Thursday, March 7, 2013

Ooh er … I like The Hunger Games

I was almost determined not to like it. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins is a phenomenon: a Young Adult bestseller. And for me those words conjure up images of effete teen vampires, anodyne heroines and shirtless muscleboys who can't act. Given that Stephenie Meyer herself had said such wonderful things about The Hunger Games, surely it must be on a par with the ghastly Twilight books?

But I liked the book from the start because I could identify so fully with the idea at the core of The Hunger Games, that society will devolve so completely that one day we will actually be watching teenage kids fighting to the death on a reality TV show.

I used to work for Granada Australia, a subsidiary of the huge Granada TV production company in the UK, which wanted a nice, little production arm in Australia to service some of its massively successful ‘format’ shows. When I left, they were making a program that is shot in Australia, but which – to my knowledge - hasn’t made it to Australian terrestrial TV yet. The show is called, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. It’s pretty much like Big Brother, only the ‘house’ is an encampment in a  hostile-looking jungle somewhere in Queensland, and the various contestants have to tough it out in a series of elimination rounds (‘challenges’) where they are forced to do things that your average punter would rather not. Most of the challenges I’ve seen have involved eating disgusting food or taking on a physical challenge that is just quirky or potentially dangerous enough to entice an undemanding and indulgent viewer. The ‘celebrity’ aspect of the show's title is a bit of a misnomer. The last clip I saw was someone challenging Colin Baker (only Whovians would know him from his thankfully brief tenure as one of the Time Lord’s incarnations) and I don’t think he quite counts as a celebrity, but I think the term covers any person whose name might have appeared in the newspaper a few times and who isn’t averse to being belittled on television in the hope of giving their ailing careers a bit of a shot in the arm. Anyway, the Colin Baker bit that I saw made me recall why we all stopped watching Doctor Who when he took over the title role. I didn’t know the celebrity who had challenged him, but he would have been known to UK viewers, perhaps as the man with the dictionary on Countdown or the one with the deep voice who says ’Mind the Gap’ when you travel on the tube. Suffice it to say, his celebrity probably wasn’t stellar. But, through a series of name changes and takeovers, I was now working for a company that was well known for its ‘reality TV’ formats. I’d enjoyed all the shows I’d worked on before the English acquisition of Artist Services, which is the company I used to work for, the one that made all those daggy Australian sketch shows like Fast Forward and Full Frontal. But it seemed fairly likely to me that I would end up working on one of these reality shows. And I really couldn’t do it. I’d watched Big Brother from time to time, not least because handsome Alex, one of my fellow workers, ended up on series two. I also kind of knew Johnny from series one, but then, it seems that everyone kind of knew Johnny from series one. (Big Brother was not a Granada production.) It was a crappy, mean-spirited show that gave young viewers the idea that they didn’t actually have to learn anything, achieve anything or have a particular skill to be famous. Hell, they could just be ‘normal’ like the Big Brother roommates and that was enough to guarantee stardom and public adulation. (Which of course it wasn’t.) Even after Four Corners did a particularly harsh critique on how manipulative the show is, the Four Corners forum after the show was flooded with requests from people about how they might be able to get on Big Brother. These people had just seen a documentary about how Big Brother was nothing but self-abasement for the contestants, and that the show could be edited in any number of ways to yield an infinite number of storylines. (Before I get too hot and bothered about this I should add that David Attenborough nature documentaries, which I happen to like, use exactly the same editing tricks to kid you into believing you are watching a story. The brave mother penguin who rescued a drowning baby penguin then reared it as her own, bravely fending off penguin bullies, probably didn’t exist. She was probably six different penguins edited together in such a way that we couldn’t help saying, Ahhhh!’ It helps, of course, that humans are very bad at telling Penguins apart.) The people who’d seen Four Corners give an absolute caning to Big Brother nevertheless wanted to be on it, so that they too could abase themselves.
Peter Andre, no stranger to the recent batch of 'celebrity' reality shows.

The Hunger Games’ author says she was inspired to write the book after watching one of the reality shows. Of course she was! I would have done it too, if I’d had the skill. Besides the Big Brother shows, there were countless other global ‘reality’ shows which I got to preview, so that we could edit together their worst excesses and make something called Unreel TV, a questionable clips show whose only saving grace was having Tim Ferguson as compere. He struck just the right level of enthusiasm and disgust for clips of shows such as the one where contestants had enemas and there was a prize for whoever could squirt out their colonic water the farthest. (Seriously, it was on a Swedish show.)

So, I’m a big fan of The Hunger Games, because I appreciate the desperation and despair that caused Suzanne Collins to write it. I like the movie as well. Though one thing that the movie didn’t seem to get is that Collins has a very dark sense of humour. There are so many wry parts of the book that never quite made it to screen. (Though Stanley tucci and toby Jones as the commentators were suitably grotesque.) I like the main character Katniss’s fear that her stylist might make her appear completely nude on global television. The implication is that this had already happened in a previous season. Apparently, one year there was a ‘nude Hunger Games’. There are regular references to Hunger Games of the past that have gone horribly wrong, such as the one in a desert where all contestants merely had a slow death by starvation. That one hadn’t rated so well. The nudism thing amused me, because it was one of the more prurient aspects of Big Brother. If there was a jock in the house, the viewer could be fairly confident that said jock would be parading his nudity before long. ‘But that’s not fair!’ screech the producers. ‘We warn them that there are camera everywhere, even in the shower room, and the contestants have the option of showering in their underwear.’ – which of course no sane person ever does. And where exactly do you change out of yur wet underpants if there are cameras all over the place? There was a sauna in one series, though the girls didn't use it much. I used to wonder why the guys who used it would look directly out at the TV viewers and not at each other while they were chatting, flexing their muscles and readjusting their towels so that they were a little more low-rise and titillating. Were they really doing a sort of testosterone-fuelled strip-tease for the viewer? It occurred to me then that the entire sauna wall opposite them and unseen by us would have been a one-way mirror behind which the cameras were filming. So of course the two jocks were looking at it constantly, flexing and preening appropriately at their reflections. They were doing it for themselves.

The Hunger Games made me laugh and kept me reading. I’m glad that such an inventive book did so well. (And yes, I know about Season Seven and Man Bites Dog, two cult movies that cover very similar ground to the Collins novel. But so what? Collins does a great job of keeping the reader intrigued, while I had no trouble whatever in turning off the relentless and revolting Man Bites Dog.)

The Hunger Games makes almost every comment about the media’s plummeting depths that prompted me to leave the industry for a bit. It was clever and fresh in a way that Twilight absolutely wasn’t. It’s interesting to read the reviews for the movie on IMDB. People are very polarised. Many critics would have liked less of the morbid violence, many others would have liked more. I think the movie got it about right. Bot movie and book stand as clever bits of dystopian fiction, and give us all plenty to think and talk about.  

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