Mockingjay Part 1

Stranger things did happen here

MockingjayLet’s just start where we left off.  In the next section of the Hunger Games story, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) heads to District 13, once thought destroyed by the Capitol (but actually putting a revolution in motion), along with Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and others.  In 13’s cramped underground bunker (which made me feel like I was once again conscripted onboard the Matrix‘s Nebuchadnezzar), Katniss meets some new faces: President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the inscrutable-yet-not-ice-cold leader who plans on Fidel-Castro-ing her way to rulership of Panem; Cressida (Natalie Dormer), the shaven-headed-and-tattooed film director whose job is to feature Katniss in propaganda videos in order to rally support for the rebellion; Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Coin’s right-hand man, who might be more accurately described as “the guy who fetches Katniss when other people need her for something;” and Paylor (Patina Miller), the leader of the rebellion in District 8.  Most importantly (to Katniss, anyway), she is reunited with her sister, Prim (Willow Shields), such an ingénue that she’s named after the most delicate of flowers (and she even bears a resemblance to Mary Pickford).

Director Francis Lawrence navigates the slow-burning first half of the source novel through the eyes of Katniss (the lens through which the entire book series is told, and in present tense, no less), occasionally breaking away for Bad Guy Stuff between Donald Sutherland and whichever unlucky mooks happen to be within earshot of his garden-variety evil pontificating.  Otherwise, the main narrative is built of Katniss’s interactions with various others in 13, most importantly Coin, Prim, Plutarch, and the recently liberated Effie (Elizabeth Banks), seen for the first time in the series without buckets of makeup (yep; there’s a real person with real emotions under there!).  The main goal now is to rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) from the clutches of the Capitol so that a full-on assault can happen without endangering the lives of those who made Katniss’s escape from the arena possible – in other words, there’s still the promise of actiony stuff for casual non-readers.  But the best parts of the film are the haunting reminders of what will come in any war story, especially one that wants to show younger folks a thing or two about the horrors of combat.  This is done not by melting people’s skin off onscreen (that’s next time), but by elegant flourishes like having Katniss sing an a capella version of “The Hanging Tree” (a made-up folk song that actually sounds like a folk song) as requested by a poor sap who’s had his tongue hacked out by the Capitol.  Moments later for us, weeks/months in-universe, a gang of citizens martyr themselves in order to destroy the Capitol’s power source, all the while singing Katniss’s song.

As Katniss must now keep track of everyone’s most minute movements, so must we.  What kind of leader will Coin be?  She wants to use Katniss as a symbol to fuel her own ambitions, but at least she’s honest about it.  Julianne Moore could have played the character as shifty-eyed and overtly duplicitous, but instead plays a character whom it’s very easy to feel close to, even though your brain is telling you to keep your distance.  Hoffman’s Plutarch reveals his sense of humor, as well as his stake in all of this, and his lone scenes with Moore’s Coin bring back fond memories of The Big Lebowski (memories that will unfortunately only be memories from here on).  Dormer’s Cressida more or less encapsulates District 13’s attitude in a single person: “We like you, Katniss, but not as much as we like the rebellion, and only as long as we can still use you.”  Miller’s Paylor is underused and underseen, especially considering upcoming events, but I’ll save that.  Almost completely MIA is Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason, who appears in a silent cameo after being rescued, yet (and this is to Malone’s unbelievable credit) we’re assured that her entire personality is still intact just by the look she gives Katniss after tearing an oxygen tube out of her nostrils.

The most important part of the Hunger Games films is the characterization of Katniss.  A film inherently cannot spend as much time inside the character as a written narrative can, but both Lawrences are intent on not reducing Katniss to a Boring Hero (that role goes to steadfast pragmatist Gale [Liam Hemsworth] – imagine if he were the main character?).  Mockingjay dedicates plenty of scenes to Katniss alone and brooding, but never whining or dejectedly sulking.  The serious PTSD has started to set in, ensuring that what’s to come in Katniss’s personal life will be neither pleasant nor a surprise.  Furthermore, attention is given to the minutiae, which affects characterization far more than any of the “deep” thematic stuff: Katniss’s adoration for her sister is illustrated through little mannerisms that they both recognize.  They sleep in a bed together like children do.  Katniss reacts the way a person is supposed to when they see a pile of human skulls in the middle of a street (hint: not with a badass one-liner about vengeance).  She’s not your straight/narrow Harry Potter type, regardless of how YA narratives may get lumped together.  But she’s not a femme fatale either, and even after three films, she refuses to be anything but human.

The final installment will be fast and violent, but if this film and Catching Fire were any indication, Katniss’s voice will be heard more clearly than the myriad explosions will.

Read my writeup of Catching Fire here.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014); based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Danny Strong and Peter Craig; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Dormer, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Catching Fire

The only solution

Quarter_quell_johannaJennifer Lawrence returns for another romp as Katniss Everdeen, but this time under the direction of Francis Lawrence, who has only directed formula films, but has both experience with character-centric sci-fi and the good sense to direct Catching Fire as more of a reserved drama than a Cloverfield-esque “found footage” battle epic.

J-Law is springboarding from a Best Actress win last year (undeserved over Jessica Chastain, but deserved in and of itself), and she shows no lack of seriousness as Katniss.  In the story, which features our heroine living through the year after the original Hunger Games, Katniss experiences severe night terrors and still lives in general poverty despite the monetary reward for her victory.  Perhaps worst of all, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the autocratic ruler of Panem, has a personal vendetta against her for publicly embarrassing the Capitol and forcing their hand at the end of the Games.  He approaches her at home and strong-arms her into participating in the Victory Tour, during which she and co-victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are to publicly thank the Capitol for their generosity, and to convince the masses of their love for each other, which Katniss faked in the first story in order to increase the “reality TV” value of the Games broadcast and win the hearts of the viewers.  Schmucks like TV host Caesar Flickerman (the ever-hilarious Stanley Tucci) eat this stuff up, but the people in the Districts are not fooled.  Revolution is brewing, and unbeknownst to Katniss (but knownst to us!), she is their symbol.

Meanwhile, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) harbors real romantic feelings for Katniss, and after an impromptu kiss, claims that he “had to do that at least once.”  What a wretched attitude.  Even after knowing her since childhood, he can’t just be her friend?  Regardless, the director wisely stays away from the romantic triangle that bogarted much of Katniss’s brain in the novel, because as readers know, it doesn’t really matter.  Gale, alongside Katniss’s family (played by Paula Malcomson and Willow Shields) have their own problems: Snow brings the hammer down on District 12, threatening to raze everyone’s homes if Katniss doesn’t behave during the tour.  He brings in Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) to enforce martial law on the District, flogging people in the square for minor infractions, and shooting people on sight for breaking curfew.  It’s all fairly silly, mustache-twirling villain material, but St. Esprit sells it, despite his short appearance, with one of the scariest performances I’ve recently seen.

The Victory Tour, of course, does not go as planned.  It mustn’t.  Katniss and Peeta ditch the speeches given to them by human peacock Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and instead speak to District 11 about the friends they lost in the Games.  The scene is truly emotional and difficult; these are the kinds of scenes we need in YA.  Scenes that remind the target audience (read: teenagers and impressionable people) that killing people isn’t fun and exciting, that military life is not made of glory and reward, regardless of what the heavy-metal TV propaganda says.

Through one thing and another, Snow realizes that the only way to shut Katniss up and turn the people against her is to put her back in the arena.  Because this is the 75th year since the installation of the Hunger Games (an event meant to illustrate the Capitol’s power over the people), a special Games must be held.  This time, the tributes are reaped from the existing pool of victors, and since Katniss is the only victor in the history of her district, hers is the only name in the bowl.  Katniss’s grizzled, alcoholic mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is also chosen, but Peeta predictably volunteers in his place.  Even Effie, the Capitol’s bright-eyed mouthpiece for the reaping in the first story, starts to feel the agony of this process, showing reservation in the live broadcast and weepily apologizing to Katniss in private.

Something isn’t right in these Games – half the tributes seem to be protecting Katniss from the other half.  Katniss meets previous victors Johanna Mason (Jena Malone!), a fiercely intelligent and sarcastic axe-wielder who goes so far as to strip naked during a long and confined elevator ride simply to make Katniss uncomfortable; Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), a vain musclehead with a big mouth; Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), an eloquent and rather enigmatic engineer who knows everything about manipulating electricity; Wiress (Amanda Plummer), Beetee’s partner, who seems unstuck in time; and Enobaria (Meta Golding), one of the “Career” tributes (people who train from birth to volunteer for the Hunger Games and usually win), who has had her teeth filed into fangs for purposes you can guess at.  Moreover, Snow has brought in a new head Game Maker, the unfortunately-named Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to ensure Katniss’s death by any means necessary.  The star power is almost too much to handle, but amazingly, the characters all fit into their roles well.  The issue with having so many great actors in supporting roles, however, is that each of them only get so many lines, and only so many of that small number are memorable – a shame when considering how little we’ve seen Amanda Plummer lately.

Thanks to Suzanne Collins’s original prose, Katniss is never a Boring Hero.  Despite the action in which she participates, she never seems like a role meant for [insert popular male action star].  She’s layered.  She’s feminine.  She’s strong-willed, but she’s as scared as any of us would be.  She’s determined, but still a kid in all respects; she’s never going to have the perfect plan.  She must learn, she must toil, she must improvise.  Since Collins was a producer on the film, the narrative sticks pretty closely to that of the novel, and the perspective never breaks away from Katniss (save minor breaks for evil dialogue between Sutherland and Hoffman), which means Lawrence has to carry the story on her back.  She does.  She just does.

Jena Malone, however, steals the show whenever she’s on.  A multi-talented actress/musician playing a multi-layered character whose complexity does not match the amount of attention she gets in the film, Malone completely owns Johanna Mason (one of the best characters from the novels) at every corner.  One second, she’s mercilessly taunting Katniss.  Another, she’s laying down her life for her.  But even in a film under two hours, this relationship is earned.  Far more so than the “will they, won’t they” between Katniss and Peeta, leastways.  What is her true allegiance?  What will her fate be?  There are some answers, and some big questions left to the next story.  The filmmaker, in an uncharacteristic move for this kind of film, avoids shoehorning in character deaths for emotional impact or creating big boss battles to ensure audience satisfaction.  No one gets any particular comeuppance here, and only with the absence of that do we see how much these formulas routinely distract us from real attention to character.

I have one fundamental issue with The Hunger Games: the fact that it was made into a movie at all. Here you have a story that essentially displays how reality TV and movies that people become addicted to are actually harmful tools used by the power structures to keep people complacent. This is a piece of text, a piece of writing, i.e. the freest and most liberal form of art, made to closely mirror our current culture and to demonstrate the court of public opinion’s destructive power, and now you have made it into a movie, into which people dump endless sums of money, and which you have advertised on network TV channels that also show reality TV shows and conservative news. So as stories, I like The Hunger Games, and as visual art, the films have something, but it’s a property that contains a vicious commentary on our power structures, and it has now been appropriated by our power structures, which is exactly what Big Brother does. This dystopian future is not a future: it’s where we are now. It was the present when Huxley and Orwell wrote it, and it is the present now.

The higher-ups see something that might start a fire (to use a metaphor from the book) – in this case, young people (namely women) starting to think that the government may not have their best interests in mind – and they say, “We must take possession of that. If it looks like we support it, the people remain on our side.”  Sound familiar?  I wonder who those involved in the films’ production think the “real enemy” is.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013); based upon the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Simon Beaufoy; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Jena Malone, Josh Hutcherson, and Woody Harrelson.


Treasure Island

Them that die’ll be the lucky ones

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) is the novel that propagated virtually every popular misconception about Caribbean pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy: parrots on shoulders, “arr matey” dialect, the Black Spot, one-legged seamen, schooners, buried treasure, deserted tropical islands, and maps marked with an “X” – that’s right, none of it is real.  The main themes of the novel, namely friendship, a boy’s coming-of-age, and the ambiguity of morality (and thus masculinity) were rare for the time (and to an extent still are), but are reflected incredibly well through each of the novel’s chapters; this, along with the story’s atmosphere, action, and sense of adventure, have resulted in Treasure Island being one of the most adapted (and ripped-off) pieces of long literature in the history of the English canon.

You’d think, then, a fairly accurate adaptation would be pretty easy to do in 2012.  After all, the novel was written with young boys as a target audience, so the narrative never becomes twisted, confusing, or laced with literary devices that might pass over an unseasoned reader’s head.  With the technology available to big-budget filmmakers, new adaptations of books could be masterful pieces of art, despite being a medium far inferior to the written work, and generate some new interest in canonized diamonds of literature.  But there is an obsessive need in the film world (and not just Hollywood) to make a piece one’s own, and while you can do that with stylistic direction, editing, and set design, you are not allowed to change the fundamentals of the original in order to make it your own story; at that point, you’re just plagiarizing.  When I did my adaptation of two stories from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (Wings Over Arda: The First Age), I kept in mind that I was doing this in part as a writing/film project, but also out of love for the original material.  The only gaps I had to fill in were dialogue gaps, as Tolkien’s piece was written as mythology (i.e. heavy summary is involved).  As a result, folks thrice my age who were reading Tolkien before my parents even met have expressed joy at my “accurate” adaptation, and this was accomplished with one camera and one local bank account.  Canadian author Douglas Glover called the project “an amazing adventure” and said, “What’s most exciting is that this isn’t some big budget extravaganza, no Hollywood packaging deal; this is real people who haven’t waited for the money gods to touch them or for their degrees from USC film school, people just following their passion and making art.”  Perhaps the key is that I don’t want to be a filmmaker; I just wanted to do a film project that focused on writing, or, more likely, that I realized that this piece of writing is someone else’s – I love the original story; why would I want to change it?  What gives me the RIGHT to?  I consider the screenplay and final film my own work, but the story certainly doesn’t belong to me.  During production, I kept a film diary, which was published and can be seen in Numero Cinq Magazine if you’re interested in how this came about.

So how does director Steve Barron deal with his film’s source material?  Let’s take a look.  For those who may not be familiar with Stevenson’s work, Treasure Island is narrated by Jim Hawkins (played here by young British actor Toby Regbo), the son of the owners of the Admiral Benbow Inn, Black Hill Cove, in the mid-18th century.  In the novel, a mysterious wayward seaman who asks to be identified only as “The Captain” pays a generous sum for an extended stay at the inn, and he becomes something of a local treasure because the locals love his tales of seafaring and buccaneering.  One day, however, his former shipmates – ne’er-do-well pirates – violently attack the Benbow in search of a treasure map the Captain holds (his name is also revealed as Billy Bones, now one of the most famous pirate characters in literature).  Jim escapes with the map, having rifled through Bones’ sea chest in search of the money he owed the inn, and meets with Dr. Livesy (Daniel Mays), and along with Squire Trelawney (Rupert Penry-Jones), determines that the “X” on the map marks the location of a fabulous treasure (worth roughly 700,000 British pounds) long-ago buried by the infamous Captain Flint, for whom Bones worked as first mate.  The trio plan a voyage to the island where the treasure lies, hiring a crew that includes sea cook Long John Silver (played in this adaptation by the adept Eddie Izzard), who brings several of his mates onboard.  Barron’s film handles these early scenes relatively well as far as pacing goes, aside from the inexplicable (yet inspired) choice to portray Bones (David Harewood) as Jamaican, but the atmosphere and classic seagoing intrigue of the novels is subverted by a somewhat indulgent decision to place a prologue at the front of the film, depicting Captain Flint (Donald Sutherland) burying the treasure and mistreating/murdering some of his crew.  This not only eliminates any mystery surrounding the original voyage, but also spoils the fact that Silver and the crewmates he brought along were, along with Bones, members of Flint’s original crew, who believe the treasure is rightfully theirs.  This prologue reeks of studio intervention – a direct order to immediately and obligatorily establish the fact that Donald Sutherland, Eddie Izzard, and Elijah Wood are in this film – as well as falling into an action-movie trap.  Additionally, a short scene before the final raid on the Benbow gives away the fact that Silver is the one sending pirates to retrieve the map from Bones, spoiling Bones’ wonderfully cryptic warnings in the novel about a one-legged man:

He had taken me aside one day and promised me a silver fourpenny on the first of every month if I would only keep my “weathereye open for a seafaring man with one leg.” 

Even Muppet Treasure Island got that right.  Why the shameless exposition?  Why eliminate any and all mystery surrounding the voyage?  No matter, the plot structure remains generally the same, with Jim and the crew meeting Silver at the docks of Bristol.  Once the ship reaches the island, Silver leads a mutiny, planning to murder those who don’t acknowledge him as captain and help him obtain the treasure.  Up to this point, Jim and Silver develop something of a father-son relationship, and even after the iconic (and endlessly copied) scene in which Jim overhears the pirates’ dastardly scheme while hiding in an apple barrel, we still want to like Long John.  Why?  Because of his gift of language and his kind disposition throughout the entire voyage:

All the crew respected and even obeyed [Long John Silver]. He had a way of talking to each and doing everybody some particular service. To me he was unweariedly kind, and always glad to see me in the galley, which he kept as clean as a new pin, the dishes hanging up burnished and his parrot in a cage in one corner.   

Considering Silver’s plan, it’s in his best interest to get everyone to like him, but this hardly changes the fact that he’s making the ship a better place by being so kind and cheerful.  Despite his true feelings for the ship’s officers, this makes him a more likeable character (and thus one we continually want to trust) than pirates like Israel Hands (played by Geoff Bell and named after the real-life Blackbeard’s first mate), who is so hateful he can’t even pretend to be a decent human being.  Much of this is preserved in the film, but is delivered mostly through exposition in the interest of furthering the action.  As the voyage begins, Izzard’s Long John tells Jim flat-out that the two of them will become close on this voyage.  The problem in the film is that we already know Silver is a bad guy and are simply awaiting his betrayal, whereas in the novel there blooms a declamatory heartbreak when Jim hears Silver recruiting other crewmates to his cause by using the same flattery he used on Jim.

I get the sense that the filmmakers wanted to preserve Silver’s nebulous morality, but were unable to translate Stevenson’s narrative ingenuity to the screen, so they decided that the only solution was to introduce someone even worse.  This duty falls on Trelawney, who in the novel is one of the four major heroes, somewhat of a pompous buffoon at the outset, but described as the “most liberal of men.”  In the film, however, he is viciously transformed into a secondary antagonist, appearing from the get-go as a self-absorbed fop who cares nothing for human life and is interested in the voyage only to obtain the treasure.  At the film’s end, Jim decides to toss the treasure overboard, to the chagrin of Trelawney, who attacks Jim and is stopped by Silver.  He later drowns trying to retrieve the sunken gold.  This is not only a gross and somewhat irresponsible transmogrification of a character and a stretch to prove Silver’s fondness for Jim, but it also jumbles the themes of the novel: the story now becomes less about ambiguous morality and more about the dangers of greed vs. basic human righteousness.  This would be fine if Barron’s film were an original pirate story, but the tropes involving a villain killed by his own greed and a former villain redeeming himself in a moment of epiphany, while as archetypical as some of Stevenson’s material seems now, have been done countless times before, and not by Stevenson, which not only render them cliche’, but serve more to remind a viewer of other movies they’ve seen.  This is wrong to me on many levels, namely the fact that new viewers may take these events as the events of the novel, dismissing the story as stock adventure fluff and not the mystifying piece of work it is (never underestimate stupidity – I’ve heard from more than one person who thought The Lord of the Rings novels were based upon Peter Jackson’s films).

The theme of morality is further stripped down in another near-ending scene, in which the remaining mutineers (people so bad they’ve even mutinied against Silver after being unable to find the treasure) are disposed of by Livesy and Captain Smollet (Philip Glenister).  In the novel, the evillest of pirates are not killed, but marooned on the island:

The three fellows must have been watching us closer than we thought for, as we soon had proved. For coming through the narrows, we had to lie very near the southern point, and there we saw all three of them kneeling together on a spit of sand, with their arms raised in supplication. It went to all our hearts, I think, to leave them in that wretched state; but we could not risk another mutiny; and to take them home for the gibbet would have been a cruel sort of kindness. The doctor hailed them and told them of the stores we had left, and where they were to find them. But they continued to call us by name and appeal to us, for God’s sake, to be merciful and not leave them to die in such a place.

Stevenson very deliberately includes the lines about calling the crew by name and appealing to them “for God’s sake, to be merciful.” This is a clear commentary about our responsibility to our fellow human beings: no matter how bad these pirates were, do they deserve this fate?  This theme is finalized by the fact that Stevenson leaves the reader to form her/his own conclusions about the crew’s decision, as well as the fact that Long John is allowed to escape with some of the treasure and probably, as Jim muses, “met his [wife], and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and [his parrot].  It is to be hoped so, I suppose, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small.”  Stevenson’s adroitness is swept away by the filmmakers in favor of an action-movie climax and a happy/morally sound ending.  Instead of being released by the fearful Ben Gunn (Elijah Wood in this adaptation) and stealing some gold for himself, Silver is set free by Jim, who willingly hands the former a bag of treasure and promises to seek him out should he ever want more adventure.  The moral implications here are dubious at best, and provide way too clean an ending to a story built upon a foundation of ambiguity.

There are also needless sideplots involving Silver’s wife (Nina Sosanya) and Jim’s mother (Shirley Henderson), which would be great if they got us anywhere, as well as Ben Gunn, a maroon who served as a primary ally in the novel but provides little more than a distraction here.  Here’s an idea: you have three hours to tell this story.  Why not concentrate on getting the major characters and plot events nailed down instead of throwing stuff in?  You know I’m gung-ho about the female presence in stories and film, but when we’re reminded every two seconds that these women may be forced into prostitution should the voyage not succeed (reminders which include onscreen abuse by men), any pretense of allowing female characters to subvert their surroundings is obliterated.  The new Moby-Dick film, which also breached three hours, hit some good notes, but had the same thematic issues, as well as anachronistic dialogue and distracting side-stories invented by the filmmakers.

It all seems a waste because Izzard’s performance is so good.  This would have been much better as a derivative-but-new pirate story; the filmmakers even shy away from some of the story’s highlights that have become tradition, including the “Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest” song (a made-up sea chanty written by Stevenson for the novel) and the cleverness of Silver naming his parrot Captain Flint in mockery of his former leader – both of these were ripped off by the Pirates of the Caribbean films, but these filmmakers, while briefly alluding to these things, seem afraid to make them prime surface material lest viewers think they ripped off the Disney movies.  This is a dangerous example of our techno-phile society in which film and TV and pop nonsense are suddenly the apparent roots of all culture.  And we wonder why adaptations of classic novels have been reduced to TV miniseries?

I am thankful, however, that this adaptation slipped under the radar, and a film like Jane Eyre received a theatrical release.  There’s still hope (only if you pick up a book, though).

Treasure Island (2012); written Stewart Harcourt; adapted from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson; directed by Steve Barron; starring Toby Regbo, Eddie Izzard, and Shirley Henderson.

Moby Dick

And some certain significance lurks in all things

I recently had a chance to visit Herman Melville’s Arrowhead in Pittsfield, MA, where Melville lived for a good portion of his life and also where he wrote Moby-Dick (or The Whale), a novel central to the American canon and which few modern readers seem to be able to plow through.  During the tour of Arrowhead, our group was allowed entry into Melville’s study, which gazes out upon the whalelike Mount Greylock and wherein rest plenty of items from his novelist days, including his impossibly tiny bifocals and the chair he sat in while writing Moby-Dick.  As the hammy, college-aged tour guide sifted through his required talking points, I shut my eyes and tried to absorb everything in the room, the essence of Melville himself, even imagining a conversation between myself and the author.  I cannot remember exactly what we chatted about.

The newest attempt to capture the novel in film form is the non-hyphenated Moby Dick, a film split into two parts as a television miniseries.  The screenplay is adapted by English playwright Nigel Williams, who was Emmy-nominated for his similar treatment of Elizabeth I.  The film stars Charlie Cox (of Stardust and Boardwalk Empire fame) as Ishmael, the protagonist and narrator, who in the novel is a social outcast, former schoolteacher, and something of a philosopher, who goes to sea due to an unbearable feeling of alienation from human society.  Williams’ screenplay portrays Ishmael as an idealistic adventurer whose past is never really explored, and seeks employment on a whaling ship for the sake of seeing the world.  Ahab, an unplayable role as Herman Melville originally wrote it (and mistakenly billed as the “lead” in every film version), is taken up here by William Hurt, who portrays the monomaniacal captain in the way we might think of crazy people today, not so much in the 1840’s (and Ahab was anything but a typical “crazy person”).  Ethan Hawke, who has plenty of experience with period pieces, plays Starbuck, the Pequod’s first mate, for all intents and purposes the deuteragonist of the story, and the only crew member who stands against Ahab’s vengeful pursuit of the White Whale from the very beginning (and who also happened to have an overpriced coffee chain/hipster hangout inexplicably named after him).  Eddie Marsan appears as Stubb, the second mate, whose patter-like, Shakespearean passages decorate the novel, but who appears as something of a generic, brutish sailor in the film; his happy-go-lucky personality is nowhere to be seen.  Raoul Trujillo fills out the main cast as Queequeg, a cannibal from the fictional South Seas island of Kokovoko, who becomes Ishmael’s best friend early in the story.  The iconic scene in which Ishmael watches Queequeg’s religious ritual from under the covers of the hotel bed is preserved in this film, albeit a bit rushed.

The story, of course, follows Ishmael as he ships onboard the Pequod (out of Nantucket) in order to learn the honorable whaling trade while simultaneously escaping the pressures of his shore life.  The journey is to last three years, and after he befriends Queequeg at a New Bedford inn, the duo board the vessel together.  As they make their way to the ship and sign their names on the roster, they are repeatedly hassled by a beggar named Elijah (played in the film by Billy Boyd), who hints at difficult times to come on the Pequod.  After Ishmael relates the terms of his contract, Elijah asks, “Anything down there about your souls?…Oh, perhaps you hav’n’t got any…No matter though, I know many chaps that hav’n’t got any — good luck to ’em; and they are all the better off for it. A soul’s a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon.”  Once onboard, Ishmael meets the crew, including Starbuck, Stubb, and third mate Flask (Matthew Lemche), along with the other harpooneers, Daggoo (Onyekachi Ejim), a towering African man, and Tashtego (Billy Merasty), a Wampanoag tribesman from Massachusetts.  Queequeg serves as the harpooneer on Starbuck’s boat (changed to Stubb’s in the film) while Ishmael serves as an oarsman for the same (in the film, he doubles as watch onboard the ship).  When Captain Ahab finally shows himself, he reveals his true purpose: not simply to hunt whales for oil and profit, but to hunt down Moby Dick, a nearly pure white sperm whale, who took Ahab’s leg during his most recent voyage.  Ahab is bent on revenge on the animal, which he anthropomorphizes as being ruthless and evil, and nails a gold doubloon (a Spanish sixteen-dollar piece) to one of the ship’s masts as incentive to any sailor who can “raise” Moby Dick.  Everyone onboard is taken by Ahab’s charisma and desire for the doubloon, and much of the novel explores human nature through individual characters’ ruminations on the doubloon, on Ahab’s madness, and on Moby Dick himself: what he ultimately symbolizes (whiteness, fate, the ocean, nature, God, the universe) remains utterly inscrutable even in the end, and lengthy chapters are devoted to Ishmael’s (and others’) philosophical musings.

The film, though, while focusing more on the human drama than the action, takes a decidedly realistic approach and does away with most of the mysticism (which, while providing an emotional experience with well-performed characters, does not tell the same story).  The most jarring changes occur near the beginning: the opening of the film features Ishmael rescuing Pip (Daniel Gordon), a young black boy, from a beating, and taking him along to Nantucket to find his own way.  In the novel, Ishmael does not meet Pip until encountering him as the cabin boy onboard the Pequod (and Pip’s later experience stranded in the ocean before Ishmael rescues him is vital to the story’s careful foreshadowing, and even Ishmael realizes this in the text).  The rescue scene works for the drama the film seeks to employ, simultaneously providing action and characterization (Ishmael’s compulsion to save a complete stranger indicates a strong moral compass) and also earns the line “Call me Ishmael,” the book’s opening line and one of the most recognized openings in Western literature.  Second, a new character is added: Elizabeth (Gillian Anderson), the wife of Ahab, who worries about her husband’s quest (though she doesn’t seem to know his ulterior motives) and entrusts Starbuck to protect him.  Additionally, while speaking to Elijah, she receives a much more pointed prophecy than Ishmael ever did: “[Ahab] will die, and he knows it.”  This reminds me of the 1956 Gregory Peck version, in which Elijah related that everyone on the voyage would die save one sailor.  Do modern filmmakers understand the difference between foreshadowing and simply telling the audience what’s going to happen?

In the novel, Ahab’s wife is only briefly mentioned near the end of the book (called a “girl-wife,” much younger than Ahab) when he acknowledges that he has not been a satisfactory husband to her, even going as far as calling her a widow, as he spends all of his time at sea.  The third major alteration is the omission of the character Fedallah – in the original story, Fedallah is a Persian harpooneer who is smuggled onboard the Pequod in Ahab’s personal cabin along with a Persian boat crew and assigned to Ahab’s boat.  As hinted by Ishmael seeing “dark figures” sneaking onto the ship in Nantucket, as well as the crew’s thoughts about Fedallah’s sinister influence upon Ahab, it is hinted that Fedallah may be the devil in disguise (this is very likely just the crew’s superstition, however).  Fedallah tells Ahab he can only die once he sees a hearse made of American wood floating in the sea, a prophecy given by Boyd’s Elijah in the film.  I understand the omission for the sake of time as well as the current Western stigma about “people in turbans,” but I think it’s worth noting that another scene is added, during which Steelkilt (James Gilbert) refuses to climb the mast with a black man (Daggoo), and Stubb reprimands him for being so weak-minded.  This scene, which seems straight out of a Mark Twain novel (and leads to a contrived side-conflict between the two white sailors), illustrates how comfy we are with portrayals of white-on-black racism in films meant to portray Old Times.  “How quaint,” we seem to think, but racist attitudes are still largely present the media, and a big part of the reason is that we just won’t stop talking about it.

To the film’s detriment is the overuse of low-quality CG.  Moby Dick himself only appears at the very end of the novel (in three short chapters), and in the film we get the sense that he’s nearby the Pequod throughout the entire film, almost stalking the crew in a way, while the novel makes a very large point of driving in the fact (especially at the end) that Moby Dick is only a whale, a dumb animal who, while aggressive and dangerous, does not purposefully hunt humans; he actually runs away when the Pequod attacks, and destroys so many whaling vessels and sailors only because they’re trying to kill him.  Recall Starbuck’s famous line:

“Moby Dick seeks thee not!  It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” (Melville, ch. 135)

The film explores these ideas, but due to the constant appearances of the Whale and some choices during the climactic battle, director Mike Barker’s intentions are not quite clear.  This presents a bit of a problem: who is right, Ahab or Starbuck?  We get the sense that Ahab is still insane and the lesson (at least the one about anthropomorphism) still applies here.  Consider the following passage from the novel, in which Ishmael delves beautifully into what he thinks Ahab’s reasons might be for his relentless pursuit of Moby Dick, and then tell me whether you think this translates onto William Hurt’s somewhat dubious portrayal of the mad sea captain:

“The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; — Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” (Melville, ch. 41)

The filmmakers do a nice job of inserting Ishmael into the action.  In the novel, he serves largely as a narrator and not much of a participant after he boards the Pequod, but as a character in a movie, he gets himself into plenty of trouble.  The screenwriters choose to have Ahab take Ishmael under his wing as a protege’, and his role in the action, particularly in the second half of the miniseries, takes precedent over his relationships with Pip and Queequeg (though the story of Queequeg’s illness and the building of the coffin/life-buoy is wonderfully done).

This film feels good.  It’s an epic adventure in the tradition of older movies, and staging a three-hour production almost entirely onboard the same ship is a monstrous task, which the entire production team handles very well here (and on a comparatively modest budget).  The sailors even sing real-life chantey songs while carrying out the ship’s brutal work.  I think, though, that there must be another Moby Dick adaptation in the future, one that attempts to capture not only the characters and story, but the all-but-extinct metaphoric narrative that Melville so masterfully crafted.

Moby Dick (2011); written by Nigel Williams; adapted from the novel by Herman Melville; directed by Mike Barker; starring Charlie Cox, William Hurt, and Ethan Hawke.

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.