guard ourselves against it.

So, despite the fact that it was “kids killing kids”, I really enjoyed the “Hunger Games”.  Not because it was an action film or a love story, but because of how well done it truly was.  I loved it because it made me think about our motivations, about what we would do to survive for our families.  I loved it because it instills a hope that things can be better if we fight for that.  I loved it because the acting, story, characters, music, cinematography, everything, moved me.

Rating: 10/10

Characters Make the Story

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This entire post originally was conceived a few weeks ago, when I was talking with friends.  And then I started to think about it some more as I’ve read a few books (Night Circus and the soon-to-be-reviewed The Borrower especially).  I began to think about why characters are so important in the making of a good novel, and why some novels fail to stick the landing when their characters fail.

Perhaps one of the most important things is that the character changes.  Let’s create a fictional character (kind of ironic since all characters are fictional) and call her Sally.  If Sally were to sit back and let all of the action happen to her, and not react at all, it would make for a very boring novel.  She could be assailed with vampires, werewolves, zombies, and monsters calling at her door, but if she sits and lets everything happen with no change, that’s boring.  She does not grow and consequently neither does her story.  Without change, we read a straight line.  But with some sort of change, small or not, we are given the tiniest bit of visual interest.  With more change and reactions, Sally begins to become real.

Scottish philosopher David Hume best described a human’s unwitting need to change:

I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a bundle or collections of different perceptions which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement.  Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying their perceptions.  Our thoughts are still more variable.  And all our other senses and powers contribute to this change.

Basically, Hume is saying that with each moment that passes, we change who we are.  These changes may not be drastic, and most will pass without our even recognizing the change.  But if we as humans change with every passing second, then those characters who do not seem more aloof and unrealistic.  They are not only unexciting, but also without the grounding realism that modern readers look for, even if they are reading fantasy.

This is one reason I liked books such as The Hunger Games, Matched, and The Chosen One.  Our three protagonists (Katniss, Cassia, and Kyra [the choosing of three protagonists with hard K sound-names was just noticed and unintentional]) have to deal with three very different worlds.  Each girl was raised knowing that their lives would turn out one way, and each found a way to strive for more, but mostly to change their circumstances.  Katniss begins the series hard and closed to anything save for her sister.  By the end, she has let herself feel more than she ever imagined.  Cassia dutifully followed in the steps of the Society, but begins to question her freedoms.  She takes small steps throughout the novel to get to the end, but they are vital to the large leap she will inevitably take.  Kyra opens the novel knowing that her world needs to change, but too afraid to take the necessary steps.  But her awareness leads her to the goal of escape, no matter how bittersweet.  Each girl began the novel in one place, and ended it somewhere else.  Katniss perhaps changed the least, but her changes felt deeper and resonated just as strongly with the reader.

I would say another important aspect for Sally is that she must feel real.  Sally cannot be perfect, in other words.  No one would want to read her story because no one would relate to her.  It is ok to have an aspirational character, but even Gandalf and Aragorn had their flaws.  Flaws ground the character much like their progression does.  No human is perfect, even if we feel that we are at times.  And if we are writing and reading stories about humans (or elves or vampires or fae or shape shifters), then we as humans want to see a bit of ourselves in them.  I mentioned in my review of Night Circus that the story would have been far stronger with stronger characters.  I did not feel much sympathy for Celia or for Marco simply because they were hard for me to relate to (dangling preposition!).  After all their trials, they still felt distant and rather the same as they started.  This was also the problem with The Iron Witch.  Donna never felt like she got it, whatever lesson she was supposed to learn.  And even after all the things she saw, I wasn’t sure she had made any change to herself.

The only passive character that ever worked (of the books I’ve read) was Shadow in American Gods.  He might be passive for about 80% of the novel, but he makes a lot of waves after he has shaken himself awake.  It only works because Shadow has just lost his wife and been released from prison.  His passivity fits with a man who is grieving and relearning how to choose for himself.  And yet, even Shadow changes in the end.

If you have a villain in your story, it is also good practice to have him be not wholly bad.  Wholly bad villains simply feel like a caricature.  After all, even the mean, nastly old lady down the street probably gives old clothes to the homeless or bakes for her grandkids.  Just as Sally can’t be all good, neither can Jafar (I know, I know) be all bad.  Heck, even Voldemort wasn’t completely evil.  After all, he agreed to save Lily Potter because Snape was in love with her.  Sure, Voldy killed her in the end, but he was willing to spare the life if it had been more convenient. (This was the only redeeming quality I could come up with, however.  And Jo Rowling is about the only author I know who can get away with this evil of a villain and still have it feel real.  Comment if you can think of other good qualities for poor Voldy.)

To recap:  Sally needs to learn something or to change in some little way;  Sally also needs to have flaws;  Sally cannot be passive in her own story; Jafar cannot be totally evil.  If the protagonist is flat, there is not much there to see or read.

 

Matched – Ally Condie

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I wish that there was a way to really express how perfect this book was.  In the bare bones of style, Condie’s writing has a beautiful, musical quality to it.  She is the master of the small shift, bringing our protagonist to her character change bit-by-bit, utterly real and even more touching for it.

Before I go on and on about the wonders of the book, I should tell you a bit about it.  Cassia Reyes is seventeen, and when we meet her, about to be Matched.  In her (dystopian) Society, young people are matched to their spouses by data and numbers.  When you are seventeen, you are told whom you will marry at age twenty-one.  It is usually someone in another area of the Society, someone you will not have known until you are promised to marry them.  But for Cassia, the night proves to be far more interesting because she is matched to her best friend Xander.  However happy she feels with Xander, in the days that follow she begins to fall instead for another boy, Ky.  Though she knows that they can never be together, Cassia persists, wanting to know about his tragic past so that someone can know him.  Right after her Match, Cassia also gets a strange gift from her dying grandfather:  a poem.  When the Society was created, they saved only 100 poems, songs, paintings, and other works of art.  Those deemed the “best” are appreciated, but never really studied.  Cassia’s poem is not on the list of 100, but she memorizes it, and feels connected to its words.  As she discovers more about Ky, more about herself, and more about her world, she begins to doubt its supposed perfection.

I will try to discuss the novel without a lot of spoilers, but it will be difficult to really delve into its perfection without a few.  So, be warned beyond this point.

The first thing I love is that Cassia’s eyes are opened because of words.  Because of a poem.  Though written by a writer which makes it a bit biased, Matched does show the power of the written word.  The Society saved the 100 poems, but none of them were like Cassia’s.  Hers taught her to fight, and constantly throughout the book she tells herself to not go gentle (the Dylan Thomas poem found here).  Her poem told her to rage, to take what should be hers.  She easily sees why it would have been left off the list of saved poems.

Cassia herself makes a wonderful transformation during the course of the novel.  In the beginning, she cannot wait to see who the Society thinks is best for her.  She believes in their doctrines, in the luck that gave her Xander, and in the policies that dictate her life.  Cassia has known nothing else, so the change takes longer than the average reader might like.  Some of us would scream at the pages, wondering why Cassia can’t see how she has no real freedoms.  But we are outside, and we have not been raised told that the Society knows what is best for us.  When she reads her poem, it awakens something within her.  Getting to know Ky pushes her out of the dark.  Cassia finally begins to understand why her grandfather saved that poem.  Like awaking from a dream, we see Cassia transform before we even fully realize that it has happened.  It does not feel rushed or forced, but natural, almost organic.  And as Cassia changes, the reader is privy to other characters who have perhaps realized their injustices before she did.

It would be impossible not to compare Matched to Hunger Games.  After all, they are both dystopian novels, focusing on young girls who have to overcome their oppressors.  But the difference is in the overtness of the injustices.  Katniss has always hated her government because she watches children go to their deaths every year.  It is easy for her to speak out, to feel rebellious.  But  Cassia has never really been endangered by the Society, never really forced to do things she did not want to do.  Cassia always felt that she had some sort of choice, before she realized that she had no choice at all.  Her rebellion, for me, is more deep than Katniss’s.  It takes more courage to fight against something your friends and family still thinks keep them safe.  It would be easier to enjoy a life with Xander, to work in the career that the Society wants for her.  Cassia’s own mother has made the same choice.  But Cassia can no longer go gentle.  She wants to choose for herself.

It is Cassia’s quiet desires that really make this novel (which will eventually be part of a trilogy).  There are no “action-packed” sequences, but the plot does not suffer for their lack.  Matched focuses instead on the human desire and right to guide our own lives.  And it does so more beautifully then any Young Adult novel has the right to do so. (You can now argue with that statement in the comments.  Heck, I’ll probably argue with it later.)

The Hunger Games

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I came to this book pretty late in the game (Ha Ha).  I was reluctant to read it – perhaps because I was really unaware of it until Mockingjay, or more than likely because I was reading so many required books that I forgot to read for fun.  With the movie coming out in the next few months, I knew I had to read it.  I hate seeing films based on books when I have not read the book first.

My lovely fiance gave me a Kindle for my birthday, and while looking for books to add, I came across The Hunger Games. I added it, but did not read it until I had finished my Harry Potter marathon.

I wish I had read this book sooner.  I think I started a bit of it on a Saturday afternoon, wiling away some of the time at work.  And then I was hooked all day Sunday, finishing the book before I could sleep that night.  I immediately downloaded Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and finished reading the trilogy within a matter of days.

The basic plot of the first novel is that in an unspecified dystopian future, the  government forces children ages 12-18 to compete in a televised contest to the death. Only one can survive.  The children are chosen from the 12 districts, one boy and one girl, by a random lottery.  Katniss’s younger sister Prim is chosen, so Katniss volunteers to take her place.  Going to the arena with her is a young man named Peeta, someone who helped Katniss avoid starvation when she was younger.  His act of kindness causes Katniss to distrust him, but mostly to resent him and the fact that she feels in his debt.

It’s hard for me to describe just why this book resonates so much.  I guess in part, the injustices that Katniss fights are huge and ones that we cannot imagine.  Katniss is not an entirely likable character, but her will to live is so strong that you cannot help but appreciate her.  Her love of her sister and her desire to keep Prim away from any possible pain really becomes the focal point of Katniss.

You could easily say that the trilogy focuses on political rebellion, on whether war is right, and just how much we will sacrifice.  While these themes mean a lot in today’s world, it isn’t these overarching ideas that draw you in.  It’s the characters.  Even though the books have the requisite love-triangle (Peeta-Katniss-Gale [Katniss’s best friend from home]), it hardly ever feels contrived.  Perhaps it is because Katniss really wants neither of them.  Her protective nature goes so deep that she does not want children because she could not bear to watch them be chosen for the Games.  You find throughout the books just how caring this young girl is, and it is that love that brings you to her side and makes you root for her goals.

I tend to like character-driven novels the best.  While a good story is fun, how much would you care about Katniss facing her death if you knew nothing about her staunch desire to save her sister?  Would you have cried when Harry Potter discovered [SPOILER ALERT] he must die to save his friends if you did not know him?  I read a lot of young adult fiction, and we seem to have lost ourselves to the showy Transformers-plots – a lot of explosions and pretty cars, but no character substance.  I suppose that is true of all genres and age-ranges, but I absolutely love when I find something like The Hunger Games that I am still contemplating weeks later.

Books like these are the reason that I read.  To get lost in a world, to know the characters so well that they feel like friends.