Fangirl Fridays: Katniss Everdeen, The Girl On Fire

Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed in the UK edition of The Hunger Games

Welcome to the third and final entry in Hunger Games Week on the blog. I’m sure you all saw this particular post coming – really, is it any surprise that my favorite female character is the trilogy‘s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen herself? After all the time we spend in her head, after everything we see her do, after everything she goes through, it’s hard not to feel a deep and abiding sympathy for her.

Of course, feeling sympathy for Katniss isn’t the same as liking her, and I know that a lot of people don’t – or, at least, they feel that she’s deeply flawed, particularly as the series goes on. To be honest, I agree: she is deeply flawed. She has a serious inferiority complex. She breaks down, here and there, under the pressure she faces, the weight that’s placed on her shoulders from the very beginning and only grows as time goes on. Her confused feelings for Gale and Peeta throw a seemingly inappropriate romantic subplot into the midst of a long, hard fight against an oppressive government and a desperate struggle to survive in a world gone to shit. Too often, she is caught up in the plans of others, in the great crashing waves of history, rather than acting on her own initiative and her own behalf.

And here’s what we’re all forgetting: Katniss Everdeen is a teenage girl.

She’s a teenage girl, for crying out loud! She’s allowed to be silly! She’s allowed to be distracted by boys! She’s allowed to fall short of the impossible goals that have been placed before her! For crying out loud: could you even survive all the crap she goes through? Because I know I couldn’t. I’ve folded in the face of a hell of a lot less. And yes, I’ve picked myself up again and yes, I’ve grown stronger, but I’m also something like a decade older than Katniss and I haven’t been through half the crap she has as of the start of the first book. So, yes, I forgive Katniss her flaws. I forgive her the occasional teenage girl moment. In point of fact, as with Rose Red, I love her not in spite of her flaws, but because of them.

Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence: flawed, but not AS flawed.

In fact, if I have one complaint about Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, it’s this: the film version of Katniss doesn’t seem to have those moments. She’s almost too strong, too capable, too aloof, too stoic. We see her suffer, of course – physically, mentally, emotionally. We see her falter and fail. But where is the girl who forgot herself on stage with Caesar Flickerman, twirling and giggling in her dress and forgetting, just for a moment (and a moment she clearly regretted later), that she had been sent far from home to suffer and die to sate the Capitol’s bloodlust – that every last one of them had? Of course, not all of this can be placed on Lawrence’s shoulders: as I said on Monday, the movie doesn’t put us in Katniss’s head. We don’t hear her thoughts. We don’t see the doubts and insecurities she works so hard to keep hidden from view. And so Lawrence’s portrayal seems to fall short. I still think she embodies Katniss in many ways – but, if anything, she comes off as perhaps too strong. (It is, of course, not fair to blame Lawrence for the lack of giddiness in Katniss’s interview with Caesar Flickerman, either – the scene was clearly just not written to accommodate giddiness or gaiety. The writers and director chose to go in another direction. It’s not a bad direction, but I do feel something is lost.)

But I already reviewed the movie, so let’s get back to Katniss herself, particularly as she’s portrayed in the trilogy as a whole. You know, as I look back on my experience with the books, I can’t help but compare Katniss to other figures central to wars and revolutions and crises throughout history. George Washington springs to mind, of course. Thomas Jefferson, too. Abraham Lincoln. The Roman hero Cincinnatus. One might even draw certain parallels with Joan of Arc. We lionize these people. We make them larger than life. We tell grand, sweeping, epic stories about their deeds. But, in the end, they were simply people. They, too, had deep flaws. In some cases, a close historical reading reveals those flaws; in others, they are lost to time. But all of them, I promise you, were human.

The world will be watching. The world will always be watching.

Katniss Everdeen is much the same way. The generations that follow the revolution in Panem will undoubtedly lionize her, at least to some degree. Certainly they will paint her as a larger than life figure. The finer details of her life, of everything she experienced, of everything she suffered, will be washed away by the relentless tides of history. But we aren’t reading the future history of Panem. We aren’t reading a biography of Katniss Everdeen, the Girl On Fire, the Mockingjay, the fearless leader of the revolution. We aren’t even reading Katniss’s own memoirs – not really. We’re following her present. We’re living her life, moment by moment, as she faces impossible odds, suffers terrible losses, grapples with her own feelings and her own doubts. And that perspective is amazing. That perspective is precious. That is a perspective we so rarely see in actual history. Can you imagine what any historian would give to crack open Abraham Lincoln’s brain and see what he was actually thinking at any given time? Or Washington’s? Or good old Joan’s? In many cases, of course, we have memoirs, we have letters, we have records of conversations…but it’s not the same as actually getting into someone’s head, is it? Even the most impromptu conversation is full of spur-of-the-moment editing and self-censorship. Katniss doesn’t get to edit her thoughts and feelings…and, yes, she comes off just a little worse for it.

One of the film’s taglines is this: The world will be watching. It really will. In truth, Katniss is paraded before two worlds: her world of Panem, and our world that could one day change into something very much like it. To many of the readers of our world, she falls short. To the people of Panem, who cannot see her innermost thoughts, she is a hero, a symbol, something more than a mere girl – or, depending on their particular perspectives, a complete and utter enigma, particularly in light of her actions at the end of the war. Sitting outside of Katniss’s world, we privileged readers see into the very core of her experience. We know better. We know that she’s just a teenage girl.

Too often, we forget that bravery isn’t the absence of fear and doubt – it’s the ability to overcome it, or at least to live with it while you do what must be done. And heroism? We don’t get to define that for ourselves. Others will decide whether or not we’re heroic, and those of us who end up with that label may very well feel unworthy of it. We may be unworthy of it. But, in the end, we don’t get to make that call. Neither does Katniss. The Hunger Games and its sequels show us a heroine from her own perspective. In that, the books succeed brilliantly, and I can only hope that the movies ultimately do so as well. Because I don’t love Katniss Everdeen because she’s a hero – I love her because she’s a human being who does the best she can with what she’s handed, who tries to do whatever good she can in the time that she’s been given. She doesn’t always succeed. But she tries. And that’s what counts. That’s what ultimately leads her to play a central part in the creation of a new future for all of Panem.

So try not to be too harsh on poor Katniss, alright? She did her best. That’s all any of us can do.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

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Media Mondays: The Hunger Games

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Welcome to Hunger Games week on the blog. In honor of the film’s release, I’ll be posting about The Hunger Games and related matters in every major post this week – Media Mondays, Writing Wednesdays, and Fangirl Fridays. Today’s post is all about the movie itself – how it held up compared to the original book, how well it stands up on its own, and my assorted and sundry thoughts. For the first few paragraphs, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, but later on I’ll be discussing specific details.

For those of you who haven’t yet read the book, here’s a summary: Years from now, in the wake of climate shifts and major turmoil, North America has been reinvented as Panem, a highly stratified and oppressive society ruled from a city known simply as the Capitol. Nearly a century prior to the events of the book, the thirteen geographic districts that lie outside the Capitol rose up in rebellion. In the course of the war, District 13 was wiped off the map, and the Capitol successfully cracked down on all the rest. As punishment for the rebellion, the Capitol demands tributes from each district every year – one boy and one girl, selected at random (though others can volunteer to take their places) – who are taken into the Capitol itself for parades and pageantry before they are at last thrown into a vast arena where they must fight to the death in a massive televised event. The last tribute standing wins a lifetime of wealth and comfort, and their home district receives extra food and supplies for the following year. These are the Hunger Games.

The book – and its sequels – follow Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl from District 12, which is chiefly responsible for Panem’s coal supplies. In the seventy-fourth year of the Hunger Games, Katniss’s sister Primrose is, by sheer chance, selected as tribute, and Katniss immediately volunteers to save Prim from the Games. What follows is quite possibly one of the harrowing young adult novels I’ve ever read, and a frightening and frequently heartbreaking portrayal of a dystopian future. The story and the world it inhabits are deepened by frequent references to Greco-Roman mythology and history: from the very concept of the tributes (which brings the legend of Theseus to mind) to the frequent use of Roman names, the influence of Roman culture on the nation of Panem (the name itself not only a corruption, presumably, of “Pan-America,” but also a sly reference to the Latin phrase panem et circenses, commonly translated today as “bread and circuses“) is crystal clear. The influence is even more pronounced in the world of the film – but I’ll get to that.

Seriously, Entertainment Weekly?

I have to admit that I was extremely nervous when the film was first announced, and more so when I saw the initial photos of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen – heavily airbrushed and altered, until Lawrence was barely recognizable as herself, let alone poor, unfortunate Katniss – published in Entertainment Weekly. The various subsequent interviews with the cast and crew, coupled with the initial trailers, laid many of those fears to rest. The first few minutes of the film destroyed those fears completely. Jennifer Lawrence embodies Katniss, and the rest of the cast is at least serviceable, if not always superb. (Young Amandla Stenberg is the perfect Rue. Liam Hemsworth is a great Gale, even if we don’t see much of him and the brief glimpses we do get are somewhat overwrought. Elizabeth Banks feels a bit underused as Effie Trinket. And if I keep going, I’ll be at this all day.) District 12 and the Capitol are captured vividly. The film hits many of the major points of the book, and in some places, surpasses it.

That said, it is very, very difficult for a film to capture a novel in its entirety – between limited budgets, limited running times, and the need to draw in and entertain complete newcomers as well as existing fans, the transition from page to screen can be very rough indeed. The Hunger Games does show some signs of this strain. The core of my concerns with the film can be summed up in Mightygodking‘s one-sentence review. The book benefits from the fact that it’s written in the first person. We remain firmly ensconced in Katniss’s head. We see what she’s thinking at all times. The film doesn’t give us that internal monologue, and so, at times, Katniss is inscrutable, and her poor acting and awkward moments come off as failures on Jennifer Lawrence’s part when – in fact – she stays completely true to the character.

As a fan of the books, I enjoyed the film immensely, but I must also concede that it’s an incomplete adaptation in places, and my knowledge of the book may be filling in some serious gaps in the story as conveyed in the movie. I would still recommend the film to viewers who have not yet read the original books – but I would also heartily recommend that they read the books as soon as possible.

Okay. That's more like it.

Let’s look at a few of the specifics. WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW.

First, let’s look at one of the central elements of the books: the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta Mellark (her fellow District 12 tribute) and Gale Hawthorne (Katniss’s best friend and partner in hunting and gathering outside District 12’s boundary). Other reviewers have noted that these relationships fall a bit flat and feel a bit hollow, and I have to concede the point – with a caveat: the fact of the matter is that this love triangle isn’t really developed in the first book. It takes Katniss a long time to come to terms with her feelings for both young men – to recognize that she has those feelings at all. In the first book, she is driven first by her need to survive the Games and return to her family; later, she develops some sympathy toward Peeta, and when the organizers of the Games announce a change in the rules which will allow them both to survive, she becomes determined to save his life as well. While it’s virtually impossible not to read between the lines and take note of Katniss’s growing romantic feelings toward Peeta, they’re really not a huge part of the events of The Hunger Games itself. And, frankly, while the love triangle is certainly important, it’s not really the main thrust of any of the books.

The movie makes some missteps here. First, and most notably, a lot of weight is placed on the love triangle, and it doesn’t come off well. Every time Katniss grows close to Peeta, we flash back to District 12, where Gale is staring moodily at the television, watching them getting cozy in the midst of the Games. The audience at the showing I attended laughed every time this happened, no matter what else was going on or what had just occurred. It caused some serious mood dissonance and really took me out of the world of the film.

Second, as I noted earlier, we don’t really get to see into Katniss’s head here. Jennifer Lawrence is playing the character as she was in the books. Fans of the books will undoubtedly pick up on this. Newcomers will not. They’ll see a Katniss who’s acting awkward and cold and strange for no apparent reason. The film does not convey her inner conflict, her true feelings, her innermost thoughts at all. And in that, it fails, and the failure is most notable whenever the love triangle comes into play.

Katniss’s relationship with Peeta – and the way that relationship develops over the course of the Games, and more importantly the things Katniss does to promote that relationship to the Games’ audience – is a vitally important plot point. It had to be included, one way or another. But by shoehorning in Gale’s reactions, by failing to show us what’s actually going on, the film fell short. It was a pretty damn great literal adaptation, but we needed more than a literal adaptation. We needed to see the spirit of the books captured on film. And the movie hasn’t done that – not entirely.

The greatest failure of the movie, however, is this: it fails to convey just how dire the situation in Panem is, and what precisely the Games mean. The movie doesn’t explain that the districts, through their tributes, are literally competing for their survival (or at least a better chance at survival in the coming year) – the true reason for the name “Hunger Games”. The movie spends so much time in the Capitol, with all its garish colors and ostentatious glory, that we don’t even really see how bad the situation in District 12 is, let alone the situation in the rest of Panem. The film shows us the Capitol’s pageantry and cruelty in spades, but it doesn’t go far enough. The moments and the conversations that lay out the history and the present status of Panem simply aren’t there.

Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg - honestly one of the best parts of the film.

That said, there were some absolutely fantastic moments in the film. The death of the youngest tribute, Rue, who had by that time teamed up with Katniss in the arena, is particularly moving. I have to confess that I didn’t really cry at that scene when I read it in the original book. I got a little sniffly, but for some reason my imagination failed to capture the full poignancy of the scene. When it happened in the movie, I broke down sobbing. When, in the movie, the image of Rue lying in a meadow, dead and covered in the flowers Katniss has gathered, prompted open rebellion in District 11 (Rue’s home district, and Panem’s agricultural center), I just started crying even harder. This is a scene we don’t see in the book – District 11 doesn’t rebel at Rue’s death, at least not right away. Instead, they send Katniss a gift (something that sponsors outside the arena can do, but at great cost): a loaf of bread that she recognizes as coming from District 11 because of an earlier, seemingly irrelevant scene in the book. Because that scene, too, was removed from the movie, the riot is a far more effective turn of events…and, honestly, it heightens Katniss’s isolation from her world. She has no idea what she’s done, what effect her actions have had. She doesn’t realize that she is the tipping point for a possible revolution, that Panem’s President and the people who run her society are genuinely afraid of her. And that’s precisely as it should be.

And, while we lose Katniss’s voice, we gain new and truly fascinating perspectives. In a significant subplot, we follow Seneca Crane, the man in charge of the Hunger Games, as he discusses them, organizes them, alters them, and deals with the demands of his audience as well as the demands of those in power, personified in Panem’s President Snow. At the end, Seneca fails to contain the force he has unleashed. He has failed to counter Katniss’s final gambit, the move that breaks the Games themselves. And at the very end of his story, we see him escorted into a room, locked in, and left alone with a dish full of poisonous berries. It’s a perfect moment. It recalls the death of Socrates, and thus, a moment that was only mentioned in passing in the books – and not even in The Hunger Games itself – is given new weight and tied in perfectly with Panem’s Greco-Roman-themed society.

In conclusion, I would recommend the film. I don’t think it’s completely impossible for a newcomer to follow: to the contrary, I think a newcomer could follow it quite well. The changes from the book are largely necessary, and serve to streamline the story. It’s a good movie, any way you slice it. Hopefully it will bring a lot of new fans to the books. And, as I said, as one of the series’ existing fans, I loved the movie. It brought many of the book’s most compelling moments to life, and it offered some very nice bonuses to loyal fans. But it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t complete. See the movie – but make sure you read the books. Trust me. They’re worth it.