Thursday, 10 October 2013

Shakespeare Volunteers as Tribute: The Romeo and Juliet subtext in The Hunger Games

Is love a tender thing? It is too rough,
Too rude, too boisterous, and it pricks like a thorn. […]
I’ll be a candle holder, and look on.
The game was ne’er so fair, and I am done.
(Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Sc. 4, 25-39)

In this statement, William Shakespeare captures the cruel tension that exists within Romeo’s feelings of love. “Fair” takes upon a dual meaning; for Romeo, love was never so “beautiful,” but it was also never so “reasonable” or “even-handed.” It’s fair but unfair. Love is simultaneously life-affirming and life-destroying … especially in Romeo and Juliet. It’s a beautiful game that creates and kills a pair of star-crossed lovers. And it’s a game that’s adapted into Suzanne Collins’ popular novel and motion picture.

            The Hunger Games novel includes a variety of allusions to Shakespeare’s romance. This is immediately evident in frequent references to Katniss and Peeta as “star-crossed” lovers; like Romeo and Juliet, their love is tragic based on circumstance. While Romeo and Juliet are at odds because of their families, Katniss and Peeta are at odds because of their government. And the odds are never in their favour because, after all, love is ne’er so fair.

            However, the Romeo and Juliet storyline is grounded as meta-fiction. The Games are televised and their love becomes theatrical. Thus, the final act in the Games, not the novel, parallels the final scene in Romeo and Juliet. They grab the berries and threaten a double suicide; like Romeo and Juliet, one refuses to live without the other no matter how irrational the decision is. They’re lovers so rushed and determined to demonstrate their affection for each other that they forget the value of their lives. Katniss has no intention of killing herself; the berries are simply another piece in her performance of “love.” It highlights the wild perceptions of love constructed within stories and art.

            Katniss is aware of its theatricality, calling attention to its construction and development. From this conscious position, Katniss is capable of dissecting and deconstructing the typical romantic relationship. She’s capable, and, to an extent, she does deconstruct this relationship. But this is still teen fiction; its only revolution exists within the novels.

Through this meta-fiction of a romantic storyline, the statement Katniss reveals is small but clear. From a removed vantage point, Katniss reveals every movement and expression that an audience could consider as “love.” From silent whispers to soft kisses, Katniss considers every detail and how it can be perceived as love. But she rarely believes any of it herself. She highlights how meaningless these actions are without any motivation or feeling behind them. In the arena, a kiss is simply a performance to receive some bread. I know that’s not love, you know that’s not love, and it’s only the gold diggers that are telling us otherwise. In this meta-fictional mode, however, Collins digs deeper into a more authentic source of love.

             To find Katniss’ real perception and understanding of love, we have to understand her character. She’s constantly paranoid about owing people anything. From a loaf of bread to people saving her life, Katniss hates to be in debt. She likes to stand on her own two feet; she likes to be independent. This is why she hunts for her family and does whatever she can to provide. It’s also why she is more concerned with an unsettled debt with Thresh than she is with the reality of her situation. However, this attitude is developed and altered as her understanding grows.

              It’s on the chariot toward the Games that Katniss’ relationship with Peeta is truly ignited. She is grateful to hold his hand because she feels his support, but she also recognizes that she is similarly supporting him. Even after the games, she continues to hold Peeta’s hand throughout the interviews and, without a leg to stand on, Peeta is also happy to find his balance. This mutual support is easily recognized as “love.” It’s so recognizable that we slap it on the top of a pastry and call it a wedding cake. But this isn’t the kind of love Katniss has for Peeta.

              Katniss explains the plan she executed in the arena and Peeta lets go of her hand. Peeta is hurt and Katniss is notably knocked off balance. For Peeta, mutual support is a thing reserved for romantic love; he puts it on a pastry pedestal. But Katniss encounters and embraces many forms of love, understanding that all of them require mutual support. I’m certain this is a theme taken up in the following novel, but Collins’ begins her statement in The Hunger Games. She demonstrates that love isn’t shallow and it can, and should be able to (perhaps in the following novels), exist in many forms.
              The parody of Romeo and Juliet highlights how selfish love is. Romeo and Juliet ignore everyone but themselves; they shut out the rest of the world, thinking only of their love. Katniss, on the other hand, considers the reactions and feelings of everyone at home; her family, Peeta’s family, and the rest of their district are just as present as their “love” for each other.

             The Romeo and Juliet subtext provided an excellent amount of depth to the novel. Like many great dystopias, The Hunger Games looks backwards more acutely than it looks forward. Collins is entrenched in the themes and images of Shakespeare’s tragedy. In the quote that opens this entry, Romeo compares love to a rose, but he does not focus on its vibrant colours or petals; instead, he complains that it pricks like a thorn. Once again, love is beautiful but threatening. Collins evokes this through the villainous President Snow and his white roses in the later novels of the trilogy. He’s a true Machiavellian villain, both loved and feared by his citizens, and Collins grapples with the dangers of this leadership.

             The novel impressed me with these references layered into it. It’s evidently written for a younger audience and the love stories are trite and awkward, but the most interesting relationship exists between the novel and Shakespeare’s tragedy. Collins even picks up a theatrical pacing in the novel. It encourages the audience to read on as every chapter ends by bleeding into the next. The ups and downs are constant leaving the audience with no clear space to pause.

             I’ll get an analysis of the film out as soon as I can. Will the theatrical pacing carry over from novel to film? Can the presence of Romeo and Juliet stand strong? Or will the relationships be Breaking Down into more familiar territory? I’m both eager and afraid to find out.

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