Monday, March 26, 2012

"Hunger Games" Thoughts — Probably Will Offend Everyone A Bit

I was going to withhold my thoughts on the Hunger Games a bit longer for a couple reasons.

  •  I've only read through them once, and until Friday I hadn't seen the first movie.      
  •  There's a lot of layers to discuss: writing style, plot, tone, articulation of vs. encouragement of violence, written depictions vs. visual ones, age, maturity, parental control....       
  •  Finally, because I'm trying to avoid social media this Lent (except on Sundays).
However, several good friends have specifically asked my opinion, and many more friends and I have conversed about the books and movie.  So, what the heck...

I'm going to address just three of the myriad topics that could be looked at: 

  1. the series as a whole work, 
  2. some moral and metaphysical dimensions of the work, 
  3. and —perhaps a lot less lofty— my thoughts on the movie.  
Please feel free to skip around the ones you couldn't care less about.  

In all this, I take for granted that parents are the primary formators of their children's moral fiber and are essential in guiding their conscience-development.  When kids are younger that means saying "no" to some things, when they are older that may mean reading or watching things together, and when they approach adulthood —knowing that youth may check out even what you ban— it can mean just being ready to initiate discussion on what's out there.  

1) The Hunger Games as a Whole Work

I read the entire series in a 72 hours.  Wal-Mart checkers probably laughed at me returning each day to buy the next one.  I thought the first book was top notch.  It was well-paced and had great natural movement.  That vitality drove me to the second, which was still very good.  Collins opened up new doors in plot and internal drama, and, when revisiting previous themes, she gave a new enough spin so as to not feel like she was rehashing.  The pace was off a little though, and the trite parts of Section Three weren't the revisitation aspects; it was the simplistic nature of the problems and their solutions.  It was like a table of junior high boys developing a sequel to the first book: "Oh yeah! and what if we do this?  That'd be awesome!"  It wasn't that it was repetitive, it was flawed in that it was so nicely packaged.   

The third book was a true letdown for me.  I felt Collins ran aground on the problem so many authors have with sequels.  A writer makes a great story.  It clearly is not the end of any to the characters' troubles and it demands a sequel.  The temptation usually is to find bigger, crueler enemies, to kill off more of your darlings, to damage or conflict your heroes more, and/or to globalize the struggle.  In the first book, just sending teens to kill each other for adults' entertainment is revolting enough, but in subsequent books, following Søren Kierkegaard's "rotation theory", one has to create new horror by openly executing civilian dissidents, or have the police whip your friends, or even mistreat the costuming crew.  Ironically, in trying to show the horrors of oppression and war, Collins may actually have done the opposite, and numbed us out.

Pace is another problem.  Mockingjay's first two sections managed to be running fleetingly through a great many places and yet still feel interminably bottled up.  The speedy punch of The Hunger Games was lost, and the knife-fight tempo gave way to drawn out, internalized, thought-and-word skirmishes.  And when the characters did bodily sally forth, the action again seemed nicely packaged...and predictable.  Section Three, on the other hand, moved way too fast.  The exponential throttling-up leaves the reader behind, and the crescendos seemed to be more of the same: ever greater pain, ever greater losses, ever greater confusion of allies and morality.  It reminded me of The Departed, a brutal modern mobster movie that seems to think a story is only "real" or "tough" or "dark" if people die in Hamlet-like numbers, but with a water-fight's rationale.   

Finally, my ultimate problem with Mockingjay as a work of literature is that I'm not sold on its conclusions.  I don't mean its themes; besides, those are for the next section.  And I don't mean who dies and who ends up loving whom.  I mean, if, in the end, Character A is going to do/choose/become thing X, the author has an obligation to get me there.  Permit me some examples far away from Katniss' land of Panem.  The twisting ruin of Othello is tragic, but reasonable; Shakespeare showed me how he gets there.  The heights and pits of MacBeth's life's arc are both realistic; they both make sense given the data.  On the other hand, George Lucas never came close to giving me reasons for Anakin Skywalker to leap from being a sniveling but hot-tempered and disobedient young man with fitful dreams about his wife's safety to suddenly want —much less be inclined to try to grab— rule over the whole galaxy.  Sorry, George, you didn't make a case for it.  And so it goes for Mockingjay.  Collins never really makes a strong case for the likely final destinies of any of the principal characters, nor any of Katniss' last four or five decisions in the book.  They neither resound with human nature nor with the character and plot arcs drawn up to those points.  

2) Moral and Metaphysical Considerations

The previous section was basically asking if the construction was good, if they flowed well, if they were fun to read?  Here we get to the question that most parents would be asking: "Is the content of the Hunger Games series good?"  

My answer would be: It depends on the age/maturity of the reader, and it depends on your definition of "good for a reader".  I mean, even a very flawed book, read by someone who could understand what was happening, may in fact be a very good book to have read.  I should warn you that this opinion comes largely from the armchair-philosopher in me that thinks that good people should consume bad media sometimes to understand what is wrong with its worldview.  For example, I think the whole world should watch John Q and have it pointed out what a really awful movie it is.  I fear this movie infinitely more than I do the avowedly atheistic The Golden Compass because Compass is a crappy piece of work, but John Q is an amazingly good movie with an incredibly bad idea.  

Now, that doesn't sound like I'm about to say anything good about The Hunger Games, but I am.  What it foretells is that I'm going to make a strong and constant distinction between portrayals of evil in themselves and portrayals of evil that make it attractive or sympathetic.  Schindler's List showed about as much evil as you can onscreen, but no one thinks it was an approving depiction.  The graphic brutality was nauseating, but that was the point, wasn't it?  Charles Dickens made a living, and a universe, by showing awful people doing awful stuff for awful reasons.  He may have been the greatest evangelist of the 19th century.  So the question with the Games is whether Ms. Collins always depicts evil in such a way that people will call it evil and long for good in its place.  If she does, then I think there is nothing wrong with kids/teens reading them provided that they are mature enough to understand this.  If not —if sometimes evil can appear attractive, excusable, or sympathetic— then readers need to be even wiser and be able to recognize the places where they can disagree with the author.  (e.g. Movie-goers should question Batman's decision to lie to cover up the D.A.'s crimes while having the Commissioner pin them on Batman himself.  You should not be nodding along at the end of The Dark Knight.)  I think parents need to decide this on an individual basis, but they should recognize that other people's kids will have already encountered the books, and it could be better to have your kids enter this conversation duly prepared.  

So the concrete question is: "Does The Hunger Games correctly depict evil as evil?"  I answer: "In Book 1, yes."  Most of the teens sent to the Hunger Games go utterly against their will.  They approach the Arena as self-defense and survival in awful circumstances (which can, no doubt, turn to opportunism too).  The beauty treatments and superficial body enhancements (including the violation of privacies by the frivolous cosmetic crews) are not voluntary; Katniss in no way desires a full body wax or eyebrow plucking.  One truly believes that the Katniss, Peeta, Rue, and even Tresh would have had a hard time offing each other if they were the last ones standing.  The only real controversies would be putting a slowly-dying person out of their misery and contemplating suicide rather than be bent to the will of the Gamemakers.  Yes, both are ultimately attempts to claim the end justifies the means, but only someone with an iron stomach and serious training in Natural Law morality could keep from a "I'm sparing you a worse fate" mentality when watching another be torn apart.  The misery-ending scene is identical to Nathaniel shooting Major Duncan Heyward as he burns alive in The Last of the Mohicans.  Few remember their Plato in such moments.  All the killing, cheating, plotting, betting, boozing, decorating, commercializing, white-washing, corruption, tyranny, coercion, and murder-for-entertainment-and-control is depicted as utterly damning.  The vapid Capitol citizens are either despicable or laughable.  Dickens and Chaucer probably wet themselves laughing at the living caricatures Collins writes—so reminiscent of their own.  There is virtue in Katniss' and Peeta's longings to persevere, to play self-defense only, and to retain their own wills and humanity in the Arena.  Evil is abundant, but it is rounded condemned.  Likewise, American "reality TV" shows are, as well as mixed-martial-arts events and Hollywood in general, too.

Catching Fire (Book 2) weaves a tighter web of intrigue, which necessarily results in more deceptions by the main characters.  A mature group could have some interesting discussions about societies, just and unjust laws, tyranny, and rebellion.  There's more non-Arena violence and it's uglier, but I don't recall any serious violations of claiming the end justifies the means.  Mockingjay, however, is a full-scale debate (or lack thereof) about whether two wrongs make a right, and yeah, I think Collins too often comes up short in her drawer.  Now, just because a character does or permits evil doesn't mean the author sanctions it (I'm not convinced that we should think Steinbeck condones how Of Mice and Men ends).  However, I think too many sympathetic characters do too much evil with too many good, reasonable motives in Book 3 to turn a blind eye to Collins' choices.  One character acts in a way that is inexcusably unjust even while they lament all the injustice they've suffered.  It's hard to clearly identify themes in the book, but let's just say some seem to come straight out of the final chapters of 1984 and Animal Farm.  Moral ambiguity, on the micro and macro levels, seems to increase through the three book series.  There are characters of virtue, and moments of aching beauty throughout all the books, but the worldview of Mockingjay is quite postmodern, ambiguous, self-flagellating, and borderline nihilistic.  

Now, does this mean to avoid them?  No.  At least not universally.  And given that this is the book of the moment, you couldn't dodge it if you wanted to.  Better to educate and elucidate people.  1984, The Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and Children of Men are horrible places to visit, and therefore everyone should read them before age twenty.  I read The Golden Compass because people need to be able to understand literature as well as critique it.  Teens reading and debating topics is good.  (Oh, there'll be debates, I promise!)  But it's hard not to feel confused by the last fifty pages.  Maybe "cheated" is an even better verb.  Collins has bought into the creed that to be real it must be painful.  In the end, I think The Hunger Games can be good food for social commentary, but realize that, after Book 1, you are on your own to generate the commentary.

3) Thoughts on the Movie

There are two important movie topics: "How well did they do?" and "Would you take kids to it?"

All in all, they did a pretty good job.  Pretty darn faithful to the book, great visualization of District 12 and the Capitol, impressive character realization.  The only real bummer was the last quarter of the movie, which was rushed and killed some of the best plot and character development.  No one watching on Panem's TVs, let alone the movie's actual audience, was going to believe there was anything going on between the "star-crossed lovers".  Both a lack of time (literally, days, in the book) and the absence of meaningful conversations left the movie's partnership cold and Platonic.  Consequently, the chilly post-match interview made sense, because the "Girl on Fire" never caught.  At least they didn't try to presume it without having remotely created it.  

The final battle was telescoped in time too, so much so that it lacked both the requisite response of repulsion and an odd, growing empathy.  Also they eliminated a huge plot piece for one character from the last fight which left the Arena climax more than a bit hollow.  They moved the movie quicker but lost all the urgency.  To their great credit, they did find a way to convey some empathy to the final opponent through the actor's desperation—a real coup because the short time eliminated the original point of empathy.  The key heartbreaking moment in the Arena was kept perfectly intact.  In fact, they did it better than I had imagined it.  I nearly teared up.  

"Should we let our kids go?"  "Is it too violent?"  "Is it gruesome?"  Honestly, I would say it wasn't particularly violent or gory.  Certainly there's violence.  I think it all is in the clearly-depicted-as-evil category.  I think it was all quite fleeting.  I think Suzanne Collins described worse details in the book than the camera shows.  Luckily, the animal-to-human-attack gore is minimal.  That being said, I think I understand why so many say it's brutal.  First, it's because it's hand-to-hand combat.  The movie is about 1/10th as gory as Saving Private Ryan, but Ryan used bullet and bombs, and for whatever reason, the visceral reaction to using mêlée weapons is a lot stronger.  The other reason is that it's teenagers doing it.  Children of the Corn gets most people in a way that Friday the 13th doesn't.  Kids breaking each other's necks is disconcerting.  Overall, the average teen sees worse in his daily video games.  Frankly, I'd say to cut a deal with your teens and preteens: You must read the book, and we will discuss it either before or after you see the movie.  


The Hunger Games are here.  And they're going to stay around at least three years.  Take advantage of the situation and read (and possibly watch) the stories with your young people, presuming they're old enough to do some critical thinking.  Be ready for hard questions and possible disagreements.  Seize the opportunity and meet your thirteen year olds on the fields of the cultural Now.  The first book at least is a perfect critique of the postmodern "Rome on the edge of disaster".  Folks, we're living there right now.  Collins will fail to have clear answers in the third book, but by then hopefully you've created a place to talk about what the right answers should be.  Confusion and nihilism only hang around because people don't offer anything else in answer.  Don't flee this cultural phenomenon, but don't go toward it unaware.  And for crying out loud, don't just tell your kids to dive in without you ever discussing it before or afterward.  Yeesh!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Real Fears and a Leap of Faith — Lent #4, Jesus

Final homily in my series of four on How Different People View the Cross.  It runs 17 minutes, but that's because I included the Gospel, because it really should be read in a specific way.  

Click here to listen or download  (15-17 minutes)
On the download page, click the "4.2MB" in the lower right corner

Usually people think of Jesus as being brave or generous or loving because He came to earth and suffered for us.  Nice thing for a God to do!  But because they unintentionally forget His humanity, they don't see that He also had real human courage in the face of pain and loss, and real human faith in the face of darkness and doubt.  St. Paul speaks of Christ's faith; Hebrews commends Jesus and Abraham for their faith that God can raise up beyond the grave.  Faith has to do with what we cannot clearly see.  How can we speak of any fear and doubt for Jesus to overcome?  The Letter to the Philippians says Jesus "emptied himself" to become like us, possessing a fully human mind, body, will, and emotions.  Somewhere in the mysterious interplay of the human and divine, Jesus could really feel "abandoned", and yet He chose to belief, and commended His life into His Father's hands.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

How Can I Make Up Anything That Christ Lacks? — Lent #3, Christians

This is the third homily in my brief series How Different People View the Cross.

Click here to listen or download  (12.5 minutes)
On the download page, click the "3.0MB" in the lower right corner

The first week was the Father's view, and last week was "the world's".  This week (4th Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday) uses John chapter 3 to begin to look at how Christians should view the Cross of Christ: to love the Cross, to live the Cross, and to "make up in our bodies what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ".

Sunday, March 11, 2012

We Preach Stumbling Blocks & Foolishness — Lent #2, the World

Homily #2 in the series on How Different People View the Cross.  (I apologize for my reading stumbles.  A creeping migraine aura was making page reading somewhat tricky!)

Click here to listen or download (13 min.)
On the download page, click the "3.3MB" in the lower right corner

Last week, we saw Abraham and Isaac as a lens for how the Father sees the Cross.  This week (3rd Sunday of Lent), it's St. Paul's words about how the Cross is foolishness and weakness to the Greeks and Jews, that shows us how "the world" sees the Cross.  More importantly, we need not fear that it seems that way, for the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of the world, and His weakness is greater than its strength.  In the end, the world is crazy, and Saints Francis and Maria Goretti are the sane ones.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Far More Than Blind Obedience — Lent #1, "The Father"

I can't write out all my homilies like some of the previous ones, but if you can spare 11 minutes or 3MB you can listen to this week's.

Click here to listen or download

I'm doing a 4-week series for these central weeks of Lent on four different views of the Cross.  This first week is the crucifixion and death of Jesus from God the Father's point of view.  It centers around the untapped riches of Abraham and Isaac's story, the Transfiguration and the Father's words there, and Paul's reflections in Romans, chapter 8 ("if God is for us, who can be against us?")