Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Rulebook Casefile: Obstacle Vs. Conflict in The Hunger Games

Once again, a hit children’s book gets a big-deal movie adaptation, and the critics love it: 90% on Rotten Tomatoes!  And once again, I say… eh.

Just as with Hugo, The Hunger Games is too much obstacle, not enough conflict.  At least in this one, we did have two occasions where the heroine faces a genuine conflict and meets the challenge:  At the very beginning, she offers to take her sister’s place in a gladiatorial contest (bold and heroic!).  Then, at the very end, she tricks the gamemasters into letting both her and her pseudo-love-interest live (bold, heroic and clever!)  But in between… ugh. 

The co-competitor from Katniss’s home district (Peeta) decides that they should act like they’re in love, and she passively goes along with it.  That’s a great story idea (borrowed from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? but who’s counting?) but it doesn’t pay off.  It’s neither an obstacle nor a conflict, because it’s not hard to do…
  • What if the fake romance had been her idea, and Peeta didn’t want to do it, so she had to talk him into it?  That’s a lot more active and difficult! 
  • What if the gamemaster was offended at their manipulation and kept trying to prove they weren’t really in love, so they kept having to up the ante?   
or hard to want to do:
  • What if she was deeply in love with that hunky guy back home, and couldn’t stand to kiss someone else?  They vaguely imply this might be the case, but they never really go there, for some reason.
  • What if she was in love with Peeta, despite the fact that he didn’t feel the same way, but he agreed to fake it for the cameras?  That would have been emotionally wrenching for her to kiss her unrequited crush knowing that he was faking it!
  • In the book/movie, Peeta is really in love, and she’s not, but what if she had to hide it from him that she didn’t really mean it?  He might begin to suspect the truth as they went along, forcing her to up the ante.   
But the real problem is the combat itself, which is totally emotionally flat.  She sort of wants to win, so we sort of want her to win, but neither she nor we have any strong feelings either way.  There’s no emotional journey.  As I complained about the book a long time ago, killing her fellow teenagers causes no emotional response at all, which is utterly bizarre. 

And this brings us to the fatal flaw that kills the drama and exposes the theme as totally hypocritical… Where the hell is the Woody Strode scene??  Spartacus thinks he can survive in the ring by not getting to know anybody he’ll have to kill.  He only makes one friend, and ignores the rest.  Then, on his first day’s fighting, what happens?  He has to fight his one friend!

Katniss becomes the champion gladiator, but she never has to kill anybody she doesn’t like along the way!  Everybody she kills is a jerk!  This is totally morally and intellectually dishonest! 

Ultimately, Katniss is a flatline.  At the end, she hasn’t changed at all.  Going to the capital hasn’t changed her.  Killing all those kids hasn’t changed her.  Being separated from that guy back home hasn’t changed her.  Faking that romance with that other guy hasn’t changed her.  She’s numb in the beginning, numb in the middle, and numb in the end.  Apparently the critical faculties of the reviewers were equally numbed.  

But wait, what was I talking about?  Oh, right, urges.   Tomorrow: a humorous story about urge and lack of urge in The Hunger Games


j.s. said...

Not only is she never forced to kill anyone she doesn't like, she's repeatedly saved by numerous deus ex machinas from getting her hands dirty killing at all and she's also too often spared the hard work of practical problem solving that you've written about so often as being the key quality of a strong protagonist. That beehive drop, for instance, isn't even her idea.

Just about the only two interesting decisions she makes after her initial sacrifice to save the sister are the boar's head shot and the threat of dual suicide at the end.

But, hey, this just goes to show you how right you were yesterday. Look at all the shortcomings of THE HUNGER GAMES and look at the book sales and box office. The writer is clearly hitting the bull's eye when it comes to satisfying her target market's primal urges.

James Kennedy said...

Wait, "that guy back home" *is* Gale. The person you're referring to as Gale is actually Peeta.

James Kennedy said...

And another thing. The three biggest children's/YA franchises of the past couple years -- Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games -- have heroes that are too passive according to your principles. Since these stories are wildly successful, maybe the problem is with your principles? Maybe we need to look past the active protagonist and try to analyze the pleasures of the passive hero. Clearly a nerve is being hit and it's working for someone. Why insist on the orthodoxy of activity when the most popular stories are strangely passive? This is an opportunity for analysis, not something we should either deny or try to explain away.

James Kennedy said...

And I remember you, Matt, had similar problems with Lord of the Rings! It's a pattern! But you can't argue with success. For audiences, is there perhaps something subtly repulsive about a too-active protagonist? If the hero cleverly and resourcefully solves *all* of their problems, is the audience pushed away? Does part of the wish-fulfillment of certain stories perhaps partially depend on our heroes being "taken care of" by more powerful forces? I remember the first time I read the Odyssey, having heard the Odysseus was wily and could trick his way out of any situation. I remember being disappointed because it seemed to me the gods helped Odysseus too much, tipped the scales too far in his favor. But that story has lasted for centuries and centuries. Having established active-ness and ingenuity as fundamental principles, and insisting on them as orthodoxy, perhaps we're overlooking some other pleasures of narrative that don't fall in that model.

Matt Bird said...

Damn, I was worried I was getting that Gale/Peeta things wrong. I'll fix it. (Which will make you look crazy.) (Well, crazier.)

As for your "can't argue with success" argument, it's obviously a slippery slope... The Transformers movies were big hits, and so were the Star Wars prequels. Clearly at some point, we *must* argue with success.

And I claimed that Harry was too passive in only 2 of the 7 books (4 and 6). Otherwise, he's pretty exemplary of all my rules.

But beyond that, yes, Frodo, Katniss and Bella all belie my arguments. What can I say? I find the success of all three series somewhat... weird.

All three of these heroes are morose and passive, trudging through unrelentingly dark worlds, letting others tell them what to do and half-heartedly trying to defeat evil without any plan of what they'd replace it with if they could.

So why are they so popular? Well, I don't know. Obviously there's a certain sort of audience who *really* responds to that sort of story, though in theory such stories shouldn't work. These are "love em or hate em" series. I'll think more about it.

(And, just to be clear, I realize it's unfair to lump all three together, because, you know... Tolkien>>>>Collins>>Meyer)

James Kennedy said...

No, Transformers is a bad example. Nobody seriously defends Transformers as good storytelling. But people will go to the wall for Harry Potter, Twilight, LOTR, and Hunger Games as great stories. I agree "there's no arguing with success" is a slippery slope, but it's not as slippery as that. These 4 franchises gobble up probably 60% of the cultural airspace for that audience . . . I think the onus is on the theorist to explain why they work, instead of throwing up our hands and saying, "people like crap."

I think there's an intelligent analysis of pleasurable passivity that needs to be made. There are probably rules of doing passivity right. Why, this may even be the "dark energy" of scriptwriting theory! Just in the same way much of the energy of the universe seems to be invisible or unaccounted for by our current physics theories, the success of these franchises should give the orthodox story theorist pause. Such success must be accounted for by *something* . . . and I think you and I agree that putting these stories on the same level as Transformers is a false equivalence.

Well, who better to plumb the depths of this new frontier than you, who has proven himself, in post after post, as the master of orthodox story theory?

Oh and


There, I fixed it.

j.s. said...

I have no idea what James Kennedy is talking about. Just because there's a story out there that's wildly successful largely because it excels at the kind of visceral thrills and wish fulfillment (Katniss playing dress up and feeling pretty for the first time; Katniss becoming inadvertent reality TV star; Katniss winning a popularity contest that, unlike high school, doesn't only feel like a blood sport; Katniss as morose and passive -- teenage! teenage! -- superhero) Matt was writing about yesterday doesn't mean its faults should be overlooked or, as you seem to suggest, drafted into some kind of new paradigm of quality storytelling.

j.s. said...

Okay, I've thought about this more and it seems to me James Kennedy has a point about some component of the wish to be taken care of dovetailing with these more passive protagonists. Since all three of the ones we're discussing are teenagers, I'd wager a part of this has to do with the fact that kids aren't always their own best problem solvers and do sometimes need to call in lifelines and magical help from their elders.

Still, I'd rather watch Lawrence as a tough girl in WINTER'S BONE where she also hunts for squirrels in Appalachia and manages to solve all her problems quite cleverly in spite of her age. Of course, this is a story about a kid that's not really for kids.

One more thing for Matt to consider: is the super-proactive problem-solving protagonist a particularly American thing? On some level it strikes me as a very American fantasy that we can solve our problems on our own if we're just persistent/tough/clever enough.

J.A. said...

I agree with James.

I don't know anything about the Hunger Games, but in relation to LOTR, I find it really hard to say that's not great storytelling. That story is about being a small being in a big world that you can't control, and trying to get through it the best you can. That is a valid story, and the films were very compelling. No, it doesn't fit the mold of the "active protagonist," but to claim that makes the films unpleasurable feels like it's just being pedantic.

The same thing with the Twilight films. They are tapping into a certain girlish fantasy of being swept through an alien and dangerous world, of being protected by someone you love, of being the source of other peoples conflict that is clearly working for millions of young girls (and if one of my friends is any example, middle-aged women). And they're not just coming for the cute guys, they're coming for that story.

I learn so much from your blog, and I have the utmost respect for your analysis of story. But there must be some reason that these stories are working for so many people. I guess the problem with going too far into it, though, is that they are probably extreme exceptions. I'd really hate it if a discussion of the possible pleasures of a passive protagonist spawned even one more crappy indie movie.

James Kennedy said...

Suzanne Collins (the author of THE HUNGER GAMES) is no naive storyteller. Before THG, she wrote for television and also had a successful series of middle-grade books called GREGOR THE OVERLANDER. So the success of Katniss is not dumb luck. She knows what she's doing. Katniss' passivity is by design.

I wonder if Collins is writing Katniss as a deliberate send-up of orthodox storytelling theory? To be sure, Katniss is pretty morose, humorless, passive, and unappealing. But remember, there are TWO audiences "watching" her: the fictional audience of Panem in the HUNGER GAMES story, and the actual audience (us). When Haymitch and Effie Trinket badger Katniss that the only way she can survive is to "be more likable," "make them remember you," they speak in the cliches of the screenwriting guru.

Matt talks about the requirement of having a moment when the hero does something badass, and the audience roars, "That's my guy!" When Katniss shoots her arrow into the judges' booth before the Games begin, that is such a moment -- for both the audience of Panem and us -- deliberately engineered by Katniss for maximum emotional effect, as surely as if she had been coached by Robert McKee. This is a different situation than anything in Rowling, Tolkien, or Meyer -- and very self-aware of its doubleness.

Katniss is not only learning how to survive in the arena, she is being cajoled unwillingly into simulating a "good" hero as defined by Orthodox Screenwriting Theory.

If I recall correctly, Katniss doesn't even have any particular romantic feelings for Peeta or Gale at the beginning of the story. She is forced to simulate feelings for Peeta for the sake of the creating a "compelling story" for the pleasure of the Panem audience, just as a romantic subplot is often shoe-horned willy-nilly into stories to give it more kick.

By constantly having to self-consciously "sell" herself to the audience of Panem just as a screenwriter must "sell" his hero to the audience, it seems Suzanne Collins is cleverly playing with, subverting, and perhaps moving past the conventions we explore on this blog.

Matt Bird said...

Some more thoughts:

Lord of the Rings: James cleverly tricked me into lumping this in with the others so that I would look foolish, but it doesn’t belong. Frodo is too passive and unimaginative for my tastes, yes, but the books/movies are still very rousing, because Frodo and Aragorn are polarized co-protagonists. Aragorn is a brilliant strategist who gets sidelined from the main action by a quirk of fate, while Frodo is the unquestioning soldier who ironically has to win the war. Ultimately, this works. My complaints before were specifically about Frodo’s story, and I would definitely argue that he’s not a very compelling character, but the story as a whole is satisfying.

The Hunger Games works much better as a book than a movie. I do love the po-mo elements James describes of Katniss attempting to intentionally turn herself into a compelling character, but I think that those elements worked much better in the book than they did in the movie. In the book, we’re following her thought process. In the movie we’re watching what she actually does along those lines, which isn’t much. (Other than the apple, which works great in the book and the movie) We desperately needed more actual conversations between Katniss and Peeta in which they debated this stategy (maybe after disabling or avoiding the cameras) As it is, it’s totally unclear to what degree they’re coordinating this strategy, which feels very vague.

Twilight is the one series here I haven’t read, though I did see the first movie, and it seems to me that, as “Fifty Shades of Grey” has shown, Twilight's appeal is the appeal of an S&M submission fantasy.

James Kennedy said...

But what about the broader point, Matt? Do you think Orthodox Storytelling Theory has a blind spot, and that there might be theoretical work still to be done in analyzing what makes passive heroes work? Or can all successful passive heroes be explained away as outliers and special cases of the active hero?

James Kennedy said...

In the early 20th century, it was broadly thought that physics was pretty much done, except for a few minor clean-up jobs here and there. One of the assumptions of classical theory of that energy was continuous--that is, it was a quantity that could be subdivided as much as possible. Max Planck was an accomplished classical theorist, but he found to his dismay that the only way certain observations could be squared with theory was if he postulated that energy was NOT continuous, but "quantized" into minimum packets of energy. This was distasteful to him and any other right-thinking classical theorist, but this insight was the foundation of modern quantum theory and much of 20th century physics. Max Planck was a reluctant revolutionary. Perhaps this is your Max Planck moment, Matt. The distasteful-yet-undeniably-successful passive protagonist does not fit in Orthodox Story Theory, but it stubbornly will not go away! Is there something to be analyzed after all? Is there theoretical work to be done? WILL YOU BOLDLY BEAR THE STANDARD, MATT, INTO A NEW CENTURY OF STORYTELLING THEORY?

Matt Bird said...

Well, as J.S. pointed out, it goes back to what I was saying on Monday: people don't buy tickets because of compelling characters, they buy tickets to have their buttons pushed. Orthodox Storytelling Theory, as you call it, like any critical theory, isn't really about "What will win fans?", it's about "Why do some stories stand the test of time better than others do?"

Stephanie Meyer is very much the Anne Rice of her day, and Suzanne Collins is a would-be Stephen King. Rice's novels were wildly popular 20 years ago, but they've now mostly faded from public consciousness. King's books are still read, but neither his oeuvre nor his general reputation have aged very well.

James Kennedy said...

I wonder if there's as much daylight between "What will win fans?" and "Why do some stories stand the test of time better than others do?" as we think. Isn't the second just a longitudinal version of the first?

Anyway, BRIDESHEAD REVISITED has a remarkably passive hero, and that's pretty much stood the test of time. Both Arthur Dent from HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and Alice of ALICE IN WONDERLAND pretty much get thrown passively and willy-nilly from one situation to another.

I guess what all these "successful-passive" stories have in common is that the hero is being initiated into a new world that is fantastical compared to their old one (whether it's going from starving in District 12 to the luxury and violence of the Capitol in THE HUNGER GAMES, or from upper-middle class to the English upper-crust in BRIDESHEAD). One is thrown into a situation in which there are new rules, new modes of being, new ways of acting, and the protagonist is necessarily paralyzed into what we might call a "fruitful and receptive passivity" for a significant section of the story. If they immediately took control of the fantasy world of which they know nothing, it wouldn't be convincing.

Matt Bird said...

I agree with a lot of what you're saying, but let me engage in more special pleading:

Arthur and Alice are very physically passive, but we love them because they never stop trying to impose their stubborn logical rules on increasingly illogical worlds. They both argue with every single person they meet, each of whom represents a maddening new logical fallacy for the hero/heroine to tackle. Milo in The Phantom Tollbooth is very similar. The pleasures of all three books are essentially cerebral, and none of the three worked very well as movies.

Brideshead Revisited (one of my favorite novels) is a memory-play: The chief tension is between the Charles in the 40s and Charles in the past, as he ruefully looks back on his own naivete.

Beth said...

Facinating debate! About the new theory of passive heroes, I think the teenage girl aspect is important. I think a lot of the female fans of both THG and Twilight feel a great deal of empathy for the romantic ambivalence of both Bella and Katniss. If these girls were more decisive, they would just pick one guy, end of story. But they are still figuring out who they are and who they want to be with. So they are unsure, and thus the (female) audience gets the subversive pleasure of watching one girl romanced by two guys. A more active woman would be an unsympathic bitch who's leading them on! I think these stories should be compared with Gone With the Wind, which also featured a famous love triangle of Scarlett, Rhett, and Ashley.

As someone who's read both Twilight and Hunger Games, I think the romance was better in Twilight, and the action was better in Hunger Games. Thanks for breaking down the plot problems, Matt! Neither of these are the classics that Harry Potter or LOTR are.

Matt Bird said...

Excellent points, Beth. Teen girls love the idea of being desired, but fear the idea of desiring (for fear of being slut-shamed), so they crave passive romantic heroines.

j.s. said...

I really like the points Beth made about romantic triangles and the narrative needs of teen girls. So much for us guys trying to figure this out on our own!

I think Matt's being a trifle unfair to Stephen King above by downgrading him to the level of Suzanne Collins. I'm not even that big a fan of King's, but really? He wrote better versions of THE HUNGER GAMES straight out of the box in two of his early Bachman books, penned while he was still an undergrad in college -- THE RUNNING MAN and THE LONG WALK. And she's nowhere near as prolific or passionate a storyteller as he is and will have nowhere near the impact on our film/TV culture. I can't ever imagine Stanley Kubrick or Brian De Palma or David Cronenberg wanting to film something Suzanne Collins wrote.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I haven't read the book or seen the movie, but maybe The Hunger Games could be considered a "hybrid protagonist" story, where the two protagonists are Katniss and, per one of Matt's earlier posts, the games themselves?

In heist movies and such, like The Taking of Pelham 123, Matt posited (I forget which post) that the development of the heist was essentially the developing character, and thus the heist itself was the protagonist of the piece. In the case of HG, could it be that what captures people's interest is seeing how the game develops, just as much as seeing Katniss spearin' suckas? The game grows, changes, reverses, etc., and we're interested in that.

This ties in with the observations on Alice in Wonderland, etc., where the development of the strange circumstances is part of the draw.

Tanya Anderson said...

I just saw the movie this weekend, too, mainly to get an idea of what horrors might be inflicted on the upcoming CHAOS WALKING movies. I dread the result, and after watching THE HUNGER GAMES, have even more reason so expect a movie to make anemic a spectacular story.

Elizabeth Fama said...

What's missing from this discussion is how the fact of being the first in a series (both the book and the movie) has somehow allowed the author and director to believe they have a pass on showing a full emotional arc for the main character, or fleshing out the true underlying conflict. They know it will come later (not that it ever does in the TWILIGHT franchise). But this strategy makes for an unsatisfying reading and viewing experience, and it feels, I dunno, presumptuous to assume that we'll all come back for the next installments to see it happen.

My complaint with the first book was that we were inside Katniss's brain and we never once got a hint that she might hope for a greater purpose for herself other than winning. Even though she's a child, even though she was raised with the Games, even though she has been oppressed from birth, even though all she wants is to get back to her family, this is fiction, guys, and I want my strong main character to at least question whether it would be possible to remove her tracker, disable cameras, not kill other tributes, find an outcome in which more than one person lives, subvert the Capitol. To me this was the height of Katniss's passivity in the novel -- especially because it was 1st-person narration -- that she didn't imagine or wish for other possibilities.

Matt Bird said...

I totally agree, Elizabeth. That drove me nuts.

Anonymous said...

This discussion of MC passivity is really interesting. I think it's possible that those stories work despite the majority of passive time for two reasons.

First, they reflect a lot of real life situations we have all experienced. We say "saved by the bell" for a reason. It's nearly illegal to use it in storytelling but I know I have had several serious Deus ex machina instances in my real life. I think such things have to be handled carefully, but for that reason, I don't think - used well - it alienates most audience members; in fact it can give us the rushing and joyous sense of relief. In short, we relate to the sense of having been unexpectedly saved at a critical moment AND wish for such things to happen again if we ever need it.

Second, we also relate to "passivity" of inexperience and looking to others for guidance, being unaware of opportunity until others make it clear to us, being lost and fumbling, feeling too tired or lazy to go on, ... So seeing those things in a character's path/arc isn't bothersome until it goes on so long it becomes boring.

But at the end of such spans an instance of gumption - especially scenes where he's clearly synthesizing all that help with his own ideas and coming up with something really unique - stands in high contrast to his previous behavior and that high contrast 1) makes sure we notice it and care, 2) makes it more hope & fear inspiring 3) makes it more energizing & attention focusing. Knowing when to shorten the spans of relative passivity is one of the blessings of good Beta readers.