What Would Katniss Do?

The Hunger Games heroine is a sign that women are adapting better to today’s economic realities….

by Gordon Campbell

SPOILER ALERT : There are a couple of spoilers in this article for people who haven’t read all three books. Beware.

By and large, readers of the Hunger Games books have been reasonably happy with the film adaptation. The fact the box office numbers held up so well, week after week, indicates that the word-of-mouth on the film was that it didn’t suck. Significant, given the books had built their vast fan base since 2008 mainly by the same word-of-mouth process. On screen, the story does gain in immediacy. On the downside, we lose some of the conflicted emotions that Katniss Everdeen feels in the book, and this has repercussions for the apparent meaning of her actions – which get flattened out onscreen, especially in the depiction of her attachments to her two suitors, Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne. How much of this flattening out was inevitable? Some. But there is still room for legitimate bitching about what has ended up onscreen.

In an earlier backgrounder article I dealt with a few of the bogus criticisms commonly levelled at the books, such as the plot similarity to the Japanese film Battle Royale. A few other dodgy criticisms have surfaced since the film was released, such as (a) the extent of shaky hand-held camera work during the District 12 scenes in particular and (b) the criticism of the casting of the “good” characters (Rue, Thresh, Cinna) with black actors. Neither criticism amounts to much. The shaky cam was meant to convey Katniss’ personal point of view – in contrast to the fluid, omnipresent POV of the reality game cameras. Personally, I didn’t find its use excessive or obtrusive. It was plainly an attempt to distinguish Katniss’ perspective from that of the authorities running the Games.

As for the race question ….sure, Cinna could have been any race or colour, but no possible room for complaint there, since Lenny Kravitz did such a great job in the film. Yet the criticism of Rue and Thresh for being depicted as black was a really weird and fundamentally racist reaction.

After all, Rue is described in the text (page 45) as having brown skin and eyes :

And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that’s she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor
Later, Katniss describes Thresh:
The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there. He’s one of the giants, probably six and half feet tall and built like an ox.

Furthermore, Rue’s homeland (District 11) is clearly to be taken as located in the American South, just as the District 12 mining region that Katniss comes from is identified in the text as being in the Appalachian mountains. (The actual site for the District 12 scenes was the ghost town of Henry River mill village, a former textile workers’ settlement in North Carolina built in the early 1900s, and finally abandoned in the 1960s.. There’s an article about it from the Charlotte Observer here.)

That’s why District 12 is portrayed onscreen in ways so similar to the famous photographs of Appalachia taken by Walker Evans during the 1930s. These photos – on the left is a Walker Evans photo, on the right a still from the film – make the connection.

Rue being black is also a crucial element in the logic of the story. Near the end of book one, Katniss is about to be killed, but is saved by the intervention of Thresh – who tells her the has decided to save her life, this one time, because of her kindness to Rue. Yet Katniss’s actions towards Rue would carry such weight with Thresh only if Katniss had crossed some external social barrier, such as race. Point being, few other whites would have displayed the loving respect that Katniss has shown. That was noticed bck in District 11. Ultimately, the way Katniss can unite poor whites and poor blacks in opposition to Panem makes her a focal point for the revolution and a perceived threat by President Snow. (BTW, how come Thresh knew about her kindness to Rue – did he pick up a TV set in the Cornucopia?)

OK – so where are the film’s genuine failings? Well, one of the strengths of the book is its depiction of the interactive nature of the Hunger Games and the clear message that if contestants are to survive they MUST learn how to play on the expectations of the viewers. This reflexive aspect of the actions captured on the TV screen is almost entirely lost in the film. That’s not entirely surprising : actions with dual meanings are easier to convey in print than on film. Yet Katniss, a slow learner about the rules of reality television, certainly manages finally to play that game. In the book, she decks Rue’s body with flowers as an intentional political message as well as a personal one – but onscreen, her motives are portrayed as being driven solely by sentiment.

The handling of Katniss’ romantic attachment to Peeta in the film is far more problematic. In the book, her demonstrations of affection to Peeta are as much a survival strategy aimed at the viewers as a genuine emotional attachment – for her, anyway –and she is only briefly confused about her feelings for Peeta. In the film however, this attachment is played straight, with little sense her affection is largely being feigned. This lapse has unfortunate consequences. It means that the moment when she glimpses Gale Hawthorne again makes her seem like a romantic yo-yo caught between these two hunks of hunkdom. Whereas, in the book, much of what makes Katniss an interesting (and unique) teen heroine is that she seems all but disinterested in any emotional commitment to either of them. She has more important things on her mind.

To appreciate just how unusual this is, consider the Twilight series and Bella (whose emotional world is a battleground for the brooding boy vamps and husky were-blokes competing for access to her body) or the relationship – if that’s the right word – between Ron and Hermione in the Harry Potter series, which becomes possible only after Ron belatedly realises that brainbox has turned into a babe. Katniss is cut from quite different cloth. At times in the book and as discreetly as can be managed in a YA novel, she turns to Peeta for body warmth and temporary comfort but this (as he complains) seems purely to satisfy her own needs – and is not to be taken by him as a sign of an unconditional and exclusive commitment.

In that respect, Katniss is a good exemplar of the women occupying the feminising workplace described by Kate Bolick in her recent Atlantic magazine article “All the Single Ladies” Bolick asks a reasonable question – what happens to women’s notion of commitment when they are better educated, have better job prospects and are more economically successful than the men who have – hitherto – traded on their superiority in all those respects to define marriage and commitment on terms that suit them?

If, in all sectors of society, women are on the ascent, and if gender parity is actually within reach, this means that a marriage regime based on men’s overwhelming economic dominance may be passing into extinction. As long as women were denied the financial and educational opportunities of men, it behooved them to “marry up”—how else would they improve their lot? (As Maureen Dowd memorably put it in her 2005 book, Are Men Necessary?, “Females are still programmed to look for older men with resources, while males are still programmed to look for younger women with adoring gazes.”) Now that we can pursue our own status and security, and are therefore liberated from needing men the way we once did, we are free to like them more, or at least more idiosyncratically, which is how love ought to be, isn’t it?

Which is how, in the books, Katniss behaves (almost) throughout. Not so much in the film. And SPOILER WARNING I would argue that even in the final chapter of the third book Mockingjay it is narrative laziness that finally casts her into a conventional commitment (with matching boy and girl offspring!) to a worthy Mr Reliable who continues to worship her on a pedestal. (But when you’re on a pedestal, it gets lonely at the top.) The more consistent and credible outcome for Katniss would not have involved a choice – Peeta or Gale ? – but would have at least considered the option of neither. Which, as Bolick says, need not entail spinsterish loneliness but a conscious rejection of the social and sexual isolation that the romantic ideal can often (but not always) entail.

The load now being placed on idealised and exclusive romantic relationships is, as Bolick points out, only a recent historical event : and one which the uniquely favourable economic conditions of the 1950s and 1960s briefly made feasible. Those conditions – which fostered the nuclear family unit and the primacy of the male breadwinner – are not going to return any time soon, not wjth the collapse of male jobs in manufacturing and agriculture, and given the current prevalence of offshore outsourcing. As Hanna Rosin pointed out a couple of years ago in her article “The End of Men” women now outnumber men in the US work force for the first time in history, most managerial and professional jobs are now held by women and for every two men who got a college degree in the US during 2010, three women did the same :

As we recover from the Great Recession, some traditionally male jobs will return—men are almost always harder-hit than women in economic downturns because construction and manufacturing are more cyclical than service industries—but that won’t change the long-term trend….

The economic and cultural power shift from men to women would be hugely significant even if it never extended beyond working-class America. But women are also starting to dominate middle management, and a surprising number of professional careers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women now hold 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs—up from 26.1 percent in 1980. They make up 54 percent of all accountants and hold about half of all banking and insurance jobs. About a third of America’s physicians are now women, as are 45 percent of associates in law firms—and both those percentages are rising fast. A white-collar economy values raw intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts. It also requires communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge. Perhaps most important—for better or worse—it increasingly requires formal education credentials, which women are more prone to acquire, particularly early in adulthood. Just about the only professions in which women still make up a relatively small minority of newly minted workers are engineering and those calling on a hard-science background, and even in those areas, women have made strong gains since the 1970s.

True, women have advanced in the work force partly because they continue to be paid less than men, on average. In that sense, women have been the genderised version of the low cost Asian and South American workers who have picked up many of the jobs sent offshore. Furthermore, in Wisconsin at least, there are Neanderthals in political office who are still living in denial about the very existence of a pay gap, and/or who believe that money is simply more important to men than it is to women.

Such craziness aside, the current pay gap (in developed countries the pay for women for the same or equivalent work still lags by roughly ten to twenty per cent) may – and I repeat may – erode as more women continue to move out of the relatively low paid service occupations in which they have tended to be concentrated :

Over the past half century, women have steadily gained on—and are in some ways surpassing—men in education and employment. From 1970 (seven years after the US Equal Pay Act was passed) to 2007, women’s earnings grew by 44 percent, compared with 6 percent for men. In 2008, women still earned just 77 cents to the male dollar—but that figure doesn’t account for the difference in hours worked, or the fact that women tend to choose lower-paying fields like nursing or education. A 2010 study of single, childless urban workers between the ages of 22 and 30 found that the women actually earned 8 percent more than the men. Women are also more likely than men to go to college: in 2010, 55 percent of all college graduates ages 25 to 29 were female.

The process of suburbanisation has also made more women readily employable, as firms have located out of the city centre.

Companies began moving out of the city in search not only of lower rent but also of the “best educated, most conscientious, most stable workers.” They found their brightest prospects among “underemployed females living in middle-class communities on the fringe of the old urban areas.”…When brawn was off the list of job requirements, women often measured up better than men. They were smart, dutiful, and, as long as employers could make the jobs more convenient for them, more reliable.

Among company directors and CEOs of course, the gender gap still remains in force. Yet what I’m getting at is that Katniss Everdeen’s romantic independence, her pressing responsibilities as the family breadwinner, and her political clout are all consistent with the changes that have been occurring in the real economy. Economic and political power – and the onus of decision making within relationships, within the family unit and within the workplace – are increasingly tilting towards an equality (or an outright feminisation) that mass entertainment has yet to embrace. In that respect, the Hunger Games saga is more sophisticated in its treatment of gender roles not only compared to the usual multiplex blockbusters, but compared to most film festival offerings as well.

Finally, if adapting the first Hunger Games book was hard, that task is due to get even more difficult from here on in. Reportedly Catching Fire, the second film hasn’t yet begun shooting and director Gary Ross will not be in charge of the sequel – which is still set for release in November 2013. Four films are planned, with the third book Mockingjay being filmed in two halves. For once, this doesn’t look like milking the franchise – there is simply too much plot in the last book (much of it terribly grim) to fit it into one film.

Suzanne Collins (pictured above) explicitly set out to write a book about war, and its effects – and not a story about the raging hormones of its main characters. Making the horrors of war as palpable and as random as they are in Mockinjay means that the tone of the story will become very dark indeed. Especially given how readily the District 13 rebels embrace the methods of the Panem dictatorship that ey are trying to overthrow. With films three and four, it will be all but impossible to send the punters out of the theatres feeling anything other than supremely bummed out.

Out of perceived necessity, the film-makers are going to grab onto whatever glimmerings of positivity can be gleaned from the romantic triangle. The first casualty of that process is likely to be the independent spirit that Katniss Everdeen has demonstrated for most of the story. Not even Suzanne Collins avoided that trap.