Catching Fire, the second instalment in The Hunger Games franchise comes out on DVD and blu ray here in the UK today and I can’t seem to help admitting to what amounts to a cardinal sin in the world of English teachers: I like the film better than the book. I know. I’m breaking my own rules and perhaps incensing the old guard of bookworms everywhere, which is why I feel compelled to justify myself.
But first, allow me to say, I’m a big fan of The Hunger Games books. The series had been popular with my students for years. In fact, I only read it on the suggestion of one of my favourite students who insisted that I borrow her copy of the book (Don’t fool yourselves. Teachers have favourites. Anyone who says they don’t is lying). It took me a while to fold myself into the texture and rhythm of the book’s prose, but once I did, I was hooked.
I have to admit, it’s partly because I harbour a secret and perhaps flawed belief that Katniss Everdeen is a Pennsylvanian. Don’t disabuse me of my illusions. Pennsylvania has one of the largest anthracite coal regions in the world. It’s perfectly plausible that a dystopian authoritarian state would reopen those unsafe mines if they considered the workforce disposable. Yes, certainly part of what propelled me forward in my reading of the books was my emotional investment in a heroine with whom I shared a stately, if distant and adopted heritage.
However much I try to get away from it though, there is an undercurrent of doubt. Not just about the fact that Katniss may in fact really be a (gasp) Virginian, but also about the overall quality of Collins’ writing. Yes, the story was brilliant, but a feeling kept niggling away at me that I was reading a very well written story by one of my high school students who wanted desperately to impress with all the right vocabulary and all the subtlety of a rhinoceros with a word processor.
Here’s why, in three simple points:
1. Teeny bopper romance. Squeal. Hashtag. #Squeal. #Lesigh.
I know that Suzanne Collins obviously has her target audience: teenagers. But most teenagers — and I know this from working with them for over a decade — don’t want to be talked down to and can tell when it’s happening before you even start talking. Or writing. So while I’m hooked by the wonderfully dark, if slightly implausible, Shirley Jackson-esque, dystopian aspects of Panem, I also find Katniss’ “teenage moments” for a story that deals with such grownup things as death and sacrifice, an oppressive dominant force as the state, to be jarring at best, queasy at worst.
We get dragged through over two hundred pages of visceral savagery… between children! And then, narratologically, to what do we return? To Katniss’ torn inner conflict as to which way her heart is drawn. We’re back in Twilight territory, which is really quite disappointing because I thought we’d somehow got past vampires and here was a love triangle sucking the lifeblood out of the story. Are you on Team Gale or Team Peeta?
Instead of the philosophical distance we might expect from an adult Katniss looking back on the most traumatic period of her life, we get an immature consideration, the pubescent cliches drip out of the page like so many insecurities dribbling from the mentally squalid adolescent’s mind. “He stops to gather wild flowers for me. When he presents them, I work hard to look pleased. Because he can’t know (they) only remind me of… Gale.”
Pass. The. Bucket.
And the last page, dripping thick with angst, “already, the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.”
And yet, the film weaves none of this well worn and trampled upon rug of teenage plots before us. The film is a fine, thoroughly adult balance of found footage, and eerily slick, funhouse future, twisted and gleefully glutted on an excess of ecstatic neo-Roman Empire type violence.
2. Good Grief. Talk about unreliable narrators, Charlie Brown. Katniss, honey, get. over yourself.
I mean, one minute, she’s the poor girl from the wrong district with no illusions about her own worth in the universe and a jaded outlook on her situation. The next minute, she’s swaggering through the pages like the Beyoncé of district tributes. After she and her co-tribute, Peeta, and the other sacrificial lambs from the other districts are paraded around for the masses in the capital, she proudly exclaims, “every head is turned our way,” “I can’t suppress my excitement,” and finally, “we’ve outshone them all.” I can hardly tell whether she’s getting ready to kill or on X Factor and while I’m sure that’s part of Collins’ point, the triumphant tone is really hard to take.
At least give us some sense of peril. Some sense of danger, as Jennifer Lawrence gives us with such intensity in her portrayal of Katniss. I know she’s everywhere and everyone loves her, but, since I don’t compliment film and tv actors as a rule, so therefore it must mean something, so I will say, part of what is so very gripping about the film is the way the performances, Lawrence’s in particular, drag you into the center of the emotional maelstrom at the heart of the protagonist’s struggle, much more effectively in fact, than the book.
3. Subtlety has left the building. Repeat. Subtlety has left the building.
Every once in a while, when I was an eager eyed youth in the suburbs of New Jersey and then the rural backwaters of Penn’s Woods, there was at least one among us who would ask the teacher, if we were required to maintain a perfect standard of English in all our writing and composition at all times, why were we reading writers like Mark Twain, who used grammatically incorrect colloquialisms, F Scott Fitzgerald, who experimented with sentence fragments at times and a conversational tone of a confidant with Nick Carraway, William Fauklner, whose sentences seemed to spiral on interminably into the clouds of narrative (talk about run-ons). How come we had to meet a standard of English that these ‘great writers’ didn’t seem to exemplify themselves?
The teacher’s reply was no more inventive, lamentably, than the explanation that I’ve often given to my own students. “Well, if you sat Mr Dickens or Ms O’Connor down here right now and asked them to write me a grammatically correct sentence, do you think for a minute they wouldn’t know how to do it? Of course they would.” Yup. That was usually about it. I don’t know. If you said something with an authoritative enough tone and you’re standing behind a desk, sometimes the effect is mysteriously subdued. It’s a pity most of the time, they didn’t say, “James Joyce knows the rules. He’s intentionally said screw the rules. Let’s see how much fun we can have with language and revolutionise storytelling in the process.”
I’m not convinced that Suzanne Collins knows the rules, even if you had her in front of you and you could ask her. Let’s take a simile for instance. In Catching Fire, when her sister reminds her of Rue, the young girl from district 11 that she befriended, she mentally exclaims, “Bam! It’s like someone actually hits me in the chest. No one has of course, but the pain is so real I take a step back.” Oh Suzanne. We know no one’s really hit Katniss. That’s the beauty of figurative language. You can subtly drop things onto a page that will powerfully haunt the reader. But oh no, you have to go out of your way to make us feel like idiots and drain any real power from each and every sentence. All I can be thankful for is that she didn’t say, “It’s like someone literally hits me in the chest.” There’s nearly nothing worse than confusing the figurative for the literal.
And a when a powerful simile or metaphor wouldn’t be out of place, you choose the blandness of superlative description. As the train pulls into district 11 on the victors’ tour, Katniss can smell “an excellent meal being prepared.” Excellent? Excellent? Not savoury, or beautifully seasoned, or tantalising, not mouthwatering in a mildly pavlovian way? That’s like saying a meal that’s just above very good, but a little unmemorable, or at least I’m not going to start with a distinct memory associated with a flavour first, that might tell the reader something real and concrete and give them an actual sense of scene. In President Snow’s mansion, on the buffet tables, “everything you can think of, and things you never dreamed of, lie in wait.” Isn’t that profound? Everything I can think of? I can think of a lot, but what I want to see is what the texture of this world, what the fabric of this moment is all about, but retreating into vagaries like “everything you can think of” just sounds a bit like, “Oh, just use your imagination. I don’t know quite what to tell you.”
Given that I sped right through the books at a breakneck pace, stopping for only for meals and occasionally to answer students’ questions, it can’t have been all bad. The story is genuinely compelling, which is what held me, but it amazes me that we can bring ourselves to overlook these niggling doubts in favour of a good yarn. The power of narrative.
Whereas, in the films — so far anyway — I find none of these faults. A thoroughly enthralling and at the same time, thought-provoking piece of visual narrative.
By all means, read the book, engage with the text. Get to know what the movie misses, but bear in mind, for a taut, well told story, for once, hard as it is to say, the film is significantly better. Order, watch, enjoy. May the odds be ever in your favor.
And on an entirely different note…
It’s St Paddy’s day, gentle folk. One way to celebrate traditionally is to attend a Ceili, a traditional Irish session of music and dancing, which is just what we did on Friday night, to benefit truly magnificent organisation called Street Child World Cup. Check out the video of what it’s all about here and see what more you can do to help drive the serpent scourge of poverty and malnutrition from countries taking part. Quite a catchy song too! Enjoy.