The Hunger Games: Deathmatch – American Idol vs. Upfronts

Yesterday, I asked Patty if the reason YA is interesting to people is a desire for more mythic texts and more texts that are about myth-making. My argument, such as it was (I don’t read or what enough YA material to call it an argument comfortably), was this: because YA is arguably “simpler,” the stories it tells are unavoidably more mythic and iconic.

Patty is pretty sure I was wrong (and since she is super smart and really into YA, is probably herself correct), and said that YA is popular because it’s a genre that’s allowed to be experimental and therefore offers high returns for lower time investment, and my mythic argument is a result of self-selection and the lens I read everything I like through.

Because it’s not just Brave that is a story about how stories get made. The Land of Stories (which I have a copy of again and so a review is imminent) is also very much about the construction of myth. As is The Hunger Games, which was what we were waiting to see at the time of the convo.

I’d seen it before, actually, but hadn’t found the energy to write about it in what has been a busy and chaotic 2012. Patty hadn’t managed to catch it in Delhi though, and I was excited to take a look at it without comparing it to the book or feeling like I would have to write about it because it’s so focused on the construction of fame.

It’s really a ridiculously good movie for what it is. The craft is exceptional, the adaptation is interesting, and it expands on parts of the world meaningfully in recompense for where it had to excise material for time and clarity. It also owes some of its most effective moments to the DNA of some of my absolutely favorite films, and it’s that slyness — and the fact that the film doesn’t exist in a vacuum of a hot thing of the moment money grab — that makes it such a pleasure to watch.

The largest influence is arguably The Truman Show. While reality TV existed when it was released, it still showed up in movie theaters two years before Survivor was first on US screens. What it indicted and asked us to collude in was something that we were neither deluged with nor asked to be responsive to in 1998. It was, more conspicuously than most films that get dammed with this faint praise, very much ahead of its time.

But it’s all over The Hunger Games in the attention the film adaptation pays to Seneca Crane and the arena’s game team, which operates with a sterility and dispassion reminiscent of what films insist are true about things like operating theaters and NASA control rooms.

Particularly, the way The Hunger Games shows us the segment where Katniss is directed away from the edge of the arena, feels like the scramble in the control room in The Truman Show when Truman’s determination to get to the edge of the world becomes clear. I imagine this similarity will only become more visible in Catching Fire considering that the Tributes do actually succeed in breaking the arena open and escaping it.

But another big piece of film DNA in The Hunger Games comes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The scenes of rioting in Rue’s district (the only part of the film to make me cry both times), the images of Katniss’s father in the mine shaft elevator, and even the positioning of Katniss as both innocent and temptress, are all things that reference Metropolis both visually and conceptually.

Both these sets of references are ridiculously satisfying. They root the world of The Hunger Games into a story we’ve been told before, but instead of making it seem repetitive, it helps makes it mythic (beyond the already excellent job Collins did with epithets in the original book that helped make the narrative sound so much like oral history at given points: the girl who was on fire and the boy with the bread — these are not characters who need names, for they are not people, but ideas). It also helps to underscore that in any future we imagine — at any time — we are always tempted, it seems, by the same mistakes of idolatry, imprisonment, and violence.

One thing that I’ve heard The Hunger Games likened to again and again is American Idol or other reality competition shows where fame is an explicit prize as opposed to an implicit one. But that’s not what I saw in Haymitch’s quest for sponsors, and Ceasar Flickerman’s odd mix of absurdity and gravitas (seriously, who is Ceasar Flickerman when he’s alone? That’s my fanfiction question of the day). I kept seeing upfronts.

Upfronts are a funny thing, because they’re about advertising dollars — sponsors — and they are something the broader audience never used to be aware of (and in all fairness, I had to explain them to a friend just a few weeks ago). Yet, there are adverts about them on the buses in New York now, and fan cultures have been paying attention to the events, parties, and performances related to them for at least a few years now.

Because while the Hunger Games are meant to instill fear and loyalty and submission in the districts, they are really just for the Capital, the sponsors, the stylists, and the creators, and while they are arguably about celebrating the tributes, they’re really about examining the goods and making the most lucrative bets that can be made.

While TV isn’t going to kill anyone, no matter what The Hunger Games, The Truman Show, and, while we’re at it, Max Headroom (remember blipverts?) say, the disconnect between what upfronts are and what they pretend to be even though everyone knows better is hard to miss, at least if you know enough people in the business. “It’s all very checking horses’ teeth,” a friend who’s been a part of the upfronts game has said to me more than once, and it’s one of those things I can’t ever seem to forget.

Ultimately, while The Hunger Games is busy being a cautionary tale (you don’t want fame — you don’t want to be Haymitch or Katniss or Glimmer or, for that matter, Seneca Crane), it’s also one that tells us that a lot of the stuff we often like to say is the end of the world as we know it — e.g., American Idol — isn’t actually that bad. The really creepy stuff in the industry actually huddles in other corners.

At least for now. Because the other thing The Hunger Games has in common with the films it gets so much of its DNA from is that it’s all about convergence. When the mechanism is also the entertainment, that’s when things get really messy. At least that’s what I can’t stop thinking every time another over-packaged behind-the-scenes video gets released from a movie or TV show I love, or there’s another ad about upfronts that makes absolutely no sense to 95% of the people who see it on NYC public transit.

Like The Truman Show and Metropolis, The Hunger Games is likely to age strangely and seem, at a given point, quaint. And that’s probably exactly when we should really worry.

11 thoughts on “The Hunger Games: Deathmatch – American Idol vs. Upfronts”

  1. I’m with Patty on the explanation for why Y.A. (which I also read a ton of) is so popular. In fact, I think a lot of what I love about the Y.A. I love is the opposite of myth-making. I like that so many Y.A. books are about interesting, unique characters who find their way outside of the expectations of the world. The books I adore are often very much individual stories, without grand pretensions or aspirations, about people who want to be what they want to be without compromise. Some of them, like the Harry Potter books, Hunger Games, Crossed, and Divergent are in settings that have bigger, bolder statements about the world, but many of them aren’t. Much of the Y.A. I love the most are the quiet books about small decisions, told with kindness and grace in an often far too unkind world.

  2. It never occured to me that the message was “you don’t want to be famous,” probably because we never seem to see how winning affects the careers — the ones who actively seek out the experience of the Games and train for it. Sure, people who don’t want fame, don’t want fame, but the ones that do… I wonder how they handle it?

    1. Actually, we do see how the Games affects a career. Finnick’s from District 4 and 4 is said to be one of the career districts along with 1 and 2.

    2. Well, the closest we get, I think is Finnick Odair. Because he wasn’t a career (that we know of — there’s another comment I’m about to approve in a second that sort of addresses this), but he’s certainly the model of the publicly non-traumatized victor living the glamorous what-passes-for-Hollywood life in the Capital. And we all know what’s actually going on there (assuming you’ve read the books).

      But Patty was really interested in the final scene in the film with Cato, Peeta, Katniss where he says that he was always already dead. He doesn’t seem to be mortally wounded in that moment, and while he’s in a bad position, he’s not in an untenable position.

      So let’s say he’d won. Would he consider the price of fame — killing people, possibly his friends, going through the physical ordeal of the games — too high? Would President Snow have acted against him as he had against other victors to keep him in line — does a District 1 or 2 career need to be kept in line? Does someone who grew up training in academies for the games actually have emotional attachments through which they can be blackmailed? Would he have disliked the burdens of public appearances (did the academy train him for that too)? Or of being a whore for the government (again, did the academy train him for that too)?

      The questions are incredibly compelling, and I think more unsettling than the ones what actually happens in the plot forces us to ask. Because if fame is the only thing you’ve ever wanted, what happens when it’s not disappointing, but way fucking more than you bargained for?

      (also, hi, fun having this conversation with you because levels!)

      1. It has been years since I read the books so I’m a bit rusty on the details, so yeah, Finnick, but he still wasn’t a career, even if he came from a career district. So while he may not have asked for it (I wonder why a career didn’t volunteer for him?) he may have known partially what to expect.

        But yeah, a District 1 or 2 career is going to be a whole different kettle of fish (har har). Presumably what they value is the apparent freedom and wealth that comes with winning, and while the wealth is real, the freedom is not. And whether you find that out or not depends on what you want. Because if you want acceptable things, you’ll think you have freedom. If you want something else, you’ll know you don’t have it.

        What I find interesting is that there seems to be no desire to win the Games in the poor districts, where they arguably have a lot more to gain by getting food for their families. I know they don’t have the resources to train hundreds of potential tributes, but since tributes can volunteer, it’s funny to think there are districts where nobody thinks “I’m going to do this. I’m going to train. I’m going to feed my family this way. I’m going to chance it all.” So in most of the districts, there is no desire for fame. Just in the wealthier districts.

        1. My impression is the poor districts have no time to even put energy into one trainee for the district. Life is too precarious and all energy is spent on keeping body and soul together.

          I also think the life of a career has its dark side – every year you are responsible for training another young person for the hunger games. The need to do so destroyed Hamish. Imagine, every year watching two, poor sad children being murdered and knowing you need to do your best to save them in a game stacked against them? Suck.

      2. Also, re: construction of fame/reality entertainment in dystopian circumstances — have you read Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series? It’s a zombie trilogy. Writing isn’t thrilling but the world building is fantastic. There’s even politics and news. I was reading the second book when I finally bought John Irving’s new book, so I’ll be getting back to that as soon as I’m done with the Irving. Might be worth a look if you don’t mind some gore and they’re easy reads.

  3. The Truman Show really is a great film, and earlier this year I was mostly thinking about that film again in conjunction with Gina Gionfriddo’s play After Ashley—so my mind was focused on the ways characters are exploited for entertainment/financial purposes, and the and the kind of odd relationship fans develop with said characters. Then I was reading The Hunger Games, but the film was what revealed so many connections to Truman. The idea of exploitation is present, too, but one element I find interesting about both films is the way fandom, if you will, forms—and how much that is about community. This is more clear in Truman, I think, where the Truman Bar comes to life, and almost every shot of a fan watching the show is one where they share the experience with another (except for Bath Tub Guy). Hunger Games is different, in that the community watches more out of fear (except for the Capitol, but their fannish behavior is shown in a more grotesque light than in Weir’s film).

    Can’t help but think about the ridiculous Running Man—which I haven’t seen in ages but remember anyway since it was pre-reality TV, I think, and another example of people being used for entertainment. But I don’t think anything would compel me to watch that one again, whereas there’s always something worth seeing again in The Truman Show.

    1. I suspect that many in the Capitol find their behavior re: the Games to be compassionate. They cry, after all, when their favorites die. I think the moment that really gets me, re: fannishness in The Hunger Games, is when that little boy is given a toy sword to celebrate the games, and starts chasing his sister with it as Haymitch watches. It reminded me so much of how in fandom people are often sure of what they would do in the extreme circumstances encountered by the characters we care for — we would be heroes or self-sacrifice or whatever. But the truth is we’re just that little boy with the sword, wanting approval for our skill at play, not our theoretical skill in the actual thing.

      And re: Running Man — I totally thought of that too and was like “Oh crap, am I gonna have to watch that again?”

      1. “It reminded me so much of how in fandom people are often sure of what they would do in the extreme circumstances encountered by the characters we care for — we would be heroes or self-sacrifice or whatever. But the truth is we’re just that little boy with the sword, wanting approval for our skill at play, not our theoretical skill in the actual thing.”

        This pretty much sums up the appeal of most reality TV, doesn’t it? I’m thinking of shows like Survivor now, and how we play along with the “characters,” and analyze their strategies against what we would do. But a big part of the appeal is of course talking about those strategies with other viewers . . . And I would argue that at least in the States, viewers are not particularly compassionate toward the characters in these kinds of shows, but The Hunger Games of course are much more politically-charged.

        As for The Running Man, all I can remember is Richard Dawson swearing! And being an asshole. And Arnie. And the crowd being totally into the bloodbath in what was at the time a modern-day gladiator scenario–which again, is pretty much how many reality TV shows operate when there’s any kind of elimination involved . . .

  4. I think YA is popular because doing things (anything) for the first time has emotional cachet that can’t be garnered any other way. The first may not be the “best” or most “significant” but it has an undeniably mythic, ritualistic, and emotional power… and YA is all about doing/experiencing for the first time.

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