four Hunger Games movies (2012-2015)

They made the three Hunger Games books into four movies, which I watched over a week or so with halfhearted interest. This is a brief review, but tldr: the books are better.

It was neat to see the characters brought alive onscreen. The visual interest of the Capital and its weird denizens was not, I think, exploited to its potential, but it was still worth seeing. And I confess I am as susceptible as anyone to the appeal of seeing the young love play out live-and-in-person (sort of). I was disappointed with the casting of Peeta’s character at first, but he won me over. Gale just looked old – too old for the character’s age – like, as usual, they picked a 30-year-old to play a 17-year-old. (Turns out Liam Hemsworth was 22 when the first movie came out, but this was my reaction.) Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss felt a little unconvincing; or maybe the acting in the final two movies (when her character is herself failing as an actor in the Mockingjay role) was a little too good? Most of my impressions can be summed up as ‘meh.’ The biggest problem, of course, is the one consistent with book-to-movie adaptations: they couldn’t fit the story and all its nuance, backstory, character motivation, interiority, etc. into this format. The movies failed to develop the history of Panem and of Katniss’s own family; they cut too many minor but instructive sideplots; minor characters were underdeveloped (Cinna!!) or missing; and Katniss’s thoughts and feelings, which make her human and complicated and conflicted, were entirely lost. I understand the challenge. It’s hard to do thoughts and feelings without straight narration, which comes with issues and dragginess of its own. But I thought a lot of what was best about Collins’s novels was missing from these films. I can see the appeal, and note I watched all four movies. But I watched them with about 65% of my attention. I think my recommendation would be to just stick to the books.

Anybody read the new prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes yet? Reviews are indifferent; not sure I’ll bother. Oh, well. The trilogy’s pretty great!

Rating: 5 meals.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I took a few days off, but that was all I could stand before returning to book 3 of this compelling series. As I wrote the other day, this review will contain spoilers for the first two books but not for this one.

Following the events of Catching Fire, Katniss learns that District 12 was burned by the Capitol, and the surviving residents – including Katniss’s mother and sister, Gale and his family – were taken in by 13. We thought 13 no longer existed, after the way-back-then uprising, but it was all a hoax; in fact, 13 moved (literally) underground, where Katniss and her family now dwell as well, following her airlift rescue from the most recent Games. She’s having trouble adjusting to the highly regimented, militarized society and the claustrophobic setting. She’s been reunited with Gale, but separated from Peeta – he was captured by the Capitol, and we can just imagine the terrible torture he’s undergoing. As the book opens, Katniss is still trying to recover from a concussion and also to decide whether she will agree to serve as Mockingjay, sort of a figurehead symbol of rebellion, in propaganda videos. Thirteen’s social order is ill suited to this surly teenager’s disposition, and being a figurehead does not necessarily come naturally, but she gives it a try.

Of course, it does not suit the series for Katniss to serve as mere symbol, and she’ll end up back in some real action soon enough. The love triangle continues with a fascinating new twist.

This book included some satisfying combat sequences, and some engaging new characters, as well as the development of (for instance) Finnick Odair. I am intrigued by the questions about what the next version of this world could look like: if the uprising is successful in tearing down the social structures we know, what will we put in their place? It’s much easier to criticize existing worlds than to build decent new ones from scratch. When I encounter dystopian stories, this is always the part that fascinates me the most, I think. So in this way, I appreciated that the series continues with the zoomed-out perspective I mentioned when reviewing Catching Fire.

But on the other hand, I yearned for a little more of Katniss’s love triangle – feelings, discussions of feelings, and, well, action… I guess a young adult novel can only take romance so far! I’m pretty satisfied with how things turned out, but I think I could have used more of Katniss’s internal workings throughout this story. She’s pretty bound up inside, and it’s probably realistic that she’d have been so unclear on her own feelings, but I wish we could have felt a little more of her emotional life.

The theme throughout the series of the blurred line between reality and reality television is brought forward a touch in this story, where a central character gets extra-confused and must ask repeatedly, “Real or not real?” This feels like the literalization of larger concerns throughout, and while it could have been heavy-handed, it’s not. It’s poignant, and serves as reminder that this is the real problem with so much of this world (and of our own).

My opinion of Collins’s prose remains: mostly it’s serviceable and effective enough, but there are just occasional hilarious flubs. I chuckled at “Boggs does emergency first aid on people to hold them until we get back.” He “does first aid”? What does that look like? On “people”? That’s some lazy writing, y’all. But of course this line is just a placeholder meant to move us on to what we care about, which is what Katniss does next. I picture the author sort of waving her hand – “people do things, and then Katniss…” But these moments do crack me up.

Looking back on the series, I don’t think there’s much question that book one, The Hunger Games, is the best one, where we meet and learn to care about the key characters, and are introduced to the enthralling world of the Games. You need all three to see the story through, though. And my mild criticisms aside, the series is a feat. I rarely feel compelled to read all day and into the night without looking up, and Collins had me riveted, so hat’s off. This is a hell of an imaginative, gripping story, whose details will I think continue to haunt me. I believe I’ll try and see the movies. Worth every minute spent, and highly recommended – especially for younger readers.

Rating: 7 bowls of mushy beets.

As I write this review, a prequel by Suzanne Collins titled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is forthcoming; it will be available when this post goes live. Head’s up, Hunger Games fans!

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

I didn’t even pause between The Hunger Games and this book 2 in the series. Hmm… I don’t guess I can do this without spoilers from book 1, but I’ll keep them general. (No spoilers for book 2.) Stop here if you want to read these books blind (which you should, if you’ve avoided them this long).

Katniss and Peeta have returned home from the Games to find what every big-time lottery winner knows: fame and fortune do not, in fact, solve everything. And they have their decidedly unclear relationship to navigate. Katniss, unsurprisingly, just opts out of that complicated task and avoids Peeta entirely; she’d like to patch things up with Gale somehow but hasn’t the first clue where to begin. Meantime, the districts are likewise grumbling and unsettled; it seems that without meaning to, Katniss stirred up some tendencies toward rebellion with the way she finished the Games. Now she’s got some bigwigs out to get her if she can’t figure out how to put things back together. As a hero, Katniss is both impressive and frustrating; she’s a badass, but not very self-aware, and she’s a typical teen in that she can’t begin to see herself as others see her, let alone boys. Her bluster and bumbling can be trying, but we love her, and we clearly have no choice but to root for her. Because, yes, the Games are back – she and Peeta end up back in a new arena with other past victors in an unprecedented all-star-game event. Strange to say, because they’re always a fight to the death, but somehow the stakes are even higher this time.

I noted, again, the importance of appearances, of playing to the camera, and therefore (especially for someone like Katniss, for whom motives and desires were already muddied by adolescence), it’s really difficult to tell what anyone really thinks or feels, to figure out their truest emotions and motivations. What is truth and what is a lie? Which of several versions is the true one? For me, the most important metaphor of these books is the idea of duplicity and deception and performance for an invisible but all-important audience. It’s quite disturbing – which is a compliment to these novels.

This installment did feel like a sequel, and in fact like the middle book in a trilogy: it relies heavily on what came before and leads directly into whatever it is that comes after. I appreciated a little bit of character development (particularly with Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta’s drunken mentor and former Games victor), and the details and complexity of the arena were cool. But this book had nothing amazing to contribute that wasn’t there in book 1; it’s really just a continuation.

That said, I do appreciate the zooming-out of focus. Where The Hunger Games centered on Katniss, her own survival, and her budding romance(s) and love triangle, Catching Fire widens the lens angle to take in the plight of all 12 districts (or are there 13?) in relation to the Capitol. Katniss has more to worry about than her boyfriends now. As we head into book 3, I’m looking forward to more of this wider world and the idea of revolution.

Rating: 7 o’clock.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My 8th-grade book-talks buddy had me read chapter 3 for one of our weekly discussions, and that was that. Two days later I read this whole book and most of book 2 in the series in a single lazy day.

A few qualifications first and then I’ll just rave: Collins’s writing can occasionally be a bit awkward, syntactically speaking. A handful of times I noticed her phoning in some of the details so as to move on with the action. The writing style overall ran toward the simple (which I suspect is just a feature of YA, keeping it easy for younger readers), which I guess I noticed coming from often more convoluted styles; but there’s nothing wrong with simple when it’s clean and effective, which this writing almost always is.

And there’s no question that this is a compelling plot. I was quickly absorbed in the world of District 12, the last of the twelve districts of Panem that serve the Capitol, a city of riches and leisure built on suffering and privation. Panem was formed from the former United States, and District 12 was once Appalachia; its main contribution to Panem’s wealth is coal mining, which has gone on here for many hundreds of years, “which is why our miners have to dig so deep.” The main action is the Hunger Games themselves, an annual fight-to-the-death, survivalist, reality-show-entertainment, punishment-for-rebellion event the Capitol inflicts upon the districts. Each district provides two tributes each year, a boy and a girl, ages 12-18. These 24 teens are thrown into an arena (designed by the Gamekeepers) until only one emerges. The whole thing is televised in fine detail; when things get dull, the Gamekeepers spice them up with extra challenges, manufactured “wild” animals, “natural” disasters, and the like.

Note the conflation of “reality television” with the battle royale. Violence as entertainment (for the Capitol) and violence-as-entertainment as cautionary tale (for the districts, a repeat of whose long-ago uprising these Games are meant to deter). There is some level of metaphor and real-world commentary available here for those looking out. I think most pointedly, the reader is never allowed to forget that these are games, and that there is an audience to play for. Tributes can be supported during the Games by gifts from sponsors, dropped by parachute; they’re motivated to play for the cameras, appeal to prospective sponsors and be likeable for the Gamekeepers, who have the power to skew things toward life or death.

If Collins’s sentence-level writing is not the finest I’ve read lately, her imagination and execution are excellent. The world of Panem and the Games, the drama and spectacle, and her characters are completely engaging. Our first-person narrator and hero is Katniss, who’s been supporting her mother and younger sister since she was 12 years old. Her fellow tribute in these Games is local baker’s son Peeta, with whom her relationship will be complicated. She must leave behind not only the beloved younger sister but her hunting buddy and possible budding romantic interest Gale. Some of the staffers who make up the workings of the Games will become personalities of interest, as well. The worldbuilding is solid, as are both plot and character development. Pacing and suspense are expert; again, I raced through this book in part of a day and then rolled straight into book 2.

I’m very impressed, frankly, and reminded that we shouldn’t undersell YA. I love being absorbed into a new world – even a dystopian one. And I can’t wait to find out what comes next.

Rating: 8 grooslings.

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty

The heavy questions about death and dead bodies are answered with honesty and hilarity by the creator of the webseries “Ask a Mortician,” for children and adults.

Caitlin Doughty wrote Smoke Gets in Your Eyes to share what she’s learned about the mortuary business and, more importantly, about death, with adult readers. Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death is a delightful follow-up and expansion on that project, aimed at younger readers but absolutely for adults as well. Doughty’s continuing experience in the business (from crematory operator to mortuary owner, with a degree in mortuary science) means her expertise has grown. Her sense of humor and fun when approaching topics often considered morbid, however, is her most valuable contribution.

“Every question in this book is 100 percent ethically sourced (free range organic) from a real live child.” And children do ask “the most distinctive, delightful questions”: We eat dead chickens, why not dead people? Can we give Grandma a Viking funeral? What would happen if you died on a plane?

Doughty’s answers are as delightful and distinctive as the questions. She blends humor with respect for the dead, joking around but repeatedly reminding her readers that it’s never okay to do something with a person’s remains that they wouldn’t have liked. (“Did Grandma want a Viking funeral?”) Her investigations of ritual, custom, law and science are thorough, and she doesn’t shy from naming the parts of Grandma’s body that might leak after she is gone. She uses big words sometimes, but explains what they mean; she keeps her explanations simple enough for younger readers, but there are asides for grown-ups, too, including references to Justin Timberlake and vinyl records that she winkingly tells the kids to ignore.

Can I preserve my dead body in amber like a prehistoric insect? First of all, Doughty is on to us: she knows this is really a question about being brought back to life, √† la Jurassic Park, and she informs the reader that a second species will be required to graft that DNA onto. “Hybrid panther humans of the future! (This is made up, it’s not going to happen–don’t listen to me, I’m just a mortician.)” As for the title question, Doughty begins: “No, your cat won’t eat your eyeballs. Not right away, at least.” (Spoiler alert: “Snickers is more likely to go for the tongue,” but only out of necessity, or maybe because he’s trying to wake you up.) Will I poop when I die? “You might poop when you die. Fun, right?” This irreverent voice is winning, and pitch-perfect for her younger audience, but, honestly, adults need a little humor as well when considering “postmortem poo.”

Diann√© Ruz’s accompanying images keep the same tone of playful but plainspoken discussion. “Don’t let anyone tell you your curiosity about death is ‘morbid’ or ‘weird,’ ” Doughty reminds readers. If they try to say so, “it’s likely they’re scared of the topic themselves.” This informative, forthright, comical guide to bodies after death is just the antidote–and surprisingly great fun as well.

This review originally ran in the August 12, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 gallons of unpopped popcorn.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton

What a very special treat. Thank you, Julie, for this gift.

I loved this book as a child, the series in fact, and I remember that my mother blamed the small missing items in our household on the Borrowers. They are a part of my childhood mythology. As I type these words, I have only just lost a low-ankled white sock in the wash, and am hoping it will still turn up, but maybe I have Borrowers now.

This is a children’s book, I’m thinking grade school ages, and I don’t read a ton of books of this sort; I wonder if I’d appreciate it as much if I approached it as an adult without memories… but what a charming and comforting book I find it now. The Borrowers are a little people (the patriarch is “about as tall as a pencil”) who live in the floors and walls and hidden spaces of the big houses that belong to the “human beans.” They have a society of their own, and it is part of their worldview that the human beans exist to serve the Borrowers, who make a living by “borrowing” from the beans (Not stealing! because the human beans exist just for this purpose). Pod, the father, makes button-boots out of kid gloves. Homily, the mother, is very proud of her sitting room wallpaper (scraps of letters out of waste-paper baskets), and carpet (blotting paper). And Arietty, our protagonist, their fourteen-year-old daughter, sleeps in a bedroom made of two cigar boxes. The family has postage stamps hung on their walls, like paintings. They eat tiny scraps and sips of the human beans’ meals: leftovers, if you will.

The story was familiar to me, but the fine details pleased me all over again. Pod borrows, Homily frets, and Arietty dreams. The child has lived her whole life beneath a floor, and yearns for a wider world. But when she gets access to it, she gets closer to the human beans than any Borrower should, and this threatens the safety of everyone she loves. There is danger, rising action, and a moment of truth: will the human beans turn out to mean ruin, or salvation? Is it better after all to live beneath the floor, or venture out?

The frame for this story, sort of like in The NeverEnding Story or The Princess Bride, takes up little enough room at the start that we almost forget about it by the time we return to it: a young girl named Kate sews with an elderly relation, Mrs. May, while the latter relates the events, of how Arietty and her family got into such a pickle, and what might have become of them. This allows for some lovely remarks on the nature of story-telling. As this young girl protests the uncertainties:

‘Kate,’ she said after a moment, ‘stories never really end. They can go on and on and on. It’s just that sometimes, at a certain point, one stops telling them.’

‘But not at this kind of point,’ said Kate.

And fair enough, Kate, no one likes to be left hanging. That’s why there are sequels: this is in fact a series of five books. Realistically, you know I’m not going to get to the others any time soon, but as I closed the covers of this much-loved book, I wanted to jump straight into the next one. There’s nothing like a parallel world to spark the imagination.

Rating: for its age group, 9 safety pins.

movie: A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

I’m so glad I went to see this new Disney film of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel. It was admittedly not a perfect translation of the book into movie form, but that’s often just not possible, especially in a sci fi story like this one; it can be hard to not expect perfect reproduction when we love a book, but adjusting expectations is an important part of enjoying the movie version. There’s a reason they call it adaptation.

It’s been a few years since I reread the book, and I thought this site did a decent job of summing up some of the book-to-movie changes. I appreciated the modernizing details, including Mrs. Who’s quotations, the awesome soundtrack, and the general setting. I also count it as a modernizing detail that the Murrys became a multiracial family. Storm Reid was an absolutely inspired casting choice. This is a visually stunning movie, with resources clearly invested in costumes and colorful CGI; and the actors are all gorgeous people to boot. (The multiracial cast has made this more a story for everyone than it used to be, but it’s still a story of beautiful people, even if they’re now beautiful people of a range of skin tones.) Eye candy, without a doubt. And a star-studded cast: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis!

My personal memory, or shall we say impressions, from the novel (and it’s been a while) involved more math and science than came into play in the film. As the Den of Geek’s reviewer noted, Meg was more of a nerd in the original. And I’d count this change as a real loss: to glorify nerds is a noble aim. I did love that she had to use her faults, had to refer to her own shortcomings in order to overcome a challenge. On the other hand, appealing to the love of another as her salvation, rather than loving herself, felt like a slightly less positive message for young girls (which I do read as partly the aim of the story, in either form).

Visually beautiful, enjoyable, uplifting, fun, and feel-good. Totally worth taking your sons and daughters to go see. And for that matter, take yourself: I went to a nighttime showing and we were all adults there, and that’s totally worthwhile, too.

I still need to get back to the rest of the Time Quintet.

Rating: 8 intricate braids.

books for children

There are no babies in the household or extended biological family of pagesofjulia, but when I considered getting rid of my own baby/children’s books years ago, upon some move, my friend Liz protested. She told me that one day I would know babies, and I would wish I had books for them. And she has been right, again. Thanks, Liz.

I’ve been visiting with a baby recently, a family friend, a sweet little brown-eyed three-year-old who mostly remains quiet when I’m around but I’m told asks about me when I’m not. For her, for a recent visit, I dug out these four books which had been mine when I was small.

Giant Treasury of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Mog the Forgetful Cat by Judith Kerr

The Patchwork Cat by William Mayne, illus. by Nicola Bayley

The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and Her Dog by Tomie dePaola

It sort of tickled me to observe that these were all about animals.

And for the coming holidays, I have these two in hand for the same little girl:

Claude the Dog: A Christmas Story, words and pictures by Dick Gackenbach

Madeline’s Christmas by Ludwig Bemelmans

Several years ago I passed on a few classics to a friend’s new son, who is now going on five years old.

The Legend of the Bluebonnet: An Old Tale of Texas retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola

The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush retold and illustrated by Tomie dePaola

And, I’ve just bought some board books for a baby friend for the holidays:

A Pocket for Corduroy by Don Freeman

Caldecott winner The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

Baby Touch and Feel: Animals

The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter

Baby Faces

These all in board book format, because this baby with her sticking-up hair is barely nine months old. I also got her an autographed copy of Katie Fallon’s Look, See the Bird!, but I know she won’t be ready for that one for a while.

Look, See the Bird! by Bill Wilson and Katie Fallon, illus. by Leigh Anne Carter

All of this is out of my comfort zone as a book reviewer, as babies are themselves out of my comfort zone, but it feels good to make some effort to pass on what I love and to help these parents out.

I confess I’m charmed by looking for the books I myself enjoyed as a child, rather than the new stuff. But then I come across an article like this one and am excited all over again. Of course I must link here as well to Shelf Awareness’s children’s gift book issue, for those searching for more recent titles – my children’s book review colleagues at the Shelf do such a swell job. Maybe next year I’ll do a better job of taking their advice!

What have you learned, as parents or just friends of parents, about books and gift-giving outside of your own comfort zones? Have any books to recommend for babies or small people?

NBC’s The Wiz Live! (2015)

I missed round one, but got to see NBC’s encore showing of the remake of The Wiz, a 1974 retelling in turn of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, set in an urban and African-American cultural context. It has been much talked about and enjoyed, and I’d heard a little bit about Shanice Williams, who plays Dorothy: she’s just 19 and has never been involved in anything this big before, which is its own underdog story. And who doesn’t love that story?


First, let me admit that I am unfamiliar with the 1974 show (though pretty familiar with the 1900 original), so I can make no comparisons there. I approached this as a happily enjoyable, entertaining remake on a well-loved classic, with a twist, and with a young new star. It was all of those things. There were some changes made for the stage – like, Toto is only present in the opening and closing scenes, in Kansas, and doesn’t make it to Oz. I guess it was too hard to get a dog’s cooperation for the whole. The journey from the house-dropping scene in Munchkinland to the Emerald City was much compressed, and I was sorry about that. The magical slippers are returned to silver, which is how L. Frank Baum wrote them, rather than Hollywood’s red. There was a new mini-storyline, wherein Dorothy is actually from Omaha, only recently living with Aunt Em after her parents’ deaths. Thus, in her searching for home she has to parse which of these places really is home, which I thought was a nice addition for depth, and which I identified with personally, too. The original story is very much about a concept of home, but even more complexly so in this rendition. I approve. Oh, and of course: the Wiz is a woman this time around! “His” false public character is still male, but the ballooned-in accident from Omaha is female. I found this a welcome twist.

Overall it was far from a flawed performance, though. There were some rough spots: imperfect synchronization of effects, the Wiz tripping on “his” robe. Though star-studded, the acting was a little uneven. I thought the Tin Man (Ne-Yo) was genius; the Lion (David Allen Grier) was a little underplayed, a little blank. The Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley) actually became a little unlikeable to me, as a character, for the first time ever. Queen Latifah as the Wiz was a great casting idea, but fell a little short: it felt like the songs she had to sing were a little below her usual register, and she didn’t get to belt out like we know she can do so well. Once she stepped out of her Wiz costume, though, and became the woman behind the mask, she hit just the right notes – in portraying her character, that is. I did appreciate Stephanie Mills as Aunt Em – and also appreciated the nod to her role as the original Dorothy in 1974. Shanice Williams herself is beyond complaint, though. I found her engaging and heartfelt, fully committed to song, dance and acting.

As a filmed stage production, I found The Wiz thoroughly disappointing, but that’s because National Theatre Live has got me so spoiled. The work NT Live does is unparalleled excellence: I actually remember myself as being at those shows, rather than in a movie theatre. The camera angle changes: it shows the whole stage (including the front edge, so we can see it’s a stage), different parts in medium-close-up, and close-up angles on individual characters. We see all the set changes (no commercials), so we get the feeling for a real, live stage show. The Wiz clearly took a very different approach. We saw no stage settings (commercial breaks!), and the angle never cut so widely as to give a feeling for the stage itself. For that matter, NT Live shows shots of the audience before and after the show and during intermission, so that I feel like I’m with that crowd in London (or wherever). It remains unclear to me whether there was an audience present for The Wiz. And if not, what a shame for the players. Filming of a stage show is clearly not NBC’s strong suit here.

Uneven performances (but some of them were stellar!), some very fine singing and a classically loveable story make for a pleasing experience, if you didn’t expect too much coming in.

Rating: 7 winged warriors.

The Neighborhood Playhouse presents The Little Prince

little princeThe Little Prince is a magical tale, and I was immediately sold on the idea of a local production, performed by young people no less. The Neighborhood Playhouse Summer Drama Camp culminated in this production after less than two weeks; the ability of these teens to stand up with confidence and memorized lines after such brief prep is impressive enough, even if the play hadn’t been beautifully and feelingly done, which it was. Wow.

This was a musical production, and as I said about The Drowsy Chaperone, there were moments of less than perfect polish: these actors (whether youth or adult) are not professionals. But that’s okay! In fact, like when I go to watch college or adult-league sports, it’s part of the charm: I can see that these are “just” real people, like me, pursuing a passion. And I’m not criticizing. The level of performance here was very high – just not Broadway.

There were several very strong singers up there, especially the young lady who played the flower, but they all played their parts well. I felt the magic of St. Exupery’s original work, as these young actors communicated all the emotion of the pilot – his frustration, his regrets – and the prince, whose innocence is part of his appeal. I felt happy and lucky to be in the small audience. Thank you, Neighborhood Playhouse, and to the kids: bravo.

Rating: 7 snakebites.
%d bloggers like this: