Call Them Off: Never Mind THE HUNGER GAMES, Try These Instead
Why is that?
Although Suzanne Collins ranks some way above the Stephenie Meyers and Terry Goodkinds of the world - she means well, and technically at least she's far from a terrible writer - she does still serve up plenty of reasons to lay into her work. Where Twilight offers the comforting fantasy of a supernatural white knight who knows the heroine better than she knows herself, The Hunger Games tempts prospective readers with the idea of the reluctant poster girl for revolution who becomes the chosen one almost without meaning to. Forced into a gladiatorial free-for-all by a totalitarian future government - twenty four kids enter, one kid leaves - Katniss Everdeen just can't help surviving, and whipping up the masses in the process.
Now I hate glib dismissals of things the literati view as beneath them. Honest. But I hate it when I'm told I can't comment on a book, film, game or whatever I haven't digested in full, so I bought all three volumes of The Hunger Games, read them cover to cover, and you know what? They really are Battle Royale rewritten for fourteen-year-old girls, without the shock, the sadistic creativity, the subversive elements, the blood, sexuality or anything else fun. These are teenagers who do virtually nothing inappropriate - no swearing, no entertaining X-rated thoughts outside the sanctity of marriage. They never hurt anyone who doesn't deserve it. They practically jump at the chance to sacrifice themselves for the greater good: thankfully they're never asked to make any honest-to-God impossible decisions.
To be honest, it's often difficult to identify what these kids are fighting for. There's no help from Collins beyond tired, empty monologues about how these guys in the ivory tower over yonder are evil, because oppression, violence and really bad things so we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more, I guess? Other than the generic exposition setting out how America ended up this way - a devastating war, a unified fascist government rising from the ashes, blah, blah, blah - there's virtually no actual world-building beyond endless descriptions of everyday grime and misery versus the sickening opulence with which the bad guys surround themselves.
There's never any reason to doubt that the bad guys are louche and ineffectual at best, evil incarnate at worst. The good guys are paragons of virtue and selflessness - Collins doesn't do shades of grey, beyond a rogues' gallery of ham-fisted resistance caricatures that play out like an opinion piece on Fox (you call these people freedom fighters? I put it to you they're terrorists!). There's no sense any of them ever do anything with their time other than lounge around sneering archly at the lower classes (the bad guys), agonize over how to save the world (the good guys) or think about how the end justifies the means (the freedom fighters).
Collins' heroine is a cipher, defined only by her ceaseless willingness to put everyone else first. Her setting is an excuse to set up her villains as the meanest, nastiest cartoons possible and nothing else (she practically resorts to kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out, and never adequately illustrates the consequences of this). There's no bigger picture, no sense of any more complex society than miserable, downtrodden peasants and their evil overlords, no real culture , no history beyond bland, threadbare archetypes, no world outside the scope of the novels, nothing. It's great some guys on the internet drew an exhaustively researched map of her world, but it doesn't change that virtually none of this appears in the books, and the idea people can read actual critiques of Big Government into this is baffling.
Collins' narrative is strictly by the numbers, devoid of real, lasting suspense, hamstrung by conservative morality and formulaic plotting. Christ, the second volume is practically an exact retread of the first - what more do you want? There's never anything real, flawed or otherwise genuinely human at stake; the central love triangle is a rose-tinted daydream, the heroine's family are caricatures and everyone else is lucky to get one personality trait. The violence is bland, inoffensive stuff, either juvenile gags like Saturday morning TV with added screaming or generalized atrocities that gloss over the gory details. The only reason this is nothing like as disturbing (or outright poisonous) as Twilight's bizarre gender politics is there's barely anything to The Hunger Games, period.
It's a safe bet. The trailers can sell it on the plucky underdog standing up against a corrupt, irredeemable, faceless evil. The script can pump up the melodrama - the suffering mother! The pure, innocent little sister! The stoic, surly heroine who gets not one but two idealized male specimens practically falling over themselves to take care of her every need, even though she's barely lifted a finger! And they can safely chop out - have chopped out, even - whatever ketchup the ratings board don't like since hey, it's not like any of the unpleasant stuff is that important.
So what am I suggesting instead?
It's not like fiction written for teenagers is short on alternatives. Here are three long-running series that in my humble opinion wipe the floor with the Hunger Games trilogy - they've got adventure with depth, subtlety, moral ambiguity, menace, horrific violence, raciness and the whole nine yards. And they'd look incredible on screen if you gave a film crew enough money to do it. There are perfectly logical reasons why they'll probably never get made, of course, or at least not in the way their writers intended - but hey, a guy can dream, right?
What's it about?
Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines novels are set in a post-apocalyptic Earth - no, no, hang on, it's a bit weirder than you probably think. The survivors of the wars that ruined the planet's surface have turned their cities into towering mobile citadels which roam the blasted landscape trying to consume anything smaller than themselves. The original quartet begins when Tom, a young civil servant in the city of London, gets thrown together with Hester, a wandering scavenger, after Tom's attempt to stop her doing London harm means the two of them uncover a terrible plot by the city's ruling body.
The bad guys plan to seize control of an ancient pre-war technology that could destroy any of their enemies in an instant. The fallout from what happens next causes a power struggle spanning decades that sends the young couple across half the globe. The prequel trilogy follows a young engineer, Fever, through her struggles to come to terms with her strange genetic heritage and what it might mean for the plans to turn London into the first of these Traction Cities - a future Fever ends up determined to try and stop, no matter what the cost.
What's so great about it?
It's arguable Philip Reeve's grandest achievement isn't simply Mortal Engines' lunatic premise, but the way he actually turns the idea of giant cities on tank tracks rolling around eating each other into a relatively credible and astonishingly well-realized world. The sheer amount of detail, the number of different factions vying for power, how their societies work and how naturally all this fits into the story puts most doorstopper fantasy novels to shame (and in a fraction of the space, too). No-one's wholly good or bad, and almost everyone has some significance - there's something to sympathize with or despise about practically very single member of his cast.
Reeve's storytelling is impressively multifaceted - the different story arcs encompass some absolutely astonishing action set pieces, yet he also writes flawed, believable characters (adults and teenagers) who can be proud and self-sufficient one moment, then tempted into doing unbelievably stupid things for love the next. He covers how young people think about family, identity, self image, their peers, their friends, their enemies, yet at the same time he simply takes the reader on one hell of a ride. This is epic in every sense, from the sheer amount of ground every book covers to the things the principals learn about themselves and each other.
Why wouldn't it get filmed?
Yes, yes, this is me cheating just a little; Peter Jackson is apparently trying to bring Mortal Engines to the screen, and in many respects it's hard to think of a better man for the job. Still, there are still some things about the franchise it's all too easy to assume even the man behind the Lord of the Rings films would struggle to get green-lit. It's violent, and not The Hunger Games violent - it matters who did what to whom. Death in Reeve's world is nasty, shocking, not simply an excuse for another five-minute introspective monologue on whether the end justifies the means - cannon fodder and important characters get hacked to pieces without warning.
Not to mention Hester, in the first series, is essentially a sullen, emotionally stunted psychopath with a permanent, hideously disfiguring scar, consumed by bitterness, self-hatred and jealousy. Hester kills defenceless people in cold blood, and it is made clear this is a ghastly thing to do (again, compare that to The Hunger Games, where Collins all but explicitly states anyone who's not with her good guys is against them). She lets her insecurities put people in terrible danger - she's a fantastic character whose arc speaks volumes about learning to stand up for yourself and the value of self-sufficiency, but she doesn't magically change, doesn't get 'fixed'. And this is the hero's love interest.
It's not hard to see studio suits deciding they'd prefer her blonde and beautiful, the better to sell more tickets to impressionable fifteen-year-old boys. And although it's pretty much age-appropriate stuff, you can add to that teenagers who're perfectly happy to admit they're interested in the opposite sex (or even - gasp! - the same sex) without any moping, hand-wringing, frantic pledges to wait until the sanctity of marriage or disturbing submission to bizarre ideas of gender roles; there's no way Walden Media would touch this with a barge pole in unadulterated form, say, and even Jackson might have some difficulty talking people round.
THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM
What's it about?
Garth Nix's epic Keys to the Kingdom series is the story of Arthur Penhaligon, an ordinary boy who accidentally gets his hands on one of the keys that afford the holder power over everything in existence. The Architect of creation (no, not the one in The Matrix) wrote a Will instructing the holders of the keys on what to do with them, but when the holders - the Lords of the Seven Morrow Days - decided they wanted to hold on to the keys, a piece of the Will escaped its captivity and managed to get Arthur recognized as part of the line of succession. Now he's caught up in a supernatural power struggle between ancient forces who won't hesitate to make his life hell now he's got in their way, leaving Arthur little choice but to play along.
What's so great about it?
Nix's books are a story about growing up and learning to take charge, when you get down to it, and he does this extremely well. Arthur's a likeable lead for readers of any age. He has to struggle with a crippling disability - asthma so bad it threatens to put him in hospital - and a life that refuses to pan out the way he'd hoped, but his willingness to rise to meet his supernatural challengers and fix the mess they end up making for his family and friends is both straightforward entertainment and consistently satisfying on a deeper, emotional level.
On top of that Nix proves to be a consummate world builder, in that he cribs from the best (the darker, nastier side of folklore and the classics) but crafts the resulting mashup into something very much his own. Part Victoriana, part nightmarish fairytale after artists like Arthur Rackham or Gustav Dore, part matinee adventure, it's Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials without the dry, academic tone of voice or the obvious moral agenda. Nix doesn't quite manage to conjure the same grand, sweeping vistas as his competition - these are obvious fantasies, dreamscapes more than worlds that people actually live in. But he makes his backdrops feel like paintings, big, bold canvases that invite you to study them and think about what the little details mean.
Why wouldn't it get filmed?
While Nix's books still make for fantastic reading, he's definitely aiming for a markedly younger audience than some of his peers, and there's something of a breathless sugar rush about his writing that makes you wonder how well it would translate to the screen. Much of the Keys to the Kingdom series is one long stream of '...and then I did this; and then I did this; and then I did this and it was amazing, but can I please go home now? But you promised!', like some sprawling homage to Boys' Own adventure stories. Characters suffer, they grieve, there's danger, excitement and all that good stuff, but anyone over their mid-teens will maybe think the stakes could stand to be a little higher.
More pressingly, at least from a financial point of view, any studio backing Keys to the Kingdom as an ongoing concern would be in for a hell of a challenge, logistical, technical and financial. All seven books follow each other nigh on instantaneously, and young actors tend to grow up pretty fast - there's no way you could cram all seven books into a single two-hour stretch a la Scott Pilgrim without drastically editing much of the series, and scheduling filming along with the amount of post-production work all this would need would be a nightmare. Anyone wanting to bring this to the screen would have to be in for the duration - at the very least stretching the timeline out and tweaking the endings to gain some breathing space would rob the story of much of its impetus.
What's it about?
Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking series is a science fiction trilogy, set on a colony planet in the distant future. A tiny band of settlers are the last survivors of a bitter conflict with the indigenous alien race, which set loose a genetically tailored plague that both wiped out every last human female and gave every living creature the power of speech. Not only that, it opened up their thoughts to each other, whether they like it or not. Todd Hewitt is the last person in Prentisstown who's not yet reached his majority, a boy anxiously awaiting the day he gets to be a man, yet in the space of a few hours he discovers that what he understood to be the history of the colony isn't strictly true, and there's something much more terrible resting on what he does when he grows up than he could ever have imagined.
What's so great about it?
Chaos Walking is a story about identity, underneath the genre trappings. Where a series like Mortal Engines encompasses a vast range of different subtexts, Ness focuses on how young people see themselves. He looks at what the younger generation think of the way other people see them; how they react to what their peers or their elders expect them to do, and whether or not they think they should actually do these things. Todd has to come to terms not only with the idea the authority figure he was expecting to obey is now the bad guy, but also that he's been tarred with that same brush. But is he best violently rejecting everything that authority figure ever gave him, or are the new people in his life equally dangerous in their own way?
While the subtexts are pretty sharply focused, the narrative is just as epic as the other series mentioned here - though part of Ness' genius is how deftly he pulls the rug out from under the reader as much in terms of the different books' scope and its import as of their themes and character development. The first volume is one long high-octane chase sequence, with Todd struggling to accept what his past history has made of him, but the second and third turn into a clash of rival ideologies a la the conflicts in the Middle East, with everything leading up to an all-out war where alliances are constantly broken and reforged like prime Golden Age space opera.
Why wouldn't it get filmed?
Again, cheating just a little - the film rights have gone. But they've gone to Lionsgate, and if Mortal Engines gives us cause for concern, Ness' series is the grimmest of these three. What he sets down on the page isn't always so terrible - the man only uses the word 'fuck' once, presumably happy for his readers to fill in the blanks wherever he uses 'effing'. But it's definitely a world where teenagers swear; where they know what sex is; where they know adults have dark and complex moral compasses - as opposed to the comedy vices of The Hunger Games - that sometimes lead them to do terrible, genuinely sickening things. And it's violent, horribly so - there are two key sequences in the first volume alone, one with a Terminator of an adversary chasing Todd and another where the boy kills an innocent unprovoked, where any soft-soaping the ghastly nature of the violence to grab a lower rating would rob the story of much of its power.
It's similar to the Keys to the Kingdom series, too, in that bringing it to film would represent a logistical problem as well as a budgetary one. Mortal Engines has an insane scope and scale, but much of the writing is presented with the kind of metaphorical widescreen lensing where good CG would solve most of your problems adapting it. (Not that CG doesn't cost money, but when all you need to make is a fancy backdrop it's a lot easier than finding a real place to match.) The three volumes of Chaos Rising follow each other immediately, and the final volume in particular calls for massive numbers of people and a lot of pretty physical action sequences.
The Hunger Games will probably do well, and might even be fun. I never saw Gary Ross' Seabiscuit, but I liked Pleasantville fine. The man professes to love the trilogy, to want to do right by the fans and hey, it's hard to screw up adapting something when there's nothing to the original story save the bare bones. But whatever his feelings, let's be honest. The Hunger Games got the green light because it's a safe bet. The books have neither weight, nor substance. They're telling a teenage audience exactly what it wants to hear and nothing else. They use ideas like oppression and rebellion and portray violence and misery without giving the slightest impression Collins knows what any of it actually means. If all you want is a solid, but undistinguished tournament action flick retooled to keep the eyeliner set happy, be my guest. I hope you enjoy the film, seriously. I hope it's a success, the better to inspire a studio to take more risks on these three titles or anything else like them. Because whoever you are, you could do so much better than The Hunger Games.
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