Eating Up the Hunger Games, Romance and All

Given Hollywood’s fondness for saturating films with romantic storylines–especially female-driven films–I feared what the cinematic version of Suzanne Collin’s novel The Hunger Games would do to my beloved Katniss Everdeen and her refreshing lack of interest in romance. While I was dismayed when the love triangle meme reared its sappy head in the trilogy of Hunger Games books, I was able to stomach this part of the narrative as it was at least packaged in a somewhat critical way, exploring notions such as love as revolutionary force, the performance of identity and romance as contemporary spectacle.

The Hunger Games, if you’re not familiar with the trilogy, charts the story of Katniss Everdeen, a “tribute” in the 74th annual Hunger Games, a fight-to-the-death reality-TV type of competition that is the only form of media in Panem–a futuristic, dystopian United States beset by poverty, violence, hunger, government control and massive inequality. A society, in short, that mirrors our own. Katniss, an expert archer skilled in survival who has kept her family alive by hunting and gathering in the woods of her district, is forced to take part in the Games and subsequently primped and prepped so as to be a worthy contestant–one who is not only willing to kill her 23 other competitors, but will look good doing so.

As I waited for the film to start, two young girls, likely about 10, danced in front of the screen in I Love Peeta shirts, chanting “Team Peeta! Team Peeta!” (Peeta Mellark is one of the two rivals for Katniss’s love). Saddened that the “team meme” popularized via the Twilight saga and its Team Edward/Team Jacob camps had filtered into this, a (finally!) feminist-friendly saga, I turned my eyes away, determined not to participate in the spectacle. Alas, the movie didn’t allow me to turn away–not only because of its mesmerizing visuals but also due to the way it relied on close-ups and extended shots caressing the faces of would-be-lovers Katniss and Peeta, capturing their every emotion. This, coupled with the “oohing” and “aahing” of the audience at every romantic moment, wouldn’t allow me to distance myself from the romance. This oohing and aahing wouldn’t have been so disconcerting if the audience had also reacted positively to Katniss’s more rebellious, subversive moments, such as when she attacks Peeta for setting her up as his romantic love object. However, much like the citizens of Panem, the film viewers in attendance responded favorably to the lovey-dovey scenes, confirming the book’s suggestion that romance is a great way to divert an audience and effectively tone down any political impulses.

In the book Katniss is reluctant to perform romance, let alone pursue it, but in the film she takes to it all too readily, not even flinching when she receives a reprimanding note from Haymitch Abernathy (Katniss’s alcoholic mentor) after her first peck on the lips with Peeta: “You call that a kiss?” The book, in keeping with its exploration of performance, voyeurism and spectacle, prompts us to question Katniss’s motives and feelings regarding romance: she can be read as strategically acting the part of besotted female. The film, however, loses this more postmodern exploration, offering instead Katniss and Peeta as true star-crossed lovers rather than as pawns in a sadistic game that forces them to act out romance for the sake of the audience. The framing of Gale Hawthorne, Katniss’s friend and hunting partner, as a scorned lover further simplifies the love triangle narrative. Having the camera flash to his jealous reaction each time Katniss kisses Peeta departs from the book’s more complicated explorations of human relations.

The removal of the book’s first-person narrative also promotes a storyline less open to interpretation. Lost is our questioning gaze, embodied in Katniss’ critical voice; in its place, we get Hollywood omniscience which purports to know what audiences want: romance. This narrative shift results in a film that changes Katniss from subject to object. Rather than having the narrative shaped through her, we voyeuristically gaze at her in a way more akin to the traditional male gaze than to the decentering, shifting gaze the book promotes.

This is made obvious in an early scene in the Games, when Katniss looks into a tree, wondering what is making the noise within, while we, on the other side of the third wall, see her face in close-up, as do the “gamemakers” who control the filming of the Games as well as manipulate them. Katniss, however, does not realize her face is on camera in this moment, nor does she knowingly perform for viewers of the Games as she does in the book, shaping her acts in ways both opportunistic and rebellious. Instead of being an actor in the Games, she is a pawn–moved around by the gamemakers, who place fire in her path or Peeta’s lips in her sights. Yes, her skills are crucial, her determination palpable, but by removing her vision we lose her knowledge of the Games as spectacle, her astute realization that if she “performs” romance she will be duly rewarded.

While in the book Katniss recognizes that “one kiss equals one bowl of soup,” and thus reluctantly acts out the part of lovestruck maiden, the film version does not present her as so savvy. Instead, she is “directed” by Haymitch, who has much more influence than he does in the book. Katniss is unaware of his maneuverings, and rather than the exceedingly smart player we get in the book, we have a very skilled one whose story is manipulated by male gamemakers–an apt metaphor for what occurs when female-authored books end up in the male-dominated Hollywood machine.

One of the key lines in the film is spoken early on by Gale: “What if everyone stopped watching?” Here, he refers to the Games, but we might think about this in relation to our own watching of–and desire for–romance. The book suggests that love may be a revolutionary force; the film instead plays on our cultural addiction to it. In the film, even the gamemakers watch the screens when Katniss and Peeta are in view and become distracted from their work. Similarly, when we are seduced into a love story, we ooh and aah and focus on individual characters rather than on critique or analysis.

We are perhaps so hungry for romance not because it fills us up but because it diverts our attention away from the more pressing political problems that shape not only The Hunger Games but our own society. As noted at Bad Reputation, the Hunger Games series is not romance but “an action/thriller/horror with strong anti-war sentiments.” Alas, after its spin in the Hollywood machine, it is much less of a political dystopian text. Nonetheless, I ate it up just the same, trying to savor the more meaty political elements and Jennifer Lawrence’s satisfying interpretation of Katniss while ignoring the empty calories enticingly offered via the sweet romance of the star-crossed lovers.

Photo is of the Hunger Games trilogy from Flickr user WeeLittlePiggy under Creative Commons 3.0.

Comments

  1. ::sigh:: I so wanted this movie to reflect Katniss’s savviness about her performance and subversion of the games, not to mention its refreshing take on a teenage girl with more on her mind than finding a boyfriend.

  2. I just don’t get why women can’t go to the library and pick up a book or check out Goodreads and find a female character they can relate to outside of young adult fiction. The book trend thing is so bizarre, at least for adults. There are plenty of GOOD books with female characters who are just as cunning or shy or steely or resourceful, etc, as these teenage books but come sans flimsy romance. Just because this book series represents a shallow slice of the zeitgeist does not make it particularly good. So many other female authors who write wonderful female characters get the shaft because apparently, one has to write for hormonal proto-adults to be acknowledged. If you are an adult, find a book on your own and quit living through teenage girls. I think this book series, in a way, is poking fun at some of it’s own misguided audience…

  3. I have to disagree with Ms. Wilson interpretation of Katniss’ awareness. The mere fact that Katniss lives in a world where the only entertainment is The Hunger Games would mean she had to have watched it before. Her and Gale have an argument over it in the beginning of the film. By having seen The Hunger Games, she would know exactly how intimate and hidden those cameras would be. Also, that’s part the reason why she does what she does at the end of the film. She knows the whole country is watching, she knows what the state needs.

    Also was anyone else annoyed when Rue says, “Did you blow up the supplies?” Is this kid deaf? Ruined the whole scene for me.

  4. sossajes says:

    i thought the movies leaned more heavily on the romance than the books, but i completely disagree that katniss was portrayed as not being aware that she was manipulating the audience. when she heard the noise of the camera, and examined it, she smirked, acknowledging that she was being observed.
    additionally, i think the director tried to balance katniss’ vision with the audience’s. i am thinking specifically of the scenes where she views the fireball heading towards her, the tracker jacker vision scene, and the view of peeta & cato (there are two).
    i do think the movie was rushed and did not allow the audience into katniss’ world fully (especially with rue, and the mirror-katniss position foxface inhabits), and i would have preferred more time with her family and her non-romantic love objects, but overall i still think katniss’ journey was honored in the movie.

  5. Fiorastar says:

    I think this is why my daughter was so outraged after waiting in line for hours to see this with her friends. And waiting for months for the opportunity to see the movie. And making their own “side” movie about the drama with Rue. These girls have idolized Suzanne Collins as an author who spoke to them in a profound way of power they have in a world where they are, as middle schoolers, increasingly aware of the lack of power society gives to women, especially young women. While I enjoyed the movie, I understood why she was so disappointed.

  6. I had no idea these books were so meta. Gimme!

  7. Janell Hobson says:

    Thank you for this review. I recently watched the movie with no background knowledge since I have not yet read the books, and something told me – the way the romance was spun – that this was being hyped up for the film adaptation.

    It just felt forced. Especially when there was very little irony offered up when it was suggested, after riots took place, that the best way to quell viewers – who had become disturbed watching a young girl die for their entertainment – was through the “young love” memo.

    I knew what was coming, and I was truly annoyed to see the crowning of this white heterosexual couple, as if this “victory” (played straight with no postmodern critique) made up for all the blood and mayhem.

    If the political elements can’t be explored in the movie version, I’d rather not check out the rest of the trilogy.

    Perhaps I should refer to the books.

  8. Set doesn’t get it.

  9. I was very eager to see this film, and how the twists would be shown on the big screen. I feel that some of the scenes were left out (where is Madge? Mayor of D12? Avox abduction?) and then some parts are elaborated (Love Triangle–PAH-LEEASSE) This is a story of SURVIVAL not LOVE, one scene that is dismissed in the film is the end of the book where Peeta asks Katniss if she was pretending about their love for each other in the Games and she says yes, it was an act and that she is confused now that she is away from the capital, Peeta storms off hurt and bitter. This shows Katniss’s lack of interest in love/romance at a time, and that the important topic at hand is keeping her family and self alive. I feel that this scene was left out because it would make the film appear more action-y and less love-y. But the story is about action and survival and street smarts. This left out scene is a major part of the movie/book that irked me.

  10. Outstanding review – thanks!

    I love the books, and read every one of them. But my expectations were quite low for the film, so I was surprised that they stayed so true to the books, with the exceptions noted in this review. I also saw the film with a smaller audience – no cheering for every romantic moment in our small theater.

    What was surprising to me was that Panem seemed to be populated almost exclusively by white people. The crowds in District 12 were almost all white, Capitol crowds only had a few people of color, the tributes were majority white, etc. Reading the books, I had actually imagined Katniss and others as Latina – was I the only one?

  11. I agree and disagree – I think the film tried to make the “one kiss = one bowl of soup” clearer but there wasn’t really enough time to tease out the complexities of that relationship. But I definitely wish there had been, and do think the film series will frame the romance as more “real” than the books did.

    They probably don’t want viewers to see Katniss as a “maneater” who is using Peeta exclusively for her gain. Not that she is – she kisses him “for real” in the books in hopes she will be sent something to save his life. Which is why the complexity of the relationship is so intriguing…the romance is false, but the tenderness, the wanting to save him, is real. Which would make any teenager really confused, and certainly brings up questions of what love is anyway.

    But I think the books are a little more romance-centric than this article implies. After all, she does “pick one” in the end. And it’s always assumed she has to pick between Gale and Peeta – why doesn’t she just pick someone else, or no one? Not to say that feminists can’t fall in love, but it definitely was a big aspect of the later books at least.

  12. I am saddened that this book is what passes for feminist literature. I am in the process of reading the trilogy and am half way through the second book. I am so disappointed in it that I started searching to see if feminists really think this is a feminist book. Apparently they do. To me it fails on many levels.

    While it is refreshing that Katniss is reluctant to fall in love, the first book barely passes the Bechdel test. ALL of Katniss’s important relationships are with men. (other than the two boys that are in love with her – Haymitch and the designer -whose name escapes me- are her most important relationships). Other than a brief alliance with Rue – she doesn’t have ANY substantial dialog with another female character, let alone a close relationship. (Certainly not remotely approaching the relationships that I have with my women friends) She has a non-existant relationship with her mother – and though she purports to love her sister we see surprisingly little actual interaction between the two.

    Not only that – but the ultimate irony is really that while the book despises the Capitol for “enjoying” the Hunger Games – is that not what we are expected to do as readers? It’s just another violent thriller with some different veneers. I was so downhearted when I reached the middle of the second book and realized that I was going to have to read through ANOTHER few hundred pages of violence and tension. Is that really what makes a book great?

    Lastly (and this is an aesthetic issue rather than a feminist one) I don’t see one shred of the joy or love of language in the writing. It has a somewhat compelling plot (I want to know what’s going to happen next), but I am getting worn out since what happens next rarely satisfies in an aesthetic or emotional way. Just a sort of “internet addiction craving for more information” way.

    Sorry – but for me – no real new or refreshing ideas here…I am sure the movie is worse – and will give it a miss. Don’t even know if I’ll bother to finish the second book…

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