A Brief Commentary on Commentaries

23 Apr

Whether out of curiosity or a simple desire to get my money’s worth, I’m one of those irritating people who feels the need to watch every special feature when I buy a DVD.  And now I’m about to get even more irritating by analysing audio commentaries.

This all started when I found out that the Sherlock series 3 DVD doesn’t come with any episode commentaries. The general feeling online seems to be that it’s hard enough to get the actors together to film the episodes, let alone for a commentary. The problem is, the way I see it, an audio commentary isn’t only an opportunity to enjoy an extra 90 minutes of Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice (not that I’d be complaining about that…)

Actors can give real-time commentary on their acting decisions or character interpretations, which is engaging even for someone with my passing interest in the craft of acting, and would probably be very interesting, even instructive, for aspiring actors. But I’m disappointed by this assumption that we must have actor commentary or nothing.

To date, the commentary I’ve most enjoyed – and the one that got me hooked on commentaries – is the one for the original Matrix, where they talked to the director and, I think, someone who was responsible for special effects. In retrospect, probably just whoever was there at the time. I also just listened to the absolutely awesome commentary for THX1138, with the writer/director George Lucas and writer/sound designer Walter Murch.  .

Directors are awesome people to hear from in real-time, because they can point out the visual imagery and mise-en-scene which would be difficult to describe in a regular interview (“Hey, what I was trying to say with the Biblical imagery at 1:05:32… you remember how he’s–? Never mind…”).

Writers can also be great.  Because they’re not always on set, their commentary is less prone to becoming only set trivia. Not that I’m some killjoy – trivia is entertaining when balanced with analysis. But if you’re not going to show us the blooper reel, please don’t taunt us by all laughing together over that one take where the actor totally stacked it!

I also think that when the writers have been interviewed extensively elsewhere, they don’t always bring much new material to a commentary. The writing is most directly seen through the dialogue, which is usually muted during commentaries, so they’re limited to describing how they came up with particular scenes or twists, which really doesn’t need describing in real-time.

Producers often bring interesting anecdotes on the logistics of particular scenes and what decisions were made, for example, on what to film and where to use CGI. Speaking of which, why not hear from the “focus puller” or one of those other credits I don’t even have a clue about? Or specialists who’ve been brought in for one episode or film – animal trainers, science advisors, a guest actor?

All I’m trying to say is, it’s awesome to get a commentary from the star of the show. But actors – and, often, writers – have lots of opportunities to discuss their work. Other perspectives can be equally engaging, and give us nerds heaps of new material to mull over while we wait for the next film/season. So please, Special Features DVD Compilers, don’t ditch the audio commentary just because the star actor can’t make it to the recording.

And bring back blooper reels!

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

17 Apr
tree with sun

What if at sunset… the sun didn’t set?


*SPOILERS AHEAD* I’m not quite sure if this book fits into the genre where spoilers are an issue, but anyway, you’ve been warned. :)

This will be a brief review, and perhaps my opinion of the book can be best illustrated through the reason for my brevity: I just saw some orange boots at a book & clothing swap and the only thing I have is this book, so I need to bang out a review before someone else nabs the boots! So boots > keeping this book forever. On the other hand, they’re pretty nice boots.

The premise of The Age of Miracles is intriguing: Earth’s rotation slows down, steadily increasing the length of both day and night. On a side note, this edition features some of the blandest and most awkward back-cover blurb writing I’ve ever seen. Which is a shame, because Thompson Walker explores this premise is an interesting way which avoids all the usual pitfalls of speculative writing.

As the blurb manages to convey, The Age of Miracles deals mostly with the social effects of “the slowing”, specifically upon the protagonist, eleven-year-old Julia. In many ways the novel emulates a regular female coming-of-age, with familiar episodes like bullying, family dramas, friendship woes and the first bra purchase (though interestingly, given the explorations of cycles and circadian rhythms, no first-period scene). Tellingly, when the phrase “the age of miracles” appears, it refers to children having grown quickly or hit puberty over the summer.

Sometimes I felt that “the slowing” plot disguises the fact that the growing-up elements aren’t particularly unique. But this impression faded as I read on. Thompson Walker’s portrayal of Julia is nuanced enough to be realistic, and skilfully navigates the portrayal of such a young protagonist. Julia is neither stupid, nor invested with an excessive amount of knowledge – though the past tense allows her narration the benefit of hindsight, which I think is an excellent writing decision.

What really stood out to me – or rather, in a good way, didn’t – is how Thompson Walker weave in the slowing itself. Note “the slowing”: one word, no caps. Even my favourite speculative fiction authors fall into the trap of giving New Technology, or sometimes, inexplicably, even existing stuff, Fancii Nyoo Naymz. In contrast, Thompson Walker is effortlessly convincing with terms like “clock time” (the maintenance of the 24-hour day despite the changing sun time) and “white nights”. These, along with a thousand other subtleties of writing, beautifully build up a world in which a sunlit night is as eerie – and believable – as a starlit day.

One thing I don’t like so much is the latter part of the book. I usually love it when speculative fiction writers plunge gleefully into the logical consequences of their premise. Thompson Walker masterfully builds up gradual anxiety as the long periods of dark wreak havoc with crops. Then at the end, radiation and solar storms suddenly start up, a ploy which switches the social pressure to that of survivalism. Given how it sets up a focus on interpersonal pressures, I felt like wrapping the book up with accelerating physical effects was kind of a cop-out. It wasn’t until I’d finished the book that I noticed its epigraph, a quote that strikes a poignant chord with the ending:

Here in the last minutes, the very end of the world, someone’s tightening a screw thinner than an eyelash, someone with slim wrists is straightening flowers…

Another End of the World, James Richardson

In light of this expectation, Julia’s relationship with her family, her social struggles, and her relationship with Seth take on a new turn. However, in this respect I think that the book ends too late. After Seth leaves, Julia leaps out of her family-focussed narration to summarise worldwide events up to the “present” from which she narrates. On a related note, while the narration’s description of the slowing is wonderfully realistic, the portrayal of the media is much less developed. Sure, Julia’s not old enough to be on social media, but despite the fact that it’s set in the future, everyone gets their news exclusively from TV?

Despite these few gripes, I highly recommend The Age of Miracles despite a few gripes. I cannot fully describe the beautiful and convincing way that Thompson Walker develops this “slowing” premise and its impact on Julia and her family. She has a knack for this speculative genre. I don’t know if I’ll ever re-read it, but Id’ put this book high on your buy-even-if-just-to-read-it-once list, and if you can get it at a library or book swap – do it! I’m looking forward to see what this author writes next.

Okay, it wasn’t that brief. And for anyone who’s wondering…

Orange boots

Secrets and Lies Series Review

14 Apr

Spoilers for the WHOLE of series 1.

From my episode 1 review:

Eva – I’m not saying she did it, but is her absolute insistence of her father’s innocence simply childhood loyalty, or does she know something else? On a meta-level, Piper Morrisey’s acting is so fantastic that I’m sure they cast this part to become a more major one later in the series.

Got it in one! That’s true of a lot of my initial thoughts on Secrets & Lies, Channel 10’s crime drama miniseries. The title does not get less annoying with time, I still love its non-stereotyped depiction of Australian life, the acting is great, the writing keeps going with the emotional punches, and I continued to be bemused by the periodic close-up shots of insects. A hint that we shouldn’t overlook the little ones, perhaps?

If you’re reading this far, you know that It Was Eva Gundelach. If this is because you actually watched the show, and not because I just told you, you’ll also know that this possibility wasn’t even raised until the final ten minutes of episode six. I’m not sure how to feel about this. Obviously from my above blog excerpt, you could see some oddities in Eva’s behaviour from episode one. But a lot of these actually diminished in later episodes – even her insistence on Ben’s innocence.

While mysteries don’t have to be audience-“solvable” to be interesting, the web content for Secrets & Lies set it up this way. So it’s frustrating when in Eva’s confession we get all this brand-new information – she was at the “weird guy” house? We never saw her around there. Did we even know what Kristy and Ben were arguing about the night before the murder, let alone that Eva knew?

On the up side, Eva’s confession scene is wonderfully directed and acted, with seamless movement between narration, flashback and, most starkly, Corneille’s reaction. I wish they’d gone with a bit more emotion from Eva – blank creepy child is a tad cliché, though it makes for a jarring contrast with her fake-niceness in the flashbacks.

Speaking of directors, the visual aspect of the show is noticeably more elegant from episode four onwards. The scenes in the abandoned house are a special stand-out, with even, saturated light creating an intense eeriness. Come to think of it, another thing I noticed in that scene are the scrawls of what is obviously a tween girl on a door, made creepy by their abandonment. More foreshadowing?

Another thing that improves around mid-series is the internal tension of each episode. After the first couple of episodes, I was curious about who did it, but impatient because I didn’t really care how we found out. But this is changed by a ramp-up of shorter-term tensions. The abandoned house scenes are one example; the other that springs to mind is Ben under the house with the torch, and also Eva’s disappearances in episode five.

Overall, regarding the ending, I didn’t really like how they found out that Eva did it. There was no real build-up: Eva just disappears again, Corneille shows up with yet more evidence the audience never had a chance to hear about, and Ben coincidentally discovers Eva’s bloodied shoes at the exact same time. The acting, particularly in the final scenes, is really outstanding from all involved.

Regarding series two, I think it could work. Although he’s mostly seen through Ben’s justifiably-indignant eyes, I’ve always sympathised with Corneille. The writing and acting, as well as the webisodes, have encouraged this. And any new series would of course have to follow Corneille, unless it switched genre to focus on the devastated Gundelach family (I do wish we’d had a few more minutes of that, just to wrap things up). Corneille’s just an ordinary guy doing a very difficult job, and it’d be interesting to explore the impact that it has on him, especially in contrast to the more dominant trope of the stoic, detached TV detective.

To some extent, this show falls between two (make that three) stools, not quite realising itself as a family/neighbourhood drama, a detective-focussed story, or a solvable whodunit. But with commendable acting, writing and directing, Secrets & Lies has enough elements of all three to make a satisfying and interesting watch.

Coming up next: a review of The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker.

The Hit by Melvin Burgess

12 Apr

I love a concept-driven book, and this one’s almost unique in its conception. The author, Melvin Burgess, was commissioned to write an idea brainstormed by a philosophy class. And it’s a good premise, too: what if someone invented an amazing recreational drug, whose side effect was certain death after a week?

As always with a concept, the next focus is on the conscious decisions that frame and explore it. Burgess has gone with young adult – the protagonist, Adam, is a high school student, and much of the action is seen through his eyes and those of his girlfriend, Lizzie. Perhaps Burgess recognised (as do I) the eager uptake of speculative fiction among the YA demographic.

It’s certainly interesting – and disturbing – how the opening chapters explore the disturbing blur between the thrill-seeking teenage impulses and outright suicidal intention. However, I don’t feel that Adam’s reasoning – or alternatively, impulsive, reason-less state of mind – are portrayed well enough to make believable his decision to take Death.

This is partly because of a sense I had that I didn’t quite understand Adam’s wider situation. The story is set in an ambiguously futuristic Britain, in the third decade of the current recession. A political upheaval combines elements of the Occupy movement, the London riots and the Arab Spring. On the other side, the government doesn’t seem especially repressive: the Internet isn’t censored, state-funded school exist, and nobody’s starving that we see. Closer to home, there’s also this common YA socioeconomic set-up where the country’s rich list go to the same high school as the kids of blue-collar workers*.

I’m not denying that inequality, or a longer working day, could lead to protest, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear sense of why a change of government would help, to the extent that protesters are willing to risk their own and others’ lives. The whole political plotline is only vaguely connected to the Death drug by the assumption that knowing the value of life would drive people to revolt, despite the fact that plenty of non-“Deathers” are protesting already.

To some extent, I can understand Burgess’s decision with the setting: it would be at best insensitive, at worst dangerous, to write a story where an apparently mentally healthy character decides to commit suicide on the sole basis of modern-day family and relationship problems. However, the alien political context takes us away from the book’s central question – what would happen if this drug suddenly existed, now?

However, the most serious plot problem in this book is that a lot of it is unrelated to either the Death drug or the politics. Adam’s girlfriend, Lizzie, allows herself to be abducted by Christian, an apparent schizophrenic and son of the major “villain”. While she does this in pursuit of an antidote for Death, the remainder of the story is focussed on the details of Christian’s extreme possessiveness and violence, and Adam’s attempts to rescue Lizzie. Of course, controlling relationships like this one can be a subject of intense stories. But the central focus of The Hit is a philosophical idea. Instead, it becomes a survival-based story dictated by Christian’s random psychotic urges.

So what’s good about this book? Firstly, as I’ve said, I love a concept-driven work. Despite all its flaws, I did get more out of reading it than if I’d just read the blurb and thought about the concept myself. There’s enough identification with Adam that we can feel his rising panic that he’s thrown away his life. But the sense of urgency, while in keeping with having a week to live, prevents the reflection and backstory that contributes to a book character’s “real-ness”. For this reason I actually think this book would work much better as a movie. The characters’ thoughts don’t bring much to light that we couldn’t draw from the action. Seeing the characters’ emotional responses would work where the sometimes-grating prose descriptions don’t.

I think Burgess, too, senses this. Take for example this cinematic description of the container-yard scene: “If Adam could have… taken a view of the park from above, he would have seen… a number of people moving about in between the boxes, each hidden from the other, like rats in a maze” (p. 273). Even this somewhat cumbersome description makes a cool picture in the mind – it’d work amazingly in a film. The odd, omniscient style of narration (of which this excerpt is an example) would also translate nicely to visuals, I think. Given it is currently a novel, however, wish it’d been given a bit of polishing at the most basic level — there are a lot of repetitive and awkward sections of prose.

Overall, The Hit is an awesome idea that’s been realised in the wrong medium. The novel form doesn’t do much for this plot that couldn’t be achieved visually, and it can’t achieve many things that could. Given he was commissioned to write a novel, not a film, I think Burgess can’t be entirely blamed for the inherent failings of the text. I could easily see the Death-drug concept, with the bones of this plot and characters, succeeding as a screenplay like Blade Runner.

*Sure, Adam has to change schools after an accident prevents his dad working, but more to the point, how could they even afford that school in the first place? And somehow they can still afford it for Adam’s brother even with his dad out of work. While Lizzie isn’t the richest kid around, her family is: her teenage cousin has unlimited access to luxury apartments whenever it’s convenient to the narrative.

Coming up next: review of Channel 10’s Secrets and Lies series as a whole, and thoughts on the possible future season.

Secrets and Lies (Episode 1) Review

5 Mar

Spoilers for episode 1 and web content.

It’s no secret, that is a crummy title, I’m not even gonna lie. Recently I became one of the few people in the world who thinks they should watch more TV, and about ten minutes after coming to this resolution I saw a poster for Secrets & Lies. So I decided to give it a go. I have to say I’m happily surprised.

The basic premise is that Ben Gundelach, an ordinary (more on that later) Aussie man, finds a child’s body in bushland and becomes a suspect in the murder. I didn’t do much pre-reading on this show but one thing pleased me even before watching: I’m really sick of TV shows that switch between a dozen perspectives. Often in these dramas, as I once said about a play, it gives a creative work the feel of a newspaper’s “four diverse perspectives on x” feature rather than of real characters.

The beginning of the show didn’t really draw me in – random close-ups of insects plus we had to be reminded that they couldn’t think of a decent title – but it got better as soon as the dialogue started. Really good judgement in writing, combined with solid acting by Martin Henderson, establish Ben as a typical Aussie bloke and just as quickly distinguish him from the “Aussie bloke” screen stereotype. I’m not sure exactly how this works – it’s more than, though it includes, discerning use of Australian slang. In fact, my first impression of this drama is that it’s ambitious, yet nothing is overdone.

As the detective says, “A lot of people with a lot to hide on that street”, yet it’s a credit to the show that this doesn’t feel contrived. Not everyone is having some dramatic affair. This is borne out in the “suspects” section of the Secrets & Lies website. Oh, by the way, don’t be daunted by the amount of web content – it’s worth a look because it’s some of the best I’ve seen, but isn’t essential to understand or appreciate the show. The only thing I didn’t like is that, for example, why would Dave video himself concealing a drug? The same goes for this one of Tasha berating Thom. I think they should have limited this section to “clues” that would be available to the characters in the show, like the recorded phone calls and Facebook chats.

Now, back to the episode… Random bug close-ups aside (there were more later in the episode… hm, maybe I’m missing a clue?), the camera work is really nice too. But special mention has to go to the set designers. It looks like they bought half their props at K-Mart. And that’s the great thing! I love the utter Aussie-suburban-ness of the police station red-lettered MERRY CHRISTMAS banner in gold foil. What Australian hasn’t bought one of those at some point? I’ve had that exact one! The only place this is let down is the Christmas tree – it looks too perfect, with shiny baubles and no hand-made ornaments or personal touches. Maybe this is supposed to hint at something about the Gundelach family?

However, like the writers, I’ve saved the best til last. I was a bit disconcerted by how quickly the focus of the episode shifted from the shock of Thom’s death, to the emotional impact of the suspicion on Ben. But it’s totally redeemed at the end… oh, I don’t want to give it away, go and watch, but I never thought that a freezer and an iPhone could combine so touchingly*. A stark portrayal of how a physical objects, even – perhaps more-so – disposable ones, become jarring reminders of a deceased person’s recent presence.

There’s so much good stuff going on here – writing, directing, acting – and it’s avoiding so many pitfalls common to these types of shows, I’m really looking forward to the second episode of Secrets & Lies. May fill in the time between now and then by thinking of a better title.

Who I think did it…

Given the other good judgement on this show, I’m guessing they’re not going to cheat us and make the murderer someone who’s not on the suspects list.

My personal People of Interest list:

  1. Eva – I’m not saying she did it, but is her absolute insistence of her father’s innocence simply childhood loyalty, or does she know something else? On a meta-level, Piper Morrisey’s acting is so fantastic that I’m sure they cast this part to become a more major one later in the series.
  2. Thom’s parents – I think in real life this would sadly be the most likely. However, the fact that the police focus on Ben perhaps suggests that they have good reason to believe that it’s not his parents.  

My Not-Interested list

  1. Elaine – unless this is an incredible double-bluff by the writers, the way she’s portrayed as absolutely horrible just makes her too, too obvious.
  2.  Tasha – the young babysitter seems a prime candidate for the “maybe it’s an accident someone is covering” theme of the prequel webisode – but she wasn’t babysitting Thom at the time. The description of Thom’s injuries in the first (non-prequel) webisode suggests a level of violence inconsistent with any accident I can imagine. Also, as I said, the circumstances of her “temper” video are so contrived, I think the show producers made it as a slightly clumsy red herring.

* The portrayal of technology/the Internet in-universe is yet another thing about this show that’s well-judged and not overdone. Though I do wonder whether a guy would really take and upload a photograph of his bare bum while in the physical presence of his girlfriend’s dad.

The next episode of Secrets & Lies is 9:30pm on Thursday. That confuses me… wasn’t it just on Monday?? But anyway, if you’re like me and you can’t understand TV programming, you can catch up here.

Double review: Catching Fire and Mockingjay

30 Dec
Mockingjay Catching Fire Covers

Catching Fire and Mockingjay covers

I only read The Hunger Games so I could understand the second movie. But I loved it so much, I read the second and third books in such quick succession that I’m reviewing them together!

The original Hunger Games is a synergy of suspenseful action and intellectual complexity, and Mockingjay takes this fusion further. While the action builds traditionally to a climax, certain innovations in structure (such as Katniss not achieving her goal of finding Snow) give what I feel is a more realistic depiction of warfare. Indeed, the series has thematic and stylistic echoes of The Things They Carried, in particular the portrayal of how warfare often robs participants of agency, which made sense when I found out that Collins was motivated to write critically about violence due to her father’s experiences in Vietnam**.

Some people have criticised Hunger Games from a feminist perspective, arguing that Katniss is deprived of the opportunity to make tactical and philosophical decisions, such as whether or not to kill people during the Games. As an aside, she does kill people, she just chooses not to hunt them down like the Careers do, and the entire series is based on her decision to volunteer for the Games, and resolution is reached when she chooses to execute Coin rather than Snow. To the extent that Katniss is deprived of agency within the novels, I feel that this is criticised within the text (it’s a central thematic concern), and is not gender-based*. The entire Hunger Games system appears to be a metaphor for conscription, and the associated experience of being coerced into violence. Given that historically that has been a largely male experience, it’s unusual that Collins chose a female protagonist. Possibly Collins felt that both entertainment-based and critical depictions of warfare have had an overly male target audience, and wanted to engage young women with these ideas.

Speaking of reader engagement, I love the world-building of District 13. It felt very real to me, especially Katniss’s description of the security drills. Like Scott Westerfeld, Collins seems to be someone who delights in building fictional places, and the appreciation of detail is passed on to the reader. However, I have to say I was a bit unsettled by Catching Fire‘s elaborate descriptions of the new arena and the previous Games. While it’s cool to sate your curiousity about what all the previous Games were like, at the same time I feel that, in soaking up the elaborate details, the reader risks becoming a fan of the Hunger Games, rather than The Hunger Games.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Catching Fire has a bit of middle-of-the-trilogy-itis. The Hunger Games establishes the setting and characters, and has its own internal arc which culminates in an act of rebellion against the Capitol. Mockingjay is, as I’ve said, amazing, and introduces a new setting (District 13, plus a more “insider” look at the Capitol) with a lot of psychological complexity built through action, and a punchy resolution and moving denouement. But in many ways Catching Fire just gets us from A to B. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting journey, but it doesn’t have much of an internal arc, and often seems to be just a parade of districts, previous Hunger Games, and innovations in the arena.

The series would have basically the same structure without Catching Fire, if the first book ended with the Capitol destroying District 12 as revenge for Katniss’s first act of rebellion, the berries, leading to revolution. Unfortunately, the publishing industry being what it is, trilogies seem to be more acceptable than duologies. And given how much I (at times, guiltily) enjoy the level of detail and backstory we get in Catching Fire and elsewhere in the series, I can’t really criticise it without feeling a bit hypocritical. Also, Catching Fire provides interesting thematic contrast with its exploration of the revolution’s origins.

I can’t add much to my original conclusions about The Hunger Games: it’s a fantastic series, with a really interesting combination of action and ideas that actually amplify each other. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the initial rush of fangirl/boy-ing is followed by a more critical and academic response to the presentation of the political and social ideas in The Hunger Games.

* There do appear to be some gender issues within the Capitol, for example, President Snow and the prominent Game-makers are all male. This is almost reversed in District 13, where the President and military commander are both women. Oddly, gender is never overtly commented upon. However, there’s a lot of other matter-of-factness in this series, including (I just realised) Katniss’s unconcern that she and Gale appear to have dropped out of school to support their families, possibly at the age of 12.

** On this note, while The Hunger Games series, in particular the movies, are presented as an action-based genre, my own observations and Suzanne Collins’ comments suggest that the novel trilogy is a serious attempt to engage young people with critical ideas about war and violence. As such, I feel that it’s productive to explore the series’ relation to real life, and to non-fiction portrayals of war, to more deeply understand its intellectual and philosophical messages about warfare and violence.

The Hunger Games Review by a new reader

29 Nov
Hunger Games Book Cover

Cover image (courtesy Wikipedia)

Yes, I’ve never read it before! **Spoilers for The Hunger Games, and oddly enough, Children of Men.**

I’m lucky enough to live in a golden age of young adult speculative fiction. I’ve read – and loved – a lot of it, but The Hunger Games is a near-perfect example of the type. The pacing is perfect, the characters strong, the plot fantastic, the world-building exquisite, and the connections to the real world downright unsettling.

I was sold on the premise from the page Katniss mentions the tesserae. The physical world of The Hunger Games is average, perhaps deliberately so. But Collins’ plotting of Panem’s political system is extraordinary. Someone on Wikipedia (how’s that for referencing?) comments that they think it’s unrealistic that a society would turn people into celebrities as punishment. But, even putting aside the historical cases of gladiatorial games, it seems plausible that a government might basically say, “Ha ha, we have soooo much, but the only way you can get anything like it is by risking your life for our entertainment.” Of course this would have its drawbacks and exploiters – the emergence of Career tributes being one. But the fact that a killer reality show might not be the most efficient way of oppressing people, doesn’t stop a society from getting to a place where they feel that it is.

Speaking of the Careers, does anyone else feel they’re unfairly maligned? One of my favourite parts is the punch-in-the-gut moment when it dawns on Katniss – and the reader — that the unpleasant Haymitch probably got that way from watching his District’s tributes die year after year. But the Careers’ lives can’t be all fun and games (sorry, terrible phrasing) either. Unlike Katniss, Prim and Gale, who can spend their teens reassuring themselves that their chances of being selected are quite small, the Career tributes must know from a young age that they will go and kill and probably be killed*. Maybe this complexity is drawn out later in the trilogy, and I’m just making myself look stupid complaining about it!

One of my other favourite things in this book is the action and pacing, and Katniss’s place in it. I’m in awe of how Collins uses action to advance the novel conceptually**, as well as the more traditional application in creating tension and gluing me to the book. In resistance to the Capitol’s dehumanising tactics, the death of each tribute is jarring. Even the “bad” ones. Even when Katniss doesn’t see their deaths, which itself (as opposed to the trope where everyone dies “on screen”) adds to the sense of the scale and senselessness of the Games.

I wondered how Collins would write Katniss in the arena – given the whole kill-or-be-killed ultimatum, it seemed she’d either make an unrealistic triumph without hurting a fly, or get seriously non-PG. How it played out reminded me a lot of Children of Men, an intense film in which the main character never once fires a gun. The Games force Katniss to be a bit more aggressive than that, but I love the unexpected complexity of having a hero(ine) whose solution is not to kill everyone in sight. Plus the gritty reality that the first threat to her life is dehydration. On top of all the other seemingly-impossible things Collins does, she writes a book focussed on violence, where the central tension is over the possibility of violence, without glorifying violence.

In fact, Collins delivers a stern critique of people who see this stuff as entertaining, not to mention voyeuristic desires for extreme displays of human emotion. Although it doesn’t take a genius to figure out contemporary “reality” shows are anything but, when you actually know someone on one of those shows it’s still a shock how much they (are made to) manufacture for the purpose of entertainment. As such, Peeta and Katniss’s “relationship” is incredibly interesting, and Katniss’s constant concern for the sponsors adds yet another layer of complexity. Sometimes I don’t know how Katniss – not to mention Collins! – keeps it all straight in her head, but the second-nature way she factors in the whole thing reminds us of how she’s grown up with the Capitol’s manipulative cruelty.

With all this in mind, there are a few things I feel are overlooked. It doesn’t quite ring true when Katniss says that they keep the old arenas as tourist attractions for the Capitol people. All 73 of them. Given that Katniss’s arena is large enough that they never seem to hit an edge (I know the Capitol people could be diverting them away from the barriers, but she still manages to walk quite far seemingly in a straight line), it’s hard to believe that there are 74 of these arenas on the continent, and counting. Maybe they only keep arenas from recent and/or very popular years? Secondly, did none of the 73 previous Hunger Games result in a situation where the two final tributes mortally wounded each other before the Gamemakers could intervene?

Also, little nuances abound, and I’m sure I’ve noticed only a fraction upon first reading. A few people have mentioned Christian references in The Hunger Games. The story seems to me a political comment, rather than anything that can be plotted to the Bible like Narnia. But does anyone else read Cinna as “sinner”? Given Collins is a Roman Catholic, it can’t be a coincidence that the guy with this name is the only Capitol character shown who recognises the injustice of the system and his own part in it. On a lighter note, people have pointed out a few digs at Twilight in this book (the gusty female heroine herself being one), and I couldn’t help chuckling when Katniss thinks about her hallucination: “…just the fact that he was sparkling leads me to doubt everything that happened.”

Anyway, for all those who’ve read The Hunger Games, I hope the reflections of a new reader are interesting and/or amusing. If there’s anyone out there who’s even slower to the mark than me, get your hands on a copy quick-smart!

*Even if their only real competition is the other five Careers (one from their own, four from other districts), that’s still over an 80% chance of death when, not if, they’re in the games.

** This really highlights the false dichotomy between “plot-driven” and “literary” works – yes, action novels often don’t engage with deep ideas, but that doesn’t mean they can’t, and, as Collins proves, the devices of action themselves can be used for ideas.***

*** Interestingly, I can think of films with plenty of action (Bladerunner, Animal Kingdom, The Searchers, Children of Men) that have been deemed worthy of inclusion in English courses. But adventure in a novel, particularly contemporary works, instantly strikes them from the “literary” genre. Discuss.


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