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The Hunger Games

(Spoilers for Mockingjay, both the movie and the (first half of the) book.)

I finally worked myself up to see the Hunger Games movie tonight. If you remember it's a YA franchise it actually works remarkably well, and this is one decision to do a Part I/II split on the final installment that I actually agree with. At the risk of giving too much away, the Mockingjay book really is two stories, Katniss's journey into becoming the mockingjay with all that implies.

I think for me the biggest regret was that this first installment didn't really track much of the rebellion's progress. To be fair the book didn't do that, much, but there's more of a sense of what Katniss is accomplishing. By the end of the movie, it's pretty well set out that the war's going to be Thirteen versus Two (and the Capitol, of course), but there's very little sense of how you get there. There's the bombing of the hospital in Eight, obviously, and a few isolated acts of sabotage, but for the most part it's very focused on what Katniss is going through.

Which is precisely as it should be in some ways, she's our narrator and the book has a lot of that same focus, but the book is balanced against what bucks can do: lengthy dialog and little details about what's going on elsewhere that gives you a hint at what Katniss is up against and what she's accomplishing. I also really missed the absence of the "We Remember" propos, and the focus on "victors" other than Katniss, Peeta, and Finnick. I understand why they made this choice to make it so personal, but it still made it hard to understand why Katniss mattered in the whole rebellion. Especially when you're coming at this after Catching Fire's Victory Tour which emphasized that people were getting mad at the Capitol whatever Katniss did. If her goal is just to get people fired up, that never seemed that necessary to me.

The other part where I thought the films fell down a bit was in being too literal of interpretations, where you don't have a context for it. A great example of this is Pollux. If you remember, in the book he's one of Katniss's cameramen and he's also an Avox. Katniss seems more than a bit sad over this, but the movies don't really explain her past experience with Avoxes, what kind of crime would land you there or how someone from the Districts would feel about them, what they'd know about them. Or, again, seeing the Justice Building bombed and Katniss sees it and is obviously bothered, but why she should care about that building in particular? The answer is obvious to book readers, it's her missing best friend's house, but it's pretty nonsensical for a movies-only fan. And it's a nice nod, but there were quite a few things like this. It was like they thought they had to hit all the high notes or us fans of the books would be disappointed. Better to use that time developing things that actually did make sense in the context of the films, IMO.

These were fairly minor points, though. I love love LOVE what they did with Katniss's mental illness, and the descent into the strongholds in Thirteen were really quite brilliant. (Though why going underground itself should be so scary for her isn't at all explained.) I thought they did a great job getting across why Katniss is ill a ease in Thirteen and why she resents it a bit, but also capturing why they acted the way they did. It's actually a very politically subtle film (I'm thinking of the distinction Coin draws between democracy and economic justice), with a lot of well-rounded characters, and I loved Beetee's regrets and the way Prim keeps on growing through all of this.

Katniss is definitely very brave in the film, but I also got a real sense of how young she is, how she's having to deal with things no kid her age should have to deal with. That's nothing new -- the whole point of the Games is throwing kids into ridiculously adult situations -- but in YA there seems to be this idea that the teenagers actually can cope with all this, that there's nothing they can't do even though they lack the maturity and life experience adults (and older adults) might have. Katniss plays her part, but there's a sense that she's very, very young, and that comes across. If anything Peeta's more adult than she is. Which also seems appropriate somehow, but even with him, there's a lack of awareness of the bigger picture, a focus on those closest to him, that seems very, very young.

And don't even get me started on District Seven. Those people are so gutsy! Makes sense given that Joanna's from there, it's a bit brilliant, actually, and I loved the connection.

You can't talk about a story that's split up where it wasn't in the books without asking where are you going to make that split and how. Because while I think MJ1 is very much about Katniss's growing into the role and I expect MJ2 to be more out in the world (the second half of the book definitely is), there's some overlap. Peeta comes back and... well, book fans know what that means but obviously it sets the stage for the second half which is so clearly woven through the plot of said second half. There's also this sense that Katniss's and President Coin's cause are taking a big step away from each other in the ending, but it's a move that I think is only really meaningful if you already know the book. What that meant to me is that the ending felt a bit protracted almost anticlimactic. There's obviously a bit of a surprise in the final scenes that I'm trying not to spoil, but once it happens, anything after that is a bit of a let-down. You can't improve on the Surprise, really, and having Coin take a curtain bow didn't really add anything and detracted quite a lot. I'd have ended with the Surprise, or maybe the trackerjacker discussion, and roll credits, see you next Christmas.

One thing I did notice, and this has been rolling around my head a bit, was how thoroughly white the world of the Hunger Games was. Part of that was we've lost the focus on District Eleven which was clearly modeled on Deep South agriculture. (Appalachia as being overwhelmingly white is actually very accurate to my own experience in NC.) But there's no reason why (for instance) Eleven shouldn't have a large hispanic population, or why Seven shouldn't have a large Asian community (I'd always associated lumber with Pacific Northwest). And within the districts it's pretty much a perfect sampling of everything except income, being weighted against the poor. The Districts themselves also should have racial diversity, as much as different regions do, because you can't move between them. So it seems like you should get a pretty close to actual distribution of Victors for the racial makeup of the country. But besides Beetee, who's African-American but pretty light-skinned, there's no evidence of that. To it's credit Boggs and the commander from Eight are black, but I don't know that I've come across a single person from another minority, and for a set of people who pretty much have to come from all echelons of society, there's a serious lack of folks who aren't melanin deprived. By Hollywood standards it's probably pretty good, but still it's something I noticed and a bit of a surprise.

All that aside, though: it was a good movie. I don't know that the big screen adds that much to the film (it's really much more psychological than SFX and big explosions, thank goodness) but seeing it with a group and going through this experience collectively is important, plus this is a franchise worth supporting.

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