If a primary purpose of combat fiction is to remind us of the horrors of war, you couldn’t pick a more disturbing setting than the Democratic Republic of Congo. The conflict there has killed five million people, including unspeakable terrors of rape and torture.
It is in the DRC that Lynn Nottage sets her Pulitzer-winning 2009 play Ruined. It holds nothing back from the truth of war, displaying the most inhuman moments of evil and forcing us to confront people at their worst.
But it is a play that is, by design, not pessimistic. It’s not naive or simplistic, but it avoids the trap of pessimism so common to 21st century writers, especially Game of Thrones novelist George RR Martin. (I’ve written about his pessimism before.)
Nottage traveled to the DRC and Uganda with the theatre director Kate Whoriskey. They met women and men who had experienced war in its most hideous manifestations. They saw the psychological, emotional, familial, physical, and spiritual decimation caused by the fighting. They spoke with women whose bodies, minds, and souls had been violated and torn asunder.
And still Nottage wrote a story of hope.
Whoriskey says it perfectly in her introduction to the play:
She decided [...] in favor of a structure that was true to our experiences in Uganda. What struck both of us from our trip was that while there was incredible chaos in the region, this was home, and people were determined to survive and build lives here. When the media focuses attention on these areas, they often describe the violence, the poverty and the AIDS crisis. It is rare to hear the full story, the positive alongside the negative.
What was so rich about our trip is that we witnessed great beauty, strength and artistry.
[...] On a different trip to the region, Lynn spoke with a Rwandan about life after the genocide. He said to her, “We must fight to sustain the complexity.” This phrase became a mantra for creating the piece. We did not want to focus solely on the damage but also the hope. [...]
Lynn has the gift and genius for looking inside moments of profound disruption, witnessing the chaos, absorbing the psychic damage, and then synthesizing a narrative that shows us we are capable of so much more.
I find no hope in Game of Thrones. I find it to be a story utterly devoid of hope, committed primarily to stylistic innovation (of which it contains plenty) and audience manipulation (which, again, it does well). The fact that Martin cares very little about reflecting the hope we humans so desperately need proves (to me, at least) that he is unwilling to fight to sustain the complexity.
As a result, we don’t get the full story.
“Pessimism about man serves to maintain the status quo. It is a luxury for the affluent, a sop to the guilt of the politically inactive, a comfort to those who continue to enjoy the amenities of privilege.” — Leon Eisenberg
“All the pessimists in world history together are nothing against reality.” — Elias Canetti
“[A pessimist is] a man who thinks everybody as nasty as himself, and hates them for it.” — George Bernard Shaw
Note: I haven’t read the books. If you feel this disqualifies me from responding to the show, it’s probably best that you stop reading now. You will be missed.
Game of Thrones is the Human Centipede of fantasy epics in the 21st century. Both stories revel in the deplorable wretchedness of humans at their worst, without any viable mention of compassion, empathy, or conscience. Both stories work primarily to shock and revolt audiences, exploiting our emotions rather than digging into the deep soil of humanity.
There’s no question about the skill of Monsieur Martin (and the show’s writers) in creating complex characters, effective dialogue, and epic story arcs. My complaint is not with his skill with the tools of fiction writing; my complaint is with how he uses these tools.
There’s also no question about — and therefore hopefully no reason for me to discuss — the horrible brutality of GoT. We’re introduced to sympathetic characters and hopeful situations, only to watch them mutilated without mercy. Much has been written about the veneer of Schadenfreude that permeates Martin’s work, and many of his fans delight in watching newcomers cringe and squirm as good butchered by evil.
Responding to this phenomenon, Martin is quite clear. When asked by Entertainment Weekly if his books present a cynical view of human nature, he said:
I think the books are realistic. I’ve always liked gray characters. And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture?
A fair question, and I wish neither to argue to problem of evil from scratch, nor demand a theistic narrative paradigm. But Martin’s worldview as depicted in GoT is unrelentingly negative, and it is pessimistic. It pretends that compassion and empathy are statistically insignificant freaks of nature.
But this is not a full and fair accounting of reality, and I am tired of seeing hideous atrocities presented as the only “real” things, with the vast array of other human interaction derided as “unrealistic”.
To wit: Martin was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He worked with the VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America) program, part of Johnson’s War on Poverty. He clearly believed that there was a pathology in carpet-bombing thatched huts in Vietnam, and that he could do some good in refusing to fight.
So where are the conscientious objectors in Westeros? Why are there no scenes of compassion triumphing in small ways against hideous evil? I’m not calling for simplistic Pollyanna happiness, nor an idiotic deus ex machina to stop the wicked machinations of the Lannisters. But blood and suffering are the only “reality” we’re given. (A few tiny moments of romantic or motherly tenderness are inevitably bookmarked by elongated sequences of torture, rape, and murder.)
At the risk of repeating myself: Those horrible atrocities are not the full and fair reality of our world.
You cannot tell the story of the Santa Cruz massacre without mentioning Amy Goodman. You cannot tell the story of Black September without mentioning Marie Colvin. You cannot tell the story of Rwanda without mentioning Paul Rusesabagina. You cannot tell the story of the My Lai massacre without mentioning Hugh Thompson, Jr. And so on.
I’m not done with Game of Thrones, but I’m sick of its facile emotional exploitation. If a storyteller asks me to give up 30 hours of my life, I think I deserve a little more than crude manipulation and superficial reminders of how nasty people can be.
I finally watched the first Hunger Games movie last night, and unfortunately I was not impressed. Once again — as with Harry Potter, Twilight, and Divergent — I find myself somehow missing the enthusiasm and euphoria that so many people (especially my students) have for these stories.
My main gripe is conceptual: I don’t understand what the games have to do with keeping the districts from rebelling. If anything, watching some of their children get murdered seems to increase the likelihood of furious revolt. If spectacle is the point (as in Brave New World), where do gladiator-style deathmatches fit in? If brute force is the purpose (as in 1984), why bother with the elaborate process of drafting kids into postmodern murderball?
In the past when I complain about foundational bits like this (which make it impossible for me to suspend disbelief), I’ve been accused of “analyzing it too much” or clinging to other stories/series that I have emotional attachments to (usually because I found them in my youth). I guess I can’t deny these accusations, but I don’t think they make my problem invalid.
The story itself is fine. Don’t get me wrong — having pre-teens murder each other for public entertainment is great. The iconography of desperation and horrifying thrill of blood sport are well-depicted.
And, as Diane points out, Caithness is a hardcore kick-butt female lead (which is rare for Hollywood). I’m intrigued by the tension of pleasing people you hate in order to get sponsored, and by the Lord of the Flies-esque ruthlessness that shows up once all bets of civilization are off. (Not to mention the class conflict, the power of solidarity that emerges, and the stress of personal vs. family/social responsibility.) I did enjoy those bits enough to want to see future installments (which was not true of the Harry Potter books/films, after I consumed the first of each).
Some might say that I done goofed by only watching the movie, not reading the book. As an English teacher, I accept that films tend to skimp on the backstory and sociopolitical context. Maybe I will read the book(s) at some point. On the other hand, someone who didn’t care for the movie version of V for Vendetta for similar reasons would not hear from me a demand that s/he read the book. Yes, there’s more depth in the text (much more), but it’s not drastically different from the basic setup in the movie. I suspect the same is true of The Hunger Games.
I will also recognize several other factors contributing to my distaste for this project. First of all, I feel a deep kinship for a long line of dystopian literature (as the allusions above demonstrate). I’ve been a huge SF fan my whole life, and I suppose there’s some resentment in me that this series is so popular, while Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano languish in obscurity. Even Fallout 3 does a better job, in my opinion, of contrasting the opulence of wealth against the terrors of deprivation among the masses. (Of course these comments make me sound like an obnoxious hipster, which frustrates even me.)
I will also admit that I feel sad being unable to join the crowd of people who love a thing so popular. In the same way that I felt powerful joy during the heyday of The Simpsons because I actually fit in with people who liked that show, I — despite many appearances to the contrary — really do want to like things that other people like. I’d love to share the thrill of discussing this story. (In the same way that I get a big kick out of discussing The Wire with Chris. or Downton Abbey with Betsy.) The fact that I’m held back by a small (but urgent) flaw in the story’s setup makes me sad.
Finally I will confess to having awkward expectations here. I expected to find a postmodern Gladiator with kids, and that’s more or less what I got. That’s fine, but I wanted something more. And, just as with Harry Potter and Twilight, I can’t easily put aside the movie I want to simply appreciate the movie I have. I will point out that this is not an impossible task for me — when I first watched the SF film Moon, I wanted something bigger than the setup behind it all. But when all was said and done, I recognized that the movie itself was still great, regardless of the weird hopes/expectations that lurked in my head. I guess The Hunger Games just didn’t pull off the impression that Moon managed to achieve.
Sorry, fans! As I say, I wanted to like this more than I did. Maybe I’ll have a better opinion of Catching Fire.
EDIT: Laura Miller wrote a review in The New Yorker which makes exactly the same point as mine:
As a tool of practical propaganda, the games don’t make much sense. They lack that essential quality of the totalitarian spectacle: ideological coherence. You don’t demoralize and dehumanize a subject people by turning them into celebrities and coaching them on how to craft an appealing persona for a mass audience. (“Think of yourself among friends,” Katniss’s media handler urges.) Are the games a disciplinary measure or an extreme sporting event? A beauty pageant or an exercise in despotic terror? Given that the winning tribute’s district is “showered with prizes, largely consisting of food,” why isn’t it the poorer, hungrier districts that pool their resources to train Career Tributes, instead of the wealthier ones? And the practice of carrying off a population’s innocent children and commanding their parents to watch them be slaughtered for entertainment—wouldn’t that do more to provoke a rebellion than to head one off?
I can’t stop thinking about the horror and sadness in this story about three kids who killed a guy because they “were bored and didn’t have anything to do”. Obviously my heart goes out to his family, and I simply cannot imagine the grief and pain they’re going through.
And I also feel horrible for the kids who did this terrible thing, and what their families must be going through. They more or less ended their own lives on that day as well. As Wackle says in Rudy Rucker’s novel Spaceland, “Killing kills the killer.” (Of course their lives were probably pretty horrible before that fateful moment.)
It’s tempting to think about all of this as a post-modern phenomenon, something totally new and unique to our decrepit age. But I’m pretty certain that it’s not. There’s an important scene in the movie No Country for Old Men in which Bell and his Uncle Ellis discuss when Bell’s father was killed in a savage and horrible way. Ellis says:
What you got ain’t nothin new. This country is hard on people. Hard and crazy. Got the devil in it yet folks never seem to hold it to account.
(The conversation is a bit different in the novel, and contains an important story about Bell’s actions in the war.)
I’m also reminded of this comment made by the Chicago writer Nelson Algren, in an interview from 1963:
I think the trouble with American literature is it doesn’t know who it is. [...] American literature is the woman in the courtroom who, finding herself undefended on a charge, asked, “Isn’t anybody on my side?” It’s also the phrase I used that was once used in a court of a kid who, on being sentenced to death, said, “I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow.”
More recently I think American literature is also the fifteen-year-old who, after he had stabbed somebody, said, ‘Put me in the electric chair — my mother can watch me burn.’
Even more recently, American literature is a seventeen-year-old kid picked up on a double murder charge, two killings in a boat, in a ship off Miami, who said he was very glad it happened, he had absolutely no regrets, his only fear was that he might not get the electric chair. He had no vindictiveness toward those two people he killed. He said they were pretty good about it. They didn’t know, they had no idea, that he was going to come up with a knife. He had, in fact, a little bit of admiration for their coolness.
One of them, finding himself stabbed, said, “Why?” He wanted to know. He said, “I can’t tell them why.” But I know he’s been trying to get out of it since he’s six years old. This is an honors student, you understand, this is a bright boy from a respectable home. He never remembers a time when he wasn’t fully convinced that death was better than life. And now he was very contented, his only worry being that he might not get the electric chair. He’s afraid of that. That’s the only fear he has, that he might have to continue to live. I think that’s American literature.
American literature is The King and Duke selling Jim out in Huck Finn. It’s Cholly doing horrible things to his daughter in The Bluest Eye. It’s Bob Ewell doing horrible things to his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s Lenny killing things in Of Mice and Men. It’s the firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five.
I want to turn away from this sadness and horror, but I can’t. And I guess it’s a good thing. As Franz Kafka supposedly said:
You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.
Now I’m going to go do something for someone else, because that’s usually the best way to deal with this sort of thing.
A little something I made today. True story!