Tuesday, September 04, 2012

It's a Trap!

I watched "The Hunger Games" movie. I thought it was astonishing that they went to all that trouble to make an actress who isn't Shelley Duvall look exactly like Shelley Duvall, and the star was an amazing simulacrum of Ellen Paige, although more likeable. The film constructors had to create both effects, too, so these shouldn't have been accidents. Woody Harrelson's scalp wig, on the other hand, freaked me out.

I haven't been able to stop thinking back on the movie, and I think my subconscious is worrying over it. There was something down there that bothered me -- something I'm not ready to articulate. On a superficial level, there is the political recall.

In 1948, George Orwell wrote 1984 about how a nation can use war as an excuse for constant privation and a cover for the misdirection of funds. That same year, London was the host of the Olympics, and they referred to the events as the Austerity Games. This year, the E.U. is facing "the New Austerity." It's not a repeat for any but the British -- for the other nations it is a reminder of desolation and conquest, not victory -- and they held Austerity New Games, where professional athletes and sponsorships changed the appearance of everything and the context of nothing.

Because today's Olympian is professional, she can have a logo on her fanny at the beach volleyball. There can be wealth on the tributes. However, the wretchedness of the austerity games was that a nation that had to ration cheese was asked to celebrate the perfected form of man and the amity of nations.

That's superficial, though. I don't think The Hunger Games is aware of the connection, although it has benefited from it. No, what had me going this time was another parallel. The books and movie concern an evil central power and hard scrabble provinces upholding their independence. In fact, the political structure could as easily come from George Lucas as reality, because "district twelve" could be Dantoine. For that matter, it's not far from Josh Whedon's "Firefly." Nor is it much off from some of Heinlein's corrupt central powers.

Let's face it, rebels are sexy.

If I drew political parallels with today, then what parallels would others feel? "Corrupt state that takes all our work and lives in high fashion and makes fun of us, while we do all the work" is a summary not only of The Hunger Games attitude toward the capital but the TEA Party's attitude toward the I-95 megalopolis. That got me down. Yet another way for the ill informed to feel ill treated and go on ill advised, I thought.

So, is it possible to write a story with a central power as a hero? Is it possible to write a pro-Union story? One can write an anti-rebel story (there are such), but one that proposes the use and joys of unity and stability? It's not very likely, is it?

 This is the problem that Milton ran into, isn't it? From a narrative point of view, the center of establishment or power is a lousy her. The only way to tell the story is by making the speaker for power a rebel him or herself. Bedford Forrest the slave trading rich Memphis man was hardly a figure of romance, but Nathan Bedford Forrest the Ku Klux Klan founder who would never give up against the repression of the state warmed hearts.

Are we going to be doomed to sagas about how great it is to resent the government? Is the best we can hope for a William Gibson novel, where corporations take the place of the Empire? Is that as near to reality we can hope for?

1. What does the novel do?
Ian Watt famously argued that novels are separate from other genres in their development of "psychological realism." By this he meant that the novel features interior experience, growth of character and mind, and an individual. There are other definitions, and Watt's is not the gospel account it once was, but this is at least a critical observation of a thing novels do and have done as they have grown.

I would point to the fact that the genres that fathered the novel are a) biography, b) stage drama, c) satire, d) hagiography, e) history, f) travelogues. Think of the earlier novels and their lines, and you'll quickly recognize that most of the early ones offered a frame tale of biography -- the life of David Copperfield, or David Simple. When the Licensing Act of 1737 made the English stage an entirely Ministry affair, the playwrights turned to writing up their plays as stories. This gives us Henry Fielding, but theater strikes had earlier given us Aphra Behn's Oroonoko. The structures inside the drama-derived novels therefore had long established histories. What did Defoe do but bring the criminal biography to great glory? All that remained was for the satirists to get into the game and for Walter Scott to create the historical novel.

Novels, in short, worked around following an individual. Whether they were bildungsromans or not, they had an interest in showing revelations and realizations and interactions that would grow.

2. No one with the answers can ask a question.
A person with power has a hard time with a dramatic agon. When your hero is Superman, it gets ridiculous the amount of Kryptonite you have to invent so that there's an interesting fight. When "Star Trek: The Next Generation" has hyper-warp phasers and teleporters that don't malfunction, they have to go play 19th century on the holodeck to have any conflict.

A novel needs a weak or bewildered or imperiled protagonist. It doesn't have to be an underdog, but we're bored if the Invulnerable Man faces the Average Robber.

3. You break the world, you bought it.

Rebellions give any author an opportunity to present a monster that is omnipresent and monolithic. Furthermore, it allows a motivation for the monster to do almost any wickedness against the heroine. The hero of such a saga serves to embody the political principle that the author wishes to promote, and yet the author is never forced to answer all the nagging details that would show up if he had to have that heroine win and become queen.

Frank Herbert's Dune series has the same "corrupt central world sucking dry the lives of the provinces" that is familiar to "Star Wars" and "Hunger Games" and TEA Party, but he was working from sociology and history, and so his fantasy world was literally feudal. The others are much more vaguely gestural. The impossibility of governance with virtue was Herbert's theme, in the end, and so he had his hero rebel (who was also an aristocrat) win. For four books, the message gets clear: one may be good or powerful, and one may serve one's people or be good, but goodness itself changes with a time frame.

The audience reads into the rebel, but most authors cheat and make their heroes, like Paul Atreides, blue bloods who convert or royalty in disguise ("Luke, I am your father" is not much different from "That... that birthmark! My own child, the heir to the throne had just such a mark!"), so readers get to feel clever, refined, cultured, and able to lead the rebellion.

4. Leading a rebellion is like winning a peace.
The "rebel leader?" Actual rebellions tend to be disorganized because they're rebellions and filled with rebels. I invite any and all to review the glorious Civil War career of Joe Brown, even if you look at a Bowdlerized version of it.

In romance and saga, being the leader of a rebellion allows one to be a reformer, warrior, and guide and to not merely overcome overwhelming odds, but to establish the glorious reign.


We are doomed, I think, to these narratives. For us, our fictional governments will always be the enemy, and all our fictional rebels will be wide eyed innocents driven to extremity.


Ripberger said...

The only major literature of a "good government" fighting "evil rebels" I can think of off the top of my head is the Bible with God being the "government" or major authority and the "rebels" being mankind. You could say Jesus was a "rebel," but he was trying to "fulfill the law" and did not think of himself as a rebel. That requires some very deep thinking and not a simple narrative that parallels with "The Hunger Games," however.

The Geogre said...

Ah, but 99% of the time the narrative is in terms of the minority voice of the prophet against the prevailing voice of the World. Then there is the People against the Nations (Israel vs. the Heathens).

In fact, Satan is so rarely mentioned in the canonical Bible that it's possible to doubt that there is one. The material, therefore, that has come forth has come from poets and novelists.