The Hunger Games: I Want My Bread and Roses Back

I went into it knowing that I wasn’t going to see a faithful and perfect adaptation, and that this would be okay; I was curious to know if the spirit of the books was retained.
Publish date:
March 26, 2012
movies, the hunger games, race, class issues, labor, adaptations, revolution

So we all piled into a theater on Friday night to watch “The Hunger Games.” To my surprise, the theater wasn’t full, and no one came in excellent and amazing costumes. I was further bowled over by the Los Angeles Movie Theater Experience, in which a good half hour of advertising precedes the actual show to get you all warmed up for the pageantry and spectacle.

Before I plunge into my impressions of the film adaptation, I should note that, uhm, this is going to contain spoilers. If you are one of those people who likes to approach film adaptations pure and unsullied to make your own impressions, stop reading right now. Don’t worry, you’ll be able to find this again later. Everyone else, carry on.

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So! “The Hunger Games”! There’s kind of an inherent problem with all film adaptations, where purists are really not going to get what they expect, and it’s impossible to sandwich the nuance from books into a two hour film. So I went into it knowing that I wasn’t going to see a faithful and perfect adaptation, and that this would be OK; I was curious to know if the spirit of the books was retained.

On the actual Hunger Games side, yes. I thought the film did a great job of conveying the frenzy, tension and fear of the Games. Loved the integration of behind the scenes so we could see people manipulating the environment around the Tributes, because it fit so well with the spirit of the books, which were a mega meta-commentary on reality games. In this supposedly natural environment, everything is staged and carefully thought out with the goal of keeping the masses happy.

Absolutely loved the scenes where we see the people in the Capitol treating this as happyfuntimes entertainment, eyes filled with blood lust and delight over the arrival of the Tributes and the staging of the games. The betting board was a nice touch; a reminder that the wealthy and powerful are toying with the lives of the Tributes from outlying districts.And the film did a great job of conveying the ways in which people are forced to perform for the camera. With Peeta especially, we saw him taking on a persona with the goal of winning the Games, while Katniss struggled to find her footing. Thrust into a fatal spotlight, she didn't want to play the game, but she knew that the alternative was death.

However, it lacked some punch. I felt like a lot of the class commentary from the books was seriously elided in the film; despite the poverty porn-esque setting of District 12, viewers didn’t really get a chance to understand the true depths of deprivation that the characters experienced. Hunger and thirst, which played a critical role in the books, were glossed over in the film; sure, we had the scenes of epic food in the Capitol, but the sheer excess of that food wasn’t as striking because viewers didn’t understand what it symbolized because they didn't realize that the Tributes knew hunger on a very intimate level and were appalled by the waste.

The class narratives running deep in the books were danced around, but mostly skated away from, in the movie. And yes, it is hard to fit nuance into film, and I was expecting these messages to be diluted, but I was still a bit disappointed nonetheless.

And, of course, the racial analysis from the books was missing as well, because the entanglement of class, race, and power was a critical part of the narrative in the novels and it was largely absent in the film. There have been a lot of very smart, articulate and excellent discussions about the decision to cast a white woman in the role of Katniss; for those not familiar with the controversy, Katniss is racially ambiguous in the books (and some explicitly read her as a woman of color). Jennifer Lawrence did a great job in the role, but she still wasn’t a good fit for the part; we didn’t need yet another whitewashed role. And casting her as Katniss undermined the social commentary aspect of the film, a commentary we clearly sorely need because the United States does not have it together in the race department at all.

For me, the most striking illustration of the film’s failings when it came to exploring class, race and intersections came when Rue died. As in the book, Katniss was deeply upset, and covered Rue in a blanket of flowers. As in the book, District 11 was grateful for her gesture; but in the book, they sent her a loaf of bread.

Symbolically, this was huge. It was a mark of solidarity, a recognition that Katniss, like residents of District 11, knew hunger both in the arena and at home. It was also an expression of love and thanks, but more than that; there’s a reason so many cultures have a tradition of exchanging bread and food, particularly when enemies meet, or when treaties are being made.

The bread was a symbol that the game was changing: Residents of District 11 wanted to work in solidarity with Katniss and District 12, they were tired of fighting and being manipulated by the system. That loaf of bread was a revolution from a district tired of sending its children to die for the amusement of the ruling classes.

In the film, they rioted.

I watched the riot scene with an awareness that people across the United States right now are enraged by the senseless death of a young man devalued because he was a man of color, a young man who was just trying to survive in a world that was determined to beat him down at every possible moment. Trayvon Martin was viewed as something less than human because he was Black, and his death has sparked a tide of outrage and a torrent of discussion about race in the US. And the riot scene definitely resonated with me; the sheer rage, the fury, the decision to stop being passive. It’s a major setup for the films to come, where the Districts go into revolt.

But it was also a grave disappointment for me because it shifted a moment of solidarity, of reaching out across Districts -- an important moment, because the Districts cooperate in the books, too -- and turned it into a riot. A suggestion that the only way people know how to express rage and resistance is through violence, and that people would rather riot than express solidarity with each other. It didn't escape my notice that the only District coded as Black in the film was also the one that rioted, either. And while violence is one method, it is not the only method. That loaf of bread was quiet and revolutionary and it cut to the core of what Collins was talking about in the books.

Collins participated very actively in the film adaptation, so apparently she was comfortable with the idea of turning bread into riots, but as a viewer, I was a bit sad.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Bread and Roses Strike, which occurred in 1912 when textile workers struck for dignity, better working conditions, and fair pay. Led by women, most of whom were immigrants, the strike was violently suppressed. Strikers died in the fight for better conditions, a not uncommon occurrence at the time.

In the books, there was an obvious and clear connection to the Bread and Roses Strike; Katniss and Rue are both women of color forced to labor by the state in unsafe conditions, living in poverty while the capitalist upper classes enjoy every possible amenity. They are forced to perform by the state to the death, and when Rue dies, Katniss attempts to give her dignity and humanity through the floral tribute; in return, Rue’s home district gives Katniss bread.

The symbolism of the “Bread and Roses” poem by James Oppenheim, and the strike that was retroactively named after it, is woven throughout the book trilogy:

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread. Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew. Yes, it is bread we fight for -- but we fight for roses, too!

Will the movies carry that tradition on? Are they going to explore the class, race, and labor messages of the books? Or are they going to dilute those, and in the process weaken the critical media commentary that Collins was making, where members of the lower classes were treated as objects of amusement in a sick fight to the death intended to keep the masses terrified into submission?