Catching Fire – A Unique Point Of View


catching_fire_coverLast Friday I went to see Catching Fire, the second movie based on Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. I have a unique perspective on the movie because, unlike the majority of people who have seen, or are planning to see, it, I have neither read the books nor seen the first movie.

Consequently, my opinion of Catching Fire is largely formed by the movie itself. I say “largely” because I have been a party to more than one discussion of the Hunger Games books, and therefore have some familiarity with the direction the story is taking.

Nevertheless, my view is probably as untainted as is possible to get in this communication age in which we live.

First, I liked the movie a great deal and found myself thinking about the story long afterward. True, I was thinking about writing a review, so in some ways, my dwelling on it isn’t a sign of affirmation. However, I think the more I’ve taken a closer look, the better the movie gets.

When I walked out of the theater, I was captivated by the fast action and very aware that I didn’t really know the main character, Katniss, at all. She was a pretty girl, sensitive to others, even tenderhearted. But she had some steel inside her, which is why she was able to win in the games.

That steel inside, or backbone, was also the thing that the people saw and admired, together with her caring. She felt the way they felt, grieved with them, and cared about those they held in esteem. She was someone they could rally around.

But that’s it. I don’t know Katniss beyond those points. She loved her sister and apparently her childhood friend and sweetheart, but also her companion and fellow champion. She didn’t seem conflicted by loving two guys at the same time because her life was reduced to survival.

Yet oddly, it was Peeta who pointed out to her that she needed to live for her family and for the guy who loved her rather than sacrificing herself for him. She, it seemed, was all too willing to die for him, though he had no family and no one apart from Katniss to love.

I guess that made me think she was a bit shortsighted. And in the end, when it’s apparent that others have realized she is a symbol of hope to the nation when she herself is unaware of it, my thoughts of her limited vision are born out.

In many respects, Katniss mostly wanted to escape, not fight, the system that oppressed her and the nation. She tried to get Gale to leave with her before she was called back into the games. She entered intent to take no allies apart from Peeta. At one point she said she didn’t have friends, and that wasn’t true, but it showcased her desire to keep people at arm’s distance as a way to protect herself from the pain of seeing them die, or of having to take the blow for them.

In many ways, Catching Fire is an issues movie. Yes, the action is filled with tension, but the real question isn’t will Katniss survive. It’s what will Katniss decide to do? Will she step up and seize the role that her nemesis, President Snow, fears she will take?

In the end, she doesn’t. She actually becomes a symbol without meaning to and with others manipulating events around her to bring it about.

I’m left, then, with disappointment. The people want hope and they have it, but not because the heroine has chosen to side with them or to lead them. She’s thrust into the circumstance of being a leader of a cause, just as surely as she was thrust into the games. She thinks about one person at a time–her sister, Peeta, the other competitors–but in fact, her actions have far-reaching impact on many, many others.

In the long run, I’m glad I saw the movie, and if the third in the trilogy came out tomorrow, I’m pretty sure I’d make every effort to see it. But at this point, I don’t see Katniss as a character I care for deeply. I don’t know her well and don’t believe she is trying to accomplish anything of great significance. If she could, I’m sure she’d escape with Gale and be done with the whole thing. But she can’t.

So the new question is like the old one: what will Katniss do now?

A worthwhile movie which is generating some thoughtful conversation.

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Raising The Next Generation


    Every singer out there with songs on the radio is raising the next generation – Taylor Swift.

A couple weeks ago 60 Minutes, CBS’s news magazine, aired a broadcast from last November which included a segment about popular singer Taylor Swift. During the conversation with Lesley Stahl, she made the above statement.

The most remarkable thing might have been what she said next: “so make your words count.”

How about that! A 21 year old singer understands what writers twice her age don’t seem to get. Sure, she was talking about music, not books. But I don’t think the difference is so great. Screenplay writers, novelists, lyricists, singers, actors–it seems the arts have arrived, and the influence of the arts on culture. Or perhaps, more accurately, entertainment has arrived.

Any idea that books are being kicked to the curb as an influence should have been erased by Harry Potter. Or Twilight. Or Hunger Games.

Kids dressed up like Harry, chose up teams for Twilight. I shudder to think what is out there in conjunction with Hunger Games.

In spite of all this book attention and the widening influence of those developed into movies, some Christian writers still parrot the party line that Christian fiction should not be about “a message.” Perish the thought that fiction should actually have something to say. The main goal–the highest goal–they claim, is for a writer to entertain.

I think Taylor Swift would think that odd. She gets that the words she sings have impact on those kids absorbing them.

Why wouldn’t characters we live with for seven books, or three? Don’t their values become ours for those hours when we inhabit their world? Aren’t we feeling their fear or love or hope? Aren’t we reasoning and planning the next step, as they are?

And yet they have no impact on us?

I dare say, the majority of the writers who hold this view first decided they wanted to pen a story because of something they read.

But horrors if the writer of that book actually intended to communicate the message that storytelling is a desirable thing. Messages can’t be intentional, only accidental, or so the thinking goes of this group of Christian writers. Anything intentional is nothing short of propaganda.

I doubt that’s what Taylor Swift thinks. I suspect she is responding to the fact that a generation of plugged in kids is vulnerable, easily influenced by the entertainment media, wide open to believe whatever their idols say.

Why is it that Christian writers can’t embrace this fact, too? Why is it that if we say, “so make your words count,” we’re advocating turning fiction into propaganda?

Could it be that a story with something to say actually has more depth, not less? Could it be that the difference between an excellent story and propaganda is in the execution not the existence of a message?

I don’t know, maybe most parents are content to have the current singers who are on the radio raising their kids. Maybe they’re fine with the characters in books like Twilight serving as role models.

But wouldn’t it be cool if the writers of those words–the song lyrics and the stories–paid attention to what Taylor said and made their words count in such a way that young girls learned more than to be obsessed with a bad boy? Or that war is as bad as the soldiers say, and to top it off, everyone involved is corrupt.

Personally, Harry is looking better and better. In his story friends matter, so much that they’re worth dying for, and in the end that kind of sacrificial love is invincible. Those words just might count for something worthwhile.

Promotion – What Makes A Work Go Viral?


I suppose every author and musician, maybe every dancer or videographer, movie producer, or TV exec wants to know the same thing — what makes a work go viral?

In other words, why did Harry Potter become such a success? Why Eragon? The Passion of the Christ? Twilight? Hunger Games? Left Behind? Shadowmancer? The Da Vinci Code? The Shack? Is there something these books have in common that brought them so much attention?

The first thing I notice is that all except perhaps Hunger Games made the national news for one reason or the other. In most cases the reason was controversy. Harry Potter received criticism from Christians as did The Da Vinci Code. Christians debated the merits of The Shack. Shadowmancer supposedly angered a faction of Christians and came to the US under a cloud of criticism. And Jews objected to The Passion.

Some of the works received national attention because of a human interest aspect. Christopher Paolini began writing Eragon when he was fifteen, self-published, and traveled the country with his parents hand selling the book until it was picked up by a traditional publisher, and made national news.

The Left Behind books found their way in front of network viewers because of their success in the Christian market. (In the same way, Amish stories are now coming out of the ABA — because they continue to sell and sell and sell.) Twilight was a phenom because, of all things, the teenage lovers didn’t have sex.

But the question remains. How did these books garner enough sales to catch the public’s attention?

It seems something first captivated an initial group who started talking. Left Behind had a well-known non-fiction writer as one of the co-authors, and I expect that pulled in a number of initial readers. But I also believe it tapped into a fascination about future events.

The Shack took a different path. The book creators solicited promotion from its readers within its covers. At the end, there were specific action points that were designed to get satisfied readers talking about the book and buying more copies to give away.

Twilight caught the attention of a group of romance lovers with a strict moral code. Perhaps Mormons banded together to support the book initially (pure conjecture on my part).

Shadowmancer, besides claiming religious controversy, also took on the mantle of the “Christian” Harry Potter, possibly earning itself a niche following.

In contrast, The Da Vinci Code may have picked up fans from the new atheist crowd or from any anti-Catholic, and of course once the Pope spoke out against it, the controversy was on.

It appears that the first thing, though, was something within the work itself. The Passion of the Christ had so many unique aspects — a famous actor seeing the project through in the face of rejection from traditional sources (human interest), opposition from a religious group (controversy) which garnered national attention, a non-traditional approach to the subject matter, a highly religious film using Biblical material as its primary source, a select group of unknown actors. In other words, there was lots to talk about.

I already mentioned the content of the Left Behind books. Harry Potter had a unique story world. Hunger Games had a timely, intriguing dystopian concept that tapped into a current cultural phenomenon — reality games.

In other words, either the author or the subject seemed to set the work apart from others, which caused first readers/viewers to pay attention.

In each case, a big budget marketing plan didn’t seem to be responsible for the work’s success. People were. But the people who talked about what they read or viewed first had to have something to talk about, something unique enough that they wanted to pass it along to others.

And viral happened.

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