A figure named Death dressed in black standing in front of the sea. A woman shot through her glasses with blood pouring down her face. A man huffing gas while stroking a garment made of blue velvet. These images—all iconic moments from watershed films—first presented themselves to me during my adolescence as I intensely perused a 1999 volume titled Entertainment Weekly’s 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. Most cinephiles surely have a comparable story, a moment when the local multiplex started to take a backseat to the larger scope of a cinematic past that seemed far more mysterious than anything Anakin Skywalker and the gang were getting into.
Battle Royale (#1–10 of 3)
Of the many surprisingly poignant moments in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the most jarring comes courtesy of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the über-styled PR puppet who serves the corrupt Capitol, and is tasked, like many, to coddle the oppressed, dystopian Districts of Panem, distracting them from the horrors that pervade their daily lives. (Spoiler alert: the Capitol annually sends the Districts’ youth to compete in televised, fight-to-the-death bloodsport.) After the unprecedented announcement that the latest Hunger Games will force two past winners, or “victors,” from each District into a deathtrap-filled arena, Effie, the irrepressible fraud whose job includes gleefully declaring which males and females will fight, gets mildly choked up, her meticulous mascara slightly running.
Of course, in this moment, Effie is reading the names of the chosen victors from District 12, who include co-protagonists, ostensible lovebirds, and last year’s winners, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a tailored pair Effie regards as the crowd-pleasing achievement of her career. But just as Catching Fire never feels like it’s merely peddling a Chosen One narrative (or, worse, an unfounded Special Girl saga a la Stephenie Meyer’s oeuvre), Effie’s break in character seems less rooted in personal bias than the growing, common notion that something’s epically off in Panem. Katniss’s concocted act of defiance in the last film, wherein she and Peeta threatened suicide in favor of killing each other, didn’t just yield a dual triumph, but the start of an uprising. And even Effie, a picture of privileged, blinder-wearing, Capitol hypocrisy, is being forced to feel—to truly face her world’s radical injustices.
Typically, the main element missing in film adaptations of novels—specifically those written in the first person, such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games—is the inevitable intimacy we develop with the story’s narrator, which we take for granted in our experience of the text and only notice when experiencing the same story without such privileged access. When a character’s most private thoughts are perpetually available to the reader, the resulting experience is at once more sensual and more narrow than its cinematic counterpart, our window to the world only as large as a single narrator’s experiences, revelations, and prejudices. We know, for example, when Katniss Everdeen, the spunky female protagonist of The Hunger Games, is faking a reaction or hiding an emotion, not telling a particular story out loud even when its implications are at the forefront of her mind. And all of this is difficult to properly translate to the screen, despite Jennifer Lawrence’s best efforts here in Gary Ross’s adaptation. The experience of the film is more closely aligned to that of reality television, an entertainment predicated on our desire to know people intimately just by watching them live their lives in front of a camera, regardless of how much of the material is scripted, staged, or simply the result of a series of moments strung together in montage while in actuality having nothing to do with one another. If the experience of reading Collins’s novel is one of being inside a horrifyingly brutal reality television show, the experience the film adaptation offers is one more akin to watching one, and its success depends on our awareness of this relatively new medium as well as our willingness to critique it.