A Rant about a Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay

This article is a perfect, sneering example of one of my biggest pet peeves in movie and book reviews. Written from the condescending perspective of a critic who presumably claims to know “art”, for those of us who know a bit about war, it’s woefully naïve.

Let me state right off that I have no strong opinions on The Hunger Games. I haven’t read the books (though I keep meaning to), and I while I think the movies are entertaining enough, I don’t have any particular attachment to them. I’m not feeling defensive on behalf of a film I haven’t seen.

No, my issue is best summarised in this sentence, which supposedly explains why Hunger Games: Mockingjay – and YA in general – should not be taken seriously by any “real adult”:

“Civilisation hangs in the balance, but what’s really at stake is Katniss’ feelings for Peeta.”

In other words, this critic’s principal objection to the movie is that Katniss should obviously be way more concerned about civilisation hanging in the balance, and her unlooked-for role as hero, than the fate of her close friend. The fact that this isn’t so makes the story puerile and “kitschy”.

I mean, come on, right? The whole world is falling down around your ears and you’re worried about your friend? How unrealistic and silly! Katniss is a hero. Heroes don’t worry about love or friendship. They worry about saving the world! Because, hero.

So now I’m the one who’s going to come off as condescending, but here goes: As someone who’s spent a lot of time in actual war zones, with actual combatants and actual refugees and actual heroes, I can safely say that this is bollocks.

To quote a guest post I did recently at Fantasy Book Critic, called Five Things I’ve Learned About War:

“When you’re in the middle of [war], with all these momentous events going on around you, they often don’t seem that momentous. History doesn’t always feel like history when it’s unfolding right in front of you. Instead, what inspires you, what breaks your heart, what overwhelms you, are the individual stories. So recognisable, so relatable, and yet so fundamentally beyond your ken, because they’re unfolding in the midst of a heaving shitstorm you can barely comprehend, let alone cope with. This is where you find your real heroes, and sometimes your real villains as well. Not symbols or labels, but actual human beings with fears and desires very much like your own.”

People don’t stop being people because there’s a war going on. Of course they don’t. If anything, conflict draws a bright yellow line under everything that’s important to you. For some people, what’s important is indeed The Cause – the revolution, the war against evil, whatever. For most, though, what matters most are their loved ones. Friends. Family. Neighbours. Aside from the fact that you love them, they’re what grounds you. Something resembling normalcy to cling to when the world around you is spinning out of control. Retreating into the small, familiar confines of your own life is a coping strategy that allows you to feel like you’re still in some measure of control, even if you aren’t. For most of us real-life mortals, this isn’t only natural, it’s necessary.

This critic’s argument seems to be that after everything Katniss and Peeta have been through together, and the bonds they’ve forged, she’s supposed to flip some inner switch and become a Hero. Like there’s a circuit breaker in there somewhere that shuts down all emotions, all attachments, leaving you ready to assume your new mantle.

That, supposedly, is more realistic than a Katniss who is bewildered, disoriented, struggling to process a fundamental upheaval in her world and the overwhelming expectations of a bunch of total strangers, and who therefore clings to the one thread that makes sense: she needs to rescue her friend.

Now who’s being silly?

I’m singling out one particular review, but it represents a pervasive line of thinking in criticism of SFF, and in case you can’t tell, it drives me nuts. A hero’s first priority is The Cause. Kings are wise and make the right decisions. Everyone is acutely aware that history is unfolding around them, and it’s all they think about. In the middle of war, individuals view the landscape around them with the zoomed-out perspective of the distant observer, instead of the tumble and chaos right in front of them.

This flies in the face of history and human nature. It’s just not true. People are people, in war as in everything else. The best stories recognise that.

So I’m looking forward to reading The Hunger Games.

  • tammy

    all excellent points, and i’d like to expand on one of the threads you raise. i find it ironic that someone who is ostensibly commenting on narrative fails to understand that what constitutes an “event” that catalyzes both heroes and villains is, by nature, a social construction. whether in fiction or in real life, we only come to know that turning points are turning points after the fact — once they are placed in a narrative that has some sort of semblance of plot. it’s how we understand our own lives, our identities and the consequences of ours and others’ actions. this is true whether it is in the ordinary ebb and flow of unremarkable daily life or in the hyper-charged chaos of wartime. if the critic seeks verisimilitude to actual war, he or she should, in fact, find it more implausible if central characters somehow had some archimedean vantage point that enabled them to see events for all of their historical importance as they unfold.

    • Erin

      Exactly. In real life, most people lack the megalomaniacal streak necessary to cast themselves as heroes in the midst of great events, even if they really *are* in the midst of great events. And even when it dawns on them that something massive is going on, that realisation doesn’t suddenly strip away their humanity. A hero who doesn’t worry about love or friendship, who doesn’t make mistakes, who isn’t changed by the punishing events going on around her, is a cardboard cut-out. Which is not only unrealistic, but *boring*.