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two movies, because Lionsgate is a business that wants to make money. When a single short book gets made into two movies, it’s often more interesting to see what they left out. A moment like this:
I’m rising to my feet when a woman throws open the door. She wears a bright turquoise silk robe embroidered with exotic birds. Her magenta hair’s fluffed up like a cloud and decorated with gilded butterflies. Grease from the half-eaten sausage she’s holding smears her lipstick. The expression on her face says she recognizes me. She opens her mouth to call for help.
That is a sequence you might call cinematic. Every sentence like an individual shot from a sequence, maybe shot in slow-motion to heighten the tension. The door, opening; the silk robe, shimmering with birds; the crazy hair, those butterflies; the grease, smearing; the woman’s expression, shifting; her mouth, opening; Katniss, unslinging her bow and firing an arrow; the woman, dead.
And yet, that scene is nowhere in the nominally cinematic
. The movie is too gray for bright turquoise, too antiseptic for half-eaten sausage grease, too offensively tasteful to let national treasure Jennifer Lawrence shoot an unarmed woman through the heart.
is actually a decent movie, especially when you grade on the curve of PG-13 blockbusters. But the movie can’t compare to its source material.
is a towering achievement, a brilliant conclusion to a popular narrative that attacks its own popularity, a dark and sad and funny and above all
What strikes you most of all, when you read
, is Collins’ absolute clarity of purpose. We are used to endings that stumble, desperate for catharsis, overstuffed with final-act hyperbole. Collins refuses catharsis, sidesteps hyperbole. There is an entire war fought in
, but our lead character experiences it from a distance. When Katniss
joins the fight, no action she takes ever proves especially meaningful for her revolution.
is a book that does not believe in heroes — a book, actually, that is about how most popular notions of “heroism” are constructed by powerful people and marketed to less powerful people. Katniss is at her most heroic when she is being filmed: She wants to be a soldier, but her real skill lies in marketing.
To be fair, Katniss tries to perform heroic acts, with uniformly neutral or negative effect. She fires an exploding arrow at enemy planes only after those planes destroy a hospital full of cute refugee children. She leads her squad on a suicide mission, and most of them die, and she never completes the mission. She convinces her allies not to kill everyone in District 2 — to give the citizens and noncombatants an opportunity to live — and gives a passionate speech about how everyone in all the Districts should unite against their common enemy. It is a beautiful speech. When she’s done, this happens:
My words hang in the air. I look to the screen, hoping to see them recording some wave of reconciliation going through the crowd. Instead I watch myself get shot on television.
Hold on that line, because it’s funny, and weird, and it gets back to what I’m talking about with Collins’ clarity of purpose. The
origin story is etched in media history: Collins, flipping channels between some dumb reality competition show and our dumb news networks covering one Middle East war or other. There have been dystopian media satires before, but
plays around specifically with the media ideas of our reality TV show moment: fame, and the Constructed Persona vs. the Actual Person, and the weirdness of how some people love reality TV because it’s real and some people love reality TV because it isn’t. “I watch myself get shot on television.” Like everything Katniss says, it’s so straightforward, so
Jennifer Lawrence never got to play that side of Katniss. Actually, it’s a revelation to reread
movies, and remember that Katniss is sarcastic, angry, and confused. Emotional, too. Typical line from
: “I cross some line into hysteria and there’s a needle in my arm and the world slips away.” Katniss is a 17-year-old who has lived her whole life under a repressive regime. She has spent several days of the past year inside two different arenas full of people whose only goal in life is killing her. In
, she finds herself in a last refuge full of people who want to use her and then dispose of her.
So this line is meaningful in ways that go deeper than the usual teen-angst cynicism: “I hate them. But of course, I hate almost everybody now. Myself more than anyone.” Hopelessness, nihilism, self-loathing — all this plus a weird sense of humor. When you read
, you realize that Katniss has less in common with Movie-Katniss than with another weird teenaged loner embroiled in a fatal underclass uprising: she’s Winona Ryder in
would never get made today. You hear this all the time.
is a movie about kids killing kids. It is hilarious.
is a movie about kids killing kids. That first film in the series is dull as a plastic spoon, but that dullness serves a point. It lets the filmmakers pretend they are treating sensitive material sensitively. There’s a moment in
when Katniss, walking the streets of the Capitol undercover, spots a little girl in a yellow coat. You think that little girl might recognize her. The movie recreates this scene. But then some rebels attack, and everyone starts shooting at everyone, and guess what moment the movie
Another wave of bullets slices across the chest of her yellow coat, staining it with red, knocking the girl onto her back.
is a PG-13 movie, and PG-13 movies don’t kill cute little girls, and they certainly don’t show crimson red blood staining her beautiful yellow coat. But blood is important. Certainly, blood is important to Collins. She mentions it frequently: blood on uniforms, blood on tiles, blood on white muttation skin.
And let’s be clear: Blood onscreen also looks awesome. But just because it looks awesome doesn’t mean it
, with our “heroes” blowing men to pieces until they get blown to pieces, every bullet exploding from blood squibs rigged on the front and back of the actors’ bodies. You think of Kinji Fukasaku’s
every streetfight mad waves of blood and viscera crashing like waves on a disappearing beach. You think, for that matter, of Fukasaku’s
, another movie about kids killing kids for the entertainment of the masses, where the hero’s best friend gets his head blown off in the first reel.
. It’s not everyone’s job to know about every weird awesome cult work of fiction. But I bet she would dig the movie.
. There’s a beautiful and terrifying paragraph on page 207, when Katniss watches her forces — the good guys, remember — destroy a mountain refuge:
I imagine the hell inside the mountain. Sirens wailing. Lights flickering into darkness. Stone dust choking the air. The shrieks of panicked, trapped beings stumbling madly for a way out, only to find the entrances, the launchpad, the ventilation shafts themselves clogged with earth and rock trying to force its way in. Live wires flung free, fires breaking out, rubble making a familiar path a maze. People slamming, shoving, scrambling like ants as the hill presses in, threatening to crush their fragile shells.
And that’s the rare sequence without explicit gore. Later, as Katniss wanders the streets of the Capitol, we get this chestnut:
A pod’s activated ahead of us, releasing a gush of steam that parboils everyone in its path, leaving the victims intestine-pink and very dead.
. And there’s that weird wit in that last line: Not dead, but “very dead.” That paragraph continues:
There’s nothing to do but move forward, killing whoever comes into our path. Screaming people, bleeding people, dead people everywhere. As we reach the next corner, the entire block ahead of us lights up with a rich purple glow. We backpedal, hunker down in a stairwell, and squint into the light. Something’s happening to those illuminated by it. They’re assaulted by… what? A sound? A wave? A laser? Weapons fall from their hands, fingers clutch their faces, as blood sprays from all visible orifices— eyes, noses, mouths, ears. In less than a minute, everyone’s dead and the glow vanishes. I grit my teeth and run, leaping over the bodies, feet slipping in the gore. The wind whips the snow into blinding swirls but doesn’t block out the sound of another wave of boots headed our way.
Madness! Madness! Here is how good Collins is at what she is doing: On page 341 of the third book in a dystopian fantasy, nominally written for a teenaged audience, she gives us a sequence that can only really feel like something from a World War I memoir, or a Russian novel, or a Vietnam movie: The kind of story that is ultimately about pointlessness, set in a conflict with no clear moral or obvious happy-ending narrative. And Collins makes this sequence exciting, and terrifying.
. PG-13 movies can’t do a scene like this, which is fine, but maybe some stories shouldn’t be PG-13.
I get it, though. It’s hard. How many filmmakers can create a movie that is simultaneously self-indulgent silly and completely morally serious? How many filmmakers would include that scene of Katniss killing a random bystander — an unarmed citizen of the Capitol — and get at the snapshot horror of how Collins renders that scene, all those little details Katniss notices of the woman she’s about to kill? And how many filmmakers could include that scene,
the sequence a little later, when Katniss watches the Capitol propaganda program “do a tragic tribute to the woman lying where we left her, with my arrow still in her heart. Someone has redone her makeup for the cameras.”
Check that: The Capitol found a corpse with an arrow in it, and sent a makeup team to make that corpse look prettier. Who could pull off a scene like that, and get at how it’s funny
scary, and also connect it to the larger idea behind
: that so much of what we think of as “reality” is controlled? At one point in
, someone tells Katniss: “You’re going to be the best-dressed rebel in history.” That sounds like a line from a David Simon show — muttered with rueful self-awareness, by a cop or a criminal or a politician or anyone in a line of work too complicated for anyone to understand except in some false binary universe where “right” and “wrong” are actual concrete things that exist.
How many filmmakers can be serious and silly, can indulge the beauty of onscreen violence but also make that violence symbolize true human horror? George Miller, for sure. Quentin Tarantino, definitely. Stanley Kubrick, but that’s like saying Da Vinci could do watercolors. Paul Verhoeven, although sometimes he’s just indulgent. Kathryn Bigelow, although her last couple movies are too serious to realize how silly they are. Lina Wertmuller, circa
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