Thursday, November 28, 2013

"CATCHING FIRE": A DYSTOPIAN IMPROVEMENT


The only reason I ever picked up the HUNGER GAMES book series was because a student of mine who died suddenly had it checked out of the library at the time of his death. And more specifically, this student didn't enjoy reading. As I was leaving his parents' house some time after his funeral, they pointed out the small stack of library books on a shelf. The HUNGER GAMES was the only book I didn't recognize, so I took note of it. And read it. And loved it. I finished the series in a couple of weeks, CATCHING FIRE (a hair-raising compliment) and MOCKINGJAY (a conceptually confused ending). 

The HUNGER GAMES movie was tantalizing, but CATCHING FIRE was frighteningly engaging and delivered nail-biting scene after nail-biting scene. I actually loved the movie CATCHING FIRE more than I enjoyed the book (which is unlike me). While I walked away from the theater last Saturday evening with my wife, I was puzzled why that was so. So after a week of brooding, it finally hit me between the eyes.

My entire life has been bracketed by dystopian aspiration. That is to say, I and much of the company among which I have found myself have had imaginary fantasies about the end of the world in our lifetime. "Imaginary" because the world has not ended in the way or at the times we had predicted. "Fantasies" because we literally looked forward to it with a kind of absurdist excitement. If it wasn't nuclear war on the one hand, it was a discriminatory rapture on the other. Better yet, let's combine the two!

Probably more damaging than the "imaginary" or the "fantasies" was the way we framed & projected history. Every extraordinary incident in media was a foreshadow of the apocalypse to come. War with Iraq? It's the beginning of the end. Taxes increased? It's the beginning of the end. Janet Jackson shows her boob at the Superbowl half-time show? Oh, it's just the beginning of the end. While the end has never come, every celebrity excess or governmental imposition or gangsta rap record is simply the shrill warning sign of the imminent destruction to come. And you can do nothing about it.

The HUNGER GAMES finds Katniss simply warding off the premeditated designs of the 74-year-old apocalyptic loop of the Capitol in order to survive. In the HUNGER GAMES is all the inferiority, shrinking, abasement, and helpless obedience characteristic of oppressed people. In the HUNGER GAMES, Katniss submits to the design of the games and fully expects to die for it. Make no mistake: she found herself and Peta alive by accident. But in CATCHING FIRE Katniss fights back. That last shot of Katniss' face in CATCHING FIRE says it all: enough of your rules. I'm rewriting them.

That's why I loved CATCHING FIRE. Katniss gives us the option to change the rules. After all, the rules for the Hunger Games was invented. So they can be reinvented. Or uninvented. 

If you think Suzanne Collins' book series is simply another sign of the times, you might want to take a look at Wikipedia's rather long but incomplete book list of dystopian literature: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dystopian_literature

The entire 20th century was one dystopian century!