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Apocalypse and The Hunger Games

The final installment of The Hunger Games films (Mockingjay: Part Two) has been released. Amidst the acres of coverage about Jennifer Lawrence, the on-screen violence (is it appropriate for twelve year-olds?) and an apparently patchy and unconvincing ending, it is worth pausing to consider the apocalyptic nature of the franchise. Where does it stand within the current burgeoning landscape of popular cinematic apocalypticism, which ranges from mainstream classics such as The Seventh Seal (1957), Apocalypse Now (1979), and The Road (2009), blockbusters such as Independence Day (1996), 2012 (2009), and supposedly ‘kid-friendly’ apocalyptic films such as Disney’s WALL·E (2008), right through to Christian franchises such as The Left Behind films (2000-2005, 2014) and The Omega Code (1999 and 2000)?

The well-worn trope in the vast majority of these apocalyptic films is a vision of a dystopian landscape following some catastrophe—natural, man-made, or both—populated by a small band of plucky or not-so plucky survivors fighting against all odds. The most notable exception to this general rule is the explicitly Christian Left Behind series, though even that dwells far more on the tribulations undergone by its characters than on the promise of redemption. In this respect, The Hunger Games books and films are no exception. They are set in Panem, a fictionalised country that bears striking resemblance in many ways to North America, a century or more into the future. Panem is governed by President Snow and his evil acolytes from the safety of the technologically advanced, flashy Capitol while the rest of the population endures a primitive existence in semi-rural conditions. Heroine Katniss Everdeen, after being coerced into participating in the eponymous “Hunger Games” as her District’s tribute to the shadowy powers in the Capitol (which itself has its origins in the ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur), becomes a powerful symbol of resistance. In the final installment of the film series, the evil powers appear to be defeated but a degree of uncertainty and sense of insecurity remain.

There are certainly strong apocalyptic themes here, including but not limited to a binary opposition between good and evil, the idea of evil masquerading as “good” and sophisticated, and a time of escalating tribulation, as well as a strong theme of martyrdom. All of these ideas have their origins in the ultimate apocalyptic text, the biblical Book of Revelation, as well its Jewish antecedents. However, just as important as the depictions of disasters and battles in the Book of Revelation is the coming of the New Jerusalem (for believers at least). Even more, the pivotal figure in Revelation is Christ represented as The Lamb of God, a willing victim whose self-sacrifice enables the old order to be definitively overturned.

Therefore, in narratives like The Hunger Games, what we are presented with is a bizarre fusion of some of the key features of the apocalyptic with post-modernist views—a world in which evil is defeated (but not necessarily definitively) and “good” characters are imbued with seemingly divine goodness (and a Teflon-like ability to avoid death) whilst remaining resolutely human in other respects.

This typically contemporary take on apocalypse may be more realistic in some sense, but it is not apocalyptic in the original biblical understanding of the term. Within the pantheon of contemporary apocalyptic cinema, The Hunger Games franchise therefore stands firmly within the mainstream trend of what should more properly be called “apocalyptic revisionism.”

Image Credit: “Hunger Games” by Mike Mozart. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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The life and work of Émile Zola

To celebrate the new BBC Radio Four adaptation of the French writer Émile Zola’s, ‘Rougon-Macquart’ cycle, we have looked at the extraordinary life and work of one of the great nineteenth century novelists.

Born in Paris in 1840, Zola lived through periods of dire poverty, great wealth, fame and latterly, a different kind of fame due to his influential intervention in the Dreyfus affair. A leading figure of the naturalist movement, Zola’s ‘Rougon-Macquart’ cycle of twenty novels follows two very different branches of a the same family tree set during the Second Empire. The novels explore the themes of heredity and environment with a wide range of characters and milieus, exposing all aspects of contemporary nineteenth century French society.

Featured image credit: Letters by wilhei. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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Going to the pictures with Shakespeare

Not so long ago, we ‘went to the pictures’ (or ‘the movies’) and now they tend to come to us. For many people, visiting a cinema to see films is no longer their principal means of access to the work of film-makers. But however we see them, it’s the seeing as much as the hearing of Shakespeare in this medium that counts. Or rather, it’s the interplay between the two.

Some Shakespeare films appeal directly to the kinship between cinema-going and the live theatre. Olivier’s Henry V (1944) begins in an Elizabethan theatre, involving both a historical period and the viewers’ sense of themselves as an audience — the effect doubly appropriate in a film made in wartime, asserting the values of communal spirit and shared emotions. His Hamlet (1948) begins with an overture – a device used for ‘event’ films since the advent of sound — and the image of theatrical paraphernalia, and although it moves beyond this frame, the architecture of its sets suggests on a magnified scale the kind of spaces created in the theatre with the adaptable steps, rostra, and archways of the ‘unit’ set common in the middle of the last century.

Liberation from the studio – the movement outdoors for Olivier’s Battle of Agincourt – is what marks Henry V as a particular kind of cinema, whilst Hamlet remains a handsome, elegiac but almost entirely indoors affair. That claustrophobia is an important element of Olivier’s psychology-centered interpretation of the play, where there is no Fortinbras and no political context, whereas in the Russian director Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 Hamlet we see Elsinore in daylight, as a busy military and administrative machine in a landscape. This widens the scope of the play, supporting the view of a tragedy of a society and not simply of an individual and his associates.

This suggests one of the important advantages the film can have over the theatre. Not only can the camera bring us close into the faces of the actors, it can also show us with greater effect the world beyond and around them. Film-makers can use Shakespeare’s dialogue to great effect, but usually need relatively little of it.

The pictures we are shown in Shakespeare films can haunt our imagination; the delivery of the lines often has less impact. Think of the death of Washizu, the Macbeth figure in Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), grimacing in dismay and agony as he is skewered by the arrows of his own men; or the relentless, mud-churning battle of Shrewsbury in Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1964); or the spectacular death-fall of Ian McKellen as the anti-hero of Richard Loncraine’s 1996 Richard III.

Charlton Heston as Antony, 1950. Photo by Chalmers Butterfield (via Sba2 at English Wikipedia). CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Now try to identify a sound-byte from these films that has stayed with you. In the case of the Japanese film, it’s probably the eerie music and silence of the scene leading to the murder of the ‘Lord’ and the swishing sound of the kimono of Washizu’s wife as she goes to fetch the drugged sake from a closet. With Welles’s film, as with his others, it’s probably the sound of the actor-director’s voice as much as anything he actually says. In McKellen’s performance, it’s the incisiveness of that first soliloquy, though it is made memorable in cinematic terms by the novelty of being delivered partly from the stage of a ballroom and partly in a gents’ lavatory.

In each of these cases – and we could multiply them from many other films – the pictures live alongside the words, not simply when they illustrate an event (such as a battle or a storm) that cannot be presented as fully on stage, but more generally because these sights, welded to the spoken dialogue, are more often than not the main reason why we go to the pictures. But now turn the argument round; the pictures have to grow out of the words, and however few of them the script uses (usually no more than 25 or 30%), they are the ultimate source of vitality. In some cases, such as Olivier’s mesmerizing performance as Richard III in his 1955 film, it is the actor’s personal performance that gives them a centrality unusual in the cinema. Kenneth Branagh’s epic Hamlet, with its claim to present the whole of the text, has an extraordinary variety and clarity of interpretation through speech as well as imagery. In another mode, the versions of Much Ado About Nothing by Branagh (1993) and Joss Whedon (2013) achieve the intimate comedy of relationships that we find in the screwball comedies of the 1930s.

Moreover, the language animates many films that take off from Shakespeare but have no claim to deliver the play itself, such as Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (the two parts of Henry IV), Tim Blake Nelson’s O (Othello), or even Gnomeo and Juliet (Shakespeare’s tragedy, the garden gnome version). The secret lies in that dynamic relationship between dialogue and image, and the effect of both in inspiring and giving vitality to that imaginative quality we can call the vision of a film.

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Film-makers choices in adapting Richard II

The start of a film version of a Shakespeare play offers a pretty good clue to the nature of the adaptation. So how, for instance, does Richard II begin? In one sense it begins like this:



Nobles and attendants.

(Q1, 1597, A2r)

Which is perhaps not too radically different from beginning like this:

Actus Primus, Scæna Prima

Enter King Richard, John of Gaunt, with other Nobles and Attendants.

(F1, 1623, b6r)

On stage, any number of events can mark the start. I cannot help but think particularly of Sam West as Richard (RSC, The Other Place, 2000, directed by Stephen Pimlott) sitting on the coffin that, at the production’s end would hold his body, reading a speech (usually from the prison scene) before deciding whether to turn, mount the stairs to the throne, commit to the evening’s performance and to being King, and, when he had committed, the house lights cut out and the stage lights crashed on. Or of Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1973, directed by John Barton), leading lines of actors onto the stage, summoned by a figure dressed as Shakespeare and, as they held aloft between them a crown and a mask, he nodded at the one who would play Richard that night and the actors began to dress for the performance. These two stage productions are seared into my memory so that I cannot read or think about the play without their coming to mind. Neither begins as Q1 begins. Each defines its approach through these pre-dialogue moments. Each uses actors and, in Pimlott’s case, simple and necessary props to create that definition.

And on screen? It might begin with a slow tracking shot across a wooden ceiling in an astonishing medieval building, down across a beautiful crucifix and then a tapestry and finally to a throne with Richard in it, impassive, holding orb and scepter, before a rapid full reverse to a shot of dozens of courtiers looking back at him. The opening shot lasts 50 seconds, while a voice-over, Richard’s we might assume, close-miked and intimate, almost whispering, certainly not located in the acoustic of the vast space we are looking at, speaks lines that, for those who do not know the play, will prove to come from much later on:

Let’s talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs,
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings –
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed –
All murdered. (3.2.145, 147, 155-60)

If we know the play very well, we might note that the speech has been cut, sixteen lines down to eight, and that the third line has been truncated by removing “For God’s sake,” leaving this wondrous line of eight monosyllables and one dissyllable oddly short of three of them. This is the opening of Richard II as a film for television, directed by Rupert Goold, made as part of The Hollow Crown, four films covering the second tetralogy, released in 2012.

‘9’ by Kirill Proskurin. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Or it might begin with a strong, perhaps even startling, overhead shot, looking straight down at a woman, hunched down beside a draped coffin, her arm stretched out over it, clearly in grief. Before the camera moves back and down, we hear the sound of feet, and people start to come into shot, taking up formal positions behind and beside the coffin, while projections on to the curtains of thin chains behind them create the image of a grand medieval interior but which the foreground revealed as a thrust stage with audience members either side of it. The shot lasts a long 80 seconds, with no dialogue, only the sound of three angelic women’s voices, accompanied by a solo trumpet, the singers seen in the gallery. Finally it cuts to a medium shot of the two old men, one either side of the coffin, one in tears, grief-stricken, the other patting the mourning woman’s arm comfortingly. This is the opening of Richard II as a live relay of the RSC’s 2013 production by Gregory Doran, transmitted to cinemas on 13 November 2013, a month into the production’s run, and subsequently released as a DVD.

Two very different and equally arresting openings. One uses a chunk of text to define the production’s sense of the key moment, visual imagery to define historical moment, the presence of the crucifix to foreshadow its interest in Richard as Christ or as Saint Sebastian, and an edit and the locational distance to mark Richard’s separation from his court. The other makes us overwhelmingly aware of grief, of mystery (who is in the coffin?), of a space at once ecclesiastical and political (actually evoking Westminster Hall), and also a space that is a stage in a theatre with an audience present, not a location shoot for a film. Both openings make us want to watch and listen and consider and think. Two invitations to engage with Shakespeare on screen.

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Spectre and Bond do the damage

Ian Fleming and his scriptwriting clones have trailed clouds of British glory. By creating an image of undercover British omnipotence they covered up the impotence of a declining power. Spinning clandestine myths, they told porkies in plain daylight about an empire of influence that no longer existed.

The durable Bond is back once more in Spectre. Little has changed and there has even been reversion. M has come back, morphed into a man, Judi Dench giving way to Ralph Fiennes. 007 still works miracles, and not the least of these is financial – Pinewood Studios hope for another blockbuster movie. Hollywood: roll over and die.

That exhortation is cousin to a connected urge to compete with America’s spies for the prize of fame. Lancing with his pen, John Le Carré was dismissive of what he portrayed as America’s intelligence parvenus. Just at the time when it became plain that the Cambridge spy ring had wrought havoc, he shouted out the improbable message that we were the best. Graham Greene had already written The Quiet American explaining how terrible those CIA people were. The Bond fictions are a populist version of the same prejudice. Ian Fleming, their author, cultivated the American market, yet his CIA character Felix Leiter is no more than a 007 sidekick, rather like Holmes’s Dr Watson (acted by an American female, Lucy Liu, in the CBS adaptation Elementary).

Fleming was just being nationalistically British. He was not anti-American and meant no harm to America, a nation to which he had every cause to feel commercially grateful. Yet by accident, he and his imperial hubris visited three misfortunes on the United States.

Image: Ian Fleming and Sean Connery, via Scio School Central. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.
Image: Ian Fleming and Sean Connery, via Scio School Central. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

He invented the CIA – or so he said. The too literally minded might be tempted to take him at his word. For he did, when a wartime aide to Admiral John Godfrey of Naval Intelligence, draft a memo recommending stronger central coordination of US intelligence – and ultimately the CIA materialized in 1947. Fleming was an obscure and junior officer at the time, and much more important people and causes were behind the creation of the CIA. But he contributed to a pernicious myth, that the British, trailing those old familiar clouds of glory, had come to rescue a nation that had almost criminally neglected to equip itself with an appropriate intelligence apparatus. Certain US intelligence expansionists have been feeding on that myth ever since, valuing quantity over quality and allowing themselves to be deluded into the Bondian belief that an intelligence agency should behave like a mob of gangsters.

Then there was the notorious aftermath of Fleming’s dinner with Senator John F. Kennedy on 13 March 1960. Cultivating his ‘cool’ image, Presidential candidate Kennedy had publicly professed himself to be a Bond fan. He now asked Fleming, what would Bond have done about the troublesome Fidel Castro? Fleming rattled off some exotic ways of liquidating the Cuban president, adding that the administration of a depilatory drug might strip the revolutionary of his machismo by making his beard fall out. Though he may have enjoyed dispensing imperial advice, our author was also trying to amuse. Unfortunately there was a humourless guest at the dinner party. The CIA’s John Gross hastened to brief his boss, director Allen Dulles, what Kennedy would require if elected. In the course of Kennedy’s presidency the hapless agency duly tried out the beard trick, the exploding clamshell, the poisoned cigar, all to no avail and to the long-term detriment of American-Cuban relations.

As if this were not enough, Fleming can be blamed for Watergate. Jealous of James Bond’s fame, future CIA director Richard Helms got hold of a CIA operative with a track record of operational incompetence, and asked him to invent an American 007. E. Howard Hunt had already written a pulp novella, Bimini Run, a kind of poor man’s preview of Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. Wishing to make himself useful he now entered the realm of pop spy fiction and, using the pen name David St. John, wrote the Peter Ward series of spy novels. Though the result was uniformly awful, the exercise kept Hunt on the horizon of potential employers. He became a leading “Plumber” in the criminal gang hired by President Nixon to burgle the Democratic Party’s office in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. That and the ensuing cover-up and presidential resignation were an endnote to the Bond glory-story.

Poor old MI6 and Ian Fleming. Cuddly bears to our Soviet rivals, accidental liabilities to our American friends. But that’s not our dreamland. Come movie-time at least, we remain in happy Bondage.

Featured image credit: MI6 Vauxhall Cross, by Ewan Munro. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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