Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Hunger Games; Soon to be a movie

I've never read any of the Harry Potter books. I'm aware of their content, because it's pretty hard to be a functioning adult in the 21st century and not pick up on a pop culture phenomenon on a scale that takes a woman from living on benefits to having as much money as the Queen of England. For me the most interesting thing about the Harry Potter books is that suddenly everyone's writing for pre-teens and teens and marketing the blue hell out of the product. Which did not used to be a thing. Small people are waiting with bated breath for the next volume of whatever's hip. Small people of a very different kind are waiting with even more bated breath for the next big juggernaut, now that Ms Rowling's disobligingly derailed THAT gravy train. Which is why we've all had to live through Twilight for the last five years. Next big thing after that looks like being the Hunger Games trilogy, so I thought I would finally read something which is going to be a media juggernaut and see what the fuss is all about rather than trying to figure it out from listening to people arguing about it.

It's not at all a bad book; Suzanne Collins is not a jarringly bad writer. You don't find yourself holding the book out at arms length and marveling at how broken the writing is. She's not a genuine lyrical talent either, though it's hard to tell whether the flatness in the prose is Collins' own style or the result of Collins deliberately trying to get across the voice of her narrator. Either way, it's perfectly workmanlike writing, and it motors along in a Stephen King kind of way. I read the book in more or less of a hurry, wanting to know what happens next and dreading the worst for the characters. An author's done a good enough job when I'd rather not put the book down.

Having said that, the book was less than I had expected it to be. The funny thing is how much that leaves for me to unpick about it. The Hunger Games, for any of you who have been living under a rock, is all about a reality TV show in a post apocalyptical America, in which teenagers have to duel to the death in an arena. I gather that Collins was inspired to write it out a general irritation with reality gameshows, but I have too much respect for anyone who can get a book published to buy that as her sole motivation. There's a lot more going on in her mind than just being annoyed with the TV set. She had to cook up characters and a back story and a whole bunch of other things, and then weave them into a coherent whole. If she'd just been annoyed with the TV, she'd have done what everyone else does, and yelled at it till she could find something on another channel.

Picking at the idea of people being killed for our entertainment isn't a new idea in fiction; Stephen King has covered this twice in The Running Man and The Long Walk. The Long Walk, like the Hunger Games, is set in a dystopian future America, but don't expect a sudden revival in its readership because of that superficial similarity. It's a bleak, heartbreaking piece of work, which is not quite well-enough-written to be worth reading twice. Over in Japan, the exact theme of kids being forced to battle it out till there's only one left was done - probably unimprovably - more than a decade ago with Battle Royale.

Suzanne Collins is not, in other words, the first person to have had this particular idea. She is the first person who looks likely to get rich off it. The Hunger Games has been the best selling book in Amazon's Kindle website since I first started looking at the site, and still is as I type this. Some time in the next couple of weeks, the movie is coming out, and unlike the Twilight movies, the adaptation has a pretty respectable cast; Jennifer Lawrence, who'll play Katniss Everdeen, was nominated for an Oscar; the backfield is littered with talent like Donald Sutherland. Of course the movie is going to make money, but it might actually be a good movie as well. Has Collins just got lucky? Was it just that the time was right for another blockbuster?

You can't rule out timing. Rowling created a new economic niche, an all the more marvelous achievement in a world where kids looking to pass the time have options I could have never imagined when books were my constant childhood comfort. There'a huge market out there, ever hungry for the next big thing. And the next big thing isn't about quality, necessarily. There was a time when you couldn't ride a bus or take a plane without seeing someone reading the Da Vinci Code. The Da Vinci Code is a terrible book, that rare book which can actually make you stupider than you were before you read it. It's wrong about everything; the details, the big picture, the way that people are, even the way that they aren't. It's a book which could conceivably have got the simple matter of the sunrise wrong, if the author had taken the time to consider the dawn. And yet, it sold. Quality is irrelevant to these waves of enthusiasm which sweep along. Which is logical, really. The huge sellers are precisely those books which are read by people who DON'T ordinarily read books.

So Collins didn't need to write a good book to get lucky. She needed to write a book which teenagers would like. And she did that, whether by accident or design. Accident, probably. You write the book that's in you, no matter how good you are at pitching it to an imaginary reader. Collins did her very best to write the book that was in her, and when it was done, it somehow resonated with enough teenagers to become the next phenomenon. And there it was just as the market needed another wave to surf on, and so she's minted. I'm happy enough about that; it could have happened to a lot of worse things. I'd rather see Patrick Ness or Philip Reeve rolling in money, but them's the breaks.

Still, I've got reservations. Obviously, no book published in America for teenagers is ever going to have the sheer nihilistic bleakness of Battle Royale or even The Long Walk. The Hunger Games was always going to have to pull its punches. An honest depiction of real children being forced to kill each other for the entertainment of the rich would be a hell of a tough read. The challenge that Collins sets herself is tricky. She's imagined a world in which two dozen teenagers are thrown into an arena all Thunderdome-style, and then decided to tell the story in first person narrative. So her narrator has to be the last person standing. To be the last person standing, she's going to have to kill her way to first place. It stands to reason that the last person standing in a battle like that is going to be a tough person to like.

For the most part, Collins gets around the problem by dodging it. Most of the killing is done by other kids; within the first few minutes of the tournament beginning, almost half of them are dead in the struggle to get at the weapons cache at the centre of the arena. The survivors of that melee pick each other off. Our two main protagonists get to stay above the killing until the very last, and even then the killings are feathered to keep them from looking ugly to the reader. There are good guys and bad guys, and for the most part, the bad guys do the ugly work and then get their comeuppance. And the ugliness is further distanced by making the other teenagers ciphers; we never really see them as characters, or even as names. Just as soldiers are taught to kill by teaching them not to think of their opponents as really people, the reader gets past the deaths of 22 children by keeping most of them as just numbers. How much of this is the narrator trying to keep a distance so that she can live with what she's doing, and how much the writer trying to keep a distance so that the book remains readable for teenagers?

My real headache is the background rather than the foreground. The world sketched out in the book doesn't make a lot of sense. We know, from one reference, that the Hunger Games tournaments have been going on for thirty years. We know that coal is important, and that the ruling class of the nation of Panem has access to technology almost indistinguishable from magic (invisible hovercraft?). We know that each of the 12 districts around the Capitol specializes in a single form of economic activity to the effective exclusion of everything else. Now, to some extent, this kind thinking is a standardized narrative simplification that you see all the time in fantasy and SF novels and other prose for the immature, and you ignore the implausibility and motor on. But I kind of choked on the notion that the culture's been in this kind of stasis for thirty years despite the fact that they have high technology. In just the last decade, with far less cool toys, the world has changed dramatically. It doesn't make sense that the Games would just go on and on for so long in an unchanging world.

The "this is just the way it's always been" phenomenon in genre fiction has long been a bugbear of mine, and I sometimes think that it's a cry for help; this constant invocation of unchanging societies is a kind of wish fulfillment, with writers - who are a comfortable lot, by and large, or else they wouldn't have the leisure to write - just hoping that everything will stay the same so that their comforts are preserved.

As I finished the book this morning, I found myself pondering the irony of the book becoming a movie. As the book closes, Katniss Everdeen, our narrator, is wincing at the way the powers-that-be are turning her ordeal into a three-hour TV special in which everything will be edited into shape to make a satisfying narrative. How WILL the movie address that quandary?

The thing is, it's hard to judge the overall work on the first book. When I was finished reading the first book of Patrick Ness' magnificent Chaos Walking trilogy, I knew I'd read something excellent no matter what came next. Having finished The Hunger Games, I don't know whether the things which bug me about the first book will be sorted out by the other two books in the trilogy, or made worse. There's a tension, for example, which has been created between Katniss and two other characters which I fear could yet turn into Team Jacob and Team Edward. Will I see my misgivings about the imagined world sorted out once Katniss is in a position to learn more than she knows right now? Could go either way, really. But I'd like to find out. The Hunger Games is not a great book, but it's got its hooks into me nonetheless.

PS: I just came across this, which like most things I come across is much funnier than anything I've written.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

John Carter; great planet to be a chain and padlock salesman

Seriously, I think that's my big take away from the first of the new galaxy spanning franchise which is probably not going to be doing any galaxy spanning anywhere near you. The people of Barsoom are ripe for the marketing of new and improved ways of managing chains. Their current methods are primitive and wasteful. The big green Martians spend damn nearly every other minute chaining someone to something, and then changing their minds about it, whereupon they smite the dickens out of the chains to break them, like it's not a thing. You just KNOW they're going to be interested in such innovations as the padlock, and other ways of easily fastening and unfastening costly chains without the need to be breaking them all the time.

You have time to think on these things when you're sitting on your own in the Hidden City fleapit. That, and wondering why it's in 3D, which is at least two more dimensions than some of the actors decided they needed.  The two romantic leads; well the guy's doing his best; the girl; gosh, I hope that's not her best. I hope she's got a whole bunch of other gears to fall back on. I have seen considerably more convincing performances in toothpaste commercials. I spent most of their screen time wishing they'd move over and let the real actors do some work. And when Mark Strong is getting a nod from me as a real actor, things are getting tricky. I was gobsmacked to check out the credits (on IMDB, I wasn't interested enough to sit through the actual credits) and see that in addition to Willem Dafoe wasting his time voicing an animated whatsit, Samantha Morton was slumming it as Willem Dafoe's daughter. Lord, I hope that paid you both well. Now, get back to some real work.

Everything you need to know about the writing and acting for this movie is summed up in the fact that James Purefoy, hardly the most subtle tool in the box, has the single best scene, where he tries to get John Carter to take part in a cunning ruse in order to escape about his ninth bout of captivity. Purefoy's most high profile role up to now was to play Mark Anthony as an able boor in Rome, and he punches past that baggage and effortlessly comes off as by far the smartest and subtlest person in the room. Given what else is in the room, he could have shown up as Mark Anthony and still carried it off, but kudos for making the most of the scene. Rather more high profile, but equally HBO royalty, Dominic West (aka Jimmy McNulty) is phoning it in by comparison; most of what he's doing could have been covered by a mop with a plastic bag saying "I'm a villain, I am" draped on top. He does get hideously schwacked, so at least he won't have to come back if they ever get round to making the sequel.

Which I think they probably won't. Although I've become accustomed to sitting in solitary splendor at the Hidden City fleapit, and don't read too much into it, box office performance elsewhere hasn't been setting the world alight. And Disney poured enough money into the thing; when they don't get it all back, they're going to be shuffling their feet a bit. As I watched the movie, I was vexed with how long it was taking to kick it into kick-ass mode; there's way too much time spent running around in the wild west before Carter ever gets to Mars, and since Carter's entire personality would fit on a 3x5 index card, it's not like they needed to take the time to set up character. I could have sworn, too, that the box canyon that Carter and a completely wasted Bryan Cranston ran into was the exact same location which held the misfiring climax of Cowboys and Aliens. It's only as I type this that I realize that all that stuff must have been comparatively cheap, and so they shot tons of it to hold down the overall cost of the special effects cluttering everything else up.

Some of the effects are pretty cool; the flying machines are wonderful, and I quite liked the walking city; I can see that effects library getting raided for the eventual and probably disappointing movies that get made out of theMortal Engines books. You can certainly see where all the money went. But the movie works best in the close in moments when actual performers deliver credible lines. I gather that the script tries to be faithful to Burroughs' original text and dialogue, which if true means that Burroughs comes second only to Fenimore Cooper in the ongoing "Who's the exact opposite of George V Higgins or Quentin Tarantino when it comes to writing dialogue people can say?" quiz that I've been running this last couple of decades. A lot of the dialogue - including almost everything the female lead needs to say - is jawdroppingly clunky. You'd need to be an amazing actor to sell it. Sadly, they decided to use the amazing actors for bit parts, and concentrate of special effects. Bad call.

All in all, it's pretty much Carter, the all too stoppable SFX machine.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Safehouse; well, it's not that for starters

There's an unspoken covenant between idiots who watch thrillers and the better paid idiots who make them. We collectively agree that the movie is a towering ziggurat of implausible hogwash, and that the audience is just there to see things blowed up real good, and then the makers get on with blowing things up real good. I saw a trailer the other day for a film called Lockdown, which might as well be called Luc Besson remakes Escape From New York IN SPACE, and it seems to have got the memo, based on - hang on, there isn't a more unreliable piece of evidence than a movie trailer. Forget I said anything.

Anyhow, Safehouse, of which I've seen more than the trailer, DID NOT get the memo. Having an Oscar may exempt you from the memo, but what am I supposed to believe? That Denzel has some kind of magic field around him that exempts everyone else from the memo? Apparently that's actually how Safehouse worked, because once it's got up a good head of steam, it just drops all its wheels off and coasts to a halt in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere. Whereupon, belatedly and for no very good reason, something DOES blow up, but by that stage I just thought the film makers were mocking me.

Safehouse uneasily straddles two different visions of espionage and manages to make both of them look implausible. In South Africa, we've got Ryan Reynolds' low rent world of managing a safe house and having no back up within twelve hours' flight. And in Langley, we've got the usual computer controlled ops room full of wide screens and anonymous drones who ALWAYS have the exact file you need ready to project twenty times life size. Actually, having worked for an actual real life organization with a central HQ and lots of out-offices, I CAN believe that HQ would be full of wonders while the out-offices wait for the miracle of running water and non-occasional electricity. The CIA being messed up and having its priorities out of whack; it's plausible AND it explains a lot, but it's where the two worlds meet that I kept losing my will to believe.

The big weirdness is right at the heart of the opening conceit. Ryan Reynolds, see, runs a CIA safe house in South Africa (apparently because plan A, to film it in a favela in Brazil, was considered too dangerous; there's nothing in the movie that makes South Africa more than scenery). The plot, such as it ain't, is that he'll get lumbered with Denzel's awkward customer and then things will go wrong and he'll have to - I dunno. Do exciting stuff and things. Like you do. Thing is, Ryan's running this resource completely solo. It's just vast, and it's obviously set up for 24/7 running and there he is, all on his own, working it like he's some kind of janitor on standard shifts. We see him opening the place up at the beginning of the day and he's got a life outside of it, so he's pretty much putting in a boring forty hour week at a facility which is never used. Even for an organization with its priorities out of whack, this seems crazy. Either you shut it down or you man it properly. And although he's supposedly solo and has no backup within reach, somehow there's still enough organization to have a bag stashed for him in a railway station locker with clothes in his size at a few hours notice….

I didn't have to worry about safe house logistics for too long because the safe house barely features. Honestly, Denzel's barely dragged into the place for a bit of water sports before all hell breaks loose, the joint gets trashed, and Ryan Reynolds has to go all Three Days of the Condor, with Denzel in tow. So there it is; house ain't safe, and it ain't hardly in the movie either. Mind you, at this stage it's still fun to watch, since being on the run starts out with a foot chase that turns into a car chase that turns into a punch up IN A MOVING CAR. Then Ryan crashes the car, and the whole experience deflates nearly as fast as the air bag. From there on, it's all Denzel being mysterious and looking for redemption and I don't know what all. It ends on my least favorite thing in the movies, the scene where the bad guy has got away clean and then comes back so that he can save the good guy at the last minute.

Among the many people wasting their talents in this movie are Vera Farmiga (who appears to be bound by some kind of geas under which she can only play middle ranking intelligence officers) and Brendan Gleeson (playing the only character in the movie who the audience can actually believe in, though you'd be mad actually to trust him). I'm still wondering what the heck they all thought they were doing. Was this supposed to be a chamber piece, in which Denzel and Ryan would match wits in a confined space (thus justifying the title, if nothing else)? Was it always planned as a bunch of action scenes strung out along a plot that doesn't make any sense as stuff actual people in that situation would do? Hard to know. There must have been a moment when they realized that staying inside the safe house for the whole movie would run the risk of giving them a hellish cross between Home Alone and the Waterboard Olympics, but once they'd had that dazzling insight, why didn't they take it the whole way? The big clue that they just did it by the numbers and didn't really care comes about two thirds of the way through, when Denzel goes to find a forger who can give him a new passport (and who can also, despite living in a shed, read the truly weird electronic gizmo that Denzel has literally pulled out of his ass (cheek)). The dude has an adoring wife and a couple of kids and we're painstakingly introduced to them, and I just thought "Right, Dead Extras Walking". Ten minutes later they'd been shot to bits. Kind of like my hopes for the evening.