A lot of the writing on the Internet about The Hunger Games is snark about its derivativeness (It's Series 7 with kids! It's the Minotaur with television! It's Marathon Man meets The Long Walk plus a girl protagonist, minus Stephen King! It's Battle Royale for people who hate subtitles!).
But if The Hunger Games seems familiar, that's because it raises questions that our culture needs and wants to explore again, about television, state sanctioned violence, teenage girls and audience perception. And at the heart of these questions is Katniss' struggle to be true to herself inside, even as she faces the two challenges of playing to an audience and fighting for her life.
The contrast between Katniss' interior state of mind and her exterior behavior are central to the first book in the series — and that's a big reason why I still fear for the Hunger Games film. Spoilers ahead...
I will never forget the epiphany I had when I began studying prose writing: Oh my god, I could just write down what the characters are thinking. This is stupefyingly obvious, but I'd spent four years trying to get that exact same information across — what the characters are thinking and feeling — in plays and screenplays and it was never that simple. Screenplays especially are about action, even when they seem to be about feelings. When someone is in love in the movies they act in love, they don't just think or feel in love.
It's this last idea that I found to be brilliantly examined in the novel. Katniss is hyper aware that she is not just fighting for her life, she is doing so while performing for an audience. Everything she does from the parade, to the televised interviews, to the actual fighting is constantly weighed in her mind. How will this play to the viewers? What is it that they want? How can she give them that? For a girl who has survived by trusting her instincts these questions present almost as much of a challenge as the other Tributes.
While some have complained that Katniss' calculating nature makes her off-putting, to me this difficulty is the very soul of the book. We live in a world where in the same year, Twitter is used to foment the Arab Spring, and it turns out that a popular lesbian blogger in Syria is a white guy from Georgia. The intersections of media, reality, perception and violence are very real in our world. Katniss' internal monologue about her calculations and considerations is this global conflict writ at the individual scale.
Critics are always talking about the interiority of novels. And it's true that interiority is also one of the things that most films lack. Yes, there are amazing character studies committed to celluloid that do their best to visualize what the inside of the human mind looks like. But this second group has a tendency to be indie or art films (Being John Malkovich, Pi, Mulholland Drive).
Meanwhile, The Hunger Games is an action film. Action films have their moments of surprise duplicitousness, often when a double agent or evil plot is revealed. But these reveals are all about using the lack of interiority, the extremely thin surface of most films, to show how the main character, and by extension the audience, can be tricked and beguiled by the that surface image.
The Hunger Games is all about how Katniss creates that surface image. She is performing the role of underdog and public darling of the Games. I'm sure the Performance Studies majors (they kept them in the floor above the screenwriters where I went to school) are having a field day with this single element of the story. In fact, I suspect The Hunger Games will be the primary lens through which the "public" behavior of teen girls is examined as they "perform" things like "sexiness," "social media profile management" and "public persona."
Which leads to the question, which performance will we, the real world audience, see on the movie screen? Will we see the performance that the Panem audience sees, without being privy to Katniss' motivations and internal struggles? Or will the filmmakers manage to capture the ambiguity of Katniss' own performance in Jennifer Lawrence's performance of Katniss? I'm not just worried that Katniss' depth and interiority may be lost to the surface and action of film — I'm also worried that we may all be subjected to a meaningless and painful voice-over. We all saw what happened with Blade Runner's attempt to let the audience in on a character's internal struggle.
There is hope of course. Lawrence is an excellent young actor, and the film language that involves mimicking "found footage" or reality footage, while keeping the film narrative itself distinct, has developed in leaps and bounds over the last decade. Perhaps most encouraging is author Suzanne Collins herself. She spent years as a television writer (Eureka's Castle, Clarissa Explains it All, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo) before she turned to prose. This experience seems to have help form Katniss's own complicated relationship with television and the separation between what is real and what is onscreen in the novel. Collins wrote the first draft of the screenplay, and she's hopefully come up with ways to both illustrate and illuminate Katniss's internal struggle.
I won't be seeing The Hunger Games on opening night, though I will see it soon after. I'm looking forward to seeing Katniss and her bow in action and the director's vision of a post-apocalyptic America. I'm excited about the clothes. And, fingers crossed, I'm hoping to see Katniss' internal struggle about engaging an audience while staying true to herself.