As J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum stressed in their 1981 book Midnight Movies, cults are never created—they grow organically, frequently in the least likely places. The Hunger Games, a young adult novel with sci-fi and horror elements, has sold over 800,000 copies. Many of those who have read the books are much older than its 16-year-old protagonist; indeed, any small amount of time spent on young adult blogs will reveal that a significant portion of YA novels are read by women in their twenties and later. While the reason behind this can be explained a variety of ways (the dearth of women in literary fiction as explored in the New York Review of Books article on “great male narcissists”; how poorly written romance and mainstream “chick-lit” titles are), it's better to let a member of this demographic speak for herself.
Last week, an advance screening of The Hunger Games provided just such an opportunity. In attendance with Film Comment’s Violet Lucca (who read only about 20 pages of the book) were Priya George, a former public radio producer who avidly read all three books, and Leo Duran, a current public radio producer who only read The Hunger Games wiki pages. Below is an abridged transcript of their conversation after the show.
Violet: So, how did you get into these books?
Priya: I can’t believe I read these books! It’s not like anything else I read.
V: What do you normally read?
P: I do read a lot of depressing stuff and my therapist has a lot to say about that. I read a lot of modern contemporary fiction. Mostly in the past I've read a lot of postcolonial stuff but I guess I've been reading a lot more. I don’t think I've read a book like this since my adolescence.
V: Why did you pick them up?
P: Well, a friend of mine recommended them to me and was like, “This is young adult fiction, but…” Generally it takes me such a long time to get into a book and this I was captured from the beginning. I think I finished all three in a month.
V: What drew you in?
P: The plot was really good. It captures you.
V: Even though I’ve only read the first 20 pages, you immediately know what she wants, who she is, you know exactly what is going to happen to her. In that way it's like a movie. Or at least what Syd Field thinks what every screenplay should be like.
P: But I just never thought—and maybe because I don’t think in those formulas, and I haven’t read that many young adult books—but I just didn’t know how she was going to get there. From beginning to end I didn’t foresee a lot of stuff. But by the time I read the second book, I knew what was coming in the third one.
Leo: The heights are lessened because you know she’s not going to die… It’s a trilogy.
V: So many people in the theater were gasping and crying and laughing even though they knew exactly what was coming. That’s kind of the power of adaptation.
P: You’ve seen it in your head, and this is the first time you're seeing it with your eyes.
L: Gary Ross, who was the director here, did a really good job.
P: What else has he done?
P: Oh that’s right. No wonder. I think I read that previously and looked him up on IMDb. As you can see, I don’t retain that much information. Or rather it wasn’t something I needed to keep in my head. But yeah he was perfect for it. Although this is a little more active than Pleasantville. It's like Pleasantville in terms of spotlighting people’s attitudes, and our relationships with the media.
V: It also puts somebody from the real world into a TV show with a distinct formula.
L: If I had read the books, I would have felt that I would be more numb after reading about the initial bloodbath, or after each of the tributes were killed. I didn’t really get that here, just because they cut away from them so much and didn’t show the violence directly.
V: People were really disturbed by that.
L: In the book?
V: No, I’m talking about the people around me in the theater. When were you moved, Priya? As compared to the books, I mean.
P: I liked the books—I appreciated the tension and the story—but I don't remember feeling emotionally caught up in it. I could keep my distance. I could always put the book down. But with the movie you're there, it seemed like a very long time—or at least it felt long, but maybe that’s because I didn’t have my phone. You also have the added affect of music.
L: All the sound effects were very sparse.
P: And when they're fighting Cato, that was like the most complicated fight scene and you don't really know what's going on. Normally in action movies, I don’t pay attention to that because I can't follow it. Because it's so fast-paced.
L: It's like a whole bunch of shit's going on, I'm just gonna tune out for a bit.
P: Exactly, and when I come back it'll resolve itself. That's how they can have kids beating up on each other and make it PG-13 somehow.
L: Do you feel like this is a very teen-oriented movie? Because the way it was done it had a sort of indie feel to it. It wasn’t like The Dark Knight, which was like, “Look at all this shit that's going on.”
P: I don't think there are that many special effects, even.
V: Well, all the stuff you see on the Hunger Games TV show, that's pretty standard reality-television CGI. But what I really loved is when she wears fire. I want to wear fire!
P: They did a really good job in terms of the chariots.
V: That took my breath away.
P: Yes, I have to say that was a high. And then, in terms of Rue dying, that was emotional.
V: Is Rue more developed in the book?
P: They spend a little more time together, they strategize, and they have a whole conversation about the mocking jays. They talk about their families.
L: Katniss says it feels like Rue's her little sister. You get a sense of why Rue is drawn to Katniss. And at the end, she's so moved because she keeps on thinking she’s like Prim, and how could she kill someone younger than herself.
V: I definitely got all that. Which goes to show that it's a good movie, not just a good or faithful adaptation.
L: I'm glad they didn't do too much exposition.
P: It was hard for me to keep track of all the characters, the tributes.
V: Did they flesh those out more in the books? You see them and you're like, “That one is totally going to die.”
P: The ones that die immediately you don't really get to know. But overall, I think she describes them a little more.
L: Yeah, some of them were total red shirts from Star Trek.
P: He’s my expert!
L: How did your conception of the world of The Hunger Games fit with what you saw on the screen?
P: It was pretty similar. They did a really good job. You get a sense of the forest, the water. I went to college in the Hudson Valley, and I sort of visualized it like that. That area of Panem she’s in is supposed to be Appalachia, and so I imagine that’s what Appalachia’s supposed to look like.
V: I thought everyone was cast so well in this movie. This is a franchise which means you don’t have to do it well, but they did.
P: Woody Harrelson redeemed himself. I was telling Leo that I didn’t like that they cast him because I didn’t picture him as Haymitch…
V: Why not?
P: I was expecting a grizzly Irish guy.
L: Yeah, like Al Swearengen from Deadwood.
P: That’s who I wanted as a character. Because he seemed like old and pot-bellied just, you know, over it.
L: In the books, it works out, because he won his Quarter Quell when he was 16. Twenty-five years later, which is when this movie begins, he’s about 40. He’s a lot younger than 55-ish. So I thought he was really good.
P: He was really good. I thought Elizabeth Banks played it rather well too.
V: Loved Stanely Tucci and Toby Jones in this.
P: He’s an endearing man, Stanley Tucci.
L: I thought Jennifer Lawrence did a great job. She had to be restrained the entire time, but she had all these little ticks.
P: In the book there's a little more—like when she's kissing Peeta, it's made clear she's playing towards the camera.
L: In the book she’s more calculated.
P: You know that they're being watched, and obviously they have that moment where she's in the tree and looks at the camera.
V: So that’s played up more in the book?
P: Oh yeah, you know they're being watched at all times.
V: It's probably because we're so accustomed to watching reality shows that their aesthetics become a little invisible. In Hollywood movies it's rare to break the fourth wall by looking into the camera. That's part of the reason why silent movies are so odd to watch now because they're constantly doing it. Even when she finds the camera in the tree, it's a little Gordon Ramsay where her eyes are focused off-camera. What do you think about the reality show aspect of this versus the book?
L: It felt as if not present at all.
V: Well, let me ask you about something I felt wasn't present. This is supposed to be America, right?
P: It’s what used to be the U.S., yes.
V: In this movie, it seems as though America is made up of almost entirely of white people, and then a few black people.
P: Yeah, everyone is the same shade of pale. Everyone kind of looked the same.
V: Color correction. Someone next to me laughed when they cut to District 12, which is all white except one black woman way in the back.
P: I don’t think she talks about race or ethnicity in the books. I might have overlooked it.
V: There are no Latinos, no Asians. So the tributes are all either white or black, and it’s weird. Aside from the kids killing each other, that was the most distracting thing for me.
P: Yeah, I guess you want more diversity. But if you watch a generic Hollywood movie about a high school, there would be the Asian nerd. But there’s no need for a chemistry student in this movie. We’ll probably see more diversity with the rebels in the next movies.
V: It’s very lazy.
P: I would have been too dark for District 12.
V: What did you think about the violence?
L: In the movie the bloodbath wasn't as brutal as the books. It was just like little snippets of violence where you couldn’t tell what was going on. It was more like she was distracted and disoriented. The only one that I really noticed, was Thresh was supposed to die earlier than Foxface.
V: Can I just say, God bless watching this movie in New York? Because all the black people around me were totally cheering him every time he came on screen, but particularly when he killed that awful white girl.
L: Yeah, Clove. But they even developed that more in the book.
V: Is Peeta actually into Katniss?
P: Yeah, legitimately because there's this whole thing that he actually fell in love with her in school.
L: They explain that near the end, when they're holed up together and he's hurt his leg.
V: I didn't trust him entirely when he's saying all that stuff. You guys have seen season two of Downton Abbey right? There's that whole “P. Gordon” storyline—which is ridiculous, but I loved it—and all the stuff he says to Edith is really generic, but she still believes him. And really, you can't say either way—aside from the fact that it's ridiculous and soapy—whether or not he's really who he says he is. I felt like all the stuff Peeta says is similar. You could have those memories about someone you barely know. I know I have little memories about people I went to grade school with, things that they have probably forgotten but I can recall for whatever reason. But in most cases, no reason at all.
P: They have this moment, I think because they live in such an impoverished place and are downtrodden politically, that for her to sing was an act of… I don’t know if it's politically defiant or something they weren’t allowed to do, but it stood out. People didn’t really sing. They were too weak to, which is why Peeta remembers it.
L: But there’s this whole thing I don’t know how they're going to handle in the movies: Snow really loves roses, and smells like he's heavily perfumed. I kind of pictured him like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. And Donald Sutherland is a good person to play him, but you have to think of him deteriorating on the inside.
P: What really excites me about this being made into a franchise is that she’s a kick ass female character and you don’t see that a lot. Flavorpill had this list of strong female characters that was pretty—
V: Yes, I saw that too. There weren't that many, and usually they were a bit of a stretch.
P: The New York Times did an article about how the movie is being marketed, but the books are so successful it’s redundant. What I’m curious about is who is going to these movies and is it going to be a female-only base. We’ve had the Bridesmaids phenomenon, and women are coming out of the economic downturn better than men. Maybe with this we'll see non-sexualized female action figures.
V: Did you see Haywire? It was amazing and again had a strong female character. You were sort of complaining about the waffling, and there’s none of that. She’s cutthroat but she’s human and not sentimental in the way a woman is expected to be. Also the woman that plays the lead she looks like a real woman. She’s not like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill.
P: Jennifer Lawrence has a real body. She’s wearing these pants and it’s like, “Bless her, she’s got an ass!”
V: While I can't compare with the books, obviously, I thought as a movie, the casting was perfect. This is a franchise which means you don’t have to do it well, but they did.
P: I also thought they would've slacked, but I think girls would have noticed.
V: Girls wouldn’t put up with that shit. I know I didn’t when I was a teenage girl.