The Hunger Games

Game so hard, Peacekeepers wanna kill me

jlawBased upon the first volume in Suzanne Collins’ young adult sci-fi trilogy, Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games is a quiet, understated survival/rebellion story carried by a badass female protagonist.  At the theatre, a friend and I were encircled within a clot of rambunctious adolescents of varying ages – the perfect environment in which to witness this spectacle.  I’m only kidding about half of that.

The Hunger Games book series is a diamond-in-the-rough amongst Y.A.: soundly-written (albeit in need of a better copy-editor), engaging, and headed by a confident female character, Katniss Everdeen (played in the movie by Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence).  It’s the age-old tale of a dystopian future in which the Capitol, a government born from the Big Brother school of logic, has oppressed its people after a failed rebellion.  In order to remind the citizens that their government could crush them at any moment, the Capitol holds an annual fight to the death between twenty-four children (aged 12 to 18), two from each district.  Since its inception seventy-five years ago, the Hunger Games has become not only a horrifying tradition, but the country’s greatest form of entertainment, as the Capitol’s citizens excitedly bet on tributes and passively discuss their favorite killings.  This setup provides not only an effective entertainment for real-life readers and viewers, but an operative commentary on present-day reality TV and the fact that absolutely nothing can shock us anymore.  This commentary is hopefully thinly-veiled to the point that the intended audience can read into it.  How long will it be before kids are stabbing each other on ABC’s 10-11pm lineup?

Katniss volunteers to compete in the Hunger Games so that her twelve year-old sister, Prim (Willow Shields) will be spared.  She and the other tribute from her district, the sloppily-named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the only former winner of the Games from District 12, who has long since become an alcoholic and all-around misanthrope.  His reasons for mentoring the young tributes are never explored, though we can infer that this job position was more the Capitol’s choice than his.  Also appearing in the film are Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, a glitzy Capitol flunky who collects the tributes from each district; Donald Sutherland as President Snow, the main antagonist of the series, who spends his time clipping rose bushes and brooding silently behind his villainous beard; Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’ stylist and one of the only Capitol folks she can trust; Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss’ dreamy childhood friend; Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, a talk show host who can work a crowd better than Oprah but who seems to truly sympathize with the tributes’ predicament; and Isabelle Furhman and Alexander Ludwig as Clove and Cato (respectively), two Career Tributes who train their entire lives for the Games and consider it a glorious opportunity.

The film wisely makes little use of music, relying on realistic sound effects to percuss quiet scenes in which young people are brutally murdered: this is not epic, glorified, Hollywood-glossed action filmmaking, and Ross displays an understanding of the material through these scenes.  You’re not supposed to cheer when a twelve year-old receives a spear through the chest, when a teenage girl of model beauty is swarmed by killer wasps, or when Katniss is forced to mercy kill a mortally-wounded enemy.  Every dead child is a victory for the Capitol and the evil President Snow, whose appearances are limited, but who promises to be a big problem for Katniss in the future, even after she leaves the arena.

The film’s best moments come in the form of Jennifer Lawrence’s solo scenes.  I was with her when she was treating her own burn wounds, crying at her failure to save a friend, throwing fits of frustration – and don’t confuse frustration with teen angst; this is not Twilight.  It’s not Harry Potter either – the coming war is much more real.  Lawrence’s Katniss is believable and sympathetic all the way through; through her experiences, most notably the death of her father, she has become a protector, both of her family and her friend (the appropriately homely and weak Peeta), and Lawrence plays this role resolutely.  The filmmakers make no attempt to sex her up, not even when the Capitol does, and while the book’s scenes of lone Katniss were far grittier, the PG-13 rating allows germane grit without frivolous gore.  As long as we can feel for Katniss, we can do without (most of) the bloodspray.

My biggest issue with movies based upon books is that while I try to hold them apart as starkly different mediums, I know what the key events are ahead of time, so instead of enjoying the film as an entity of its own, I find myself anticipating how the next scene will be adapted, which lines characters from the book will say, whether plot threads will be properly tied off.  In this case, the material is, for the most part, expertly handled, aside from a few book-to-film deviations and the relegating of certain important characters to background roles.  I couldn’t help feeling (and knowing) that Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, and the other tributes, specifically Clove, Cato, Rue, and Glimmer, all had more to offer in terms of character and had the life squeezed out of them in the painful transition from novel page to script page.

Since the film has been critically acclaimed, there is the natural backlash of the Moron Brigade, the latest claim being that The Hunger Games lifts material from the Japanese novel Battle Royale.  Let’s put this to rest right now.  I’ve read both, and the similarities literally stop at “young people forced to fight each other,” a convention used a thousand years (both in real life and fiction) before either story was written. Whether Collins was “aware” of Battle Royale is inapplicable at this point; she would have been better off saying “I’ve heard of it, but I deny ripping it off” instead of the knee-jerk reaction when accused of plagiarism (or most other offenses) – “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” which, when you’re in the public eye, you must stick to, lest you be called a liar later.

The Hunger Games, if anything less than original, can be classified as the unraveling of a new story from a familiar story environment. We’ve all heard that every-story-has-already-been-told rubbish. The list of stories involving the “arena” plot device (and device only, not plot as a whole) goes on forever – Series 7, The Most Dangerous Game, The Running Man, etc. If we want to say they’re all variations of the real-life Roman Coliseum, I’d be more willing to buy that, but to say the entire plot of The Hunger Games is a bold-faced ripoff of Battle Royale is, in my view, completely ludicrous and ignores a few important details – you know, like characters and the entire rest of the three-novel arc.

If The Hunger Games (the whole trilogy) should be remembered for anything, it’s a female protagonist in a male dominated dual-genre (Y.A. and sci-fi). When I have young women in my Comp classes telling me how empowered Katniss makes them feel, I’m more than willing to accept a bit of genre-sampling (which is ages away from plagiarism).

The Hunger Games (2012); written by Suzanne Collins; directed by Gary Ross; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, and Elizabeth Banks.

Mass Effect 3

Your complaints are Massively Ineffectual

If you drill down to this blog’s proverbial crust, you’ll see that I enjoy a video game now and then.  As a fiction writer, I particularly (nay, almost exclusively) enjoy a game with a strong narrative, hence my whatever-comes-right-before-obsession with BioWare’s Mass Effect series, which began in 2007 with a single-player sci-fi/space opera adventure on the Xbox 360.  The final volume of the trilogy, in which your decisions from the first two games (ranging from the way you treat certain characters, your conversations with them, and your romantic ventures, to the manner in which you chose to complete missions with galaxy-wide consequences) are reflected in every character interaction, every quest, every blade of grass.  Nothing like this has ever been done in a game.  Mass Effect 3 alone contains over 40,000 lines of dialogue, considerably more than most films.  The development team has worked themselves to the bone trying to cater to their fans – a naive choice and a perpetually thankless task, as any writer knows.  As was inevitable, a world wide web of whiners were unhappy with the game’s ending, and a host of “change the ending” campaigns have begun, including but not limited to a shameful hostage situation in which $70,000 in charity money has been raised for Child’s Play, only to be paid if BioWare modifies the game’s ending.

This morning, BioWare’s co-owner, Dr. Ray Muzyka, released an official statement addressing the concerns of the “fans” (a term I use very loosely to describe the folks who have issued such disrespectful, inflammatory, and in many cases unfounded and ignorant feedback to the developers).  In a nutshell, BioWare as promised a modification to the ending, and while no real details have been given, the development team is trying its “damnedest” to provide more “clarity” to the trilogy’s finale.

Allow me to back up for a moment before explaining why I am satisfied with the already-provided ending, and why everyone complaining, pandering, and threatening the developers are spoiled, entitled, and just plain wrong.  For readers unfamiliar with the series, I won’t tread the stories of all three games, but the overarching thread is that a race of machines known as the Reapers enter the galaxy from Dark Space (a real place, by the way) to harvest all organic life every 50,000 years.  Taking a page or three from Lovecraftian horror, the Reapers’ motives are incomprehensible to humans (not to mention the dozen other alien races who share power in the galactic government) and their methods are ruthless and absolutely thorough.  Commander Shepard (Jennifer Hale/Mark Meer), the story’s protagonist, an officer of the Earth Systems Alliance (the human military), whose gender, appearance, and complete background are determined by the player at the outset of the first game, is the first organic being to come into verbal contact with a Reaper and uncover the truth behind the cycle.  Among the series’ wonderfully-woven character-centric sub-plots, the lion’s share of Shepard’s story revolves around foiling the Reapers’ plans, and more importantly, preventing the cycle of galactic genocide from ever happening again.  Prior to this discovery, the galaxy enjoys prosperity and commerce among its various races through use of the Citadel, the center of galactic politics and trade, and the Mass Relays, a network of (for lack of a better word) “portals” that make use of mass effect energy, a substance/process that virtually erases the issue of light years by providing quick transport from one star system to the next.  The Citadel and Relays are thought to be created by an ancient race known as the Protheans, who disappeared from the galaxy after the Reapers attacked.

Spoilers follow.  In reality, the Citadel and the Mass Relays were created by the Reapers in order to ensure that once the galactic races discovered them, culture and society would develop along specific, predictable paths.  Advanced technology would be based upon the technology of the Mass Relays, and the Citadel, a majestic, technological dream several times larger than Manhattan, would become the center of galactic society.  The Protheans, like the countless races before them, were systematically wiped from existence when the Reapers returned, harvesting and destroying every sapient life form in the galaxy and leaving only the primitive races (which, in the time of the Protheans, included the humans, asari, turians, and salarians) to inherit the galaxy.  Once the technology of the new races reached its apex, the Reapers would return and the cycle would be repeated.

At the end of Mass Effect 3, the final chapter in the series, a battle between the Reapers and the amassed galactic fleets takes place, after which Shepard goes to the Citadel with her mentor, Captain Anderson (Keith David), in an effort to activate the Crucible, a large weapon with an unknown function, whose plans were left by extinct races in order to provide the future generations with a means to defeat the Reapers.  Still with me?  After a final confrontation with Shepard’s rival, the Illusive Man (Martin Sheen), who believes the Crucible will allow him to control the Reapers, Shepard is the only one left standing and must activate the device herself.  Upon doing so, Shepard is confronted by the Catalyst, an ancient virtual intelligence responsible for creating and controlling the Reapers.  The Catalyst explains that the purpose of the Reapers and their cycle is to prevent organic races from destroying themselves with technology by harvesting and preserving them (in the form of new Reapers) before they reach that point.  Shepard, having united races of organic and machine people throughout the course of the story, maintains that the Catalyst’s logic is flawed (and it is – it destroys organic races with machines in order to prevent organic races from destroying themselves with machines, albeit with the long-term goal of ensuring the ongoing existence of organic life).

I’ve heard the phrase Deus ex Machina thrown around to describe the introduction of the Catalyst.  Deus ex Machina, a term I teach my writing students, from the Latin “god out of the machine,” is defined as a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is abruptly pacified by way of the contrived or unexpected introduction of a new character, device, or ability.  The Catalyst, while quite literally a machine god, does not fit this description, as it doesn’t come completely out of left field.  As far back as the first game, Shepard and others have speculated that the Reapers were controlled by someone (come to find out later, even the Protheans knew this).  Who would it be besides a machine?  Moreover, the Catalyst does not solve anything; it actually creates a fresh conundrum.  Seeing Shepard’s determination in preserving her people and her home, the Catalyst rethinks the cycle and offers three choices to Shepard, all of which involve activating the Crucible: 1. Destroy the Reapers, which will also bring about the deactivation of the Mass Relays and the Citadel, as well as the destruction of all purely synthetic life (a choice the Catalyst doubts Shepard will make due to synthetic implants that saved her life in Mass Effect 2); 2. Control the Reapers, per the Illusive Man’s wishes, which will remove the Reapers from the galaxy (albeit alive) and cost Shepard her life; 3. Add Shepard’s own life energy to the beam fired by the Crucible, the fallout from which will create a new DNA framework such that every living being in the galaxy will become part organic and part machine (per the wishes of Saren, the original Mass Effect‘s main antagonist, who was, notably, brainwashed by the Reapers into thinking this was a good idea).

My choice, which I believe not only to be the best ending but the only choice, was to destroy the Reapers.  In this ending, the Crucible’s energy spreads from one Mass Relay to another, deactivating each, killing the Reapers (many of which are seen collapsing on Earth as humanity cheers) and obliterating the Citadel.  Shepard’s crew, separated from her, speed away in the Normandy (Shepard’s ship), and crash-land on a lush, green planet in an unknown system near Earth.  They escape the wreckage, safe and sound, looking out on this beautiful world as a new day begins.  Meanwhile, Shepard awakens in a pile of rubble (perhaps on Earth, judging by the color scheme) and takes a deep, hopeful breath.  Cue credits.  After the credits, a scene is shown: at some point in the future, an old man (voiced by Buzz Aldrin) living on the newly discovered world, speaks to a grandchild about how anything is possible, including this young child one day traveling to the stars.  As the child looks out into space, dazzled, he/she begs his/her grandfather to tell another story of “The Shepard.”

Complaints about the ending have stemmed from the very short cinematic that accompanies any of the three choices, and that the scenes are too similar and non-reflective of the player’s previous choices: the Normandy’s escape is always the same, and the crash-landing is always the same, albeit with slight landscape/character changes depending upon what choice the player made, who the player’s love interest was, who was on the player’s squad at the time of the escape, etc.  However, to say something as sweeping as “My choices had no effect on anything” is absolutely ludicrous.  Player choices are reflected throughout the entire game; the fact that you did or did not fetch a random person’s car keys should have no bearing on the fate of the galaxy.

Aside from the pallet-swapped ending cinematic, other questions arose, most of which are answered in the game if you’re paying attention and not cruising Facebook while characters are speaking (Q: How did the Normandy escape Earth?  A: It never landed; Joker explicitly states he’s rejoining the fleet after he drops you off; etc.).

The other big complaint is that after all of Shepard’s work and sacrifice, she deserves to be reunited with her friends and love interest.  Sorry, but this is not what happens to heroes.  This can never be Shepard’s fate.  Heroes throughout literary (and spoken) history give of themselves and offer the greatest sacrifices for the sake of others.  Heroes die, and if they live, you don’t get to see them buy a big house with a white picket fence, a golden retriever, and little blue children.  I’ve seen blogs and forum posts, in some cases by “journalists” who actually get paid to write blogs, in which the ending (every option) is described as “dark” and “unhappy.”  Let’s examine this.  Shepard, whether sacrificing herself or living, has completed what she set out to do from her first step on Eden Prime: stopped the cycle of death, prevented future generations from ever having to know the horror of the Reapers, which included not only the destruction of entire worlds, but the re-purposing and indoctrination of men, women and and children to serve the needs of the machines.  A new life has been made possible, a life in which the organic races will discover and develop technology on their own terms and develop along their own paths, not the paths of machines or gods.  This, to me, is the happiest ending possible.

Here in the first world, though, we have an unfaltering craving for entertainment that is “comforting,” and if we don’t get to see that scene with the big house and the blue children, something sits uneasily.  Somehow it’s unhappy if every thread isn’t tied off, if we don’t have a Tolkien-esque epilogue ensuring us that every character lived a happy, conflict-free life and died of old age in a big house surrounded by little blue…okay.  I’m sympathetic to folks who get so invested in fictional characters that they become impassioned about a story’s ending.  Hell, as a writer, I love getting that response.  But you, the reader, the consumer, do not know the characters better than their writer does.  Don’t be entitled.  Don’t threaten the developers.  Don’t demand another ending.  The writers do not owe you anything; you knew what you were getting into when you slid your 60 bucks across the counter at Gamestop, that every story in media form, no matter how open-ended, must have a finite end, and if you don’t know or believe that, I cannot help you.

So, what will the modifications to the ending be?  “Clarity?” Artistic integrity will be difficult to uphold if you’re slapping padding on an ending that was already conceived, revised, and executed. As a fan of the ending as a whole (particularly the “destroy the Reapers” ending wherein Shepard survives), I would humbly put down my vote for no major changes. “Clarification” can sometimes trump drama, and as a writer, I’d ask that primary attention always be given to the story, not the consumers.  As it stands, the ending is a beautiful set-piece with the biggest stakes imaginable for a series of this type, percussed by the wonderful music of Clint Mansell.

That being said, if the proposed changes will be made only in the form of additions (and not a complete retooling of the entire end sequence), I would ask for two things: more dialogue choices with the Catalyst (a la the conversation with Vigil in the original game) and a post-credits, post-Buzz Aldrin, text-only catch-up on what the future of the galaxy’s other races held, depending upon the player’s choices.  This way, the drama of the ending, so epic in scale and rife with scene (no summary!) is preserved.

Pandering for more content is one thing – if I was blessed with so many readers that thousands of people demanded another book featuring the same characters, I would be flattered, but my first instinct would not necessarily be to hit the grindstone: I wrote the ending I wrote for a reason.  Demanding a different resolution to an already resolved narrative is another side of the same coin; when either gets out of hand, it becomes an entitlement issue, and as the story scribbler, you cannot marry yourself to your readers (or players), even if they’re tossing money at your feet.  Unless, of course, you’re willing to forgo the integrity of your work for another paycheck or further “attaboys” and pats on the back.

This does not apply only to writers with a wide circulation, either.  Most of the best literary writers of our time aren’t making a full living (and in some cases, no money at all) from their work, and still have readers (whether they be friends or avid devotees to literary magazines) who rabidly lap up every published word.  If one of these writers is asked (or better yet, told) by a reader to change a pivotal scene, resurrect a dead character, or tack on a “happier” ending, is she going to do it?  Will she even consider it?  Whether or not she does, the demand is insane.  This is the position you must put yourself in when considering what you’re asking of the writer.  These aren’t people playing with chess pieces.  Characters cannot be moved with the flick of a finger.  At some point, the writer and the character found one another, and the former has, hopefully, gotten to know the latter as intimately as possible through drafts, revisions, outlines, brainstorming, and a truckload of scrapped synopses.  The writer knows where the character’s story ends, and you must understand that, even if you hate where the story ends up.

If there was any question, no, I do not hold video game writing anywhere near the same tier as literature, but the reaction to ME3‘s finale seemed a valid touch-point for a growing issue that spreads as the concept/practice of “fandom” expands.

Would I like to see Shepard reunite with her romantic partner?  Sure.  I’m human.  Does it belong in the finale of this story?  No.  It does not.  Muzyka announced the development of further Mass Effect games in addition to the modified ending, so there is going to be a rebuilt galaxy, if that wasn’t evidenced enough by the post-credits scene, which is why I think the ending where the Reapers are destroyed and Shepard lives despite the Catalyst’s warning about Shepard being unable to live without synthetics due to her implants, is so fucking stellar.  That breath Shepard takes upon awakening is the final defeat of the Reapers and the final flaw in the Catalyst’s argument, not the big explosions and the collapsing metal squids.  A single breath.

Stop complaining and take one yourself.