Category: Review

“Sleeping Beauty” really needs a wake-up call!

I caught the Julia Leigh film “Sleepy Beauty” on Netflix the other night, and, if it weren’t for the final scene, I would have forgotten it as a sexually exploitative mediocre-at-best art-house film. Unfortunately, thanks to the penultimate scene in the film, what “Sleeping Beauty” is, is in fact, a near-miss at a truly excellent feminist psycho-drama. Sadly, no matter how affective one good apple of a scene can be, it’s not enough to save the rotten barrel. And because of that, instead of simply sighing and mumbling, “Well, that was a wasted two hours,” I’ve not been able to stop thinking about what this film could have been.

Needless to say, this critique/review is going to contain spoilers. If you’ve not seen this film. . . well, actually, I’m not sure I can suggest doing so. As I’ve indicated, and I’m going to go into, it’s not a good film. It’s certainly not something you want to watch for the entertainment value–it’s not entertaining. Well, unless you’re someone who watches, say, Lars von Trier films for entertainment. *scowl* Poorly made Lars von Trier films as that. So, if you’ve not seen it, and would still like to read this article, I won’t stop you.

That said, I really don’t feel like summarizing the film any any great detail for people who’ve not seen it. In fact, I would suggest reading the Wikipedia summary of the film before continuing. But, for clarity’s sake, here’s the broad brush: A college student played by Emily Browning appears to go to class, work two normal jobs, prostitute at night as a free agent, and subject herself to medical/scientific testing for extra cash. How she finds time to do all this, well, let’s just say time management isn’t the only fanciful aspect of this film. In the process, she gets hired on to be a half-naked “silver service” server and objet d’art a la Story of O for a private dinner party club. Evidently, because of her unique beauty (and, I assume, preternatural lack of emotion or flappability) she’s contracted to be put to sleep (literally, not figuratively) naked in bed so that high-paying men can do. . . whatever, to her while she remains comatose.

Yeah, sounds just lovely, huh. The film could have, and I think, though I’ve not read any articles about the writer/director, sincerely tried to use this rather unusual, twisted adult fairy tale of a plot, to make a feminist indictment of the way in which women are exploited and used by the patriarchal society. And, it comes close. At least, the elements are there, ready to be activated into a stunning and unforgettable critique of society. But the production fails to activate the materials. The catalyst was never set off thanks to a script that, at its best, rises to the level of tedious, directing that aspires to be as good as tedious, and acting that tries really, really hard but is hamstrung by the script and directing.

Before I get back to why the feminist structure was there, I want to touch on the acting. Emily Browning does an admirable job portraying a young women who, on the surface, is easily dismissed as “self-destructive.” Certainly anyone who lives the life her character does can’t be anything else but, can she? But no, it’s deeper than that, and Browning shows it. Her character actually doesn’t appear to care enough about her own being to be something as active as self-destructive. Nihilistic is perhaps the best description.

Actually, not long ago I discovered a mental-behavior disorder known as depersonalization disorder. Essentially, someone with this condition generally feels disconnected, literally and figuratively, from their body. They tend to go through life not as a participant in their own actions but rather as an observer–a detached viewer of a person they don’t identify as themselves. Browning’s character is never described in the film as having any kind of mental or behavioral disorder, and the somewhat surreal atmosphere and circumstances of the film tend to preclude being able to diagnose any of its characters with any real-world DSM-IV conditions. They simply are what they are without the benefit of medical classification. But, if I had to label her, I would say she depicts someone with depersonalization disorder to a tee. This analysis becomes very important in discussing why the ending of the film is as powerful as it is and nearly redeems this movie.

Browning’s character goes from job to class to job to drug to sexual exploit entirely unaffected. When a clinical scientist is running a tube down her throat for a test, when she’s making endless copies at an office job, when she’s lying to her alcoholic mother and gives her her fake(?) credit card number, when she’s negotiating for sex with a client, when she’s being examined for marks before joining the dinner party service team, nothing breaks through her detachment. She performs every task and duty equally submissive, equally detached. Until the end, there are only four times in the film she shows any emotion. One is, unbelievably, some semblance of happiness in the company of what the viewer can only assume (as no direct explanation is ever given) a long-time friend who appears to be a shut-in and either a recovering alcoholic or is chronically ill. Another is when said friend informs her that he can’t go on any longer and implies he’s either “letting go” or will commit suicide, she shows weakness, sadness, and even a bit of fear. Then, when she discovers him near-death from what appears to be drug-induced suicide, she crumbles and cries, allowing herself to be cuddled by him as he dies in bed. And finally, at the funeral when she demands of a new character and evidently long-ago friend of the both of them, to marry her (jokingly? sincerely? both?) and he angrily rejects her, she herself displays barely-repressed anger.

It’s these four, only four, instances of sincere humanity that peak (yes, “peak”) out from an otherwise Kansas-flat vista of stoicism, that allows the viewer, just barely, to feel some amount of empathy, or at least sympathy, for her character. Just enough to let us keep going along this weird and twisted journey she’s on, to see where it ends. The 95-percent unaffected behavior from her is necessary for the socio-political purpose of the film, and to make the ending as effective as it is, while the four-instance emotional cracks allow us to believe the ending is possible while, also, not getting so disgusted by her alien behavior that we have to give up on her before journey’s end.

No, all blame for the failures of this film rests at the feet of the director. For example, just what style was she going for? Kubrickian? David Lynchian? Catherine Breillat-ian? von Trierian? It certainly doesn’t establish a style of its own, despite the pastiche, as the styles of the afore-mentioned auteur directors are employed with heavy-handed obviousness and no cohesiveness. Which is made worse by the fact that the viewer can’t tell what directorial choices are in fact choices or mistakes or carelessness.

For example, in one particular scene, Browning’s character, Lucy, steps out from a car having arrived at where she would be sleeping, and stops in the driveway to stare at something. The camera slowly pans (Lynchian-style) across the building to where there’s another car that two men help a drugged young woman into. The camera slowly pans back to show Lucy vaguely curious. The problem here is that once the camera reveals the men, woman, and car, it’s obvious that they wouldn’t have been visible to Lucy at the point we see her stare before the camera makes its languorous trip. So, is this intentional? Is this just lazy direction?

In another scene, Lucy is in an electronics store to buy a concealable camera. Her image is displayed on various televisions from what should be a camera on display. However, it’s obvious here that her televised image was pre-recorded and Browning is having to act to match the dialog and movements of herself in the screens. This is terribly perplexing; there’s no logical, practical reason why the production couldn’t have used a real-time digital camera patched into televisions the same way thousands of department stores do daily. Just replace whatever they had feeding the screens with her pre-recorded action with a live camera. The fact they used a recording had to have been a conscious and intentional decision, but why? For all the oddness of the film, it’s not so odd that this display of a fracture in reality, I can only assume, is justified and appropriate.

And, not to mention, the scene that was surely the worst directed scene I have ever seen since an Ed Wood movie. The scene in which Lucy has her interview with the hostess/madam, Clara, and her assistant(?). The entire, single-cut scene, felt like the director said, “Action!”

And the actors replied, “Uhm, you never gave us lines or blocking for this scene.”

“Well. . . oh! We’ll do this scene. . . minimalist natural realism! Yeah, that’s the ticket. Now. . . action!”

“Er, we still don’t really know what to do here.”


It was awkward and uncomfortable watching it, and I sat through “Jurassic Park 2.” I almost gave up. I thought to myself, “I don’t care how artsy and film-festivally this is, this is terrible.” But, I try never to stop watching a film so that, if nothing else, I can say, “Yeah, actually, I saw that. Let me tell you how bad it was!” (And yet, I still refuse to see “Twilight.”)

This brings us, finally, to the saving grace that made me throw up my hands in cry, “This! Why couldn’t the previous 97 minutes have lived up to this?!” Here’s what happens:

So, she rises to the position of being a beautiful rag doll in a lavish bed. We see her on three different occasions get molested in her drugged state by three wealthy men she never meets. The first one is, in a manner of speaking, the more gentle one who seems to want to do no more than appreciate her appearance. (Still misogynistic, and I’ll go into that later.) But he’s a sad, broken rich man. He comes back at the end of the film to allow himself to be drugged to death by the madam/hostess and die in bed next to the naked and sleeping Lucy.

Cut to later when Clara returns and checks to make sure he is indeed dead. Clara sits on the bed, perhaps sad. She attempts to waken Lucy and discovers that (thanks to her still having last night’s recreational drugs in her system) Lucy won’t awaken. She’s forced to give her near-panicking mouth-to-mouth. Lucy wakes with a shock and a start. She looks around, seemingly for the first time, sees the man dead next to her, and screams. And screams. Not the scream of panic, nor of shock, nor anger, but of pure, brutal existential crisis. She screams in spiritual terror like a newborn pulled violently into a new world, but also with all the awareness of the terror of what life holds.

Every ounce of emotion that Lucy should have felt throughout the film, throughout her whole life perhaps, comes out in this instantaneous realization of who she is, what she is, what she’s done. The dam has burst, the walls have collapse, the ground has given way, every masonic artifice that is used to hold in the unbridled force of being, is gone. All is left is pure pathos. And Emily Browning performs this painful and terrible moment with complete and utter sincerity. We, the voyeur who has watched her emotionless debasement for an hour and a half is given a view of the cost and are then swept away, never to know if this re-birth leads to her new life, or ultimate destruction where what was before an existence not-lived or examined, becomes active self-destruction as she realizes she can’t live with her new awareness. The scene cuts to video of what Lucy had secretly recorded of that night using her covertly placed camera–her asleep, and him presumably dead, in the same position he was found in. Then, credits.

That catharsis gives meaning and purpose to the previous hour and a half of detached ennui. And the previous small cracks give the catharsis sincerity. Sadly, however, the scene can’t be seen entirely as Lucy’s horror and catharsis and one can’t help but see, perhaps, some of Browning herself in the emotional release, due to the fact that the awkward and amateurish direction throughout the film gives the impression that the actress is being exploited and abused nearly as much as the character. While the presumed intent of the film was to critique misogyny, the failure of the message makes the actress as much a victim as the character. Perhaps not as intentionally as von Trier and his sadistic debasement and abuse of women (the actresses themselves in what seems like the director’s hate for women) in what is truly misogynistic film-making, but the end result is the same.

So, because of the embarrassingly awful and never-quite-sure-what’s-intentional directing, the potentially powerful message gets turned into exactly what the film was trying to subvert–a misogynistic sexual exploitation piece. Lucy is supposed to represent the female, made to be submissive and without voice in the patriarchy. She’s expected to be all things: the good daughter, the student, the hard worker, the sex slave, the piece of art on a pedestal, the caretaker of the weak and sick . . . . And she’s expected to do it without complaint. Without even her active participation in those roles. She’s simply . . . expected.

Clara, the hostess/madam, should have been an interesting character. She is what Lucy would have become in fifteen or twenty years. Clara appears in the film nearly as unaffected, as detached as Lucy. She is, in fact, representative of the self-victimization of the woman. She facilitates her own subjugation and the subjugation of women because that is, again, what is expected. It’s what she knows. It’s auto-pilot. Throughout the history of the fight for gender equality, some of the fiercest opponents have been other women who resent the idea that they should question the world, the role, they know and have been convinced is the right and proper “place” for a woman in this “man’s world.” Without question, without a raised eyebrow, Clara perpetuates the abuse to the next generation. Lucy has woken up, and has avoided that fate–though we don’t know if for good or ill.

The three men who visit the comatose Lucy represent three different ways in which society sets men up to subjugate women. The second man to use her is overtly abusive, raining verbal abuse upon her and even burning her with a cigarette. There is no subtlety with him, he is hate. Interestingly, before his visit, Clara had but one rule for the men: no penetration. She had even told Lucy, in these words, that her vagina is a temple (which Lucy dismissed). This points out the patriarchy’s obsession with “purity,” or virginity, despite the complete disdain it has for all other aspects of the female. “Virginity” is code for “property.” Only the man who owns the girl can despoil her in such a way, while society has historically had no similar attachment of “purity” toward men. (At least, not until the rise of equal rights when, faced with the hypocrisy, instead of giving up on the obsession with female virginity, Judeo-Christian culture started giving lip service toward the value of male virginity. Though, in cultural practice, this is empty sentiment.) This is evident in the rise of the rather creepy “purity balls” which have no male version.

In any case, Clara’s one rule was to maintain the patriarchal obsession with purity in hypocritical counterpoint to the range of abuse otherwise allowed, until the second man’s visit. Clara then adds a second rule: no marks. After all, we are still talking about property.

The third man is a large, bull of a man who is surreal David Lynch style, performs a scene of trying to pick up the limp, naked Lucy, carry her around and replace her on the bed, only to have her continue to slide off the edge despite his efforts. It really is almost as absurd as it sounds. This man is the hypocrisy of chivalry. Chivalry (as we know it today, not its medieval origin) is a false theatrical replacement for actual respect. If you want to open a door for someone, protect someone’s honor, treat someone with deference, you do it out of respect for that person as a human. While the patriarchy exploits and abuses the female, it hides behind this play-act of being a protector and guardian of virtue of “the weaker sex.” It’s patronizing and demeaning and borne, once again, out of protection of property, as opposed to out of human respect as equals. The third man tries to be the strong, dominant hero, and because he sees her as the other men do, an object, property, he ultimately fails.

Back to the first (and final) man, he is the subtle symbol of patriarchal exploitation. His first visit, all he does is look, admire, touch, with what appears to be both longing and adoration. On the surface, this seems harmless enough. But remember, he’s looking and touching and admiring a woman who has been made to order to be unresponsive, unaware, without voice–still, just an object. His tender touch is no different and has no more care than a stroke of a statue or a vase. In the western patriarchy, women are objectified and presented on magazines, TV, billboards, as commodity. To be consumed. The image of the woman is sexualized, made glamorous and seemingly untouchable, but consumed all the same. This seemingly kindly, older man, is not being kind to Lucy, he doesn’t even know or even see a “Lucy.” He sees an object, something he’s paid to consume.

And in the end, with his second visit, he uses her in a most obscene way, by making her without her consent, see him off into death. We may feel sympathy for him because he’s alone and broken and desires to leave the world next to something beautiful, but this does not absolve him of the exploitation he commits, of the person to which he is incapable of apologizing to. And it perverts the earlier scene where she voluntarily gives comfort to her friend as he, in counterpoint, also leaves this world, broken. That scene (though directed awkwardly), is heartbreaking; the scene with the rich old man, is perverse. This realization is certainly part of what instigates Lucy’s ultimate breakdown.

The indictment is there, the statements are there, the critique is there–but what ultimately comes out of this film is clumsy and . . . whatever German word means: ironically sexual without any actual sexuality.

Oh, and a final word on the marketing of this film. From what I’ve seen, it’s been marketed as an erotic drama, even romantic is some strange way. For the DVD release, the studio even did a promotion where you could win a chance at a prize for sleeping in public in their display bed. Seriously. Think about what this movie is about, and then consider this “you too could be Sleeping Beauty for money!” promotion. Reminds me of how “Hunger Games” was promoted. “You too can participate in the Hunger Games!” kind of hoopla to the books and fast food tie-ins and stuff. Think about that. “You too can participate in a horrific and evil competition where you kill other children in grisly ways and try to survive! Buy our stuff.”

I hate marketers.


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Rothfuss reaction

So I just finished Patrick Rothfuss’s second “Kingkiller Chronicles” novel, Wise Man’s Fear. In general, not quite as good as Name of the Wind, but still a brilliant novel. Rothfuss has a command of the language and ability to paint with words that’s just awe inspiring. I’m not going to be spoilery in this, well, more of a reaction than a full review. But I must be specific in mention how, in Wise Man, there’s a picnic scene near the end that is heartbreakingly beautiful and, and gut wrenchingly tragic. Rothfuss is able to manipulate emotion with words the same way his Kvothe can do it with song. Even the almost-Tom Bombadil-superfluous segment of his adventures in the land of fey is a roller-coaster of drama.

One of the things about Name of the Wind that kept me on the edge of my seat and constantly unsettled (in a good way), is the way he constantly changes the fortunes of his picaresque hero on a dime. One minute Kvothe is doing something so brilliantly, he succeeds at something so skillfully, that I would be shaking my head incredulously if not for being thrilled by the process of success. A success that almost invariable makes me think in some small voice, “Oh, that’s a bit too convenient. He can’t lose, now!” And then, before the thought is fully formed–wham! Kvothe is blindsided by a problem, an issue, a challenge, a loss that is actually worse than the previous success was wonderful, in such a way as to make me gasp and wonder, instead, “Yikes! How the heck is he going to recover from that? That’s really going to cost him.” And then, what follows, is an entirely believable and well-earned overcoming of misfortune.

The one problem I had with Name of the Wind was that the ending felt anti-climactic. But, when you consider, it’s really meant to simply be a first act, it works okay–especially since I was able to carry right on into the next book.

The problem(s) I had with Wise Man’s Fear is that it felt too much like his escapades were unearned, and Marty Stu-ish. Such as the afore-mentioned time in fey with a “lust goddess.”

“When Larry Met Mary”

(Oh, that’s funny. Re-reading that comic’s title, I just realized realized the very connection to the complaint I just made above! Duh! [Larry Stu is another name for Marty Stu, which are both variants of Marry Sue. See trope link.])

And then his excursion into the realm of, yeah, what’s essentially the equivalent of a ninja-factory, and all the fantasy sexinating he does there. (Another tangent: His time there reminded me way too much of the hero Anjin-san’s sexedumacation of the free and lusty way of feudal Japan in James Clavell’s Shogun.) It just didn’t have the same realism of the first book.

But then, what we’re reading in these two books, is the bildungsroman of a man who would become a legend, a subject of fantastic tales. He has to develop as a young man from urchin to world-wise proto-myth. He has to have the adventures and experience to create the mythic figure. And, I said before he doesn’t seem to earn the rather too-good-to-be-true romps, and as I think of it, he does… but doesn’t. *sigh*

Before he enters fey (like, literally stumbles into it from out of nowhere),  he has an experience during a fight that is rather horrific. It’s horrific for him, and it’s wonderfully and properly horrific for the reader. On the surface it’s an event that should be worthy of a positive turn for him. A piece of Kvothe’s “soul,” if not his sanity, should have been harmed in that event. But, then, really, it’s not. Rothfuss creates this event, this scene, that should have been extremely formative to Kvothe’s psyche, but it’s dropped almost as soon as it’s over. He does have a very negative event in fey with an enchanted tree (not as silly as it sounds–it’s described quite wonderfully!) that does in fact harm him and he carries the pain through the rest of the book. But, in my opinion, the tree event is a far lesser terror than what happens in the battle, and the lasting reactions and terribly flipped.

…unless, it’s intentional. Unless the the reason why Kvothe is able to shrug off the one and let the other emotionally haunt him, is very telling of the kind of man he becomes. If so, well, it needs to be more apparent in book three.

And, speaking of the man he becomes, this is the last thing that bothers me: The books are the story of Kvothe’s early life wrapped around a frame narrative of the man that he became telling his story. But the man in the “present” is constantly shifting, as if Rothfuss isn’t very solid on who Kvothe is these years later. One minute he feels like he’s in his 50s and has done and seen many great things before essentially retiring, and the next minute, he’s only a couple years older than the character he’s telling the story of. It’s very shaky.

Okay, the criticism aside, Wise Man’s Fear, not as good as Name of the Wind, is still one of the best fantasy books I’ve read. The emotion feels so authentic, the drama is compelling, the dialog is extremely believable, the writing is endlessly skillful yet completely painless to read. The wait for book three has been two days long for me and is already interminable!


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Response: Name of the Wind

I’m calling this a “response” as opposed to a “review” because, well, an actual review deserves a much more involved and lengthy analysis. I just wanna make some comments!

So, I finally finished Patrick RothfussThe Name of the Wind a couple of nights ago. I started it…early last year, but only got about 20 pages in when I got distracted by something shiny. Then, a few weeks ago, I went on a Hunger Games jag and read that trilogy in about 4 days. As I mentioned in my post, “Hunger Games review and reaction,” that series had affected me so deeply, so fundamentally, that trying to read anything afterward was like tasting ash. I picked up and put down several books I had been in the middle of, and nothing appealed to me. Then I picked The Name of the Wind back up, and bam! I was on another jag, reading that every moment I could. (Thank you Nook and Android Nook app!)

Absolutely brilliant writing! Patrick’s way with words and structure, of painting scenes and clever dialog… captivating! And, it’s (technically) his first novel to boot! (“Technically,” because, as I recall from podcast interviews with him, he’d written and rewritten it enough times to make it, like, his 6th book.) But what really floors me, is, also according to him in interviews, he’d never really learned English grammar. He was always just good at picking up and sussing how words must fit together.

I can understand that! I relate. Despite my reading and writing at a very early age, despite my obsessive love of reading growing up, of my love of writing stories… I sucked in English classes. I graduated high school without any clear learnin’ of a participle from a preposition, a phrase from a clause to a run-on from a comma splice. Nominative and dative? Weren’t those Roman senators or something? It wasn’t until I took German classes in college when I finally had to learn English grammar. How could I get good enough grades in HS English to have been in AP English?! Because, like Patrick, I just groked grammar without knowing the jargon. Although, unlike Patrick, I’ve had to learn it all in order to get an English Master’s with the hope of teaching college English. Ironically, I’m not teaching yet Patrick is! Amusing. 🙂

Anyway, I digress. The Name of The Wind was like a dark, adult, punk Harry Potter. Orphaned boy, “wizarding” school, quest to find out and beat what killed his parents who loved him very much… all that. But that’s where the similarity ends. (And while I did say “adult,” it’s not that kind of adult novel. There’s some violence, some anti-social behavior, some implied sexuality–but all pretty tame. It’s simply that, while a young adult can (and should) read this novel, it’s meant for the adult reader.)

I did have a few qualms, though. I noticed a few instances of continuity errors. Sadly, I can’t bring any specific examples to mind, but they were things that made me have to go back and find where X was referred to earlier and confirm that there was a problem in its later reference. Oh well, nothing serious. But ti did make me feel a lot more positive about my own novel.

So, I just started on the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear. I understand it’s a little more dark. It’s certainly at least as good so far.


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Hunger Games review and reaction

First Reaction

After annoying everyone I know for two weeks about The Hunger Games, having devoured the trilogy in five days, I finally saw the film (in IMAX, even) today. Wow! Better than I’d hoped, and every fear I had was alleviated. In fact, I’d say it was one of the best book-to-film translations I’ve ever seen–having kept every major plot point, every theme, many details, the feel and emotion… everything was dead-on. Sure, there were some cuts and even additions, but they were made to make the book work as a film, and done so perfectly! But I’ll touch on a those things down in the spoilery section of this essay.

These last few days, I’d read many reviews of the film. Some I read with glee, some with trepidation. Several reviews and articles expressed problems with the film that gave voice to some of my own concerns. Fortunately, only a couple of those concerns were valid; otherwise, most of the criticisms I read are objectively just wrong, and where it’s a matter of opinion… well, do I have to say which opinion I think is more valid? *grin*

The one criticism that was valid, was the over-use of the dreaded shakey-cam! Oh. My God. From the opening of the film, even the quite, setting establishing shots on people and buildings, shakey-cam! Like the camera was zoomed in on something a couple hundred feet away, and not on a stand/tripod/whatever. Know what I mean? Very distracting. However, the shakey-cam use during the violence was actually quite good, ironically. But I’ll touch on that more when I discuss the violence of the film.

Annoying Critics are Annoying

As for outlandish criticisms, first, is the one I saw here and there about Jennifer Lawrence’s stoic performance. Fortunately, most reviews recognized her incredible job portraying the quiet and smoldering girl who, in the novels, gave us the benefit of reading her thoughts, being the 1st-person narrator. In fact, now that I think of it, nearly every review glowed about her performance–it was only a couple that criticized it, so I really shouldn’t address it. But I’m compelled, because of how taken I was. Yes, Katniss wore a  predominantly a guarded expression, but it was appropriate for a character who, from a young age, had to become virtually the head of her household, raising her sister while their mother was virtually catatonic in depression after the death of her husband and the girls’ father. She had to be tough and guarded.

But, that made all the many, many instances of subtle emotional breaks and expressions, all the more effective. When she smiled at Peeta sitting at the window; when she looked upon the video wall with amazement, and then disgust; when she smiled, impressed, by Rue’s antics; when she scoffs at Haymitch’s message in the soup canister; and so forth. Not to mention the few places in which she breaks down into true, body-wracking emotion, that is so much the more emotional because of her in-control nature. You truly get a sense of the toll the “games” take on her when she allows her walls to crack. One of the moments in which Jennifer’s performance was so pitch-perfect, so sincere, that my heart felt crushed and breaking, was when she’s spending the last moments with Cinna below the area, before she goes up. (That’s not spoilery, is it?) The look of near-panic and barely working self-control in her eyes, the way her body shakes, made me feel exactly how she, the character felt, and I wept for her while at the same time feeling like I, myself, was about to walk into my own death.

On Violence

Okay, the violence. I’ve decided that any reviewer who says, “Not violent enough! Just watch the ‘original’: the Japanese ‘Battle Royale,'” is a moron and I’m completely ignoring everything they have to say from that point. Are there similarities between the government forcing kids to kill kids in “Battle Royale” and “Hunger Games”? Duh. But that’s where the similarities completely end. And if one want’s to discount a later work that has an element, even a major element, from a previous work, well, better discount most of modern literature back through Shakespeare and further. The fact that “Hunger Games” is essentially a blend of the Greek tale of Theseus and the story of slave-turned-rebel, Spartacus–both stories featuring child tributes and gladiatorial killing, the cynical comparison to “Battle Royale” is rendered moot.

Furthermore, I’ve seen “Battle Royale,” and despite the patina of social commentary that’s loosely applied, that film is a splatter-gore violence exploitation film. As I watched it, initially apprehensive and disturbed, I was quickly made to feel virtually no emotion about that film at all as it was essentially a ridiculous, blood-soaked cartoon. (Now, I’ve not read the book, which, for all I know, is indeed closer to the sincere commentary that “Hunger Games” is.) The “Hunger Games” novel is significantly more violent than the movie depicted, but it can get away with it as the text and the narrative can easily render the texual violence disturbing and horrific, whereas in a film, there’s a fine line between that and glorification. If “Hunger Games” the film was any more bloody than it was, it would have tipped into the ridiculous. As it is, the director did a perfect job representing the horror of kids slaughtering kids without needing to up the gore.


Well, I’m not sure I can go on much further talking about the film without being spoilery, so, be warned: from this point there be spoilers! Not just for the first book and film, but probably the entire trilogy.

Back to the subject… What also helped turn what could have very easily been a glorification of the violence into something deeply disturbing and terribly sad, was the film, from the first moment we see District 12 and meet Prim and Katniss, presented what was to happen in exactly the right and realistic mood. Showing us how the people of District 12 fear and loathe the day, how everything that happens is darkened by the knowledge that something terrible is going to happen, including the way Greasy Sae gives Katniss the mockingjay pin free, and looks at her with sadness. The way Effie’s bubbly excitement is counterpointed by the districts utter silence and participation only from duress.

Ironic Celebration of Marketing Violence

I should comment that, up until the moment I saw the film, one of my greatest fears was exactly how it would approach the games–with the same sense of recognition of the immoral inhumanity of it? Or the action and excitement of the entire movie marketing campaign? For these last few weeks, as the marketing for the film ramped up to fever pitch, the selling of stuff whether fast food or companion books or whatever, has been accompanied with the impression that the Hunger Games of the story are a real neato-cool event that’s as exciting and to be anticipated. And that’s seriously bothered me. Granted, you’re not going to sell as much useless crap if you’re marketing it with the actual themes of the book/film: a critique on the grotesque love of reality TV and the adoration of violence. Doesn’t make for a big selling tone.

Fortunately, the film itself was very much in sync with the cultural criticisms of the books, and the Hunger Games and what happens in them are depicted as something horrible, not exciting and grand (to any decent person, at least. Which brings me to….)

On a tangent, one thing I am so glad of, is in my part of the world where I see films in the theater, I’ve never had to encounter rowdy teenager, people talking on phones during the film, people who cheer or laugh or jeer inappropriately–all things I read about other people experiencing. And, in this case, I’ve read about people seeing the film with an audience that cheered and clapped at the various death scenes, ironically emulating the very behavior that the books/film decries. In my packed theater, the “action” and killings were accompanied with a silence from the audience matching the silence of District 12 when Effie asks them to applaud for Katniss and her volunteering. This give me some hope for humanity.

Translation Changes

Anyway, some of the bigger changes in the film from the book. There were a couple, but they were mostly necessary. In the film, we don’t get much about the Everdeen family’s situation and the death of the father and Katniss’s and her mom’s reaction to it… but it is referenced in a trackerjacker-induced delirium flashback which was handled nicely. Because of what happens to Katniss at the end of the 3rd book, Mockingjay, I’m really hoping that, for that to pack as much of an emotional punch as it has in the books, they do build a little more in the next film on her mother’s complete shutdown and Katniss’s resulting near-hatred of her for it. That’s a very important part of the book’s themes and overarching narrative, and character development.

Also, for the sake of both time and economy of characters, they had to remove everything about the Dictrict 12 mayor, his family, and Marge–whom gives Katniss the mockingjay pin. I understand why they did that, and am okay with it. Except, I do hope they take the opportunity to build up our affection for the people of District 12 (the mayor and his daughter being significant in the books) in order for their deaths and the destruction of District 12 to be that much more crushing. And, most importantly, add the Katniss’s sense of debt for their deaths that is the foundation for her breakdown at the end of the trilogy (ultimately triggered, naturally, by the death of her sister).

On Debt

Moving away from the film review and more on a discussion of the books for a moment, I really want to address that theme of the books: debt. The writing of the Hunger Games books isn’t the best in the world. The author does beat the reader over the head a bit too often with her themes and lessons. But, what she does subtly, is done so well, that the reader (well, I) can do nothing but bask in the beauty of the moment when it culminates. Throughout the book, Katniss is constantly counting debts–whenever someone saves her life, that’s another debt she owes them, whenever someone dies because of her, that’s a debt she owes. She’s constantly aware of the piling of these debts. To a point, it almost becomes annoying. I found myself in the middle of Mockingjay wondering if anything is going to be made of the near-obsessive debt counting. And, no, there is never any actual dialog or narrative or even 1st-person thought, after the climax, about the debts she owes. That word is completely dropped. However, it’s the very basis of what causes Katniss to finally completely breakdown, shut down, spiral into depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, after Prim dies in front of her. The ultimate debt she owes, to her. The death of District 12 and those thousands of people, the ruining of Peeta’s mind, the death of the people who followed her into battle, and Prim. The debt crushes her. And the way it is left to the reader to make the connection between the debt and her crumbling, makes the reader feel the pain more acutely–if one makes the connection. It’s certainly bad enough to have her sister die in front of her, needlessly, after Katniss volunteered her own life at the beginning of book one for her, which started nearly 2 years of pain and destruction that might not have happened (to her and District 12, at least) if she hadn’t. That would justify rage and depression. But what ends up happening to Katniss can only be the debt coming due in her mind.

 Changes, Redux

Ah, yes, back on track. Another (necessary but heavily missed) change that was made was the gloss-over of Peeta giving Katniss the bread when Katniss, years earlier, was at the very end of her rope, and the brink of complete loss and desperation (and, incidentally, beginning her obsession with counting debt). It’s brought up in the film, and very well, too. Carefully edging closer and closer in flashes of memory, to the ultimate act of generosity that gave the younger Katniss hope, the film instilled an appropriate sense that this was a very important moment in their lives. Mostly in Katniss’s. But the book, naturally, went so much further in describing just how terrible her despair at that moment was, that wasn’t quite as major as I would have liked to have seen it depicted.

Also, an important detail that would have been difficult to properly portray in the film, was her finding the lone flower in the mud, signalling to her the coming of spring and that she, and her family, were going to have a chance of making it after her father’s death. That flower changed her. And, if I recall, it happened to be the same type of flower that she collected to honor Rue with–making that scene all the more heart-breaking in the novel. But, again, very difficult to film without too much exposition.

After Katniss’s reaction to Rue’s death, followed by her honoring her with a wreath of flowers, and then sending District 11 a salute, we see the emotional reaction in District 11 results in a riot. In the books, we don’t find out about any kind of growing rebellion until book two. But, I think skipping forward a bit and showing the reaction in the first film is important. In books, we don’t find out until book two, but even then we’re told that uprising were already beginning during the 74th Games. So, timewise, it’s perfectly appropriate to show it. (Although, I don’t believe 11 started getting into the act until later–I believe it was 4 that started revolting. Anyway…) It helps the round out the film as a stand-alone whole by adding depth to the political strife and turmoil Panem exists in. But mostly, the film needed it. The audience at that point had just witnessed a terrible and unfair death, a very sad and heartbreaking death, and a highly emotional reaction by the heroine–the audience is emotionally suffering at that moment. The portrayal of the angry mob destroying and rioting, helped us channel those emotions outward, just as the characters’ were reacting to the event, and helped us get out of the pit of despair and be able to continue on with the film in a more up, or, not “positive,” but engaged manner. That’s the hand of a skilled director.

And finally, the death of Seneca, the Gamesmaster. We don’t get that in the book. We only hear about his death and replacement in book two. Since Seneca was actually used more in the film than in the book, out of narrative necessity, his end was also necessary. And, as the one real change from whole cloth in the film, I’m impressed by how they went about it–giving him the Socratic hemlock, so to speak, in the form of a bowl of the very berries that symbolized his failure and the embarrassment of the Capitol. Brilliant choice!


Well, I’ve written on far too long. But, it feels good to express all of this. The last week I’ve been reading various essays related to The Hunger Games and the film, critical and analytic essays. Here’s one that I found particularly excellent! “Why ‘The Hunger Games’ Isn’t ‘Twilight’ (And Why That’s A Good Thing).” On the one hand, it’s so very annoying to constantly have “The Hunger Games” compared to “Twilight;” however, it’s kind of inevitable. There are so few big-budget films featuring a young, female protagonist, that it’s almost a given they must be compared and contrasted. Hopefully, one day, there’ll be far too many to be able to do that too. But, in the meantime, this article is a wonderful analysis of why “The Hunger Games,” and the books, is far superior in themes and message.

Thanks for reading!


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