Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spoilers Ahoy!: Thoughts on "The Hunger Games"

First, a confession: I re-read the book the day before I went to see the movie. I realize now that doing so was a mistake. I had a hard time focusing on thematic consistency---which is how I generally try to compare movies to their source books---because I kept getting caught up in nitpicking.

With that disclaimer, here are my thoughts on the movie version of "The Hunger Games."

The Good

* Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. She was perfectly cast. I did think she played Katniss a bit too hard in the beginning---we didn't get to see any of the fear and vulnerability that comes out early in the book---but I think that was more a failure of direction than acting.

* Elizabeth Banks as Effie; Woody Harrelson as Haymitch; Lenny Kravitz as Cinna; and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman. The supporting cast was well chosen and well played.

* Foreshadowing. I appreciated that the filmmakers saw the whole story---not just one book---and tried to weave in some elements from later books where they made sense (even if this might be confusing to those who only read the first book).

* Gale. Or, lack thereof. Not that I have anything against Liam Hemsworth. I thought he was one of the better physical transformations into a character. But I was very grateful that the filmmakers played down the Gale-Katniss-Peeta romantic triangle. The movie could so easily have gone down the "Twilight" route, where the girl makes all her decisions based on a boy. Instead, the filmmakers stuck to portraying a strong, smart, resourceful girl who thinks for herself.

The Bad

* Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. This one was a big casting misstep. Hutcherson had zero chemistry with Lawrence, and the rest of his acting was equally flat.

* Wardrobe, Hair, and Make-Up. The clothes were generally a letdown from what was described in the book. And the hair and make-up departments were a total fail in the arena. We're supposed to be watching a group of kids who are sick, injured, and starving as they fight to the death. But most of the actors remained fresh-faced and too pretty throughout. Peeta is supposed to be on death's door: pale, sweating, feverish. So why does he look like the picture of health? I get that they can't have a bunch of young actors starve themselves down for the arena scenes, but they could have at least given them some dark circles under their eyes, some bruises and scars, something that makes it look like they are in the arena---not the community park.

* Character Development. Or lack thereof. Jennifer Lawrence, as noted, is amazing as Katniss. But she can't carry the movie alone. Yet, Katniss was the only character with any depth. As a result, the movie lacks any emotional punch. In the book, we get more about Katniss' relationship with her sister, Prim---how Katniss sees herself as her sister's caretaker---so the reaping scene is that much more powerful. We get more about the relationship between Katniss and Rue---that Katniss sees so much of Prim in Rue---so that when Rue dies, it is absolutely heart wrenching. The relationship between Katniss and Rue is also thematically important in the book: As Katniss learns more about Rue's district, it opens her eyes to the brutality of the Capitol. In the book, Katniss doesn't just mature emotionally but also politically, which becomes important for the next two books.

* Violence. Or, again, lack thereof. I get that the filmmakers wanted to get a PG-13 rating. But I think they pulled too many punches. The one that really bothered me was the finale---when the muttations attack the final three tributes. In the book, the muttations have characteristics of the dead tributes, whereas in the movie, they are generic techno-mutts. Also in the book, the attack on Cato continues for hours; in the movie, it lasts mere seconds. Again, both of these elements are thematically important to Katniss' political awakening as she realizes the lengths the Capitol will go to ensure a good "show." I think a more creative director could have conveyed the sense of violence while still showing restraint in what appears on screen.

* Flashbacks. I thought the flashbacks---to the mining accident that killed Katniss' father, to her memory of Peeta giving her bread---were too abstract. They didn't add to any understanding of the movie, unless you had read the books to know what was being referenced.

All in all, I thought the movie was . . . okay. I do think the filmmakers focused too much on making a franchise, rather than a really good movie. They tried too hard to appeal to the teen crowd. The thing is, I think they are underestimating their audience. The books didn't become a phenomenon because they featured Teen Beat-worthy actors and simplistic storylines. The books are challenging, raw, sophisticated, complex. The books are political. And, yet, readers of all ages flocked to them. The filmmakers didn't seem to trust that the audience will accept these same qualities in a film.

I also think---and this may be nitpicking---that the filmmakers ignored consistency in places where they could have thrown a bone to the fans. I know that the movie can't be a scene by scene replica of the books, and I do think that the filmmakers made some smart choices in where they cut and condensed material (e.g., cutting Haymitch's drunken dive off the reaping stage; condensing Katniss' early days in the arena). But they sometimes cut or changed things for no good reason. Why leave out the early scene of Katniss and Gale sharing a picnic in the woods? Why cut the number of tributes killed by the wasps from two to one? Why have Katniss off stage during Peeta's declaration of love for her---instead of on the stage, blushing and panicked? Why not have Katniss and Peeta's discussion on the night before the games take place on the rooftop? Why have Peeta throw the bread to the pigs first, and then to Katniss---which changed the scene thematically? The filmmakers seemed to be counting on the audience having read the books---see above, re: flashbacks, among other things---but then they didn't seem to care about getting the little details right---even though it's the little details that matter so much to the fans.

Now that I've written all this out, it seems like I really disliked the movie. Which isn't entirely true. It's just that I liked the books so much more.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday(ish): Spring To Be Read

I wasn't going to do my top ten this week. Quite frankly, I've spent enough time in front of my computer for the week. And, let's face it, I'm not actually going to have time to read anything I want to read until some time in June. But, if I lived in a perfect world and had time to read, these are the books that would be on my To Be Read Books for Spring.

1. Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan

2. Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

3. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood (This one has been on my TBR list for approximately forever.)

4. There But For The by Ali Smith

5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

6. The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller

7. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

8. Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

9. I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella

10. The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

The hardest part of making this list was choosing from the long, long list of books I want to read. I've become addicted to the sample option for Kindle, so I have a growing number of "samples" stored up for when I do have time to read.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on Writing and Grammar

This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic from The Broke and the Bookish is "Top X Genre Books." I'm preoccupied with preparing my students to write their fieldwork assignments, so I've got grammar and writing on the brain. Hence . . .

My Top Ten Books on Writing and Grammar

1. On Writing Well by William Zinsser. A classic, and rightfully so. I also highly recommend Zinsser's Writing to Learn.

2. Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle.

3. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker. A new favorite, this book got me over my writing blocks and into writing my dissertation.

4. The Careful Writer by Theodore Bernstein.

5. The Art of Fiction by John Gardiner.

6. Getting the Words Right: How to Rewrite, Edit, and Revise by Theodore Cheney. I'm not a fan of some of Cheney's other works (especially Writing Creative Nonfiction), but this book is a great overview of the revision process.

7. Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner.

8. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey. An entire book on sentence diagramming!

9. Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood.

10a. The Gregg Reference Manual by William Sabin. A nuts-and-bolts workhorse of a book that lays out the basics of professional communication.

10b. Words Into Type. Another classic. Words Into Type isn't so much about writing and grammar, but about the whole process of turning a manuscript into a final printed work. An extremely useful primer for would-be authors.

I currently have in my reading queue The Subversive Copy Editor, How to Write a Sentence, and Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, so I may be adding to this list in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Books that Broke My Heart a Little

And once again I'm a day late and a dollar short on my Top Ten Tuesday. And I was going to give you this whole prelude about my back problems and how I can only sit for very short periods of time before PAIN---which is not terribly convenient for a graduate student---and how I spent Monday morning in traction but it was okay because the PT made a Princess Bride joke before strapping me in. But it's been a long, hectic week---trying to catch up with all of the work I didn't do last week because of PAIN and the need to be flat on my back and the very large doses of painkillers---and I really can only sit for very short periods of time. So let's get to it.

Top Ten Books that Broke My Heart a Little (or sometimes a lot)

And I know that a lot of these are repeats, but I just really like books that make me cry. Don't judge.

1. Marley & Me by John Grogan. Spoiler Alert: The dog dies. And I just cannot cope with bad things happening to dogs.

2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. If you can get through this one without shedding a tear, you need to seek professional help. Really.

3. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch. Genocide in Rwanda. Unforgivable inaction in the rest of the world.

4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. So much sadness.

5. One Day by David Nicholls. This one I won't spoil. Except to say: OH MY GOD THE ENDING.

6. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I have a penchant for dystopian novels (especially YA ones), but God Almighty was this bleak. Well written and worth reading, but so very bleak.

7. Amazing Grace by Jonathon Kozol. Systematic neglect and abuse of the poor. Unforgivable inaction by the rest of us.

8. Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage by Madeleine L'Engle. I love the whole Crosswicks Journal series, but this one---where she describes her 40-year marriage---is so tender and beautiful and heartbreaking.

9. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous. If we really wanted to keep kids off drugs, we'd make this required reading in every junior high school.

10. Weep Not, Child by Ngugi wa Thiongo. Beautifully written. Essential reading. But, wow, it left me just flat-out devastated for days.

Addendum: After posting my Top Ten Books on Africa, I realized that I do have a tenth book. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind is a fantastic memoir by a young Malawian man, William Kamkwamba, who manages to convey the harsh realities of a deeply impoverished nation without giving in to Afro-pessimism or oversimplification.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday

So I'm posting my Top Ten Tuesday on a Wednesday. I really need to remember not to order the second margarita when I go to Pasqual's.

Top Ten Books I'd Recommend to Someone Who Doesn't Read About Africa

1. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch. The book is a bit dated; by now I would hope that most people have some familiarity with the Rwandan genocide. And it isn't flawless. But I think it gives one of the better accounts of the events and is a good source for starting to understand how the West both created many of Africa's contemporary struggles and continues to refuse responsibility.

2. This Voice in My Heart by Gilbert Tuhabonye and Gary Brozek. Despite what's been portrayed in the media and by Hollywood, the "Rwandan" genocide wasn't just about Rwanda. As Tuhabonye, an Olympic-level runner and sole survivor of the massacre of his schoolmates in Burundi, shows in his memoir, the violence encompassed a whole region and many of the victims, survivors, and perpetrators continue to be ignored. (See also, Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder)

3. What is the What by Dave Eggers. Yes, another book on violence and genocide. Unfortunately, that's a lot of what is published about Africa in the West. Eggers does a solid job of sharing the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan. For me, the real strength of the book isn't in its retelling of the violence that Deng faced in Sudan, but rather in its portrayal of Deng's struggles once he had arrived to the "safety" of the West. So often the story of refugees ends with "They arrived in the West and lived happily ever after," but as Eggers shows, that is far from the reality for many.

4. King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hochschild. We used this in the introduction to Africa course for which I was a teaching assistant, and the students found it both accessible and eye opening. Hochschild examines the colonization of Africa through the example of the brutal enslavement of the Congo. It's a good introduction to a part of history that most of us never got in school yet is essential for understanding contemporary Africa.

5. Weep Not, Child by James Ngugi (aka, Ngugi wa Thiong'o). The debut novel of one of Africa's foremost writers. Yes, it is also about violence and colonialism (specifically the Mau Mau resistance movement in 1950s Kenya), but it is also a beautifully rendered coming-of-age story about a young man struggling to find his place in the world.

6. Africa Since 1940 by Frederick Cooper. Much more academic than the previous books, but still a very readable and accessible primer on African history and the forces that have shaped contemporary Africa. Should be required reading for anyone engaging in humanitarian or voluntary work in Africa.

7. Global Shadows by James Ferguson. Again, a rather academic book, although written at a level that's accessible to your average undergraduate and doesn't require more than a cursory background on Africa (although I would strongly recommend reading the Cooper book first). Ignore the god-awful ugly cover and the boring title. Taking a more contemporary and broad approach to Africa, Ferguson considers Africa's place in the global community and, in the process, challenges simplistic models for understanding a complex continent.

8. A Heart for the Work by Claire Wendland. I promise: I'm not just recommending this book because it was written by my advisor (she doesn't even know about this blog---I hope---so I'm not actually earning any brownie points for this). Or because it's about Malawi. This is an extremely well-written book, and although its focus is on medical training in Malawi, I think it has a lot to say more generally about why so many African countries are so intractably mired in persistent, severe poverty.

9. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Like Ngugi, Adichie both depicts a specific historical moment---in this case, the Biafran war---and weaves a beautiful, timeless epic that transcends its setting.

10. TBD. I'm not sure how to interpret that I can't come up with a tenth book to recommend for people who don't normally read about Africa. Have I just not read sufficiently myself? Certainly that's true, particularly for fiction and creative works. Or is there a lack of good books about Africa that are accessible to general readers? I think that's also true, especially for nonfiction books. I have pages and pages of African Studies references, but most of the books are (1) dead boring, (2) deeply flawed, or (3) both. There just aren't a lot of books out there---at least, that I know of---that are both well written and rigorously researched.

A few that I thought about recommending include Compassion Fatigue by Susan Moeller; The Road to Hell by Michael Maren; and The Lords of Poverty by Graham Hancock. These are all highly readable, provocative books that reframe much of what we think we know about contemporary Africa and particularly about humanitarism. But they are also very polemical---and are quickly becoming outdated---so I wouldn't put them on a top-ten list. (Although I would definitely recommend reading any of them once you've finished the top ten or if you have a solid background in African Studies and can approach them with a more critical eye.)

Anything you would add/remove/qualify?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday

10 Authors I Wish Would Write Another Book

I (almost) always enjoy writing about books, but this week's Top Ten Tuesday from The Broke and the Bookish was more fun than usual. In trying to narrow down the list to just ten, I looked up various authors' bibliographies and was reminded of the many, many books that some of my favorite authors have written but I haven't yet read (despite having a good number of those titles in my home library). And I found a few that having upcoming novels that I didn't know about (New Toni Morrison! Yay!).

So now I have an even longer list of To Be Read Books to keep me occupied while I wait for the following authors to produce new works:

1. Margaret Atwood. Based on her Twitter updates, Atwood is working on a new novel, and I CANNOT WAIT.

2. Madeleine L'Engle. In particular, I wish she would have written a fifth installment in her Crosswicks Journal before leaving us.

3. Jonathan Kozol. One of the best writers on education and poverty. We desperately need his perspective on the current policy environment.

4. Bonnie Jo Campbell. Loved Once Upon a River. LOVED American Salvage. Campbell needs to write more, right now.

5. Joanna Kavenna. Like Campbell, Kavenna has a gift for devestatingly bleak realism. More please!

6. Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis is one of my all-time favorite books, and I think it's been time enough for her to add Vol. 3.

7. Michael Pollan. As much as I love his writing on food systems, I'd really like for him to apply his enthusiasm and engaging writing to a new topic.

8. Jeffrey Eugenides. So including Eugenides is a bit unfair because he did just release The Marriage Plot a couple of months ago. But I'm already itching for his next one. Please don't make us wait another nine years!

9. Muriel Barbery. Her fantastically absurb and whimsical novels are a nice antidote to aforementioned bleak realism.

10. Tim Gunn. Because we can never have enough Gunn in our lives.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Childhood Favorites

Yet again, I'm ridiculously swamped with school work and can't even fathom how I'm going to get it all done. And so, yet again, I'm spending my time making a list of books.

This week's Top Ten Tuesday theme from The Broke and the Bookish is childhood favorites.

1. The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. My absolute, all-time favorite childhood book.

2. Homecoming and Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt. I reread these a few years ago, and they held up surprisingly well.

3. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. A mystery in a museum? Yes, please!

4. Nancy Drew Mysteries (original series) by Carolyn Keene. I have very specific and fond memories of laying in bed with a Nancy Drew mystery and a glass of milk. I read my mom's old copies, and I was devastated when I found out that my grandmother had gotten rid of them when she cleaned out her attic.

5. & 6. The Babysitter's Club and Sweet Valley High series. I was such a sucker for a series. Still am. There was also a series about ballet students that I loved, but I can't remember the title.

7. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. The beginning of a lifelong love of L'Engle. As an adult, I've reread her Crosswicks Journals many times.

8. The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. I used to make my sister read this to me every Christmas.

9. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

10. The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey. My mom used to call me the Poky Little Puppy, so I have a particular attachment to this book.

Bonus: The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson. I had a beautiful edition---a yellow cover with an ornate drawing---that I loved as much for the aesthetics of the book as for the content.

Bonus Bonus: Two YA books that I've read as an adult and loved---The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and What I Believe by Norma Fox Mazer.

What are some of your favorites?