A Hunger Games Guest Roundtable
Less than a day to go to the UK release of the Hunger Games movie, and frankly it’s difficult for some of us at BadRep Towers to go more than five minutes without starting a very excitable conversation about it. After spamming my personal Twitter feed so heavily even I began to feel slightly awkward, I dragged two interested parties – writer and Den of Geek founder Sarah Dobbs and comics writer (and Starburst journo) PM Buchan – into a corner for an email-chat.
A few points before we go any further:
- This is us revisiting Suzanne Collins’s books, mainly, and looking at the characters we like, and how the books – for us – jigsaw with other franchises out there. Back in the mists of time, Team BadRep’s Jenni also talked about the books on here in a more spoiler-free, introductory way.
- SPOILER WARNINGS are all over this. Do not read this post if you want to read the books unspoilered.
- Sarah’s been interviewing the cast of the movie over on Den of Geek, and you can read those posts here, here, and here.
- As Bucky and I haven’t seen the press screenings, we’ll maybe be back to talk about the movie later.
On Those Triangular Twilight Comparisons
Miranda: I made a blog post the other week elsewhere on the internets about how the movie franchise is being merched, as far as I can tell, in a way which visually dovetails with a lot of Twilight merch, and the disappointment I feel around that. Nonetheless, Suzanne Collins’s bestselling trilogy is, I think, using the love triangle motif in an effective, nuanced way. So while the Twilight comparisons might be short-sighted, they’re not unreasonable. But what do my friends think?
Bucky: OK, so here’s my big confession: I sort of love Twilight. It’s the reading equivalent of eating popcorn, plus I’m a sucker for romance, which should be apparent in the fact that even the most depressing things I write are always thinly-veiled love stories. My beef with Twilight was the general mormon-propaganda shittiness. I could totally have gone for a general horror-lite romance WITHOUT the abominable gender politics and chastity stuff.
Throughout the first book, it was apparent that this wasn’t just going to be a vapid romance, which was fine and the nature of pitting them against each other sort of insisted that the romance be downplayed, but across the three books I was disappointed by the things that didn’t happen – when the action/adventure/1984 stuff took over the romantic hook was still what kept me reading!
Sarah: I think comparisons to Twilight are kind of irrelevant here, because they’re completely different stories in completely different genres. Twilight is a romance, and The Hunger Games is… well, anything but that. It’s an action/thriller/horror with strong anti-war sentiments, and I think reading The Hunger Games for the romance is doing it a massive disservice.
In particular, getting overly invested in the love triangle element is missing the point, because Gale and Peeta aren’t really individuals, they’re metaphors.
Bucky: OK, I’ll give you that it’s an unfair comparison, but there’s no escaping the Love Triangle parallels, Collins just uses it as a device to much greater effect, rather than pinning an entire series of books on it.
On the Boys
Sarah: Like I say, I think the boys are, in part, metaphors – Gale in particular, which is why the idea that anyone would declare themselves “Team Gale” utterly baffles me. Because what does Gale stand for? Anger. Revenge. He’s a hunter; he’s kind of Old Testament-y. He’s very black and white, and not very interested in forgiveness. He’s initially presented as having the most in common with Katniss: they have the same background, they live in the same area, they look like each other, they’re very close friends and their lives seem very similar. But even right at the beginning, she’s restraining him. He’s shouting about rebellion in the woods while she tries to calm him down and keep him safe. He just gets more violent as the books go on, and it’s his bombs that kill a bunch of innocent children. Gale is basically a terrorist, and his is no way to build a future.
Bucky: I do like what you’re saying about Gale. I think all the main characters are realised brilliantly, because they’re people, compromised and damaged people with their own agendas, not pin-ups like they would be in Twilight. But I don’t feel like Collins had such a good handle on Gale’s character in the first book – I think his anger was hinted at but I don’t think she’d made the leap towards thinking that he’d become Anger, Vengeance etc – early on he still has the potential to be a romantic lead and not a product of his society. Peeta is pretty great, in retrospect. He’s a well created character.
Sarah: Yeah, Peeta is great. Peeta is so great. It’s not Gale that Katniss seeks out when she wants to feel safe, it’s Peeta. It’s easy to forget how strong he is, because he’s so warm and protective. But Collins makes sure – over and over again, especially in Mockingjay – that he needs to be protected, too. I don’t think I can quite forgive Gale for that line where he says Katniss will choose whichever of them she can’t survive without, because he’s wrong – she’ll pick whoever can’t survive without her, which is clearly Peeta. Peeta is preternaturally calm, loving, and forgiving (until the Capitol breaks him). I think it’s super important for them to be together at the end, because they’re the only ones who understand one another – and they make one another better. They’re different, but their differences make them better equipped to work towards a world that’s better than either the world they grew up in, or the one that Gale and President Coin want.
I think maybe the way Peeta gets broken in Mockingjay is the first time we really appreciate him for who he is. I dunno. I’m still thinking about this.
Miranda: What d’you reckon about this piece over on Bitch, about masculinity in the trilogy? I’m digging it.
Sarah: I like it too. I’m not keen on the view that Katniss isn’t a feminist heroine because she “ends up weak” at the end of the trilogy. YEAH ALRIGHT LET’S SEE YOU GO THROUGH WHAT SHE DOES AND SEE HOW BLOODY XENA-LIKE YOU ARE – I might love Katniss a bit too much. Hmm.
Miranda: I thought it was interesting that they picked up on the “does she need to end up alone? How do feminists find romance in books now?” thing.
Sarah: Yeah – I mean, surely we’re not gonna claim that women can’t be in relationships with men and still be feminist? I think the happy ending, with all of its caveats, was necessary.
“Like Joan of Arc”
Sarah: Katniss’s attitude to sex is worth thinking about, too. She’s almost completely sexless (unless we read between the lines a bit with all the many nights she spends sleeping in Peeta’s arms?) and just not really that interested in romance… but she explains that quite early on, I think, because it’s not a safe enough world that she’s ever really thinking beyond her next meal. I bloody love her, in exactly the same way I love Buffy and Starbuck and all those other tough-because-they-have-to-be women out there in sci-fi/fantasy.
Bucky: I think it’s pretty awesome. I know I wanted romance, but it’s still cool that she just doesn’t have time in her life to care about “petty” stuff like that.
Miranda: This whole area fascinates me. I think Katniss’s story engages with the issue of ‘sexless action heroines’ really well. A lot of my early engagement with feminism came from a place where, sick of all the sexualising/objectifying/insert buzzword here, you know what I’m talking about – I constructed a sort of mental checklist for movies. It involved asking questions like “is the heroine SENSIBLY DRESSED?!” and “is she defined by her romantic attachments (usually to men)?” It was like Bechdel Plus.
I think these remain pertinent questions to ask, and I still ask them. But I also think I spent years mistrusting any heroine who dared to fall in love or wear a V-neck, just in case she was being somehow undermined from somewhere. It’s only recently I’ve begun to engage with heroines like Emma Frost, and also to confront the fact that ‘sexless heroines’ can also feel quite limited in their own way, depending on how they’re written. Often I think we cite a heroine’s lack of sexual desires as evidence for her liberated awesomeness, but this can feel for me like a bit of a red herring, and one that’s still being driven, in a sense, by the same set of patriarchal restrictions. The question about how to write “feminist romance” is therefore an interesting one.
Katniss directly faces off with these questions. The novels show her wrestling a load of societal pressure to live out a romantic narrative and define herself against one – her survival may depend on it. Uunderneath all that, she does struggle with genuine desires for Peeta and Gale, played out against a hugely traumatic backdrop.
I thought it was fascinating – she does find love, but it’s a struggle to get there in fair, real terms. I think Katniss – though Jennifer Lawrence describes her as a Joan of Arc figure in your interview – goes a lot further than many heroines in TVTropes’s Jeanne D’Archetype section because we get to see that struggle played out, with all the paranoia over who’s controlling the narrative that that entails. She moves through a sexless phase, in the process taking on an entire system of oppression in order to discover how she really wants to express her desires, and how to be able to do that safely rather than it being a capitulation of any kind. These are books about struggle, personal and political.
Bucky: I almost like the books more now that you’ve both pointed out the media and propaganda themes that I took for granted – they are, in hindsight, pretty strong ideas to sell to a teenage audience. I like to think that I’m quite media-savvy, but I guess that if I encountered this at a time in my life when I wasn’t then it might have raised some interesting questions.
Sarah: I do super-love that tension Miranda pointed out in her blog post, re: merchandising this franchise when it’s all about the evils of capitalism and in particular the way we exploit people in other countries. I think they should’ve gone with more Mockingjay “symbol of the rebellion” stuff, but in a way Capitol-themed makeup ranges are perfectly apposite.
Bucky: Yeah, the merchandising is insane, especially because propaganda is insanely merchandisable (by its very definition) so to ignore that angle and create “straight” merchandise like a Katniss barbie instead of “in-character” merchandise is just batshit.
Bucky: The more I talk to you guys, the more I feel like it’s cool I enjoyed these books and all, but I’m not the person whose life this might make a difference to. I don’t need any more role models, but younger readers might benefit from Katniss and will almost certainly benefit from the way that she isn’t sexualised or defined by her relationships. So that’s pretty cool.
Sarah: I’ve just got back from a press screening of the film. I think Gary Ross really really gets the political aspects of the book, and he’s really explicit about it, and there were at least two new bits he’d put in that made my jaw drop. My review’s over here.
Miranda: ONE DAY TO GO!