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Monday, December 1, 2014

Katniss, Buffy, and the Cost of Heroism


I’ve now had the chance to see Mockingjay 1 twice, and as I mentioned in my last post, I re-read the Hunger Games Trilogy before seeing the movie. I have a number of thoughts about the book, the movie and about more general issues, all of which I’ll try to organize here. I’m going to tie those thoughts to Buffy and make some comparisons to HBO’s Game of Thrones too (no spoilers for GoT).

A number of reviews of Mockingjay 1 expressed disappointment at the “lack of action” in the film. I didn’t find this to be a problem, but I can see how it might appear that way to others, so I need to start by talking about what I think Hunger Games is “about”.

Each reader will emphasize different aspects of the books, of course. As I see it, there are 3 dominant stories playing out in tandem: Katniss’ heroism both in the Arena and outside it; the love triangle between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta; and the cost, physical and mental, paid by Katniss in the course of the Trilogy. When reviewers mention the “lack of action”, they’re clearly talking about the fact that Mockingjay 1 contains little of the gladiatorial-style combat which formed the basis of the first two books, and which many viewers obviously find the most interesting part of the books. Leaving aside whether this is good or bad, it’s faithful to the third book, where the only such “action” occurs in the second half and will be the subject of Mockingjay 2.

I’ll talk about the “action” issue more below, but I want to digress by saying that it may very well be that the Trilogy would have been better suited to an HBO series like Game of Thrones. It would have been pretty easy to set up at least 4 seasons for such a series, possibly 5 (a magic number for series generally because of re-runs, though this affects HBO less than it does network TV). In general, I’m a fan of the way HBO has translated George Martin’s series to television, though I have some specific criticisms of individual scenes and characters.

The big advantage HBO has over movies is time: it can devote 10 hours or more to a book, rather than 2-4 when each book has to be made into a single movie (two for the finale). This extra time allows all of the dominant themes to play out, which is likely to make all the readers happier.

HBO has other advantages too. There’s a good deal of graphic violence in the novels, though it’s stated rather than described in explicit detail. The movies need to downplay this in order to maintain a PG-13 rating, but the cost of that is that this de-emphasizes the horror of the Arena and over-emphasizes the adventure aspects. HBO certainly does not understate graphic violence, and that would inevitably change the impact of the Trilogy on screen.

Similarly, the books actually contain a great deal of nudity and people dressed only in underwear, something I didn’t really notice on first read but did on re-read. The nudity is all stated rather than described; it’s not salacious and it’s not sexual, but it’s there constantly and it can’t be shown in a PG-13 movie. At the risk of the understatement of the year, I think we can safely agree that HBO wouldn’t find this a limitation.

Both graphic violence and nudity are controversial, and I’m generally of the view that they are both overdone in books and on screen. That said, there’s a place for both when essential to the author’s point, and I think that’s the case in both Game of Thrones and Hunger Games. Both authors are (IMO) trying to dispel the romanticism so often associated with war; the violence and nudity in the books are designed to drive home this point.

Nudity in The Hunger Games emphasizes the fact that the Capitol holds the 12 Districts in what amounts to slavery (a point made often throughout the books). Slaves traditionally have no personal privacy – they are stripped of dignity among other rights. In the American South, slaves were often displayed naked at auction and poorly clothed by their masters, who used them for sex the way Finnick was used and, as suggested, Katniss herself might have been. Nudity in preparation for the games demonstrates the tributes’ lack of autonomy. Nudity in the Arena titillates the Capitol audience but doesn’t violate any norms because the tributes aren’t “real people”. The books are making a serious point here, but it gets lost in the movies because of the restrictions and assumptions of the medium.

I’ll give one relatively minor example to make this point. Catching Fire, the second movie, includes the scene of Johanna stripping at the elevator, but it gets the scene completely wrong. It’s played as sexual, with Peeta and Haymitch obviously looking at her and enjoying the sight; Johanna then winks at Haymitch. That’s what we in the US commonly associate with nudity. But in the book there’s no sexual vibe at all. To the contrary, Johanna is using her own choice of nudity to emphasize that the Capitol can’t hurt her, can’t embarrass her, can’t make her vulnerable by stripping her clothing.

I want to emphasize that this is NOT any sort of rejection of Mockingjay or of the previous Hunger Games movies. Generally speaking, I think they’ve done very well in their adaptations, helped by the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is (IMO) so good and can express such a wide range of emotions. I have some criticisms of Mockingjay 1, mostly of the way they handle the rescue of Peeta, where I personally would have preferred that they spend the time on Katniss’ issues. Overall, though, I think the movie is a reasonable compromise for viewers with different tastes and I liked it better than most reviewers.

The fact that I liked the movie better than most reviewers despite the lack of “action” scenes brings me back to where I left off above. For me, the most important theme of the books is the internal cost paid by Katniss, not the “adventure” of gladiator combat or the choice between Gale and Peeta (though all 3 themes are connected). You can see that cost as realistic – think of all the news reports of PTSD and other issues faced by troops returning from combat – or as an anti-war message (my own view), but there’s no doubt that book 3 spends the vast majority of its pages on Katniss’ mental state and not on her ability to shoot an arrow or which boy she’s kissing.

At other times of my life, I was more attracted to the adventure aspects of fantasy and SF. Even in LOTR, for example, while the cost paid by Frodo was explicit, I focused on that far less than on his struggle to destroy the Ring and I could imagine myself in such an adventure without the unpleasant traveling conditions or risk. I think we all find that part of the attraction of these kinds of stories.

At this point in my life, though, I’m more interested in considering the cost paid by our heroes. It was, of course, Buffy which brought me to this point. The fact that there would be a cost was expressly stated in Welcome to the Hellmouth:

BUFFY Prepares me for what? For getting kicked out of school? For losing all of my friends?For having to spend all of my time fighting for my life and never getting to tell anyone because I might endanger them?

By cost here, I mean the impact of being the Slayer on Buffy's psyche, not the external injuries she suffers along the way. The show, probably intentionally, diminished the effect of those because "accelerated healing comes with the Slayer package." (FFL) The Trilogy solves this problem with the advanced medicine which restores Katniss physically even as she continues to suffer mentally.

Buffy pays psychic costs all along, but those costs don't become the focal point of the show until late in S5, and they continue in S6-7. Even the loss of Angel in S2 -- which is less a cost of being the Slayer and more simple bad fortune -- gets mitigated with his return in S3. Writing the episode essays for the later seasons forced me to confront the internal costs Buffy paid in a way that I never really had before. Maybe that alone, or maybe that in combination with current events caused me to reassess my assessment of the relative importance of the price of being a hero.

I'll just briefly list the costs Buffy pays so I can compare her to Katniss: flashbacks; nightmares; self-loathing; the deaths of numerous people whom she, in her own mind, failed to save; her episode of catatonia after she failed Dawn in Spiral; her own life, which she sacrifices for Dawn; a long period of depression after she's pulled out of heaven by her friends; isolation from her friends and mentor. As Andrew puts it in Storyteller, Buffy's is "a story of ultimate triumph tainted with the bitterness of what's been lost in the struggle."

So what costs does Katniss pay? All of the above, basically. The Arena gives her flashbacks and nightmares which she never loses. She suffers guilt from her failure to save first Rue and then Peeta. Depression and isolation are constants in the later books.

Another cost is her friendship with Gale. At the start of the books, he's her best -- only? -- friend and an obvious romantic possiblity. At the end, he plays no role in her life, at least in part because he re-creates a mine cave-in very similar to the one in which her father died and which has caused her nightmares ever since. She gains Peeta, but that's partly because she comes to see him as essential to help her deal with the costs in a way that Gale never could. When I first read the books I thought Gale was the obvious choice for her, only to be corrected by my daughter who assured me that Peeta was the right one. I now see that she and Katniss were right.

Another cost is her mother, just as Buffy lost hers, though in neither case was that loss directly related to the actions as the hero. Katniss had a difficult relationship with her mother from the beginning of book 1 because her mother suffered such severe depression after Katniss' father died that she nearly let Katniss and her sister starve to death. Katniss comes to understand that depression intellectually in Catching Fire, but only really recognizes the emotional core of depression when she herself suffers it on two different occasions in Mockingjay. Compare the cathartic effect of Katniss finding Buttercup back in District 12 to Willow's breakdown on the hilltop in Grave.

Speaking of fathers, Katniss lost her father in a mine accident, but began to see Haymitch as a surrogate father at some point because of the way he helped her survive. She lost that affection when she learned that he'd used her as part of the rebel plan (compare Giles in LMPTM).

That brings us to her bitterest loss: unlike Buffy, Katniss loses her sister Prim, the one person she loves most in the world and, like Dawn, a metaphor for innocence. The whole "adventure" of the Games begins with her heroic decision to volunteer as tribute in place of Prim. Katniss didn't set out to save the world, any more than Buffy set out to save the world in Prophecy Girl or The Gift. In both cases Buffy focused only on saving first Willow and then Dawn; saving the world was a by-product of that.

But as a direct result of the Capitol's defeat, Katniss loses Prim. And the reason she loses Prim is that both sides used Katniss as a pawn in a larger struggle -- that's one meaning of the mockingjay, a bird that sings songs given to it by others -- a struggle the Katniss herself always resisted joining. I see this as similar to the way the Watchers used the Slayers over the years. Katniss finds love and hope at the end not because of her roles in the Arena or the revolution, but in spite of them, when she and Peeta find them in themselves rather than in the larger cause. To me, that's a very Buffy message.