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Death by Media: The Hunger Games and Teen Authenticity (Part 2)
How to Enjoy Your Bloodsport With Clean Hands
Psssst… wanna know the most disappointing thing about the film adaptation of The Hunger Games?
It’s the audience.
And I mean that literally—I’m not referring to the target demographic, or the fan base, or any of that stuff… I mean those who sat all around me in the dark earlier this week.
To be clear, I’m not implying that I don’t thrill to visceral action scenes or root for the good guy as much as the next fellow. But there was something particularly chilling about the spontaneous applause that erupted when one of the teen tributes in the film was summarily dispatched. Oh, she was no saint: she’d just been threatening our hero, gloating about a previous death, and clearly enjoying every second of both.
So, yeah, a sigh of relief is in order when she’s out of the picture… but cheering?
No, I’m not claiming any moral high ground here, despite the temptation. Does this character, nasty as she is, have no mother, no little sister back home who will mourn her? Kind of a pointless question, really, because it can be applied to infinite examples of pop culture villains, henchmen, and “evil minions” who meet violent ends.
The reason I’m so disappointed is that as much as we feel horror at a future society being entertained by the demise of twelve-to-eighteen-year-olds, we’re pretty quick to get our—unexamined, unquestioned—kicks in much the same way; sure, it’s a fictional context while the characters who make up the TV audience in the novel/movie are enjoying “real” deaths. Important distinction. Granted.
And that’s why, again, the issue here is not a moral one. Rather, it concerns missing a key idea in the novel to the point where the real-life audience doesn’t get that it’s been positioned by the narrative much like the Capitol folks who groove to these gladiatorial contests. After all, they too root for certain favorites to survive after first being subjected to an artfully constructed “story.” While watching The Hunger Games, despite some cutaway scenes of dialogue between chief baddies President Snow and Seneca Crane, we’re not really meant to question the system very much. Actually I can be more precise here: we are to view the system, if we view it at all, as a product of evil mustache-twirlers (Wes Bentley literally rubs his hands together as he relishes the mayhem he’s about to unleash) who are in fact merely perpetuators of it. The novel’s consideration of class as it relates to the Avox servant girl? Completely gone, as is Katniss’s incipient class consciousness. Similarly, we are not to think of the exaggeratedly cruel “Career” tributes as anything more than pure Other, not as products (and therefore victims) of the same diseased socio-political culture that invented the Games in the first place. The bottom line, then, is that they can die, and we can clap, and please pass the popcorn.
Does the film therefore commit the age-old hypocritical move—which is so common that I’m admittedly a bit of a killjoy for calling attention to it—of pretending to condemn the very thing that it exploits? I’m not so sure. But you might want to throw this open to discussion, perhaps even injecting a current events topic into the mix to stimulate some text-to-world connections: the just-handed-down punishment of the New Orleans Saints for issuing bounties on opposing players. That is, is this the same NFL that lends its marketing seal of approval to DVD’s that exist only to celebrate the “bone-jarring blasts” from “crushers seeking to ‘KO the quarterback’”? No, I’m not suggesting that these cases are exactly analogous… just my dismay that a strength of Collins’s original work seems to have been so mitigated by the film that we have, somehow, arrived at the far shore.
Or am I being too charitable toward the novel? One might argue that Collins herself, not the film (which she co-scripted), is already guilty of stacking the deck in favor of Katniss Everdeen’s untouchability on moral grounds. However, the film goes way beyond this by (and, hey, this might qualify as a spoiler, vague as it is) making sure that she never even kills in rage. For those of you who have read the book, you’ll know that I’m referring to a key scene… a scene that happens to be staged very differently in the film, with the result that Katniss is almost completely whitewashed as a character. (By the way, I suspect this is one reason so many people prefer Battle Royale, which doesn’t try to make its nihilism palatable or convince you that it’s possible to survive a gladiatorial contest without killing others in turn.)
It may seem like I’m dwelling on a relatively small narrative point, or simply reproaching the inevitable result of adapting a nuanced novel into Hollywood product (the specifics of which I’ll address in a separate “Media Read” piece)…
…but to omit an element like teenage anger? And what’s more, destructive anger—not just impolite anger as in the famous shooting-the-apple scene (which happens to be done quite effectively in the film), but the sort of seeing-red vengefulness that is both fairly commonplace and terrible to behold—?
Well, isn’t there something a tad… I don’t know… inauthentic about that?
Extreme Makeover: Human Soul Edition
As with any TV show, the fictional “Hunger Games” event relies on sponsors. The only difference is that here the sponsors support the individual competitors since the event itself is state-subsidized. In fact, the character-motivation device is pretty straightforward: Get sponsors, or, um, die.
Yet in the rush to win the approval of potential sponsors, Katniss undergoes a slow chipping-away of her authentic self. At every step her behavior and her appearance are modified for the audience’s benefit. As a result, she’s infantilized, sexualized, and relentlessly gendered:
Without heels, you can see my true stature. I look, very simply, like a girl. A young one. Fourteen at the most. Innocent. Harmless. Yes, it is shocking that Cinna [her stylist] has pulled this off… This is a very calculated look. Nothing Cinna designs is arbitrary.
Or consider this, a passage with some of the strongest writing in a novel that’s full of strong writing:
After dinner we watch the replay in the sitting room… And there I am, blushing and confused, made beautiful by Cinna’s hands, desirable by Peeta’s confession, tragic by circumstance, and by all accounts, unforgettable.
In a far creepier yet nonetheless nicely understated moment Katniss recounts how the Capitol wanted to alter her surgically to give her more curves until her team objected; instead, “padding” is added to her outfit as a “compromise.” Still, she is medically tweaked, if only at the epidermal level, in order to be more camera-ready.
Not only are the scars from the arena gone, but those accumulated over years of hunting have vanished without a trace.
And while the film does do a nice job of showing the beauty technicians working over the teen as if detailing a car, it conspicuously leaves out the issue of alteration. In doing this it also omits the crucial issue of inauthenticity and body image, especially as it relates to how young women are portrayed in the mass media. By “inauthenticity” I mean that with the removal of all surface scars, our protagonist’s past, her social class (which necessitated her hunting), and indeed her identity (she thinks of herself as a hunter) are also, in essence, excised.
Now, we all know that magazine designers at times “touch up” their cover models electronically, and even when that’s not done, the sheer amount of “construction” that goes into such images—from hair and makeup, to lighting and iconography—is staggering. In fact, just yesterday, film star Cate Blanchett made “news” by deciding to appear on a cover with her face not retouched by a computer.
But can Jennifer Lawrence, half Blanchett’s age and just starting out her career as a Hollywood lead, “afford” to ignore it when the marketplace demands she glam herself up?
Again, we come back to the question that started off this piece—what would Katniss think?
Specifically, what would she make of this month’s Glamour, which features Lawrence in a traditional chest-thrust-out pinup pose?
It’s by asking questions like this that, again, The Hunger Games—as a print text, a moving image text, and a phenomenon that encompasses both of these and so much more besides—can serve as a powerful tool in any number of media literacy lessons. For example, a good place to start might involve sticking with magazine covers. As a vivid illustration of the concept of target audience as well as the power of media producers to remake the same subject according to different purposes, you might want to have students compare and contrast different magazine covers with Lawrence (there’s no shortage, believe me). Here, in what might make for a nice juxtaposition with the above, is the young actor on the cover of Seventeen.
Oh, and if you’re looking for resources to help with the deconstruction/analysis of magazine covers, a vast array of these—many of them perfectly suited to school librarians—can be found on the ever-reliable Media Literacy Clearinghouse. And a personal favorite in terms of an interactive tool is the Media Education Lab’s My Pop Studio, where students can contrast a “Real Girl” with a “Magazine Girl.”
But why stop with magazine covers? The novel’s recurring emphasis on broadcast interviews—a theme that migrates extremely well into the film text (the live audience seems to respond like a laugh track)—provides ample opportunities to explore the conventions, biases, and purposes of “fluff”-filled on-air Q&A’s of the type shown below. The trick, I would think, is to keep returning to a close-reading of the relevant passages from the novel; then you wouldn’t be undercutting fans’ understandable excitement around the film’s release, or around the overall cultural explosion that The Hunger Games is now experiencing, but leveraging the canon text itself and their expert knowledge of it. In short, that’s how you help promulgate the growth of a critical fandom.
All right, I see that this might be a nice place to break. I promise I’ll try to finish this up with a Part 3 but, hey, is it my fault that The Hunger Games is so loaded with media literacy goodness?
About Peter Gutierrez
A former middle school teacher, Peter Gutierrez has spent the past 20 years developing curriculum as well as working in, and writing about, various branches of pop culture. You can sample way too many of his thoughts about media and media literacy via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez
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