NYT: Katniss Everdeen, A Radical Female Hero From Dystopia

Note: This started off as a simple response to an interesting New York Times article, but quickly took on a life of its own as a full review.

New York Times, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, “A Radical Female Hero From Dystopia

I’m pretty sure the film alone does not support the level of critical thought (the reviewers confirm this by referencing the books frequently) given it in this article, but this is an interesting analysis of Katniss Everdeen’s character as a modern, popular heroine. I think it would make the conversation regarding her femininity even more interesting to address that in the books she is largely taught what she knows and how she acts by her father. It really bothered me that there was no explanation for her skills and what she knows in the film – I also thought the fact that the leather jacket she covets was her father’s was a touching scrap of information (among so many others) sadly missing from the adaptation.

While I wasn’t looking for an exact replication of the novel on-screen (and was aware as soon as they announced the adaptation that a first-person narrative was a near-impossibility), I maintain that what was presented in the film was largely a hollowed-out version of an extremely rich and emotional story. We don’t get any exposition or emotionally-relevant content about WHY Katniss, in a world where weapons are outlawed, food is supposedly scarce, and things are so rough that revolution foments, she has preternatural archery abilities, knows how to carve a bow, has a nice leather coat, knows about deadly berries, or looks more vaguely disappointed than HUNGRY. It just doesn’t make any sense in context and unfortunately turns her from a HUMAN character into a SUPER HUMAN character, rendering the dramatic weight of her transformation from “poor, hungry girl” to “symbol of revolution” inert; in the film it is made to seem as though she is already a hero waiting for opportunity, as opposed to a person upon whom the mantle of “hero” is thrust.

Further, key scenes, robbed of emotional context, are cheap and opportunistic. Specifically, I am referring to the much adored Rue death scene. In the book, the scene fills your heart with lead because in her tracker-jacker stupor Katniss mistakes Rue for Primrose, and upon Katniss’s recovery, Rue tells her own tragic tale. These aren’t first-person narration moments, but they are completely missing from the film. We are given ridiculous, unnecessarily shoe-horned exposition about genetically-modified tracker-jackers, but we can’t be given ANYTHING about Rue as a character? They cheaply introduce her in the film as a young lamb sent to slaughter and the emotional weight of her death is cheap, in my opinion. It’s a sucker-punch on film, nothing more.

Back to the main point though, I think Katniss being taught what she knows by her father enriches the complexity of her character as a modern heroine and brings a new facet to the discussion of gender identity. It’s also interesting to note (with regards to the idea of the “gendered hero”) Gale’s role in all of this. Gale (interestingly, often a female’s name) plays essentially the same role within his family as Katniss, is equipped with the same skills, etc., but what if the situation were reversed and HE volunteered for the games and Katniss stayed behind in the district? Would The Hunger Games be as remarkable and appreciated a story by half? Or would it be dismissed out-of-hand as embracing the traditional hero and patriarchy?

All of this is not to say the film adaptation was not a worthwhile attempt. It is extremely interesting for a variety of reasons, but principally because it seems almost impossible to discuss objectively on its own merits. Managed by a mediocre director with the backing of a mediocre studio, with complex, definitely R-rated, subversive material molded into a marketable, PG-13 romp-for-all-ages, it’s easy to come at this film with claws ready and eyes gleaming. All adaptations are, by their nature, altered, but, to elaborate… Fans of the novels see The Hunger Games film and their perspectives and knowledge are informed by what they’ve read, so they may not even realize what’s missing from this adaptation without really stepping back from it and looking at it as a movie unto itself. And non-fans seeing this story for the first time are given a tale so absolute in its moral simplicity and middle-of-the-road in its presentation that it’s difficult to find seriously offensive fault. The onus in the case of the non-initiated isn’t on the new-comers, but given the cultural ubiquity of the books at this point, as I said, I think it’s difficult to address this film in analytic discussion without knowledge of the source material.

So, I guess my problems with the film stems from disappointment in it as an adaptation, and perhaps I’m being too critical, but given the influence the story has garnered in popular culture, I don’t think it’s entirely ridiculous to look at the film with a critical eye. In my opinion, treating adaptations in this manner is the only way to ensure quality from Hollywood, and despite its semi-progressive bones, I don’t think this film should get a free pass.

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