“The Hunger Games is dead! Long live The Hunger Games!”
With other films finally surpassing it at the box office and The Avengers about to supplant it, decisively, as the blockbuster du jour, The Hunger Games is definitely on its way out as a popular conversational topic on the school bus or at cocktail parties. But of course that also means that it’s well on its way to being something of a pop culture “legend”—the kind of title that becomes fondly remembered by the industry (and some fans) because of its success; that is, independent of its actual content, let alone any problematic issues that cropped up along the way.
So this moment, now, with all the dust settling around us, might just be the best time to start getting some critical distance—not on the film, but on the entire phenomenon. Because that’s what we get whenever there’s a hit of this magnitude: a text that spawns numerous other texts across numerous other media… and if we focus only on the obvious ones, then we miss out on a range of opportunities for critical thinking.
With that in mind, here are some items/resources/strategies/ideas that I’ve been collecting in my HG scrapbook.
What is “Media”?
Are Hunger Games-themed cupcakes like the ones shown here, sold by the California-based Teacake Bake Shop, a form of media? I’d say they are, but what do students think?
My simple rule of thumb, by the way: does the item intentionally communicate meaning from one human being to another? If it does, then it’s a medium. Of course feel free to come up with your own working definition with students—it goes almost without saying that the reward will be in the discourse itself.
What Constitutes “Bad Taste”?
Instead of just looking at my results, visible at the top of this post, you can go to Hungernames.Com yourself to receive your own Hunger Games name and learn how you’ll perish in the arena.
But is this kind of dark humor always funny, or potentially so… or could it ever be, well, offensive? If so, to whom, since any of those who “really” die in the arena are fictional?
Also to consider: at what point or under what conditions does satire or parody become a problem for hardcore fans? This question, in fact, is a great metacognitive pathway that can help students understand their own complex relationships with certain texts and storyworlds. Why does mockery of the fan object bother you? What’s at stake for you personally?
As an example, check out this satirical video, which received a lot of attention in K-12 circles when I linked to it on Twitter and Making Curriculum Pop. It reconfigures The Hunger Games as an ultra-girly board game, and, though it’s not intentional, skewers any audience segment that somehow missed the point of the film.
However, for the typically astute HG fan who may feel put-upon by such send-ups, consider using them as starting, not end, points: they can serve as models for student-made parodies of other novels or movies.
Reviewing the Reviewers
For New York magazine David Edelstein wrote what is perhaps my favorite mainstream review in terms of its simple “moral” point, one that implicitly asks fans of both the novel and the film to consider the ways in which the horror has been toned down to such a degree that the text’s central message has been fatally blunted. Certainly countless blogs, movie sites, and readers-turned-moviegoers have made essentially the same point, but if you had to share one with students, I’d recommend this one for its directness and conviction.
That said, you might want to have students argue against Edelstein’s points and/or search for and share alternate reviews that they feel align more closely with their own thoughts. To help them develop a critical mindset, however, ask students to identify reviews that prompted them respond to the film in new ways, even if they didn’t completely agree with the reviewers.
Merchandizing: Fan vs. Pro
All merchandising provides a chance to dig deeper into topics such as visual literacy, the fan-to-text relationship, and of course the commercial impulse behind media messages. That’s why I’ve always held that freebies at gatherings such as ALA, BEA, or Comic-Con are effective tools for teaching media literacy, not just the detritus of show floor.
In addition to such the official merchandise, we have the often highly creative fan-made products to consider. To that end, go ahead and browse through this rundown of the “best” Hunger Games items on Etsy, a topic that I know has also been addressed by Mashable. Indeed, there’s a lot of learning potential in just letting kids explore Etsy on their own, and then explain which are the most impressive products… or the ones that inspire their own creativity. As for me, I happen to like this poster despite, or maybe because of, the fact that it combines HG minimalism with a popular (played out?) design meme of the past couple of years—the “Keep Calm and Carry On” World War II-era signs.
Also, the neat thing about such original products, from a library perspective, is the way that a fannish interest can lead to reading and research across practical texts: just how does one take up, or improve at, embroidery, or jewelry-making, or silk screening?
But the same sparking of individual creativity can’t be said for all merchandising efforts. After all, what is one to make of this Hunger Games-related Barbie?
Although my reaction is probably predictable—I’d reference the “What would Katniss think?” refrain of my previous posts—what’s more important is what students think. A harmless bit of kitschy fun? A nice way to involve a lower age demographic or co-opt the “girly girls” with a more empowered representation of a female teenager? Or does the doll embody both these ideas, thereby illustrating the notion that there is no “fixed” meaning to any media message since the filters, perspectives, and context of the audience always help complete the message?
Some of the texts that have been generated in the wake of HG mania are of the coattails-riding variety. These include obvious examples such as news media “reports” about the film’s box office take, self-fulfilling prophecies about its “hype,” tabloids gossiping about the lead actors’ private lives, and blogs like this one that (until now) time their related commentary to leverage the massive public interest out there.
And in case you were wondering whether “the media” are immune to this kind of opportunistic hype, I can assure you that they (meaning journalists like myself) are not. Witness the subject lines of this press release I received from Bluewater Comics earlier in the year:
Graphic novel review copies- “Hunger Games”, “Doctor Who” & John Saul
Of course I opened this email right away. A Hunger Games graphic novel? How did I miss this?
Well, I didn’t. It turns out that the comic in question is a nonfiction biography of author Suzanne Collins. Is it a title of merit? Possibly: I haven’t read it. But the way that its marketing grabbed my attention with its vague, even misleading, phrasing is what’s worth noting. That’s because it speaks to how geeks have their antennae in a constant state of full-alert where certain franchises are concerned.
In contrast to this example of a tangential text, I’d like to submit this thoughtful piece by Matthew Lee in which he praises the works of genre authors such as Garth Nix and Philip Reeve. Why is he doing this? Because he feels that the relevant fantasy and sci-fi novels are more deserving of film versions than The Hunger Games. Lee’s perspective is not quite that of an anti-fan but it does provide a nice strategy for dealing with any anti-fandoms in your midst: if you think a given fan object is “over-hyped,” great, but now it’s up to you to champion alternatives that would appeal to the same audience.
Making Text-to-text Connections
Last week the social media platform for movie nerds, Letterboxd, went public. And that’s a good thing because now you can check out Adam Cook’s list of “Deadly Games”-themed flicks. There are many such lists online, but I like Cook’s because it’s comprehensive and eclectic, and because Letterboxd’s presentation emphasizes the movie posters, which allows for some visual literacy by decoding any common elements
As one would expect, The Most Dangerous Game, a film I’ve always thought of in connection with The Hunger Games and whose source material also happens to be in the English curriculum, appears in the list. A B-movie such as Surviving the Game isn’t likely to be mentioned in any curricula, but I’m partial to it because it echoes the same sort of class consciousness, namely, the way the aristocracy preys upon those who are less powerful.
Notice how I place this very traditional approach last. That’s because it’s an obvious discursive strategy—one that fans and non-fans usually engage in without any prompting at all. Still, the trick is not simply to analyze everything through a compare-and-contrast lens, but wherever possible to use that strategy to shed light on the differences between media and their conventions. In the case of The Hunger Games, this might translate to:
- How does the third-person filmic POV capture the first-person narration of the novel? Is it successful in this respect? Moreover, how does it fare relative to what other film adaptations?
- Specifically, how successful are the cutaway scenes to episodes of which Katniss would have no direct knowledge? (Personally, I found one or two of these quite effective, e.g., President Snow chatting with Seneca Crane. But scenes such as the latter approving the design of the muttations to be waaay too corny. I also thought that the scenes of Gale pouting as he watched the Games on TV to be rather silly, but mostly because of how they were directed, not because they were included.)
- In what ways was the delivery of background exposition by means of TV coverage, instead of coming from Katniss (via a voice-over or in conversation), a form of effective storytelling that simultaneously amplified the theme of media controlling the economic, social, political, and emotional lives of Panem’s citizens?
Okay, so that’s all for now. Clearly someone more hard-working and observant than I am could start an entire blog devoted to media and media literacy issues that surface around The Hunger Games… and that’s before the second film has even started its pre-production phase.