"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Friday, November 29, 2013

Review: Catching Fire

I'd forgotten how good this story is. And I think it's the mark of a good adaptation when the movie reminds you of how much you love a story and makes you want to go back and read the book over again. Catching Fire was pretty much everything I wanted it to be - although, that said, it's been a nice long year-and-a-half since I read the book, so I was in a perfect place to enjoy the movie without noticing any glaring omissions or glosses. I'll reserve judgement on those details until I re-read and re-watch. But this was a truly enjoyable film, well-paced, well-acted, well-directed, well-designed.

Middle movies are the best - this time around, we didn't need to be introduced to the characters or the world. There's no awkward exposition in this movie. A few elegant shots remind us of what's come before. One of the best is when, at the very beginning, Katniss aims to shoot a wild turkey in the woods back in District 12 and at the last moment sees herself shooting Marvel, the tribute she killed in the first games, instead. That one image was such a good reminder, early in the film, that there's no way Katniss (or we) can forget what happened in the previous movie. She and Peeta and all the other victors we meet later in the movie are seriously damaged and changed by what they did in the arena.

Portraying that psychological damage is one of the best, most unique things about Collins' books. Unlike most stories about heroes and heroines who endure incredible physical violence, the Hunger Games trilogy honestly shows how much that violence hurts people, physically and psychologically. When they're back in the arena, the characters also spend more of their time running in terror or lying on the ground, incapacitated by pain, than they do fighting or acting brave. I really appreciated that the movie lets its action heroes and heroines remain human even as they achieve superhuman things.

The actors really stepped up to the task of embodying both human fragility and human strength. I felt I knew what was going through Katniss's head at all times, which is important for an adaptation of a book that was told in the first person. And although there never seems to be enough time in movies for just watching the characters grow, Catching Fire did show a lot of character development. Peeta in particular undergoes a wonderful transformation in this part of the story (which makes part three even more heartbreaking). His strengths come to match Katniss's, although the two don't overlap. As I watched them struggle differently but bravely with the pressures and horrors of the victory tour and the arena, I was totally convinced that, together, they could actually change the society that was oppressing them.

Meanwhile, Gale starts to look worse and worse in comparison, as he consistently ignores everything Katniss is going through and just keeps asking her whether she's in love with him yet. He becomes, in some ways, the same as the spectators who so eagerly lap up Katniss and Peeta's staged romance. Peeta, on the other hand, accepts Katniss's feelings and gets on with the more important stuff, like helping her save her family or comforting her when she has nightmares about the arena. When Gale sees Katniss recoil in shock after her vision of shooting Marvel, by contrast, he has no idea what to do.

All of this points not only to how much better Peeta is than Gale, but also how much better Suzanne Collins is than most authors who focus on their heroines' love lives over everything else. One of these boys understands that Katniss is more than a sex object, and he's obviously the one she should ally herself with if she wants to save the world and wants to have a chance at happiness doing that. Collins also exposes how the society objectifies Katniss. The best way to keep her from starting a rebellion, as Plutarch Heavensbee suggests to President Snow, is to paint her as a classic feminine stereotype, more obsessed with her wedding dress than concerned about politics. That's why Cinna's transformation/destruction of that dress is such a good image. On the one hand, he literally burns up the dress to show that she's more than the barbie doll that the Capitol wants her to be. On the other hand, when she spreads her wings as the Mockingjay, she's still expressing her identity through a dress, a foreshadowing of the fact that she'll become as much a puppet of District 13's rebellion as she was of the Capitol.

This is also why I loved Joanna's undressing-in-the-elevator scene. She recognizes exactly what those fancy clothes mean, and she isn't having any of it. She'd rather go naked than conform to anyone's idea of who she is. It’s also a priceless scene, which the actors play for comedy very successfully. But, as is appropriate for the story, even this comedic moment is overlaid with the themes of the film. The Hunger Games trilogy is a critique of those who thoughtlessly create and consume entertainment, and it forces its own audience to really think about what they’re watching and to decide for themselves whether it’s entertainment or something else.

I loved all the new characters, Joanna included. The casting was right on the nail for everyone, and the movie succeeded in presenting clear, though necessarily brief, portraits of each of them. Haymitch also acquires a lot more depth in this movie simply by being presented alongside his friends, the other victors. One details I did miss from the books was the scene where Katniss watches the video of the games from the year Haymitch won. But I admire the directors for knowing when to cut scenes like that and achieving a coherent and lean movie in the end.

In addition to being well directed and acted, the movie was beautifully designed. The arena looked pretty spectacular, especially in the aerial shots. And once again, the movie fleshed out a more vivid, tangible world than the books presented (thin physical description and world-building is one of the main flaws of the books, in my opinion). I look forward to seeing how the filmmakers show us District 13. Only a year to wait, but the brilliant series of short scenes and spare shots at the end of the movie definitely whetted my appetite and are making that year seem very long indeed.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: Matched trilogy

It's been a while since I blogged, but in between starting a new job, gearing up for the holidays, and adjusting to life after school and back in the US, I have actually managed to keep reading. After a few random 'literary' novels, I was craving some easy, plot-driven books that wouldn't be total drivel.

YA dystopias fit those conditions perfectly. I love dystopia because it involves imagined worlds but still makes you think about the real world. And although Ally Condie does a little too much telling and uses quite a few too many symbols and metaphors, the Matched trilogy definitely made me think.

First, these books made me think about myself. The first book introduces us to the Society. It's important that it's written with a capital 'S' because a lot of things in this book are identified by normal nouns turned into proper nouns by a capital letter. That's because there are no multiples or options or choices in this world. There is one government, one country, and one right answer to every question. Each person is matched with their one perfect 'match' and one perfect job. They have one set of clothes. And they act as one, all obeying the same laws. (There is also, we learn, one rebellion trying to take down the Society, but even it is called the Rising, a foreshadowing of the fact that it turns out to be hard to distinguish from the system it's trying to replace.)

I found this world-concept especially interesting because one of the things I dislike most about contemporary society, especially in the US, is the excess of choice it offers its citizens. All you have to do is go to Bed, Bath & Beyond and try to pick a new set of bathroom towels to understand what I mean. There are so many variables and options for everything we buy - do you want organic or conventional, non-fat, low-fat, or whole milk? While shopping for apples this week, I must have been offered at least 20 varieties of just that fruit. Personally, this stresses me out, and as I read about Cassia Reyes, Condie's heroine, I had just a twinge of jealousy because she didn't have to make those ridiculous choices all throughout her daily life. Condie really succeeded in imagining a future world that seems to have solved a problem our society actually suffers from - only they took the solution too far.

It's not just Cassia's meals and clothes that are determined for her. She also gets no choice in the person she'll spend her life with, the job she'll spend her life doing, and the city she'll spend her life in. Luckily for her, she gets matched with her best friend, Xander. Unluckily, she is mistakenly matched with a second boy as well: her other friend, Ky. And so Condie has a perfect little set up to explore the concept of a character who has to learn what it means to choose between two options and, later, how to create her own ideas and her own future outside of the options presented to her.

The first book, Matched, starts out looking like a pretty conventional teen love triangle. But as the series develops, the initial set-up of Cassia being torn between Xander and Ky gets woven into a much bigger story about her relationship to society, not just to a couple of boys.

Again, this all felt so familiar. Beyond over-stuffed supermarket shelves, the US (foremost among rich nations) pretends to offer its citizens unlimited possibilities in what kind of life they can lead. Supposedly, anyone, myself included, could become president someday. That's not strictly true, of course - there's a lot of inequality and a lot of glass ceilings still around. But this book responds in interesting ways to that American Dream. In a lot of ways, Condie's message is very traditionally American: she celebrates the moments when Cassia breaks away from the Society by running away into untamed nature or expressing herself through her own poetry, music, and dance. There's even a refrain throughout the books, referring to the anonymity of the leader of the Rising: Anyone could be the Pilot. This sounds a lot like saying, Anyone could be president of the United States.

But in the end, Cassia returns to civilization to help build a better society having learned that there are no easy choices, and possibilities are not unlimited in any part of life. She can't choose both Xander and Ky, or both the Society and the Rising. She can't live in both her home town and the wild canyons she discovers in Crossed and comes to love. She can't divide herself when some of her friends choose to leave for unknown lands while some decide to stay and rebuild. Choice is good, but choice is also hard.

I don't recommend these books based on the writing style or the psychological depth of the characters, who are lovable and relatable but also fairly simple. This book adheres to the (I think absurd) rule in YA that psychological depth and elegant, show-not-tell writing be banished along with violence and sex.

But despite its flaws, this trilogy was a very good read. I wanted to find out what happened to the characters, and the books delivered the plot at a great pace, not too fast and not too slow, just enough to keep me desperately turning the pages. And when I stopped turning those pages and headed to work or went to make another cup of tea, I wasn't just thinking about who Cassia would end up with at the end of the third book. I also found myself thinking about my own life and my own choices - engaging in just the kind of reflection that dystopian fiction is supposed to inspire.