Friday, September 28, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2)*adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: (1) *sociological,* (2) *psychological*

HUNGER GAMES and HANNA might be deemed by some as adventure-films, since both feature young female protagonists ably defending themselves against assorted forces.  But, to dwell a little on my own critical terminology here, they show radically different narrative emphases that mark the former as a “combative drama” and the latter as a “combative adventure.”
HUNGER GAMES, adapting the first of a successful series of young adult books (none of which I’ve read), builds its future-Earth with admirable low-key detail.  In this distant future, a city full of wealthy sybarites dominates the surrounding rural districts following a failed rebellion by the districts.  As a means of keeping the workers enslaved, the authorities—represented in large part by President Snow (Donald Sutherland)—hold yearly “Hunger Games.” Each year two young people are selected from each district, turned loose beneath an artificial dome, and ordered to kill one another until only one remains.  The custom, as Snow explains, is designed to keep reminding the plebes of their enslavement and yet also give the districts hope that some local boy—or girl-- may win the prestigious games.  The comparison to the Roman “bread and circuses” is inevitable with this well-traveled concept.  Here the ritual nature of the combat also compares well with the story of the Minotaur, in which young people were sacrificed to the maw of a ravening beast—save that one young victim is supposed to survive, while the ravening beast is the hunger of the "haves" to gobble up the lives of the "have-nots."
Though there’s nothing new in this basic setup, most films in this subgenre spend next to no time building up the “real life” of the protagonist. At most such films spent a minute or two showing the protagonist working his garden with his happy family before the local storm troopers come calling.  HUNGER spends roughly ten minutes showing the bucolic way heroine Catness (Jennifer Lawrence) lives-- washing clothes, mining, hunting small game.  Thus, that unlike most “gladiator heroes,” Catness’ proletarian life is grounded in a range of experience, rather than being no more than an empty symbol of “ordinary life.”
A major sociological myth underlying the “gladiator-genre” is to show whether or not the “country mouse” can survive the blandishments of the “big city.”  Once Catness and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)—the other selectee from her district—are chosen for the Hunger Games, they go through a certain amount of gladiatorial training, but their greatest hurdles relate to “pleasing the audience.”  Because the Games are broadcast on television, audience-members who favor a given gladiator can send gifts that help the fighter out.  Thus, no matter what Catness and Peeta think about the games and their instigators, they must at all times put on a polite face and act as if they’ve been given a great privilege.  It’s possible that this aspect of the story may’ve had a strong resonance with the young adult audience, well acquainted with the need to dissemble in the face of authority.  The handlers assigned to Catness and Peeta even convince the youths to play up a possible "star-crossed lovers" schtick to amuse the audience.  It's not clear whether Peeta initiates this approach because he actually has feelings for Catness or because he's exploiting a publicity angle-- an ambivalence which provides no end of irritation for the young female.
Once the Games begin, the film continues to emphasize “pathos” over the sort of combative set-pieces seen in, say, 2000’s GLADIATOR.  A chaotic bloodbath, seen only in quick cuts, erupts at the first in a struggle for the best weapons provided by the Games-masters.  Catness wisely avoids the conflict and seeks shelter in the forest.  She’s pursued by a team of hunters—who presumably are only teamed up until they can stab one another in the back—among whom is Peeta.  After a hectic series of chase-and-pursuit scenes—one of which includes Catness allying herself to a younger girl—Catness eventually bonds with Peeta again after he proves his loyalty by protecting her at a vital point.  The two enjoy a romantic liaison despite being televised, much to the heartbreak of Catness’ boyfriend back home.
Even to the end, when Catness and Peeta engage the last few hunters, the action always remains hectic and breathless. Catness’ particular skill, that of archery, isn’t exercised that much, save briefly at the very end, to liberate Peeta from a hunter’s clutches.  In keeping with the demands of a drama, the emotional turmoil of the characters always takes precedence over the action.  Catness and Peeta turn the Games on their head by becoming so popular that the Games-Masters must break their rules and allow them both to live, thus setting up forthcoming sequels.
HANNA is exactly the opposite in its balance of turmoil and action, though it also deals with a young female protagonist caught up in life-or-death conflicts.  The story, taking place in a present-day milieu, is only nominally *marvelous* in that Hanna (Saorise Ronan) has been genetically engineered to become a super-competent fighter with implicitly above-average strength.  The C.I.A., who engineered this genetic experiment, loses Hanna to rogue agent Erik, who raises her in selusion deep in the snowy wilds of Finland.  However, Erik-- who poses as Hanna's father but will later be revealed to be unrelated to her-- knows that he can only keep a feisty teenager confined for so long.  He allows Hanna to choose whether or not to return to the greater world, albeit with the knowledge that she’ll instantly be pursued by the organization—particularly the former head of the operation Marissa Weigler (Cate Blanchett).  Marissa, though not technically related to Hanna, functions here as a “bad mother” against Erik’s “good father.”
The “Freudian family romance” suggested by this setup isn’t pursued in any depth, though Hanna does also have issues with her father once she finds out her true backstory.  The film makes several references to fairy-tale motifs, but though they add to the visual appeal of the film-- particularly an end-sequence involving a "Grimm Brothers amusement park"-- the script doesn't develop the motifs with any great depth either.
Though Hanna is in considerable turmoil at times—not least because she’s the typical “girl who never had a normal life”-- the emphasis of the story is on her daredevil acts.  To be sure, HANNA is not as replete with huge set-pieces as, say, the 2010 Angelina Jolie vehicle SALT.  But in my opinion the audience has been cued to anticipate not “what will Hanna FEEL next” but rather “what will Hanna DO next.”
The mythicity of both stories—dominantly sociological for the first, dominantly psychological for the second—rates only fair in that they evoke strong symbolic patterns but don’t take them to an exceptional level of development.

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