I was getting a haircut the other day, and the woman sitting next to me spoke about her reluctance to see The Hunger Games. “I just hate gorey movies,” she explained. “And the idea of children eating other children grosses me out.”

“They don’t eat one another!” I objected. “They’re forced to kill one another as part of a state-run reality TV show in a dystopian future!”

Okay, this is kind of a big difference, eating vs. merely killing one another — and for squeamish readers I can assure you that the gore factor is fairly low considering the subject matter. It’s strangely difficult to explain what made the books so compelling. Yet compelling they are: I’m pretty sure my set of books ricocheted amongst 9 different friends over the course of a 4-month period, each time resulting in late-night emails from those friends that said, “OMG The Hunger Games!”

Chalk it up in part to a powerful, driving narrative and a terrific central character in Katniss Everdeen. To quickly sum up the plot, Katniss has grown up in one of the nation’s poorest districts — so poor, in fact, that she and her best friend Gael have taught themselves to poach animals from the off-limits woods near home. Without her skills with a bow and arrow, setting traps, and scavenging for berries and other foods, her family would have starved long ago.

But then the annual Hunger Games begins. Long ago the nation’s 12 districts rebelled against the capital and when the federal government regained control, it instituted these “games.” Two children, a boy and girl, are chosen randomly from each district to compete against each other in a fantasy wilderness arena until only one is left alive. That battle is projected to every TV with the notion that it will somehow bring the nation together as they root for and celebrate the winner. But it also demands that the “tributes” make themselves TV-ready and appealing even as they kill one another or simply fight to survive — because the richest or most charismatic can get special gifts throughout the course of the games from sponsors who might tilt the balance between life and death with a packet of medicine, matches, or food. When Katniss is chosen alongside a baker’s son named Peeta, she is forced out of her “anything to survive” mentality, and must decide how much she’s willing to play the TV game.

Spoilers ahoy as you proceed!

As the blogger JustMeMike and I sat down to discuss the film, my first question to him is, have you read the books? and does the film seem to be the compelling document that I’ve described about the books?

JustMeMike: Thanks for the brief intro and plot outline. I only bought the book this past Thursday and did my utmost to keep it closed. I brought it with me on my trip to New York, but I should have left it home, as I never opened it on either flight. I will admit to reading the first three pages before I left. So at most, I went in with scant knowledge. So go right ahead, and call me a noob.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I will readily agree that it is compelling, and that I’m 100% certain that I will go through the rest of the books that follow in the series — asap.

Since you’ve read the book, and I haven’t — can you give me a sense of how the film and book compare?

Didion: That might wind up being the most talked-about subject of the day! And that’s too bad, since I’d theoretically like to think of this solely as a film, but let’s face it: I can’t.

I’d say two main things. First, I walked out feeling impressed that the film had done such a great job of covering a lot of ground in the books — my partner and I were really happy about the film overall. I especially thought Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss was just amazing — and I’d been skeptical, as she’s clearly a curvy 22-year-old, whereas Katniss is a skinny, half-starved 15-year-old.

I do have one criticism comparing the two (and this is my second point). For me, the most moving thing about the books was that Katniss agonizes about appealing to TV viewers; she’s spent her whole life feeling defensive and protective of her family, so she hates smiling and pretending to like Peeta in order to gain TV fans. I felt the film gave short shrift to that storyline. Yet again, I still feel satisfied with the movie overall.

JustMeMike: Ok — my question was really too broad for a short answer or even a longish one. But I was lost about the coal mining aspect of the Seam. The Capital seemed so advanced and Katniss’s area seemed so deprived. How does the Capital have super technology and yet there are still functioning coal mines?

Didion: The future imagined in the book is one in which many of the “districts” (states) are poor and conduct basic services on behalf of the few richest districts and the Capital. Her district mines coal; other raise wheat or whatever and are just about as poor.

So part of what the book does is to juxtapose the super-rich, superficial people in the capital of Panem (there’s a Latin phrase, panem et circenses, that means “bread and circuses”; capturing its superficiality and its likeness to Rome before the fall) with the incredibly poor, manipulated citizens of faraway districts like Katniss’s. When she gets to the capital and sees everyone with their elaborate clothes and makeup and plastic surgeries, it’s like a freak show to someone who couldn’t afford to buy bread.JMM: Okay, I’d like to talk about Katniss. What impressed me most was her strength before the games or even before the Reaping. She was the protector, the provider, and at the core of her family. Yet as the Hunger Games process begins she seems a bit weak at first but it’s only temporary. She is simply a rock going forward. I simply loved that part of her.

Didion: Doesn’t she make a terrific heroine? Especially in our age of Iron Man and Spider-Man and so on — without a single super-hero skill or supernatural gift, Katniss has been forced by circumstance into obtaining precisely some of the skills she’d need to succeed at the games.

Lawrence does a great job with this role. There were a couple of strange moments that perhaps make best sense vis-à-vis the book, but she made me cry. Fantastic. Did you think she managed to be her own person?JMM: I thought she went beyond gender. I think that if you think of the sister Prim, who was weak and timid from the beginning — then Katniss seemed even stronger. But what I meant was that it was her youth and the strength of her will and determination that was so impressive. My point is that if Katniss had been a boy with those same qualities, the film would have worked just as well. Yet, I was most glad that Katniss wasn’t a boy.

In fact, I didn’t much care for Peeta at the beginning, and I had no sense of what he would reveal later on.

Didion: Oh, that’s interesting — “beyond gender.” I’m not sure I’d go that far. I think there’s a part of me who sees a female form with a bow and arrow and it’s such a direct reference to Diana that I can’t help but think about all those classical myths. But you’re so right that she embodies a kind of strength that goes beyond typical representations of women in film.

Obviously the book takes a lot longer in telling the story of the Games, and during that time Katniss wrestles with the job of killing other kids. You see a lot less of that here. Ultimately she kills, what, one kid? the one who kills Rue? I wonder if perhaps her reluctance to kill also makes her seem more humane/feminine in the books.

Argh, I hate to keep making reference to the books, but Peeta was quite hate-able at first and then becomes a total mensch. Didn’t quite play out fully satisfactorily here, but oh well.

JMM: Of course he turned himself into something to be admired. But backing up a bit — the reference to Diana from mythology is correct but it might not fit all the viewers of the film. I watched the film and didn’t go there myself.

I think that since I hadn’t read the book, and came to the film without that background — I didn’t have the sense of her unwillingness to kill. In fact I thought that she bought into Haymitch’s strategy right away. He told her to run the other way — don’t go near the Cornucopia — so she was in a defensive mode from the jump. Sure enough, half of the Game’s participants were seemingly slaughtered immediately.  When she did kill it was also an act of self defense — someone rushed her position. Didion: So I’m curious, JMM, since you hadn’t read the books, did you see important themes coming through in the film? Or does it just seem like a really great action film?

I ask because the book lends itself easily to metaphorical readings. I have now referred many times to the tenure process for young academics as The Hunger Games. And grad school. But when I watched the film I was so nervous about it doing something “wrong,” that I’m not sure I have the wherewithal to tell whether the film throws itself open to multiple readings like that.

JMM: Of course it is an action film, but it’s clearly more. It is a cautionary tale, a tale of how consumption and inequalities could lead to rebellion, and I don’t believe that it was submerged or clouded over in the film. The President made it clear that the games were both a reality show as well as a way of keeping social control. By televising the Games, and by making the 24 tributes look and act their best (to attract sponsor support as well as fan interest) made everyone a participant. By having a rooting interest or a favorite — that meant tacit support of the system which really means that the Games were just another way to control the people. Didion: That’s a relief — because I think the broader meanings of the story are one of the reasons so many people refer to this as a phenomenon, something broader than just a film.

When I first read it, the deep fears and distrust of the government at Panem almost made me wonder whether this book was going to be a Tea Party or Libertarian favorite. But as the Games progress there’s a fascinating progressive tale — all those viewers in other districts get so attached to a couple of the tributes, like Katniss, that they start riots when the Games seem to tilt against them. Fascinating during an election year, eh?

So I’ve got another question for you: apparently the filmmaker did a lot of work to ensure a PG-13 rating (by not putting much gory detail into the killing scenes, for example) — even the scenes of hand-to-hand combat are quite fuzzy and oblique — such that kids might attend in greater numbers. But the fact is, this is a pretty dark tale even if you don’t see guts spraying all over the screen. Is this one of those cases in which parents should be wary of taking their kids to see it, even if their kids loved the books? (I’m remembering our conversation about the rape scene in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo here.)
JMM: No I don’t see parental concern arising at all. I’m an adult, and I just bought the book 4 days ago. Which means that 25 million books were sold before I bought mine. I think that in most family situations, the parents became aware of the books after their children did.

As for the lack of gore — I rather liked that. I don’t think the film needed a drop of blood except after the fact. We didn’t see the spear hit Rue, but instead saw what had happened only after the fact — and that worked fine for me.

But getting to the last part of the your reply — for sure it is a dark tale. What surprised me most was that a few of the characters like Rue and a few smaller boys seemingly had no chance at all. They were slaughtered seconds into Games. How was it that there were no volunteers to protect them?
Didion: That’s one of the most brutal and depressing parts of the book — who in his/her right mind would volunteer for something that means you’ve got a 1 in 24 chance of surviving? Some of the previous Games were particularly sadistic; one was set in a desert where no one could find any water and virtually everyone died of thirst within 24 hours. So if you’re poor and skinny and all your peer-age kids are skinny too, who’s going to volunteer?

But then there are the richer districts (as the film teaches us) who train their children from the earliest ages to be ridiculously powerful and skilled so they might win — and thereby bring back food and a certain degree of riches to their districts. No volunteers needed from districts where everyone looks like Cato.

Katniss’s love for her sister is the one true passion she feels for another human. It’s that love that makes her sacrifice herself.
JMM: Yet we heard in both Effie’s speech in District 12 as well as the President’s speech at the Games, talk of their “sacrifice.” So Katniss was the only one who would change places and enter the Games as a volunteer tribute. None of the other random selectees had that happen. I’m not objecting to Katniss being the heroic girl who protects her weaker and younger sister — I just thought other districts might have had similar events. From the author’s perspective, Is it possible that Katniss volunteered as a way or reason than to make her more ideal and heroic. On the other hand, maybe the sacrifice of the young and the weak would not be as significant as when a vibrant 17 year-old was the one to go…

Didion: Oh, I see what you’re saying. I think it’s just a function of Katniss living in District 12, and they choose the tributes from that District last.

So I’ve got another question for you. I sat next to a couple of very, very over-caffeinated girls (or were they just high on too much sugar?) who had an enormous debate before the film about whether Peeta or Gael was best. In fact, my 12-year-old TX neighbor had a t-shirt that read TEAM GAEL. After the film, these girls walked out surrounding themselves with a cloud of “OH MY GAAAWWWDD”s and “HE WAS SOOOO GORGEOUS”s. (Indeed, the dude who played Gael seems to have been created in a test tube by scientists from Tiger Beat magazine.)
But I liked the fact that the film scaled back on the lovey-dovey stuff — as the book did, I thought. Did you feel that the story was going to devolve into a story of “torn between two lovers”? Or was the love interest stuff less significant? You mentioned that you liked the way the Peeta character developed; does he seem like romantic hero material for the long haul (aka, 4 projected films altogether)?

JMM:  I don’t even want to think about Peeta in 4 more films (at least right now). Not having read the book, I was shocked when right at the outset (after the mass killings at the Cornucopia) that Peeta had aligned himself with the biggest and strongest kids. Not that he joined them, but that they took him in.

As far as the crowd of 12 year olds who were gaga over the male leads — I had the opposite experience. I sat next to some older guy who got up and headed for parts unknown (but easily guessed at) three times during the show.

Now I have a question for you: For about the first twenty minutes or so, I watched and I wasn’t moved by anything — but when when the clock announced thirty seconds to go, and Katniss stepped onto the pedestal — at that precise moment I felt my pulse quicken, and my heart raced. It was so electric a moment for me physically that I could not fail to notice it. Did you have a precise moment which gave you a strong kickstart?
Didion: I probably started getting jittery when they started training while in the capital. I quite liked the way the film handled the way each of the kids tries to adjudge the others, show them up, etc. I quite liked the way they showed Katniss and Peeta arriving in the stadium with their costumes on fire (even though, honestly, that fire looked like pretty cheap CGI).

But yeah, the beginning of the Games ratchets everything up when everyone’s life is on the line. That initial slaughter at the Cornucopia is pretty gritty. So are the fireballs that send Katniss back into the area where the other tributes are.
The film is also full of prominent character actors — from Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the designer; Woody Harrelson as Haymitch; Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, and so on — what did you think of them?

JMM:  When we first meet Woody’s Haymitch, he seems dissolute, like a man who cannot escape a terrible past — much like the Tom Cruise character Nathan Algren in The Last Samurai. Yet, seemingly, that was abandoned rather quickly. He took his role of advisor quite seriously. So why was he presented initially like a guy who didn’t care much about anything except where was his next drink coming from?
Didion: In the 75-year history of the Games, Katniss’s district has only had one winner — Haymitch. And now he’s a drunken, mean-spirited lout. You’re right that he’s a difficult character to fathom, and even more so in the books. You sort of intuit that the Games did this to him; he’s like a soldier with PTSD.

How about any of the other characters — Donald Sutherland as the very scary President, or that guy with the flame-like facial hair who did the behind-the-scenes work on creating the Arena?


JMM: Thought you’d never ask. Strangely enough Sutherland’s scariness wasn’t on his surface — it was his attitudes below his grandfatherly looking exterior. I didn’t care for Seneca but his role was pivotal no matter what kind of fancy beard he sported. In fact I was distressed when I realized that he and his staff were doing more than just monitoring and tracking — I was so surprised when he and the staff woman decided to send in the dogs. I thought that made the whole aspect of the games a bit false. I literally wanted Katniss to win a fair game. But the game was anything but fair. Seneca and company were actively participating in the creation of circumstances to alter the outcome. And that’s not even mentioning the rules changes.

I did rather like Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman character. He was so manipulative. That blue hair — those teeth — quite scary to me.

Didion: You have usefully fallen straight into what I was leading up to: the wonder that is Stanley Tucci. I suspect that his role is unusually generous vis-a-vis the roles of Haymitch, Cinna et als — but every time he appeared on-screen I just grinned and thought, ahh, I could look at that man hamming it up all day! There are a couple of scenes in which he’s framed by multiple screens, each of which is projecting his face with a slightly different self-serving and/or grinning expressions, and it was all good. He also has an eerily insidious quality, as if he’s got his own agenda beyond his state-appointed role. Fabulous!
JMM:  Maybe he was just thrilled by being paid to talk about the Games. Not bad work if you can get it.

Interesting comment — you can answer by referencing the book — was the character the ham, or the actor doing the hamming?

Didion: No, this seemed accurate to the way the book characterized him — it just seems we got a lot more Stanley than Haymitch, who was a much more crucial character in the book.

Okay, I have a confession (and this allows me to take one big step backward to look at the big picture here): it’s making me slightly depressed that you’ve got so many questions about the storyline, because I fear this returns me to one of my initial questions about whether this film is for True Believers (readers) like me and not newbies. The film version glosses over so much detail/context — and thank god, right? it would’ve been two times longer otherwise — that one feels a little lost in the shuffle.

You’re the perfect viewer in this respect: tell me, how would you ultimately rate the film on its own terms? Because as a reader (and using your own 5-star ranking system), I would give it a solid 4 stars; if I were grading it as an undergraduate paper, I’d give it a solid 86%. Of course, I can be a tough grader.
JMM: Great question. We approached this film from 180 degrees of difference. You read all three books, and I read none. So you have built-in reference points that I don’t. My questions about the film are not just about storylines or plot points. I gather that you’re saying you liked the film but won’t give it top marks.

I’d likely rate it similarly. But I think I have more gripes about the technical side than the gaps in the story. For example I hated the jittery, handheld effects whenever director Gary Ross showed the crowds.

Do you have any gripes about how they showed us the story?
Didion: I tried to avoid listening to any reviews of the film before seeing it, but the one I did catch called Ross a “hack” for the hand-held camerawork. So perhaps I went in fretting that it would look sloppy — and you know how going in with low expectations can lead you to like a film more than you’d expected.

Maybe I’m being unimaginative here, but the fact that Ross was trying very hard to maintain his PG-13 rating was always on my mind. The hand-held camera and the blurred, kinetic fight scenes were disorienting, but they conveyed the hellishness of those fights and those killings without showing explicit blood & guts. I don’t want to defend this as an artistic triumph by any means, but I wonder if maybe the real enemy is the US’s ratings system that forced Ross into making such choices in order to make sure that the book’s most loyal teen readers could see the film without their parents along. Or is there a better way of doing it?

JMM: I agree that he had to help sell the tickets – and that meant making sure the 13 and ups could go by themselves. And I’m okay with it because I understand it. Yeah, I would have like it better if there had been more explicit violence…but I don’t think that was the reason for giving this a 4 instead of a 5, or giving it a B+ rather than an A.

The story is really about Katniss’s heroic and brave character. We knew she would emerge victorious. But how she got there was not the key feature of the film. In fact when she first took to the high ground (up in a tree) I knew she’d wait for the action to come to her. And I was fine with it: more chances to have quality time with her. Even when she did nothing, her mind was still so alert. She was so admirable, and positive. That’s why the books sold so well, and why the film will also sell.

Think about it. We got no blood and yet I would have not missed this film for anything. I would have crawled to the theater if necessary. So basically, the flaws can be laid at the feet of the director and editor. That’s where I’m placing my blame for an 86 or a B+, or a 4.0 rating.
Didion: This is a perfect opportunity for me to ask my two final questions — but not before teasing you for your great line: “Think about it. We got no blood and yet I would not have missed this film for anything.” I like the way you sound like a horror film aficionado here, when in fact I know for certain that you have a wide appetite for many kinds of film, including the sweet and bloodless!

First question: setting aside the possibility that David Fincher would pick up this franchise and make a couple of brilliant films a la Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is Ross’s problem inherent to the struggle of bringing a rich and dynamic book to the screen? Or do you think his directing choices and the editor’s cuts made the film look amateurish?

And last, you say you would have crawled to the theater (cheers to that, as I saw it on opening day): this film made a record $155 million on opening weekend. That set a new all-time record for a non-sequel, and marked it as the 3rd most lucrative opening weekend of all time. Meanwhile, it also made the most money on opening day ever for a non-sequel and the most money for a midnight premiere of a non-sequel (it ranks 5th and 7th overall, respectively, in those categories amongst films that are sequels). This film made money.

But what do you expect for the long haul? Will this film still be making money down the line, and for The Hunger Games II?
JMM: I was wondering when that last question would emerge…

First, as you said, I like many kinds of films but there is one exception  – and that would be horror films. I don’t think Ross’s work in this film was amateurish, but yes certainly, some directorial choices were weak.

As to whether it’ll make money down the line, or in the long haul. Yup. I think I see a Potterish future for The Hunger Games and its sequels.

My last question: the way the story played out, and the the way that the film was designed that by film’s end, there only two likeable characters. Katniss and Peeta. Obviously this is the work of the author, Suzanne Collins. But do you think this was fair? Did you feel manipulated?

Didion: Quick Q: do you mean that other likeable characters like Rue are all dead?

JMM: I didn’t mean it that way. To rephrase: excepting Cinna and Rue, who else was likable and was that fair to the readers/viewers?
Didion: I kind of loved Rue, and I would have liked even a teensy bit more of some of the other Hunger Games tributes whom Katniss fears but respects (like Cato).

But you know what? I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your question — because it points out to me how much this is really the tale of a girl whose early life has already been hard, and who gets put into the most terrifying situation possible. We can’t help but root for someone who’s so determined to survive — but the book being told in Katniss’s voice also makes it a somewhat self-centered tale. And when I say self-centered I don’t mean to sound dismissive in the least — any tale told in the first person would be focused on one’s own emotional responses to horrible situations.

So ultimately the film rests on who they got to play Katniss. And here we come back to the fact that Lawrence nails the role. Peeta comes through as a very strong secondary character by the end; perhaps even more so because he has an almost feminine set of weaknesses when it comes to survival (I mean, he makes his cake-decorating skills work for him!) but he has a stronger sense of self, particularly in the books.

So in the end, this is a film that really is all about Katniss — and to a lesser degree about developing a Peeta who’ll get stronger as the films unfold.

Does that answer your question, or just raise new ones?

JMM: I’m satisfied with the answer. This is just the first film. As for the perspective of Katniss telling the story so it would carry the first person construct – I believe I read that Collins intended this to be a 3rd person narrative in the outlining and planning, but when her fingers met the keyboard it came out differently. I forgot one thing I meant to say – I said I would have crawled to the theater – want to know why? Because I wanted to be able to have this discussion – and that required me to see the film!

Didion: Aw, man — you mean you weren’t as excited as I was in anticipation?

JMM: Sure I wanted to see it – but I’ll bet, if it could be quantified in any way – that I couldn’t have matched you anticipatory-wise. I’ll let you have the honor of the final words.

Didion: Here’s my final thought: I’m so intrigued by your idea that the director is the reason for my giving the film a B+ that I hope this franchise takes a cue from the Potter empire: those films got infinitely better when they hired Alfonso Cuarón to do the third film. So I hope the producers hire someone more visionary to do the next one.

But speaking as a major fan of the books, I was IMPRESSED with the film, and particularly with Lawrence’s Katniss. My only hope is that Jennifer Lawrence continues to get Winter’s Bone-style art-house roles as well. I can hardly wait to see the next installment of The Hunger Games.

JMM, I can’t tell you what fun it is to chat about these movies with you! Let’s keep our eyes on the summer schedule as it becomes clear, and plan another one of these conversations. And I look forward to hearing what other viewers think of The Hunger Games.

JMM: Thank you so much. I do love this chatting about films with you.

Didion: One more thought: don’t you think it would be fun to review a film that we both hate? I’d love to do a pile-on.

JMM: Now that would be a novel idea. A pile-on. We’ll see. Cheers.

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And with that, I’ve got March 23 on my calendar. (Have read the trilogy twice. Just as great the second time through.) It’s nice to know I’ve got something in common with masses of 10- to 13-year-olds everywhere.

For super-fans, I’ll admit I stayed out of the debate over whether Jennifer Lawrence, the much-beloved star of Winter’s Bone and a major player in X-Men: First Class was right for the part of Katniss; I’ve taken a wait-and-see approach. This trailer is very convincing.

Mia Wasikowska, the 21-year-old actor who appears in virtually every shot of this beautiful film, is a wonder — and that’s saying a lot. I’ve seen many Jane Eyre adaptations but have always felt that I needed to bring a knowledge of the book to understand the depth of feeling Jane experienced. Whereas in the book we have her narrating her life, it’s hard for actors to convey how much Jane has learned through hard and lonely experience to suppress her feelings, maintain feminine reserve, and quietly inhabit her social rank, at least when with others. Wasikowska, however, has a preternatural capacity to let waves of emotion cross her face while also remaining placid; yet when she allows her true feeling to come forth in words and expression, we see how hard the effort of suppression is — and how much a brilliant mind lies behind that “plain and little” face. Oh my god, it’s amazing.

Here’s what I’ve noticed lately about the serious women actors of her generation (and I leave out the non-serious ones who act in teen comedies): even at their most excellent, they bury themselves so deep in a part that they don’t allow the viewer to see their inner conflicts. Take just two of them who earned so much praise last year (including from me): Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone and Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit. Their performances were truly excellent, yet between the nature of those roles — which demanded a high degree of stoicism — and the actors’ relative inexperience they ultimately demonstrate an extraordinary degree of actor’s modesty, especially when surrounded by male actors willing to appear far more vivid, fascinating, horrific. As a result, Wasikowska’s actorly range and bravery is amazing. (Not that I’m surprised after watching her on season 1 of In Treatment, which was so amazing I’d watch it all over again even though it’s got to be one of the most painful things I’ve ever seen.)

When I saw the film with my Dear Friend, she complained about Michael Fassbender (above) as Rochester, saying he drew too much attention to himself by using his eyes so much that it undermined the effect of his scenes. She also mentions that it’s hard to understand why Jane loves him (a shortcoming in the book, too, if you ask me) — and I want to suggest that these two things are related. Certainly Fassbender captures Rochester’s hard, bitter edge and the misogyny I always felt was part of his character; why else would he toy with Jane in that ridiculous attempt to make her jealous by flirting with Miss Ingram? My feeling is that Rochester is a tough role that’s too often played more softly as if he’s a romantic hero rather than a reluctant one; in that respect Fassbender does a great job. (It’s worth noting how much Fassbender has a scary propensity to play these slightly misogynistic roles, after his brilliant and somewhat horrifying turn in Fish Tank.)

More important, I thought the use of his eyes was crucial to the role — and maybe that’s because, for me, the love story is fundamentally about how Rochester truly sees Jane’s inner character, her intelligence, her unexpected strength, her soul. Even though she feels she’s concealing all of it behind that stoic mask she’s learned to wear, Rochester sees early on that she’s exceptional — no wonder the story works so well as a romance (don’t we all want to be seen for our true selves?). I want to suggest that we see through his huge, cruel eyes how much Rochester really doesn’t have control over his feelings, and that he wrestles with his own demons, his own tendency to bury himself in self-pity and hardness rather than open himself up to feeling for others. Jane expresses her emotion through her increasingly visible efforts to suppress it; Rochester expresses it through his increasingly uncontrolled eyes that don’t want to believe there could be such a woman for him. So, Dear Friend, I need a response to this claim!  

A final note about Cary Joji Fukunaga’s directing and Moira Buffini’s screenplay, which captured the intensity of gothic horror and the passion of feeling so well. Having loved Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre (2009; and what a different film!) I knew this would be something to see; and it’s no easy feat to wrangle all of a 19th-c. novel into a neat 115 minutes. They achieve it by privileging the central tale of Jane and Rochester rather than her childhood and her time with the Rivers siblings — and I think it’s wholly successful, even for those who haven’t read the book and don’t know the litany of horrors she experiences before coming to Thornfield Hall and meeting Rochester. It never felt Harry Potter-ed, that is, like one of those excessively literal adaptations that labors to hit every key scene of a novel. It was scary, heartbreaking, dark, beautiful, compelling, and I can hardly wait to see it again.

Remember being 15? Everyone seems like such an asshole, and no one’s more of a douche than you. Interactions with your mom amount to screaming matches. Seems like nothing’s going to get better, either. Your hair won’t do what you want and your body’s all over the place — childish in parts and alarmingly womanly in others. Your entire world seems small, stupid. If you’re lucky, you have one thing you’re good at. In Andrea Arnold’s spectacular Fish Tank, Mia (Katie Jarvis)’s one thing is hip-hop dancing. She sneaks upstairs in their depressing council estate flat to an empty apartment, turns on the music, and works on perfecting her moves. I can’t remember seeing a film like this that shows us the world through the eyes of a 15-year-old so intimately — we’re always with Mia, sharing that lonely, locked-in feeling with her, never looking at her. It’s an extraordinary way to put the viewer into a 15-year-old’s head.

Things shift when suddenly her very young single mother Joanne has a new man in her life — Connor (Michael Fassbender), an Irish guy who just doesn’t fit into the council estate world. He’s so cute, has a middle-class job and a practical man’s car, and expresses such paternal ease and a light touch with Mia and her little sister: what’s he doing with the trashy, foul-mouthed Joanne? And here’s where Arnold captures Mia so perfectly. She doesn’t know whether she wants to flirt with Connor or turn him into the father figure who’d give their lives more stability; she wants both, of course. Because we see everything through Mia’s eyes, we wonder whether Connor is sending mixed signals — and we’re a bit alarmed to realize that we hope he is, even as a sense of unease grows about this seemingly nice guy.

When you’re 15, anything can happen to you — and Mia’s clearly on that precipice. Teenage pregnancy and/or rape are more likely in her precarious world than education or another path to mobility. When she looks at her improbably blonde, half-dressed, alcoholic mother, we know a lot of the venom between them results from the fact that they both know Mia might follow that path too. That’s why her hip-hop dancing is so evocative. It might be private, almost secret, but it gives her power and control over her lanky 15-year-old limbs. Yet being a good dancer gives you no marketable skill. “You dance like a Black,” Connor tells her when he catches her dancing in their miserable little kitchen, she in her pyjamas and he shirtless, unknown. “It’s a compliment,” he clarifies, creating a little bit of confidentiality between them. She scowls, flattered and invaded and attracted. Could dancing be a way out for her? Is she still dancing for herself, or is she dancing for him? When Connor plays Bobby Womack’s haunting, 1960s mellow soul cover of “California Dreamin’,” it means too much to Mia — it becomes their song.

Americans don’t like to watch films about the poor, proclaiming them “depressing,” yet these stories are so real that it seems Katie Jarvis herself is living this life. She had no acting experience when she was discovered for this part fighting with her boyfriend on a train platform. She’d already left school without a diploma, was unemployed, and learned all the dance moves during the filming, giving them a sweet uncertainty. By the time the film was screened at Cannes (where it won the Jury Prize, the first of many awards and nominations for the film) Jarvis was pregnant, limiting her capacity to take more roles.

When she was interviewed by UK’s The Guardian Jarvis explained her life with telling caution and honesty: “Whereas before I was doing nothing all the time [the film] made me learn that I could do things if I wanted to do it. It was hard, but it was fun and rewarding. Now I want to make the most of it. It shows that you don’t have to go to drama school to get into it, but I think I was one of a kind, I don’t think anyone else will get picked off a train station.”

Whether or not she gets more parts, she’s extraordinary in this film, which is easily in my Top Five of last year (it was released in a very limited way in the US in 2010) and one of my favorites of the whole decade. It’s so much better than An Education, which I really liked (see here for A. O. Scott’s reasons for agreeing with this point), and probably even better than Winter’s Bone which I keep singing about. I keep this blog for the hope of seeing films like this and spreading the news about them. It’s streaming on Netflix now — watch it and feel this filmmaker’s amazing vision of what it means to look through the eyes of a 15-year-old. And let’s keep watching for more from Andrea Arnold and Katie Jarvis.

Living outside of New York, LA or Chicago means I haven’t had the chance to see a lot of this year’s critics’ picks for best film, like Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Even given those gaps, however, I want to make an argument for Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone as the year’s best film and as the right film for the award during a hard year of financial crisis and jobless recovery.

I could have chosen a film that exemplified the movies’ capacity to tell great stories that take us outside ourselves to that place of pleasure and wonder. Winter’s Bone might not have been so feel-good, but it was just as great a tale as Toy Story 3, True Grit, The Kids Are All Right, or The King’s Speech.  It made a better and more unpredictable thriller than Black Swan or A Prophet, and much, much better than The Ghost Writer, Shutter Island, and Inception.

In my mind, its real battle is with David Fincher’s The Social Network, a battle it will surely lose. The Social Network benefits from a timely story, massive ticket sales, an all-star directing/writing/production team, and — let’s face it — the focus on dudes and those epic battles involving testosterone and enormous sums of money that make voters for the Academy cream their pants. In contrast, Winter’s Bone has a little-known female director and co-writer, an unknown female lead who doesn’t prettify herself, and an all-poverty setting in the Missouri Ozarks where meth dealing and squirrel-eating are ways of life. The film appeared in theaters all the way back in July rather than late this fall. In short: no matter how much it might be the better film, or at least just as good as The Social Network, Winter’s Bone doesn’t have a chance.

But here’s why we should vote for it: because it tells one of the real stories of 2010: of poor people clinging on by their fingernails. It doesn’t have lines like “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” (And here I’m thinking about how much I objected last March to the fact that Sandra Bullock beat out Gabourey Sidibe for best actress — a choice that reveals our determination to feel good at the movies.) The story it tells — of a teenaged girl trying to keep her family together with a roof over their heads — doesn’t distract us from our own problems, sure, but that’s why the film’s terrific storytelling and perfect cast are so crucial. The fact that she succeeds in the end makes it even more appealing for our troubled times than the deeply ambivalent conclusion of The Social Network.

I have other reasons for pushing the film. In the wake of Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director win at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker, 2010 turned out to be a comparatively great year for female directors — with Nicole Holofcener, Lisa Cholodenko, Coppola, and Granik releasing top-notch films. But unlike last year, there’s little grassroots movement to push female-directed films into the top level of competition for an Oscar, no matter how superior their films might be. For me, the battle isn’t won until women are nominated more often, and when women directors get nominated for films that have women in them. (Just like it was great in 1981 to get the nation’s first female Supreme Court justice with Sandra Day O’Connor, but even better when Ruth Bader Ginsberg brought a feminist consciousness to the Court in 1993, a choice that truly benefited other women.)

  • Best film:  Winter’s Bone
  • Best director:  Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone
  • Best female actor:  Kim Hye-ja for Mother (Korea, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
  • Best male actor:  Colin Firth for The King’s Speech
  • Best female supporting actor:  Dale Dickey for Winter’s Bone
  • Best male supporting actor:  Matt Damon for True Grit

I have more to say about what a great year it was for interesting female parts and terrific female acting — my choices for best actress and supporting actress were really hard to narrow down, whereas Firth simply has no competition for best actor. But that’ll wait till another time. In the meantime I’m going to keep arguing for Winter’s Bone, and I hope you do too.

Has anyone else noticed that articles like this one in New York Magazine don’t get written about young female actors?  “The Brainy Bunch” is about five young men (Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tom Hardy) who, according to the journalist, bust a bunch of stereotypes because they play twitchy, complicated, and most of all brilliant characters.  The author marvels that these smart actors “bring the raw nerve of indie sensibility” to the screen; moreover, “in so doing, they are reimagining the mainstream.”  Articles like this one are inevitably about men — not because actresses aren’t smart, but because they’re not playing smart onscreen.  This has lathered me up into a rant because I think this is yet another example of the exceptionally disturbing moment we’re living in, during which women’s primary value is their hotness, not their smartness.  Considering that I grew up in an age when the tomboy/ smartypants Jodie Foster was the pre-teen It Girl — a multilingual woman who graduated magna cum laude from Yale — I’m not prepared to let men be smart while women commit their energies to being hot.

Yet I’ve been putting some muscle into coming up with a similar list of remarkable young female actors who play smart onscreen and it’s really hard.  Not hard for older women, mind you; as a culture we seem perfectly willing to grant brains to women over 35 (witness Helen Mirren, Holly Hunter, Tilda Swinton, Charlotte Rampling, Frances McDormand, Judy Davis …).  The one vivid exeption to the rule is Mia Wasikowska (above), she of that remarkable 1st season of In Treatment, Alice in Wonderland, as the teenaged daughter in The Kids are All Right, and the upcoming Jane Eyre.  Other than that?  Can you think of a single young actor who plays smart onscreen from one role to the next?

I can’t.  As much as I loved the fast-talking smarts of Carey Mulligan in An Education and Emma Stone in Easy A this year, there’s one thing that ruins those tales for me:  ultimately these smart characters are shown to be dumb when it comes to men and sex (respectively).  Get it?  Smart girls aren’t smart about everything. I can think of a couple of one-off performances this year — Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone and Noomi Rapace in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo franchise, but I have yet to be convinced that these actors can translate one excellent part into the kinds of careers that New York Magazine‘s favorite young men have achieved.  Consider the career of Harvard grad Natalie Portman, who’s now getting close to 30 (and therefore into the age range wherein Hollywood allows women to be brilliant) — has she ever played smart onscreen?  And don’t even get me started on the fact that the last time I saw a smart young Latina, Asian, Native American, or black woman onscreen was Shareeka Epps in Half Nelson (2006) — and where have the roles gone for Epps in the meantime?

If any of you doubts the perversity of this trend, consider one of the prevailing cultural anxieties appearing in major media of the past six months:  the idea that boys are falling behind girls (or, in Hanna Rosin’s trademark hysterical terms, THE END OF MEN).  At the same time that we watch smart boys and hot girls onscreen, we’re also supposed to feel anxious about the fact that girls do better in school and young women are going to college in vastly larger numbers than boys (they make up roughly 60% of college populations).  This has prompted Rosin and her ilk to proclaim that women are “winning” some kind of battle against men.  Thus, the fact that our films persist in peddling some kind of retro fantasy about boys’ smartness seems to reject our anxieties that girls might be pretty and smart, and reassures us that smart dudes will always bag the hotties.

If you need an explanation for my bleak mood, it’s because I just finished reading Gary Shteyngart’s incredibly disturbing dystopian novel, Super Sad True Love Story.  In this America of the future, women wear clothes made by the JuicyPussy brand, Total Surrender panties (which pop off at the push of a little button), and have their hotness level perpetually broadcast to everyone around them via a version of a smartphone called an äpparät.  It’s a brilliant characterization of the future (I cringed and laughed at the fact that the hero’s love interest, Eunice Park, majored in Images and minored in Assertiveness in college — we all know that’s where we’re heading) but ultimately one that reiterates that tired trope:  shlubby, bookish, imperfect, aging hero falls for very beautiful, very young, very anti-intellectual woman — and wins her, at least for a while.  You know what?  I love shlubby men in real life (hi, honey!), but I have grown to despise their perpetual appearance in narratives.

So to cleanse my palate of the oily aftertaste of Super Sad, I’ve plunged myself into Muriel Barbery’s wonderful novel, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which moves back and forth between the interior monologues of two brilliant women:  the autodidact Renée, who hides behind her mask as an unkempt, sullen concierge in an elegant Paris apartment building; and Paloma, the precociously intelligent 12-year-old who lives upstairs and despises the pretentions of her family, teachers, and classmates.  They seem to be on a path to discover one another — but I’m at the point in the novel when I’m so enjoying just listening to them think out loud that I’m not sure I care whether the narrative goes anywhere (Paloma has a diatribe about why grammar is about accessing the beauty of language that’s so wonderful I’m thinking of plagiarizing it for use in my classes).

Here’s what it would take to cultivate a generation of young actresses known for their braininess:

  1. Just jettison the smart vs. hot binary for women onscreen already.  If I see glasses used as the “smart” signifier one more time…
  2. Write some stories in which young women aren’t just interested in dudes all the time, but have wholly stand-alone loves of language, art, math, con artistry, biology, music, sports, comic books, religion, killing demons, other girls, or food — even drugs or booze, for gods’ sake — just like actual women.
  3. Stop resigning smart girls to the sidekick position in kids’ films like Harry Potter, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and TV shows like Buffy, etc.
  4. Show that smartness isn’t just a magical quality endowed by nature, but is something that takes work.
  5. Show that smartness can pose a problem beyond scaring off potential dudes — when young women face idiotic, paternalistic bosses, teachers too tired to teach to the top 1% of a class, or families in which no one has ever gone to college.
  6. Let girls play brilliant anti-heroes along the lines of Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg — or, hell, just weird antisocial types like Lisbeth Salander.
  7. Let girls play funny.
  8. Let young female actors fail occasionally in a part the way we just keep forgiving failures by Jonah Hill, Zach Galifianakis, Ashton Kutcher, even Robert Downey, Jr. — the list goes on — without career consequences.
  9. Give me a central female character besides The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo who’s a computer whiz.
  10. Display explicitly feminist characters onscreen, and have them explain their opinions.

Maybe then we won’t experience that odd whiplash of suddenly having our actresses arrive at the age of 35 and suddenly become smart (does this read as unattractive and/or ball-busting to male viewers, I wonder?).  I, for one, am looking forward to my movies looking a bit more like reality.

Poor Timothy Olyphant.  While he’s wallowing about as the big fish in the very small pond that is “Justified,” his former “Deadwood” co-stars Garret Dillahunt (who played the psychopathic Mr. W.) and John Hawkes (Sol Starr) have found much richer material in Debra Granik’s wonderful rural thriller, “Winter’s Bone,” based on the Daniel Woodrell novel.  Moreover, these actors have delightfully reversed their earlier characters; while Dillahunt now appears as the ineffective but earnest cop, Hawkes no longer offers us his wide blue eyes as in “Deadwood,” but uses his hollow cheeks, broken nose, enormous (and beautiful) hands, and perpetual cigarette to become the terrifying meth-cooking Teardrop, who isn’t quite sure whether he cares enough about his brother’s family to help them escape starvation.

But I digress.  This movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence in the major role of 17-year-old Ree Dolly, whose sole concern is to find a way to keep her family alive.  Lawrence appears in virtually every scene — teaching her two younger siblings how to shoot and skin a squirrel, hunting down her father whose disappearance makes it likely they’ll lose their home, hanging laundry, frying potatoes.  This is a story about a very young, very smart woman who’s taken on the unenviable job of ensuring that her family survive (not unlike another one of my all-time favorite films, “Fresh”) in the Missouri Ozarks.  Moreover, she’s got to accomplish this job amidst the complicated, competing logics of family loyalty and disloyalty, pride in the midst of poverty, and the rules of law and outlaws; it doesn’t occur to her or anyone else that she is a child and shouldn’t have such heavy responsibility.  Lawrence plays her role with an extraordinary sureness, even when she’s surrounded by experienced actors like Hawkes whose parts give them the chance to appear more vividly creepy.  I fear she’s too subtle an actor to receive the recognition she deserves, as awards so often seem to go to the grandstanders; but she’s sure to add many more nominations to the Best Actress Prize she won at the Seattle Film Festival this year.  When she’s getting in a car with someone very scary, she turns to her younger brother and says, “Fry the potatoes till they’re brown and then turn off the stove,” exactly like a big sister would do.  She’s multi-tasking — frantically trying to teach her little siblings how they might feed themselves in case things get worse than they already are, at the same time that she’s afraid she really might not come back.

It’s about time we had a film that showed us true Southern poverty without turning its inhabitants into simplistic rubes or romantic Hollywood versions of “authentic.”  I even found myself entering into their own ways of thinking.  The characters speak of certain men in the Dolly family with a terrified reverence that verges on myth-making; but slowly one begins to realize that the women possess an equal if not superior capacity for brutality all the scarier because no such reverence for them exists.  Family pride is one place where they glean this power.  “I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered,” Ree spits at a bail bondsman looking to collect on the debt — and that pride is genuine, even if her family is the heart and soul of her problems.  There is no local color, and Lawrence never prettifies herself to ensure a career as the next Lindsay Lohan.  This film feels truer than that — and depending on its popularity, might well curb tourist traffic to the Ozarks for years to come.

And then there’s the music, which Granik uses throughout to jar us.  Acid metal blurts out of the house of her best friend, now married to a petty patriarch.  In another house, a group of old-timey bluegrass musicians play a couple of heartbreakingly lovely classic tunes — but by this time, that music seems so awfully out of touch with the grim realities of life in the Missouri mountains that we’re mostly struck by the disjuncture.  Even when Teardrop picks up a banjo and strums it with expert, if rusty, fingers (again, those beautiful hands of Hawkes’), the music comes from left field, always making you realize you don’t know what’s coming next.  (Apparently Hawkes has contributed to the forthcoming soundtrack with an instrumental called “Bred and Buttered.)  Best of all is a terrific sequence shot at a cattle auction, where Ree is overwhelmed by the sound of the cattle lowing, the auctioneer babbling, animals banging into metal cages.  It’s one of those extraordinary true moments onscreen — you have no idea how perfectly such sounds might capture her mood until you see it.

If there’s one thing that motivates everyone equally in Ree’s world, it’s talk.  Worse than Ree’s walkabout through the back woods to successively higher-ranked crystal meth dealers as she looks for her father is the resulting gossip about it.  At first Ree hopes that word will get around to her father so he’ll come back to help save the house, but it ends up serving the purpose of shaking the bad guys’ trees.  Her world hangs on the delicate balance of silence and reputation; thus, talk becomes a weapon far more effective than any other, and Dillahunt’s Sheriff Baskin knows this as well as any of the macho meth kingpins.  Not talking is a point of pride for Ree, but this is a political position that only makes sense in an environment where talk can destroy.

Granik keeps her eye on the ball.  Another director might pause for a romantic view of the hills or a charmingly dilapidated house, or insist that her characters voice those Southernisms that make a show like “Justified” so obviously designed for outsiders.  In contrast, Granik knows this is a film about focusing on the trees — the interpersonal politics and rules of a real community; even the characters’ accents aren’t overdone.  When the story really begins to cook into a thriller, you realize how fully you’ve begun to make sense of things on their terms.  This is her real accomplishment as a director: to avoid all the pitfalls of Southern stereotypes and Hollywood glamorizing of the rural.  Like Lawrence’s tight, perfect performance, Granik’s directing is unembellished while still jolting her viewers as she gradually reveals the truth of the tale.  The proof is in the storytelling, and Granik gets it.

Great film.  Go see it to get more attention for this little gem.