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Monday, December 1, 2014

Katniss, Buffy, and the Cost of Heroism

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR THE HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY AND FOR BTVS S1-7

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.

12 comments:

  1. Hi, I've been reading your blog for the last hour, since I've read Aeryl's recommendation on Tor.com. (My nick over there is Annara Snow.) I'm a big fan of Buffy, A Song of Ice and Fire, and The Hunger Games series. I'm also in the minority (which however is a more sizeable minority than most seem to think) that has season 6 as their favorite Buffy season (though I love all seasons of Buffy, and seasons 2 and 5 are in contention for my 2nd favorite) and Mockingjay as their favorite THG novel. And while ASOS is my favorite book in ASOAIF (I belong to the majority there), I enjoyed ADWD and AFFC a lot, and I also prefer ACOK to AGOT - though I loved AGOT, on re-read I think I like it comparatively less than the subsequent books (another unpopular opinion).

    I must disagree with you on the THG movies vs Game of Thrones. I find the movies to have so far been a far more satisfying and faithful adaptation of The Hunger Games series - especially with the latest movie, which may be my favorite, than Game of Thrones has been of THG, The Hunger Games movies have been getting more and more faithful to the books, while GoT has been less and less so. Ironically, I find that the PG requirement hurts THG far less in terms of being faithful to the storylines and themes; I thought the horror of the games and the war, and Katniss' mental state in CF and Mockingjay, have been brought to life pretty well, especially in the latest movie, and to a degree CF. On the other hand, Game of Thrones has whitewashed some situations and characters (particularly some of the Lannisters) in ways that really hurt the story and misrepresented it on some occasions: I refer in particular to the way Sansa's wedding was portrayed in the show, which made me really angry, but overall, Sansa's storyline has suffered the most from the need to whitewash the characters around her or not show the amount of trauma she is going through due to the actress' age, but also of the showrunner's lack of interest in the character and tendency to shift focus to the characters around her. The latter has also hurt show's portrayal of Catelyn, a lot, while the former (combined with some of the latter) happened to Arya in season 2 - the show jettisoned most of her harrowing Harrenhal arc (possibly my favorite part of ACOK) in favor of giving her "cool scenes" with Charles Dance and making Tywin look like a nice granpa dude (something I will never understand, since it even clashes with his subsequent show portrayal). The lack of Tysha resolution is also one of the worst decisions the showrunners have made, though this one belongs to the decisions made due to the showrunners' curious fear of flashbacks and lack of trust in the audience's ability to follow character backstories.

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    1. We obviously share very similar tastes, since these 3 series are my favorites. Seasons 2, 5, and 7 are my favorites from Buffy, and I really like S6 except for the one story line.

      I can't disagree with any of your specific criticisms of GoT on HBO. In particular, I was very unhappy with how they handled Arya in Harrenhal, not just because they made Tywin look like a teddy bear, but because they underplayed the really severe emotional trauma she suffered there. That, in turn, had carry-over consequences in S4 with the scene at the inn.

      I'd similarly agree with your points about Sansa, though I think most viewers are now beginning to appreciate just how creepy LF is.

      OTOH, I think the show has done very well in many respects. Where they've deviated from the books, the scenes have often been well done (e.g., Arya and the Hound), and I think they've managed to stay within the basic storylines despite the deviations in detail. They've done well, also, in several of the more important dramatic scenes (e.g., Dracarys, King in the North, and others).

      I was disappointed in the first Hunger Games movie, but I agree that CF and Mockingjay have been good (shout out to Danny Strong!). It's possible that I'm just a glutton for punishment in wanting more emphasis on the awfulness of the circumstances Katniss faces, but I'm also wary that it's pretty easy to see the Games as a grand adventure, which they aren't.

      They made a great decision to cast Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss; she really sells the character's struggles and emotions.

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    2. I love S6 too! YAY TWINSIES(without the incest!)

      I thing THG is a better translation to screen than GOT, in terms of faithfulness, but I get Sophist's point about how the visceral horror of the arena has been lost, with most the audience seeing it as a cool action scene.

      My partner got it, but having been raised an illegitimate child in poverty by a single mother, he's sensitive to class issues in media, and much of the story is a commentary on the uber-rich needing to keep a permanent underclass that accepts their place to ensure the lifestyle of the Capitol.

      He angrily demanded what I got out of the movie after we first watched it, and was deeply upset about the "torture of children for entertainment"(ours not the Capitol's). He was just as angry after CF, even though I tried to explain that this was the start of the war. Having rewatched them since, he's gotten past his initial reaction to be interested in where the story is headed, which I've avoided spoiling for him.

      The sad fact of the matter, there are too many people who ignore the pointed social commentary in the books in favor of just reading it as a cool YA story with a badass female heroine, who hated Mockingjay because "she got all weak". IMO, these people tend to overlap with those who completely missed out that Rue was black, and openly state they had a hard time feeling bad for her character because she was played by a black girl.

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  2. On the other hand, the relative lack of constraints on sex, nudity and violence, while it helped the show a lot, also lead to the habit of featuring unnecessary brothel scenes and other gratuitous sex scenes that exist only to show nude women (usually extras) for titillation, which also glamorize Westerosi prostitution and don't contribute to the realism of the world at all (because all women in this medieval world, including wildlings, look like Hollywood-proportioned conventionally hot 20-somethings who shave their bodies, including their private parts; while men for some reason stay clothed even in the brothel). I immediately saw signs of how it would go wrong the moment I saw the otherwise good first episode where a sensual post-coital Ned/Cat scene followed by nude scenes for Ned and Cat was replaced by a chaste clothed scene (because the actors are middle-aged, and we can't have our target 18-30 male demographics freak out because they must watch 'their parents having sex'!) even though in this case the sex scene would have actually contributed to the characterization (showing that their marriage had grown into a relationship that was more than "dutiful", and that people in the series can actually have loving, non-paid consensual sex even if they are not siblings) - while the same episode featured a non-book scene with a nude, hot 20-something original female character (with cameos by a bunch of other nude similarly looking female extras) and the next episode had a non-book sex scene between the same original female character and a 20-something male cast member.

    Finally, I disagree about the Johanna elevator nude scene in the book; it was sexual, though in a somewhat different way: in the book, it was portrayed as something that Johanna did mostly to provoke Katniss, who was seen as somewhat prudish/repressed (in the first book, she felt uncomfortable seeing nude Peeta even while he was dying and she was dressing his leg wound and had to change him), which makes Katniss angry after Peeta explains it, and it leads to a heated argument, with a lot of subtext.

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    1. Yes, with HBO (and probably with any network) there's a strong risk that the sex scenes will be exploitative and completely fail to communicate the actual messages. Your examples are good. There's also a risk that the producers can't resist the temptation for fanfic, and Suzanne Collins seems to have exercised enough control to prevent the kind of examples you've mentioned as impacting Got (Tyrion being the most obvious to me, but others as well).

      That's a fair point about Johanna's scene. I do think her action included the "you can't touch me" motivation I suggested, but there definitely was a challenge to Katniss as well. Since we learn later that she, like the others, had agreed to die for Katniss, it's not surprising that she'd make such a challenge. Communicating all that would be a challenge, but the movie version came across to me as purely a matter of sex.

      Obviously the solution is to put me in charge with an unlimited budget. :)

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  3. Are you familiar with Buffyforums.net? The forum there is really great - currently we're in the middle of a joint Buffy rewatch. There aren't many people regularly posting, but it's very active and has great reviews and discussions, with each poster choosing to review 1 to 3 episodes per season. I post as TimeTravellingBunny (yes, I was a LOST fan, too). We're now in the late season 3. Episode reviews are usually posted once a week. The latest episode is Enemies. http://www.buffyforums.net/forums/showthread.php?19870-BtVS-rewatch-SEASON-3
    These were the threads for season 1: http://www.buffyforums.net/forums/showthread.php?19768-BtVS-rewatch-SEASON-1
    and season 2: http://www.buffyforums.net/forums/showthread.php?19794-BtVS-rewatch-SEASON-2

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    1. I am, but local max told me it was registration only. I'm lazy enough that I haven't registered. Since you suggest it, though, I'll start lurking and maybe post.

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  4. I always felt that the reason that Katniss cut Gale out of her life was the fact that he, aside from Coin, was most responsible for Prim's death. The idea of delayed bombs to target first responders was an idea he developed with Beetie earlier in the book.

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  5. Having rewatched the first movie this weekend, I have figured out why the movies failed to convey the visceral horror of the books.

    The books, completely centered on Katniss' perspective, do their utmost to convey the dread and horror she feels about the situation. The political ramifications are honestly secondary to what Katniss is forced to endure.

    The movies, by including Snow as a POV character and exploring his motivations, have changed this perspective. Instead of the audience being horrified at what Katniss is being forced to endure, we are put in the position of the Capitol, rooting for her to overcome terrible things to enable our sense of satisfaction(in our case the overturning of the unfair system).

    This is exemplified by the scene where they are given their numbers. In the book, Katniss recognizes that she's been given the number to make her a target, to ensure the Careers will hunt her down, forcing a showdown that will "look cool" on television. In the movie, this reality is ignored as Effie and the Capitol exalt at the spectacle that is indicated by such a number. As do we.

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    1. This is a good point. While I think the movies have been pretty faithful to the books -- more faithful, in their way, than GoT has been to ASOIAF -- I'm not getting the visceral reaction from the movies that I got from the books. It's too easy to see the Games as a contest in which we root for Katniss, rather than the system of psychological torture and brutality which it really is. That's why I keep calling for more emphasis on the horror. Maybe you're right, though, and what it needs is less emphasis on Snow.

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    2. They are definitely VERY faithful to the source material, but getting us out of Katniss' head has had a strange effect on the story. Instead of being upset at the things being done to her, we too are excited by them, though for different reasons than the Capitol.

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