Hunger Games: Catching Fire: Spectacle vs. Story - Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Yep, we watched it. And it was a lot of fun.

I would like to point out that this is a movie starring a woman, that grossed $424 million domestic and $864 million worldwide. So, given the right vehicle and the right franchise, women can be action stars. They make a different kind of action star, but that's my second post.

This post has to do with story vs. spectacle. So that means it has a SPOILER, k?

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The Latin phrase deus ex machina means "god from the machine." In many ancient Greek plays, it seems, various complications would ensue and ensue, until in the end it looked like nothing was going to get resolved. Then a god would descend from Mount Olympos and put everything in its place. The "machine" was a contraption that allowed an actor to be flown out over the stage using a crane.

Hence, ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός, which translates to "deus ex machina."

In HUNGER GAMES, CATCHING FIRE, our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is unwillingly dragged back into the Hunger Games. Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing the world's worst public relations man, has convinced the evil President that they can destroy her as a symbol of revolution if they can first get her to kill all her buddies.

Naturally she spends a great deal of time being upset about this, and then spends a good deal of time in the games trying her best not to kill anyone. And then she suddenly figures out how to blow up the fancy high-tech arena in which the Games take place, something on which she has spent absolutely no apparent thought until the last reel of the film.

Just as the roof is caving in, you might be thinking, well, how is she going to get out of this? But no worries! Because it turns out that Philip Seymour Hoffman is part of the revolution! And he is descending out of the sky in a rocketship to rescue Katniss! Yay!

Philip Seymour Hoffman ex machina.

I bring this up not to complain that HG: CF is a bad movie, or even a bad story. Structurally, it does have a big problem. The heroine doesn't seem to have a positive goal or a plan throughout the movie, just a point of view ("this sucks!"). And she does not motivate the ending.

But the kids seem to like it, to the tune of $865,000,000. (It made another million while you were reading this post.)

What does the movie have? Well, it has a character we really like, with a serious problem. It has a hate-able villain. It's got a romantic triangle. It creates a world that is recognizable as a dark reflection of our own. There are horribly rich rich people, terribly poor poor people, and bread and circuses. (As the Romans said, panem et circenses; why do you think it's called "Panem"?)

It has spectacle.

Movies are spectacles at least as much as they are stories. A movie can survive on spectacle alone. See the TRANSFORMERS franchise, and the STAR WARS prequels, both of which had far, far worse stories than HG: CF.

What I'm suggesting here is really that we, as writers, need to be a bit humble about story. I personally care a great deal about story. I even think that human beings are genetically hardwired to interpret the world in terms of story. But story is not only what happens. It is also who it happens to and where it happens. And if you have enough scrumptiousness in where it happens and who it happens to, you can sometimes get away with serious flaws in what happens.

After all, if you give us the building blocks of story -- the characters and the world and the predicament -- we can make up our own stories. We imagine ourself in the world, not mimicking the heroine's moves, but performing our own. What would we do if we were Katniss? Etc.

I'm told that part of the attraction for women watching SEX AND THE CITY was imagining oneself in Carrie's shoes but not screwing up relationships with perfectly adorable guys like Aidan.

Hence fan fiction.

That's also why I agree with Richard Rouse III and Jill Murray that story in games does not have to be a linear story. It can be presenting the player with a rich world and rich characters and a predicament, and letting him or her tell his own story through gameplay. (But that is also another post.)



1 Comments:

I liked the first "Hunger Games" movie, but I was really disappointed when the second one put the main character back in the arena. It seemed like the author just repeating herself.

I will also point that the Hunger Games' PG-13 rating has often been cited as the MPAA obvious corruption. Of course, Kirby Dick's "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" is excellent at making that argument.

By Blogger David, at 7:55 AM  

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