Tag Archives: The Hunger Games

Just So We’re Clear, Rey Is The Best

Rey, of The Force Awakens, is one of those characters I really like. Not just one those who I think’s really cool (Captain Marvel, Han Solo, Aragorn), but the ones who, for me, go beyond that (Iron Man, Nathan Drake): Rey’s one of those characters who I don’t just really like, but the sort I wanna be.

So what is it about Rey’s that captured my imagination (and everyone else’s)? What makes her so special?

Obviously, spoilers for Force Awakens follow.

The role Rey plays in the story is not new, by no means. She follows the hero’s journey; one we saw done with Luke Skywalker in ’77, Harry Potter, and of course Emmet in The Lego Movie. It’s the monomyth, a nobody is actually quite special and is essential for saving the day. Finn’s arc within Force Awakens has a few of the same mythic beats, but it’s Rey’s that most closely follows it. And it’s not just men who get to be the heroes, we had Katniss and The Hunger Games a couple years ago, also a story about a young woman that embarks on her own hero’s journey. What is it then that sets Rey apart?

First off, it’s the obvious one: it’s Star Wars. This is arguably the biggest film franchise in the world, so the scale Rey’s featured in is massive. There’s six movies of continuity already in play, an issue that new characters like Harry or Katniss didn’t have to deal with when their books came out. There was a lot riding on this movie and, by extension Rey herself, but it also gives her a huge platform. That’s an opportunity few stories get.

Now, this is also a franchise famous for seldom having more than one woman, and in this one Rey the protagonist (and also not the only female character with lines — it might just barely squeak by on the Bechdel test, and yes, Rey is the only new female lead, but at least there are a few more women who speak in this one). Also, Rey gets to be a Jedi. Or at least one in training. Or at least a Jedi-to-be. It’s the seventh installment and we have, for the first time, a named female character turning on a lightsaber. That’s a big fricking deal.

Putting the Star Wars branding aside, is Rey still all that different? In The Hunger Games series, Katniss had her go at the hero’s journey and the resistance narrative too. Except, she is. Rey’s adventure isn’t gendered. While Katniss’ intertwined with her gender (see: dresses, pregnancy, men-wanting-to-protect/control-her, etc), Rey very much has an everyman story. No, there’s nothing wrong with a feminine story — look at Agent Carter!but it’s such a great change to see that everyman a woman. Rey’s gender is never mentioned. Sure, Finn does keep grabbing her hand in the beginning, but it takes all of five minutes for her to get him to stop — and establish her own independence in the same beat. But that’s not all: Rey’s not underestimated because of her gender. She’s frequently described as “the scavenger” (not “that girl”) and summarily dismissed as such. She’s just Rey the scavenger. It’s refreshing to see this, and even better that it’s something as mainstream (and awesome) as Star Wars

There are a bunch of other reasons I like Rey: snarky, excitable (ie: her and Finn celebrating their escape from Jakku), courageous, and occasionally downright gleeful. She’s a wonderful, winning character and I couldn’t be happier to have her as the new Star Wars protagonist. Then, of course, we come back to the whole Star Wars-ness of it. Deep beneath the spaceships, Force, and lightsabers is the narrative about being more than you thought you were; it’s the wish fulfillment of getting to go on a great adventure. And for Rey — and, personally, one of the many reasons I love her — this also means a search for belonging.

tl;dr: Rey’s awesome, go watch The Force Awakens (again)

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For Want of a Glass of Water

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This piece of advice functions as a very simple and straightforward way to ensure a character has some semblance of depth.

What’s important about a goal? A goal gives a character purpose and gives an audience a reason to invest. In Star Wars, Luke wants to leave Tatooine. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted wanted to meet the mother (or at least we thought he did). In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow wants his ship back. As viewers, we want characters to want something. It’s dull if a character just exists with no want (i.e. Ted for many of the later seasons of Mother). Chuck begins with a very complacent Chuck who’s just floating through life. Receiving the Intersect gives him a purpose too.

Characters then have to do something about it. Solid Snake crawls trough a microwave chamber in Metal Gear Solid 4 to stop the Patriots. Katniss famously volunteers as tribute. Taking a proactive role about their goals is what separates Katniss from Bella Swan. The former may want Edward and/or Jacob, but she just sits around; Katniss actively fights for not only her life, but for those of her friends. It’s not enough for a character to have a goal, they have to do something about it. Jack Sparrow spending two hours talking about how much he wants the Black Pearl would be a terribly boring movie.

Those are the fundamentals of having a potentially interesting character. Following that we need conflict. There has to be something stopping the character from getting what they want. Harry wants to be a wizard with the sense of family and acceptance it entails, Voldemort wants him dead. That conflict of interest fills seven books. This so called ‘external conflict’ as your High School English teacher called it can be far more subtle. In The Last of Us, Joel’s goal becomes to protect Ellie whereas her goal is to make her life count. For the most part the goals don’t interfere, but when they do we get some magnificent, quiet drama.

Additionally, having the protagonist conflicted makes them that much more interesting as we get to watch them change or resist it. Columbus in Zombieland already has the zombies interfering with his goal of staying alive. His emergent want to win Wichita’s heart, though, also screws with his sense of self-preservation. Suddenly, Columbus has to make a choice: what does he value more, his life or Wichita? A conflict like this forces the character to change. Columbus has always been a wimp, someone who’d rather cower than take action. His interactions with Wichita force him to nut up and grow.

But what if she doesn’t get the water? Sometimes the most interesting thing to happen in a story is for the character to not achieve their goal. Tom’s goal in (500) Days of Summer is to win Summer’s heart, then to stay with Summer, and then to win her back. It’s his proverbial glass of water and what the film centers on. Tom, however, doesn’t end up with Summer. The complete destruction of his goal forces him to reassess everything and, eventually, gets him back on track to doing what he wants in life. Losing the goal he thinks he wanted reveals what he really wanted. Like a conflicted desire, it gives added layers to his character.

Conversely, achieving a goal may crush the character. Zero Dark Thirty ends with Bin Laden dead and Maya Lambert successful. She’s achieved her goal, but her goal was all consuming. The film leaves her suddenly aimless and without purpose, adding a sense of somber hollowness to it all. Just as giving a desultory character a goal yields interest, so does robbing a purposeful character of hers.

Wants and goals fuel stories. Look at Game of Thrones, everyone wants something, almost always at the expense of someone else. These goals breed conflict and add depth to characters. Just make it more than a glass of water.

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Good Female Protagonists Revisited

This blog’s inception came about a year-and-a-half ago due to an essay (not a rant) about Katniss of The Hunger Games and other strong female characters. In light of the fact that we’re once again a week away from the release of a movie about Katniss Everdeen, I figure, hey, let’s look at this subject yet again. And again.

Strong female characters are strong characters. Period. There’s no special checklist that needs to be applied to women characters. There aren’t any set of traits that a female character must or cannot embody, just as there aren’t for male characters. To suggest otherwise is not only kinda dumb, but also robs characters of the incredible depth that real people have.

So, essentially, a woman in fiction doesn’t have to be a badass to be a strong character. I think this is something we get mixed up a lot. We suspect that Katniss is stronger than Bella Swan because Katniss can shoot stuff with a bow when, as I’ve said before, it’s rather because Katniss has agency and is active in pursuing her goals.

Firefly is another strong example of this. Compare Zoë and Kaylee. Zoë’s ex-military and frequently joins the captain in fighting bad guys. Kaylee is a mechanic and freezes up when she’s handed a gun. Gut reaction could be to say that Kaylee is a dull, cliché character. Yet anyone who’s watched the show will quickly realize that Kaylee is as well developed as Zoë.

How? Because Kaylee’s an interesting person, plain and simple. As a character she has her own quirks, she has her own agency, she’s her own person. What makes Kaylee interesting is that she’s a layered, developed character. She’s someone you feel like you could have a full conversation with, even if taken out of her setting.

Agents of SHIELD is another great example of this. I talked about this a few weeks ago, though with regards to non-combatant characters in general being given their moment. It excels with its female characters too. Skye and Simmons are both fleshed out and interesting enough characters, even though they aren’t out actively fighting. Furthermore, they aren’t treated patronizingly. They aren’t those moments where the plot almost conspires to create a situation where the character would be proven right or put in a very I-told-you-so moment, almost elevating her above the others. (It’s interesting to note that while Skye falls victim to patronization on occasion, it’s due to her hacktavist nature rather than based on her being a woman)

A lot of the women in Game of Thrones are also well-developed, even the ones who aren’t swinging swords. Sansa Stark, who’s basically a prisoner-of-war, would be very easy to come off as being very damsel-y. Yet she’s still a cool character, we can see that she’s not meekly complying with everything but instead has her own agenda, however powerless she can be.

So what’s the point of this? Shockingly, women are people too. A strong female character doesn’t have to be out kicking ass (see Salt for evidence of how it can go wrong), just be an interesting person. For every Katniss and Black Widow we need a Sansa and Simmons. Keep things interesting, y’know?

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Where’s My Dang Black Widow Movie?

Comic-Con was last week. As in, the, Comic-Con. And we got news, like how Avengers 2 is actually Age of Ultron and how we’re having a team up between Superman and Batman and how there’s gonna be a friggin’ Star Wars and Phineas & Ferb crossover. They also screened a new Marvel short, one that focuses on Agent Carter from Captain America, who you’ll remember as his love interest. Also, Black Widow will be having a large role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Cool, women are having a growing presence in the Marvel-verse. And yet, to my annoyance, there’s no friggin’ Black Widow movie planned. Understand, this isn’t some hyper-feminist rant about how there needs to be more women in everything. This is me asking why, when we have such a fascinating character, she doesn’t get her own spin-off film.

When it comes to wanting an action movie with a woman in the lead, there’s the difference between wanting it because you want a movie with a woman in the lead, and wanting one because there’s a good character. Yes, there is a dearth of action movies/blockbusters with women as the leads; but the solution isn’t to throw more women on screen, but to write more interesting stories about interesting women. Let’s talk about Salt. Frankly, I didn’t really like it. Her story just never enthralled me, it felt bland. Sure, we had Angelina Jolie running around doing Bourne-y stuff, but so what? Jason Bourne with boobs does not inherently a good movie make.

Compare The Hunger Games’ Katniss. Katniss clearly has a goal and motivations. We know what she wants, and, rather than pulling a Bella Swan, she goes to great lengths to achieve them. Most importantly, she’s an interesting character. She lives in an interesting world, finds herself in interesting circumstances, and makes interesting choices. And, unlike in Salt, the choices make sense and create a cohesive plot. Furthermore, Katniss isn’t some boring perfect character; she has her share of flaws and issues to work through. Why is this important? It adds layers to her and helps us get invested.

Look, I enjoy badass women in fiction. Let’s take Buffy as a prime example: She fights vampires. But she’s finely layered, within her fighting spirit there’s a vulnerability to her. She’s a fascinating character who’s not a teenage girl for the sake of being a teenage girl. Like Katniss, she’s a teenage girl because it makes for an interesting character.

Black Widow was a cool supporting-character in Iron Man 2, but it was in The Avengers when we really saw just how friggin’ awesome she was. She doesn’t have superpowers or a suit of armor, but she still fights bad guys and holds her own. Furthermore, rather than awkwardly trying to avoid it, The Avengers has Black Widow using others’ perception of her as a woman to her advantage. She keeps pace with the likes of The Hulk and Captain America, all the while being absolutely vital to the plot. And not someone else’s plot or development, The Plot and her own arc. Ever notice that after The Avengers people referred to her as Black Widow rather than as Scarlett Johansson? The character is more interesting than the woman playing her.

I want Marvel to take the gamble and dare to feature Black Widow in her own solo film (fine, have Hawkeye as a deuteragonist). Not just because she’s a woman — that’s a lame and patronizing reason — but because she’s a layered, complex superhero who deserves to have a story written about her.

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Go For The Heart

Does anyone remember the movie Eragon? That horrible movie based on an alright book? It was a movie so poorly made and objectively bad we could ignore how crappy an adaptation it was.

But what about when it’s a crappy adaptation too?

M. Night Shyamalan cost himself his credibility when he put out The Last Airbender. Let’s ignore the crappy script, acting, and direction for a second. The movie was pretty. The tidal wave at the end going towards the ship was absolutely gorgeous. But, the script, acting, and direction were crap; like it or not. But more than that, the film complete missed the point of the TV show.

Avatar is an incredibly layered show. Not only do we have the intricate relations between the protagonists, but we have the background complexity of the war between the countries. The heart of the show was the dynamic between Aang and crew; the big quest and saving the world was the plot and vehicle. You couldn’t have one without the other. Airbender replaced the characters with cardboard cutouts and put the quest front and center. Bending is cool and the Fire Nation must to be defeated! Screw everything else, this is what matters! To the surprise of no one, it sucked.

How would one go about making a proper adaptation of Avatar? By necessity, cut out much of the little adventures along the way but keep moments that help us establish characters (Katara and Sokka taking Aang in at the Southern Air Temple, Sokka growing trough meeting the Kyoshi warriors, Zuko choosing to rescue Iroh, etc), even if it means rearranging/combining them (an event on Kyoshi Island could result in Aang going Avatar and needing Katara to console him while Sokka and Suki help defend the island). All the while keeping that spirit of adventure. It’s not so important to hit every plot point as it is to make sure the heart of the work is there.

Let’s do another comparison! BBC put out an adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the late 80’s. It was alright at best, hit all the beats that the movie needed to to stay ‘true’ to the book and it worked well enough. It just.. wasn’t Narnia. Then came the new one in 2005. Due in no small part to advances in special effects, Narnia really came alive and proved itself to be a fantastic movie.

It wasn’t the most faithful adaptation of the book, though. The characters were all aged up by a few years, we saw the bombing of London, the characters had baggage, and the climatic battle was accentuated. But the spirit was there! The heart was the same! The movie captured that magic that makes Narnia Narnia. That’s what made the new one so much better.

Take a cursory look at some of the really good adaptations these days: The Help and The Hunger Games for example. Both of them don’t follow the book blow by blow, both skip or change parts of their books, but both still remain true to the spirit of the book. The Help still deals with treatment of, er, the help, and attitudes towards them during the early 60’s. All the main characters stay true to themselves and are undeniably them. Katniss and her struggle to survive in a hellish battlefield are still there in the film of The Hunger Games. The brutality of it all is retained through the carefully reckless use of the camera, the dynamic between Katniss and Gale is quickly well established, and The Capitol and inhabitants shown for what they are. The spirit is there.

The Lord Of The Rings stands as possibly the best adaptation. Peter Jackson glossed over several plot points, changed characters considerably (Aragorn takes most of the journey to attain the regality he takes up immediately in the books), and even altered just where the books are divided. But the core was still there. The themes of the smallest being able to change the world, of standing up to the impossible, of living for more than yourself; it’s all there! The movies may be structurally and narratively different, but it still feels like The Lord Of The Rings.

Why?

‘cuz they went for the heart.

Also: buy my book In Transit! It’s not an adaptation and probably wouldn’t work as one; so it’s a book!

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The Magnitude of Medium

As I hope you’ve noticed over my past few entries, I like stories. I read them, I watch them, I play them, I, um, listen? to them. In any case, here’s something I’ve noticed: the medium of a story is, in the hands of a deft writer/creator, an incredibly powerful tool.

Let’s start with books. Everyone’s (hopefully) read a book or two dozen. If not, then, well, I’m not sure what to say to you. Anyway. Books tend to be long affairs. Within them you can weave long and intricate plots and introduce dozens of characters. You have the space and you have the time to make your plot as convoluted as you want. Then there’s the beast known as internal dialogue.

One of the beauties of The Hunger Games is Suzanne Collins’ description of Katniss’ mind. Pages are devoted to the protagonist’s analysis of everything going on. Furthermore, we’re able to explore her psyche and past, getting to know just what makes her tick. This wouldn’t work in a movie, video game, or tv show. It could probably work in a comic, but nowhere near as in-depth. It’s one of many things unique to the format of books.

Now, another way to tell a long rambling story the ends with a very enigmatic ending would be television. Like books, serialized shows have time. An excellent example of a story that could only be told through serials is Lost. You may hate the ending. You may (like me) love the ending. That’s not the point here. Fundamentally, Lost is a show about characters. Everyone’s fleshed out through extensive flashbacks explaining just who they are and why they do what they do. None of their actions are out of character because we’ve had the time to learn what makes them them. This wouldn’t have worked to the same effect in a book (it’s a lot easier to watch a flashback than to listen to over a dozen characters have volumes of internal dialogue with no obvious bearing on the plot [also: no score by Michael Giacchino]). Alternately, a film simply does not have the time to so thoroughly flesh out so many characters.

Comedies probably fare the best with the serialized format. Shows like Community and How I Met Your Mother give you seasons to become (again) familiar with the characters and join their group. Those characters combined with season-spanning running jokes you’ll find that good tv comedies really use their format. The tv show starts to geel more like hanging out with old friends.

There’s another medium for storytelling that’s on the rise. Well, relative rise, anyway. Video Games. Yes, I know, we get a lot of really dumb shoot-’em-ups where the plot is about half as thin as Commando. But games like Halo, Mass Effect, and Uncharted are quickly proving that video games can tell a darn good story without having to be a role playing game (yanno, like Final Fantasy). In Uncharted the story telling has all the strengths of a good movie: strong characters, an engaging plot, and epic set pieces. But more than that, Uncharted lets you play as Nathan Drake. You get to be the hero, guiding him along the way. All the adventuring? That’s you in control. As the ship capsizes around you or the ruins crumble out from under your feet, you’re still in control, it’s you. You’re the hero.

Where video games really come out on top is immersion. In Mass Effect, Bioware created a sprawling, breathing science-fiction world with volumes of research behind it. Cool. But then you have Shepard. Well, no, sorry, you are Shepard. If you’re like me that means you spent… much more time than you should’ve on the character creation scene attempting to give Shepard a passing resemblance to yourself. Within the story you get to make choices. Do you kill this person or let him live? Do you renege on a deal and gain an allegiance at the cost of another? You actions have consequences, bringing you deeper and deeper into the world. In no other format can you gain that level of immersion.

There are others I could get into, of course. Movies, comics, webcomics, oral tradition, short stories, epic poems, all-too-short-British-tv-shows-starring-Benedict-Cumberbatch-and-Martin-Freeman-that-really-need-a-new-season-sooner-rather than later, and so on and so forth. But I think (or at least hope) I’ve made my point. Stories can be told in countless ways. The trick is to make sure you’re not only telling it the right way but using the medium to its fullest potential.

‘cuz c’mon. If it’s a good story it deserves to be told right.

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Good Female Protagonists

The Hunger Games is out now in cinemas. It’s a film based on a book that apparently is wild popular among teenage girls. A lot of people have likened it to the next Twilight.

I, as a guy who’s read both book series, am here to tell you that no, no, that’s wrong, man!

See, Katniss is a great example of a Good Female Protagonist. Bella, eh, not so much. At all.

It’s really weird. After all these years we still freak out and go “Holy crap guys, it’s a Good Female Protagonist!” when we see her in a movie that’s not targeted at women. It’s as if she’s a quaint little oddity you find in only the most obscure media.

Not that movies are helping. Bella, of Twilight, is an example of an absolutely horrible horrible character (female or otherwise). Yes, this is a film/book targeted at girls, but that’s not an excuse.
She is entirely reactionary. Her personality revolves around what happens around her. It’s always “if they, then”. The love triangle in the latter bits seem to be dependent on who she’s with. Bella has no motivations, no desires beyond, well, get with a guy.
Again, and this is an oddly appropriate point to stress, I have read these books. I know what I’m talking about.

And Katniss of The Hunger Games? She causes the action. Her involvement in the game is of her own volition. Although she has little control over her situations and what life hands her she very much controls what she does in each situation. She’s not reactionary or passive, Her pattern is “if I then”.
As for the love triangle that’s garnered an unfortunate amount of press? Katniss lacks the flippancy of Bella. Furthermore the triangle is interwoven with the books’ themes as a whole (which is a testament to good overall writing beyond characterization, which in turn is not the focus of this essay).

It’s more than clear that Katniss is a whole different breed of protagonist: she thinks, plans, and connives. She knows exactly what she wants and she strives to achieve it. She has a personality.

Through all this I find it important to point out that, besides Katniss, there are fantastic, well developed, interesting female protagonists. Interestingly enough, they can be found where you’d least expect it: Video Games.

Hear me out. I know video games tend to present women as caricatures to cater to their demographic, but there are exceptions. And these are good.

Final Fantasy XIII (which isn’t the 12th sequel but— it’s complicated) had, for the first time, a woman as the main character. Lightning wasn’t hyper-sexualized (as other characters in the series have been) and her gender never came up as an issue. She had her dreams and wishes; she had her obstacles to overcome.
The writers have said that when writing Lightning they just wrote her as if she was a man. I’m not sure whether that undercuts everything I’ve said, or is just an interesting aside.

So what’s a good example? What’s my favorite example? No, not Pepper Potts and Black Widow in the Iron Man movies (though they do count), I’m going back to video games again.

Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer are the two girls in Uncharted 2. Both women are strong, independent, know what they want and how to get it. They’re more than plot devices or eye candy. They have characterization, they develop as the story progresses, they change. They’re actual people.

When asked why he insists on writing strong female characters, Joss Whedon (guy behind Firefly) quipped: “because you’re still asking me that question”. It’s unfortunate that they are still so rare. But they’re out there; be they named Katniss, Lightning, or Elena. We can just hope that trend follows that set by The Hunger Games rather than that of Twilight.

So go watch The Hunger Games, money speaks after all.

Writer’s Note: Yes, I know I’ve left out other great examples. This was written at about one in the morning and I didn’t feel like sussing them out. Forgive me.
Also, I know that you may not be familiar with these characters from FFXIII or Uncharted. Just google “Uncharted Cutscene Elena” or something. Or take my word on it.

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