"A star of darkness shone on her birth, of darkness and unrest. Where ever she goes shall be blood spilling and men dying. I knew it when I saw her standing against the sunrise that turned to blood the dagger in her hand."
- Robert E. Howard, "The Sword Woman"
So while John Carter's doing a wee bit better than Disney and most of the world's media predicted, it still isn't the resounding success it really should be, certainly not in the homeland of the story's creator. In contrast, another literary adaptation, The Hunger Games, is doing gangbusters (to use a favourite vernacular) to the tune of being the most profitable box office debut for the first film of a franchise, only The Dark Knight and Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 beating it.
Unlike John Carter and, well, most films adapted into books, I haven't read so much as a page of the source material on which The Hunger Games was based. This, then, was a rare opportunity to go in to an adaptation and not be informed or distracted by my preconceptions of the source material. This is a double-edged sword: I may not get as much out of the film as I would had I read the books, and I could stumble upon plot points that are explained in the book - but at the same time, I may not be as distracted by divergences or clashes with my personal preconceptions.
Well, I fairly enjoyed it, and was pleasantly surprised, not least because my faith in the future of blockbuster cinema has been revived, at least a little.
Much has been made of The Hunger Games' similarities* to the manga and film adaptation of Battle Royale: frankly, I think those films bear as many similarities to each other as both do to The Running Man, Rollerball, Series 7: The Contenders, and Death Race. As such, I'd hesitate to call either film copies or ripoffs, but more like distinct stories in a very specific subgenre. I call it Teen Deathmatch Dystopia.
Thematically speaking, however, it's a whole other bowl of noodles: both are savage satires, but they're also markedly different in key respects. Battle Royale was a savage, exploitative satire filled to the gunwales with gore, sex and violence: there's a brain to it, definitely, but the horrific carnality, cruelty and violence is put to the forefront. The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is much more subdued and bleak, with the horror and shocks coming more from the implications and mere actions rather than spraying guts all over the camera. If Battle Royale reminded me of the likes of Robocop, A Clockwork Orange, and 1984, then The Hunger Games is a bit more like Logan's Run, Brazil, and Brave New World (in fact, I'd say there are some very pointed homages to those books and films). A Huxleyan, rather than Orwellian, dystopia.
There is a strange dichotomy between the subtle and the operatic in the film, and given the nature of the story, that's probably to be expected - though frankly, I don't think it was extreme enough. The rich, conceited socialites of the Capital are grotesque caricatures visually as well as conceptually, taking the ludicrous excesses of fashion to their logical conclusion, but the poor downtrodden masses of the Districts are more or less normal folks with a slight layer of grime.** In the same vein, there are genetically-engineered horrors called Tracker Jackers (which seem to be weaponised Japanese hornets) and Muttations (pit bulls of some monstrous description): while this could have been an excellent opportunity to create something truly horrendous, the beasties are rather realistic in size, shape and temperament, in that I could imagine real creatures like them existing. The problem is that the story is not particularly realistic: the economic system of Panem is simply infeasible (more on that in a minute), the characterisation is more about broad archetypes than mundane characters, and the very story structure is Campbellian. As such, the "realistic" elements make the unrealistic elements all the more false. In other words, I think it needed to take more cues from Brazil than Threads.
To complement the garish decadence of the Capital, I would've made the Districts a lot more hellish and stark: think The Seventh Seal, Whistle Down the Wind, all the "Grim Up North" and "Soviet Block" films. Similarly, my take on the Tracker Jackers would be less like things that could actually feasibly exist in nature, and more a Spheksophobe's most hyperbolic fevre dream, while Muttations would resemble demonic hellspawn or warped abominations of flesh and fur. Everything else that struck me as too mundane or normal, I felt detracted from the film's strength as an allegory.
Because, at it's heart, this film is a savage commentary on the increasingly extreme celebration, exploitation and condemnation of "reality celebrities." The parallels The Hunger Games shares with the likes of Big Brother, The X-Factor and their ilk are plain to see, as is the allusion to the "build them up to knock them down" phenomenon. The only thing people love to watch more than a hard-fought success is a catastrophic failure, and the Hunger Games provides this in spades for the people of Panem. Like Animal Farm, the characters, plot and setting of The Hunger Games is strongest as satire, because once you start to think about it... Panem shouldn't exist, at least not the way it does as presented in the film.
From the Hunger Games Wiki:
The nation of Panem has risen out of the ravaged ruins of what was once known as North America. 74 years ago, the poverty-stricken districts of Panem rebelled against the wealthy, controlling Capitol. After its crushing victory, the Capitol devised the Hunger Games as an annual reminder to the twelve districts of its authority, and as continuing punishment for the rebellion. Every year, each district must hold a raffle (known as the "reaping") to choose one boy and one girl (ranging from age 12–18) to participate in the Hunger Games, a competition in which each of the twenty-four contestants (known as "tributes") fight to the death in a televised arena until only one is left alive.
I'm going to wax a bit Machiavellian here and say that the Capitol has completely failed the Cruelty & Clemency test. See, Machiavelli put forward the very logical deduction that while it would be great to be loved and feared, it was altogether safer to be feared. What many rulers forget is that the Prince was warned that he must not become hated:
Nevertheless a prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared whilst he is not hated, which will always be as long as he abstains from the property of his citizens and subjects and from their women... Returning to the question of being feared or loved, I come to the conclusion that, men loving according to their own will and fearing according to that of the prince, a wise prince should establish himself on that which is in his own control and not in that of others; he must endeavour only to avoid hatred, as is noted.
I don't know about you, but I think the absolute quickest way to ensure your citizens hate you is to round up their children and force them to fight to the death for no better reason than punishment for what their grandparents did decades ago. I simply cannot fathom how the Capitol hasn't been fending off constant riots, rebellions and uprisings. All the more baffling is that it's pretty clear that the Capitol needs the districts far more than the reverse: the districts are responsible for production and resource gathering, while the Capitol provides... television. Without the Capitol, the districts look like they'd do fine - at least district 12, which seems fairly self-sufficient - but the Capitol without the districts would collapse in a matter of days. All through this, I was distracted by how easily the Capitol could fall if only somebody got their act together.
Now, that's not to say that the Capitol's cartoonish villainy is a bad thing - nobody complains about how Doctor Doom couldn't possibly threaten the world time and again the way he does - but I think that a certain tone needs to be set. Not a less serious tone, or less intellectual one, but one that suits the broad strokes of the story and its themes. It's like the difference between watching a Schwarzenegger or Stallone action movie, and a historical drama: you can buy, nay, expect Arnie to shrug off wounds that would kill a man, but not the protagonist of a gritty wartime thriller.
Still, those grievances aside, I enjoyed The Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence was outstanding as the heroine Katniss, and I'm so taken by her performance that I'm going to track down Winter's Bone. The direction was very interesting: it utilized an unsteady camera, which I think aided that sense of unease, but unfortunately made it a bit too documentarian at the same time. In any case, there were some beautiful shots. Most impressive was how this didn't fall into the "young adults" trap, in that too many films see a story for young adults, and think that means making an anemic copy of The O.C. or One Tree Hill: this film didn't talk down to its audience, it didn't pander with superfluous angst in its romance plot, and it treated the violence with the gravity it deserved. Some have criticized the "shaky-cam" of the fight scenes, arguing that you want to see what's going on. Considering what's usually happening in those fights is the gruesome deaths of children and teenagers, I'd dare say it's probably better you don't see it - imagination does enough.
Born Under A Star of Darkness
The fact that a film with a female protagonist became so successful hopefully means good things for the future, most notably the Dark Agnes film which has been hinted at - and, indeed, I found a lot of similarities between Katniss and Agnes.
A post on "strong female characters" got me thinking about female characters I appreciate. While I disagree with that post on a few issues (which can be found in the comments), I do think there is a dearth of variety in the sort of female protagonists we see in films, which seems to be more of a problem. The idea of, say, desexualised and hypersexualised female characters is not bad in and of itself, not any more than desexualised and hypersexualised male characters are, but the problem is there isn't anything in between. It's the Maiden-Matron-Crone archetype commanding all: the presence of the triple goddess isn't the problem, it's the absence of anything else.
I touched on Lynn Collins' Dejah Thoris in my John Carter review, and while I thought she did a fantastic job as the scientist and princess, the "warrior" aspect didn't sit well with me at all. Now, if you know anything about me, you know I love women warriors, so it won't surprise you that the presence of a female warrior in a Barsoom story is not my problem.*** My problem is that making Dejah Thoris a warrior woman who still needs to be rescued all the time makes her a pretty useless warrior woman. When you establish that Dejah is an adept warrior princess and have her slice her way through half a dozen Zodangan soldiers with ease, you wonder why in blazes she needed John Carter at all. Dejah in the book was stronger because she wasn't a warrior, but still stood up for herself and asserted her authority despite her lack of fighting prowess and the danger that would entail. It takes a lot more guts to do that when you're a scientist, rather than a trained death dealer.
The problem is a lot of action heroines have this deficiency of being competent only as the plot demands. Katniss didn't suffer from this: her flaws are consistent and believable, and every time she was endangered, she got out of it herself. In the rare times someone else saved her skin, it's usually because she's either incapacitated or unable to do what needs done herself. You'd be surprised how rare this is for female action stars, and likely less surprised at the number of times I've rolled my eyes at supposed action heroines who have a terminal lapse in wit at crucial moments. However, just as problematic is the idea that making a woman strong necessitates stripping her of any vulnerabilities at all: being a woman doesn't mean she isn't human. Collins' Dejah retains some of the books' quirks, but making her an accomplished warrior just dilutes her already present accomplishments.
Comparing Katniss to Agnes, some of the similarities are pretty obvious: both come from impoverished backgrounds in rural areas, where their daily toil honed their strength and skills; both are strikingly attractive but utterly naive in feminine ways; both are uninterested in traditionally feminine pursuits; both are betrayed by the male companions they thought they could trust, who had aided them in training for eventual conflict. But it's in subtext that I think one can find some of the most intriguing parallels.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss does not become a "badass." She doesn't kill with cool, detached precision, nor does she unleash a berserk fury: all throughout the film, the emphasis is on Katniss surviving the games, not conquering them. When she fights, it's a desperate, wild struggle: she doesn't triumph or succeed so much as escapes with her life. Whenever she kills, it's with a twinge of revulsion and never the mirthless grin of a Red Sonya or Valeria. While the film (wisely, in my opinion) shies from overt depictions of blood, gore and violence, neither does it try to hide the reality of death. These children are dying, and that is hardly cause for celebration.
I'd like to compare that to the aftermath of Agnes' first real battle:
I do not remember much of that fight; it is a crimson haze in which a few details stand out. My thoughts were moving too swiftly for my brain to record, and I know not fully how, with what leaps, ducks, side-steps and parries I avoided those flailing blades. I know that I split the head of Conrad the German, as a man splits a melon, and his brains gushed sickeningly over the blade. And I remember that the one called Gaston the Wolf trusted too much in a brigandine he wore among his rags, and that under my desperate stroke, the rusty links burst and he fell upon the floor with his bowels spilling out. Then as in red cloud, only Jehan was rushing at me, and flailing down with his sword. And I caught his descending wrist on my edge. His hand, holding the sword, jumped from his wrist on an arch of crimson, and as he stared stupidly at the spouting stump, I ran him through with such ferocity that the cross-piece struck hard against his breast, and I pitched over him as he fell.
I do not remember rising and wrenching free my blade. On wide braced legs, sword trailing, I reeled among the corpses, then a deadly sickness overcame me, and I staggered to the window and leaning my head over the sill, retched fearfully. I found that blood was streaming down my arm from a slash in my shoulder, and my shirt was in ribbons. The room swam to my gaze, and the scent of fresh blood, swimming in the entrails of the slain, revolted me. As if through a mist I saw Etienne's white face.
"His brains gushed sickeningly," "a deadly sickness overcame me," "the scent of fresh blood, swimming in the entrails of the slain, revolted me." Agnes' first battle was such a horrendous ordeal that she retched out of the window - ostensibly due to the smell, but one wonders if the reality that Agnes wrought red ruin on what were once living human beings may have contributed. Agnes experienced no joyful triumph, no heroic elation, no grim satisfaction, as the stench of blood overwhelmed her and the sight of entrails reddened her vision. Just reeling, aching, bleeding, vomiting.
Howard's often described as a visceral writer, and here, I think Howard was at his most viscerally real. This was so visceral it was difficult to read, and while it has the dramatic and poetic flair typical of him, something grounds it, sets it apart, makes it feel starkly true. When Conan's dealing death, the thrill of battle and chants of old heroes offset the grotesque spilling of guts and blood: images of grim pagan heroes of mythology, friezes of folkloric valour, tales of barbarians and demons passed around a fireplace. Here, I can't help but think of a young Texan assisting his father as they desperately try to stem the blood from a knife-inflicted gash, or a gunshot wound, or some appalling machinery accident, working despite the reek and the struggling and that terrible screaming.
In every Howard story, there's always one scene, one moment, which encapsulates its heart: it may not be the most important part, or even the best-written, but it's the one where you could feel a piece of Howard's soul break off, landing on the page, infusing it with life. I feel if you can get this part, the adaptation's worth it. In "Worms of the Earth," it's Bran's solemn oath; in "Queen of the Black Coast," it's Belit approaching Conan with her shapely hip sliding down Conan's sword, the blood smearing across her ivory skin; in "The Hills of the Dead," it's N'Longa's final words to Kane. This is that part for me in "The Sword Woman," and I deeply hope not only Christophe Gans, but Tobin and Francavilla, take heed in their upcoming adaptations.
I've often maintained that Dark Agnes is one of Howard's most important characters, not only because of how far ahead of his time they are, but because I feel Agnes is one of Howard's most personal creations. Reading Agnes' frustration at her station, the resentment of men not allowing her to be who she is as she pleases, the application of rugged outdoors skills to deadly professions, the protestation against arbitrary social laws and rules and traditions - all in a character who isn't a mighty-thewed barbarian or shrewd gunslinger, but in a woman. She has none of the baggage of Howard's other heroes: none of the religious elements of Solomon Kane, none of the machismo alpha-male culture of his barbarian heroes, none of the political/cultural sensitivity implications of El Borak or Costigan. She doesn't have the dead albatross of previous adaptations, and only has to battle the recent cynical trend of sword-women in cinema as competition. True, when even Snow White is being touted as a sword-swinging warrior woman, one might be concerned with oversaturation: still, with the success of The Hunger Games and the likely success of Brave, Snow White & the Huntsman, it's time to strike while the iron is hot.
This is why, more than Kull, more than Kane, more even than Conan, Agnes must be rendered right. Too many people still think of Conan as the Big Dumb Barbarian, and his other characters as Cimmerian clones, while also dealing with the Frazetta aficionados, comics fans and Lancer cult. Solomon Kane is still unfairly compared to either mediocre derivative works which preceded him in celluloid, or the even more unfair association with religious bigotry and intolerance in his character. After five supposed "adaptations" of Howard's characters going it to the big screen, Gans' film is the last, best chance there is to bring Howard, and only Howard, to the screen in this generation, without prior films or comics or book franchises to worry about. There's too much of Howard himself in the Mistress of Death, and she is the best ambassador to her creator for it.
Three quarters of a century after her conception, the world finally seems ready for The Sword Woman.
*Weirdly, the most striking similarities I thought of were those The Hunger Games bore not to Battle Royale... but Harry Potter. Think about it: both protagonists take a train journey to their new temporary home (which also takes them back); both become involved in something bigger than the organizations which affects the entire world; both are more capable than their original communities believed were possible; both have children getting involved in combat and dying; both have extremely unhelpful supposed mentors who withhold information while only giving cryptic hints and vague nods; both have arrogant, blonde, blue-eyed, rich, spoiled nemeses... OK, I'm just having fun, but still, did they have to get there by train? When they have hoverships? I think I'm just hung up on the train thing...
*Or maybe it just seems fine to me because I'm from the West Coast of Scotland, which is more Noggin the Nog than The Magic Roundabout.
**Not to mention supported by the text: all Barsoomian women carry daggers for self-defense, so it's logical that they knew the basics of how to use it. Plus, look at Tavia.