Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Hunger Games: Real? Classical? Surreal?



Food in Film: 

    Recent news headlines tell us what you already know: the film, "The Hunger Games" is a smash hit, especially with the age 12-22 cohort. They don't remember that "Babette's Feast" (1987) had a similar appeal to gourmet cooks as well as having evolved from the story by Isak Dinesen (1958)



    But that film (1986) centered on the role of the artist in society ("Let me practice my art..."), while this film relies on society-approved combat, survival tests and trials, fights to the death.  Gladiators. The last man and girl standing and so forth.


    Nevertheless, "The Hunger Game"  feasts" have been the center for nation-wide competitions to replicate (and improve) some of the meals/dishes contrived in the wilderness by the characters, young Katniss and Peeta in the highly successful novel by author Suzanne Mane Collins (b. Connecticut, 1962). Collins  had already built a career in children's books and television before this latest publication, advertised as a trilogy: Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010).

 Collins contrives to offer a bit of tongue-in-cheek, though one gathers that the puns have zipped right past the younger readers. The male hero is named Peeta, a baker's son (Pita?). Katniss , nicknamed "Catnip", is light and nimble (as a cat).  Similarly elusive is "Fox Face" until she unwittingly eats the wrong wild berries, deadly nightshade. The only sexy female among these teens is Glimmer, and she dies horribly disfigured by deadly wasp stings. The Shakespearean Cato is there, strong and nearly unstoppable. Rue (meaning: a green shrub) is a tiny character who is adept at gathering herbs, and Katniss' childhood companion is Gale Hawthorne, another shrub reference.


The cast's association with nature is established early and supported throughout the novel. The fighting "arena" (a gladiatorial term) is a forest that is mysteriously "changed" or altered by the gamekeepers to enhance the challenges, more evidence that the nature theme is but superficial and more accurately reflects the manipulations of the powerful government.  And there are classical references as well. The games are called tesserae (plural of the Greek word, tessera, ticket or tribute, and each young person selected is a "tribute" (Roman tribune or tribunas, a representative of a tribe).

 The plots of most apocalyptic novels, with one exception, go down the path of violence and, suffering, social disorganization and terror. A  world in shambles. A perfect example is The Road by Cormack McCarthy, which food is in itself something like a central character.

Finally, in many ways Hunger Games follows he general lines of a European folktale, as indexed by he folklorists Stith Thompson and Antti Aarne in Types of the Folktale (Helsinki, 1961).  For example, the basic plot incorporates many folklore motifs, all in the proper order  and will be recognized by any informed reader:
 (1) girl, whose father has a violent death traceable to an evil government and whose mother unkind or distant, (2) has an innate (or magical) skill as a hunter, and (3) lives in poverty in a coal mining district (Cinder-ella?), (4) at harvest time, she sets forth on a quest/mission to compete for a prize - her own life and the benefits for her village, (5) she is transformed before her trial by magical handlers, (6) she finds a silver (magical?) bow and twelve arrows (7)finds and joins forces with a male companion who acts as both protective brother (chaste) figure and competitor, (8) throughout the trial, she enjoys assistance from nature (birds, trees, herbs, fish and roots, animal life as foods) but also from previous mentors - her father, especially. To go on, (9) both she and her brother/companion/ competitor are transformed (magically?) and are granted a joint relationship and eventually, a love relationship, and (10) both are once again "transformed" or healed from their travails, feted, fattened and acclaimed


This adaption of folktale structure is not unusual and is most clearly used in the "Star Wars Saga."

The exception is George Rippey Stewarts' science fiction prize-winner, Earth Abides (1948). I have read it multiple times, assigned it in numerous classes
and the feedback is always positive if not highly appreciative. The novel presents us with a probable, very likely and solid pattern of survival based upon his own sociological and history research: retention of some things,
(marriage, singing psalms and other tunes, and a solstice observation).  They rejected racial discrimination, religion and capitol punishment. Most dramatic  is their rejection or plain disinterest in literacy, a loss that decidedly determines their future as a social group.

The locale of Earth Abides: Indian Rocks in Berkeley, California

Stewart (born in Pennsylvania about 1898) had taught in the English department at the University of California at Berkeley and, among other things, established a bright reputation as a tracer of place names (Names on the Land, 1945, and as author of a dozen other novels, most connected with places or catastrophes.  Two, entitled Storm and The Stand (Stephen King), were used as plot sources for films.

In July 1975, I interviewed the author in his retirement residence, a lovely apartment overlooking the entire city of San Francisco. I asked if he thought of himself as a folklorist, a ballad scholar, or a literary figure.  "No," he replied, "as an historian."

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