“a filmmaker is an independent artist, not a translator for an established author, but a new author in his own right.”
Filmmakers as Independent Artists
For my final project, I have chosen to examine the popular Hunger Games book by Suzanne Collins and the accompanying film of the same name directed by Gary Ross. The book, an adventure novel, takes place in a desolate and post-apocalyptic America, now called Panem, divided into thirteen districts (one of which was destroyed) and ruled by the Capital and its ruthless president, Coriolanus Snow. The plot of the book follows the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, as she struggles to survive in the annual death match orchestrated by the Capital as a punishment to the districts for previous revolts. Gary Ross stays true to the overarching plot, but also makes a number of alterations to the story line in the film interpretation.
The largest change that I noticed was in the level of violence. In the book, Collins describes very violent and harsh behaviors perpetrated by the children selected, or reaped, for the annual Hunger Games hosted by the Capital. The film, on the other hand, implies violence, but actually shows very little. One instance where this was especially noticeable was during the time spent in the cave by Katniss and Peeta. While retrieving the medicine needed to save Peeta, Katniss sustains a massive cut to her forehead culminating in her losing consciousness. In the book, this event is very tense, leaving the reader wondering whether or not Katniss could survive such an injury. In the film, however, this injury is presented as a laughable scratch, one barely warranting a band-aid. Another instance is in how Peeta’s leg injuries were handled. In the book, Peeta loses his leg after sustaining multiply injuries and eventually requiring a tourniquet, something not even hinted at in the film. These choices were undoubtedly made to preserve a rating that would allow young adults, the target age group for the book, to see the film.
Another difference is the physical appearance of the Hunger Games contestants in the film. Jennifer Lawrence, while she does a fantastic job in her portrayal of Katniss, does not fit the physical description of someone who is starving, or as in the end of the book, near death. In fact, she looks like a picture of ideal health, quite robust in her appearance. The same can be said for almost all of the other children cast in the role of tributes. Obviously the filmmakers were not going to starve an actor or actress in order to match Collins’ descriptions, so Ross chose to omit the reason for the Hunger Games being named what they are (that is, a game in which contestants frequently starve to death) likely to avoid this issue in the film. By doing this, Ross focused more on the action of the games and the emotions of the characters than some of the backstory provided in Collins’ book.
One of Ross’s biggest successes was in his use of music. By making smart musical choices, Ross was able to elicit many of the emotions of the book, while maintaining a fast pace for the film. An event that took Collins several pages to explain could take literally seconds to take place on film. Much of the book focuses on Katniss’s inner struggles and internal dialogues, so short of including a narrator, these thoughts would be hard to translate to film. Ross cleverly turned some of these thoughts into actual dialogue for Katniss while other times he established the emotions felt by Katniss through wise musical choices. In addition to providing the emotional connections, the music also added to the setting of the film. Much of the music harkens to folk music found in the Appalachians, the region of the country where the book and film are set. I felt like this musical choice helped to deepen Ross’s interpretation of the book while not taking extra time away from the action.
Another success of the film was the quality of the acting. Ross made very smart choices in his casting. Although many of the actors and actresses were in their teens or early twenties, they were able to provide top quality performances. Jennifer Lawrence, who has been honored by the Academy Awards, did an especially good job as Katniss, instilling a lot of the emotion felt by readers of the book. Another superb job was done by Amandla Stenberg, the young girl chosen to play Katniss’s ally, Rue. Stenberg was able to portray the heartbreaking role with class and talent. Rue’s defining moment in the story is in her death. Many times in films, especially with children, death scenes can seem very hokey and overacted, but Stenberg did a fabulous job, likely due to direction given by Ross.
As I mentioned earlier, Ross was successful in harnessing the emotion found in the original text. While many directors, given the story he was presented with, would have run wild with the amount of violence. Rather than glorifying the violence in the way most modern Hollywood movies do, Ross chose to go a different route. By downplaying this violence, Ross was able to spend more time focused on the story line and he also removed the distraction of violence. In fact, by minimizing the exposure to violent images, Ross was paying tribute to Collins’ message warning of the dangers of violence as a means of entertainment.
Overall, Ross made smart choices in his interpretation of Collins’ book. Instead of making a literal interpretation to the story in tune with the model set forth by the makers of the Harry Potter films, Ross made his own interpretation of the story. He wisely infused the main elements of the book that readers fell in love with and stuck true to the emotion of the book, while making the changes he saw fit, thus creating a successful and enjoyable film independent from the book. He obviously recognized the importance of the original text, but also realized that he was creating a film, not a book. In this type of transition, storylines must be streamlined, backstories shortened (or eliminated if not pertinent), and parts well cast, all while keeping a level of respect for the readers and the original story. As a book lover, I was happy with the choices he made, and as a film goer, I was also pleased; a rare occurrence! As an independent artist, Ross was able to stick true to the main plotline and the emotions embedded in the text, but in the end he created a film that could be read independent of the book, establishing it as a piece of art on its own rather than another “accessory” or piece of merchandising in a franchise.
Changes in Perspective
Prior to taking this course, I probably would not have enjoyed this movie as much as I did. When I read a book, I fall in love with every detail and The Hunger Games was no different. When I love a book so much, I always struggle to enjoy the film version because I want to see a version of what I created in my own imagination, complete with all the details and anecdotes from the original text. Maybe it is just that the film version of The Hunger Games was just very well done, or maybe it is that my thinking on film interpretations has changed, but I was actually very happy with the film.
Fidelity to the Original
In Laura’s journal for week 2, the idea of a film’s fidelity to the original text was examined. When translating a book into film, it is obvious that cuts need to be made for the sake of time, but we were left to ponder how the filmmaker decided which cuts to make, and what affect those cuts had. In The Hunger Games, Ross had a good balance between elements from the original text and changes made in order to make a successful film. One interesting choice that he made was in his handling of the mutts at the end of the games. In the book, the mutts are mutated animals engineered by the Capital and are not limited to the dog-like creatures from the film. In fact, the jabber-jay is a result of the Capital’s engineering and is also considered a mutt. The mutts that chase Peeta and Katniss at the end of the games are made even more frightening in Collins’ description because they had been made to resemble the fallen tributes. In the film however, they are not much more than big dogs. Ordinarily, changes like these would have turned me off from the film, but I now understand why they were done and can enjoy the film for what it is.
One interesting departure from the original text is the shift in perspective. In the book, we are presented with only Katniss’s view of the events surrounding her. We are presented with her feelings, her confusion, her opinions. In the film, however, Ross shows a variety of perspectives showing different sides of what is happening in Panem. The most interesting is the increased focus on President Snow. In the book, we form a hatred for the character based on Katniss’s opinions of him. Without the ability to be inside Katniss’s head in the film, Ross had to find a way for viewers to form this opinion without this luxury. By creating scenes with Snow independent of what Katniss would have known in the book, Ross was able to achieve the same goal set forth by Collins but in a method more fit for film. In making this choice, I think Ross established the film as a separate entity from the original text while not only honoring the book, but possibly adding to it with the addition of these different viewpoints.
Perhaps the most formative unit for me in this course was the examination of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the more popular film version, The Wizard of Oz. Like many people, I grew up watching The Wizard of Oz, and also like many people, I had not read the book beforehand. Upon reading the book, I came to realize that both the film and the book had their merits as films and books, and idea that I feel like I am now able to apply to new books and films that I read.
In the case of The Hunger Games, the book has been very popular and was published very close to the release of the film, making this situation different from that of The Wizard of Oz where there was a 39 year gap. While the Oz film overshadowed the book version, I would say that the book and film for The Hunger Games are probably close in terms of popularity. In the long term, however, it is hard to say whether one will overshadow the other. The film is very well made, so like The Wizard of Oz, I could see the film becoming more popular. On the other hand though, the book is extremely well written, so I can also see how that would continue to be popular as well.
Politics of Reinterpretation
Prior to taking this course, I will admit that I was rather shallow in my viewing of films, especially films based on books. I have really enjoyed being able to think more deeply about the underlying messages found in film and now find myself making these connections in the things I see on TV and in film.
The Hunger Games is a very political book and film. The story focuses on the problems that arise when governments become too powerful and take power away from the people. The power of the Capital is shown throughout the book, but the games themselves are the biggest display of this power. As mentioned outright in the book and film, the games are a way to remind the people of the power of the Capital and that any attempts at revolting would be useless. Katniss, sometimes unknowingly, challenges this power, thus inspiring others in the districts to have the strength to rise up. This is seen in her handling of Rue’s death when she decorates the body with flowers, showing the viewers in the districts that this was not just another body, but an actual human, a little girl, that has been killed. The most controversial challenge to power, however, is when Katniss brings out the deadlock berries. In the book, Katniss is portrayed as naïve and also a survivalist, doing whatever is necessary to survive. In the case of the berries, I believe that Katniss saw this as the only way for her and Peeta to survive the games, not as a way to stick it to the Capital, although this is how it was interpreted by many in the districts, and especially by Snow.
One of my favorite realizations was the gender role reversal of the book and film. Typically, the female character is in distress, waiting to be rescued by the male hero. In this case, however, the roles have been reversed to some extent. Typically, the female in a story is more emotional while the male is the more logical one. In this case, Peeta is the obvious romantic of the two, while Katniss is more focused on the logistics of survival. Also, Katniss, on many occasions, comes to Peeta’s rescue, repeatedly saving his life. It would have been easy for Collins to make Peeta useless, dependent on Katniss for everything, but she chose not to do this. Instead, she made the two very complimentary to one another in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. This was very refreshing as normally authors and film makers feel the need to have relationships that are dominated by one gender or the other. I did not feel this was the case with The Hunger Games.
Teaching the Book and Film
As a third grade teacher, this is not a book that I would be teaching to my students, however, I can see the value of teaching this to middle school or high school students. If I were to teach this, there are many directions in which I could go, but the most intriguing to me are some of the themes and the historical connections.
As a history teacher, I think this would make a great connection when teaching about Ancient Rome. The most glaringly obvious connection is to that of the gladiators. Like the Hunger Games, the Romans also employed blood sport as a form of entertainment. Gladiators would fight to the death as the audience watched and cheered on their favorites, exactly like in the Hunger Games. After digging a little deeper, there are more connections to be made, mostly in the use of names. Panem, the name of the country, comes from the term “Panem et Circenses” which means “Bread and Circuses” in Latin. (Everett, S.) This is the means by which the Romans controlled their people; bread and entertainment kept the citizens happy, thus causing fewer problems for the government. (Capitolium.org, 1999) While the games did not make the people in Panem happy, other than those in the Capital, it did keep them from rising up for at least 74 years. Using this comparison as a jumping off point, it would be interesting to challenge students to make connections to other names in the book and research how those connections are relevant to the stories being told by Collins and Ross.
A less obvious, but just as interesting, connection could be to that of the Nazi regime. For students studying World War II, an examination into the similarity between Nazi Germany and the practices of Panem would likely elicit some interesting and enlightening perspectives. While the Romans hoped to keep their citizens complacent and distracted, the Nazis operated with fear tactics more similar to what was in place in Panem. In The Hunger Games, the citizens in the districts were being punished for revolting by taking place in the annual death matches. Similarly, Jews were being punished by Hitler for his belief that they were the cause of society’s problems. Not only are these messages described in the book, but the visuals created by Ross also harken to the Nazi era. In looking at the architecture of the Capital and the Justice Building, a nod to Nazi design was apparent. For students, it would be interesting to see what other connections they could make, specifically to the Holocaust and the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.
Since the story is set in America, it is hard to ignore the comparisons to the early formation of our own country. In the book, the country was divided into thirteen districts, similar to how our country was originally organized into thirteen colonies. Like the colonies, the districts provided goods for the Capital, or in our case, the British. Like the Capital, the British ruled in a totalitarian manner, allowing for few freedoms for the colonists, leading to a revolution orchestrated by everyday citizens. Allowing students to explore these comparisons would likely lead to a deeper appreciation of the book and a better understanding of the motivation felt by the colonists.
In examining the idea of power in the Hunger Games, one first thinks of the obvious holder of power, that is the government and the president. Looking deeper, however, we come to find that even someone as seemingly unimportant as a teenager from a lowly district has just as much power as an entire government. This study into the power structure of The Hunger Games could provide an opportunity for students to discuss the roles of citizens in different types of governments, a valuable lesson in any political science class. Students could further debate why they think the structure of government in Panem was successful for as long as it was, and whether they think a system like that could work in today’s world.
Class is a very important element in this story, with glaring differences between those in the Capital and those in the districts. Economically, socially, and physically, the people of the Capital could not be any different from the citizens of the districts. While the people in the Capital are concerned with entertainment, their appearance, and food, the people of districts are simply trying to survive. While described well in the book, these differences are even more apparent in the film where the outlandish appearance of the Capital dwellers is brought to life. Challenging students to draw comparisons between the lower, middle, and upper classes in America with the class structure of Panem would provide for an interesting look at what happens when people are placed in a class without a means of moving up. In America, we can move between classes based on merit and our ability to work (ideally at least). In Panem, however, you are essentially stuck within the class you were born in, unless, of course, you can survive the Hunger Games.
Suzanne Collins’ book is full of symbolism and provides a great platform for teaching this idea to students. Flowers, for example, are used in a number of ways throughout the book and film, from Katniss’s love of dandelions (a symbol of hope and a reminder of her self-sufficiency) to Prim’s name (Primrose), to the way Katniss uses flowers to decorate Rue’s body, flowers play a very symbolic role in the book and film. Bread is also another important symbol used throughout the book. As mentioned earlier, the name Panem actually means bread. Peeta (Pita) is a type of bread. Peeta’s father is a baker, and Peeta saves Katniss’s family from near starvation by giving her bread. After Rue’s death, District 11 sends her bread from their district. Over and over, bread and used as a symbol of life. Having students examine these symbols, as well as other such as the mockingjay, the three finger salute, and food, would provide a focus for deeper exploration of the text and film while strengthening their understanding of symbolism.
Teaching as a Form of Interpretation
Just as filmmakers are independent artists, so too are teachers. Like a film maker, we are often presented with an overwhelming amount of information. It is our job then, as teachers, to pare that information down and present it to our students in a way that will provide a depth of understanding while remaining within the constraints of the overarching theme or topic, much in the way a film maker translates a novel into an hour and a half film. This need for decision making and editing is true in literature and film, but could also be extrapolated to anything for which teachers may be responsible.
In Literature and Film
Like filmmakers, we are responsible for helping to shape a story for our students. A filmmaker, however, is more limited in their translation of the text. Without making a major departure from the text, filmmakers are typically limited to making omissions and minor additions, rather than the more interpretive take that teachers can employ. Making too big of a change will upset the fan base of the book, while an interpretation that is too literal, such as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, can cause a film to be watered down and pale compared to the original text. As teachers, we are free to explore the themes, backstories, and social implications of a text without the limitations found by a filmmaker. Just as Laura posed the question in week two, “How did they decide which cuts to make and what effect does that have?” As teachers, we should ponder this question as well as, determining what to focus on when instructing our students. What is important to the point I am trying to make with my students? By leaving out other points, am I going to be doing a disservice to the text/film or my students?
While it is vital for teachers to help students in reading a film or book, there is also a reason for caution. When guiding children through a text, it can be very easy to instill our own feelings and opinions into the text, but this should be avoided. Students should be encouraged to come to their own conclusions about a film or book, so taking care to choose the correct questions to ask and ideas to develop is key to allowing for self-discovery and true internalization of the ideas being presented. For example, in our study of The Little Mermaid, we were encouraged to come to our own conclusions before reading the critique of another reader. Had we been presented with the Trites’ article beforehand, it is likely that many of us, myself included, would have more critical in our descriptions of the story and film.
Goal Setting as a Teacher
The best way to teach a text and film would be to choose a goal and base all of the other choices around this initial goal. For example, when teaching The Hunger Games, I may want my students to understand how totalitarian rule is dangerous to a society. From there, I can choose to examine elements of the text that support the understanding of that goal. We can draw comparisons to the Roman Empire, the British rule over colonial America, as well as Hitler’s reign over Nazi Germany. I could also focus on the social impact, drawing on the living conditions of the people of District 12 or the feelings of fear and unfairness felt by Katniss. This could be contrasted with the lives of the privileged living in the Capital, with food being so plentiful that they purposely make themselves throw up in order to eat more and where physical appearance trumps everything else in life. All of these examples, while varied, tie back to my original goal.
Applying Interpretation to All Subjects
Going a step further than just literature and film, I feel that teachers are independent artists in their interpretations of almost anything that they are teaching. Just as we all interpret a text differently from one person to another, so too do we interpret other ideas differently. In math, for example, I may use the cross multiplication format, the traditional method for multiplying, as well as manipulatives, to help students understand the process of multiplying, realizing that all children learn differently and one method may work better for one student, while a different method works better for the person next to them. Being able to interpret the same idea in a variety of ways is vital to helping students understand. In returning to The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins was able to elicit emotional reactions in her readers through her carefully chosen words. Gary Ross achieved this emotional response through casting and musical selections. As a teacher, I might help students to make this emotional connection by encouraging them to make connections to their own lives.
As teachers, we are more similar to a filmmaker than a writer, especially in terms of time constraints. Like filmmakers, teachers have a limited amount of time to teach a world of material. This is where the art of interpretation comes in. As a teacher, I need to decide which concepts need more time and which others can be touched on more briefly, or possibly even be combined with another topic. For example, I may see a need for extra work on ending punctuation and less on capitalization, even though the curriculum may dictate the same amount of time for each. As a teacher, it is my job to identify the needs of my students, set goals for their instruction, and make decisions about how to achieve that goal in the most efficient and effective way possible.
As interpreters of film and literature, it is vital that we are able to distinguish one medium from another, placing the value of each within the context of its own presentation. A film should not be judged in the same way that a book is judged, and vice versa. While fidelity to the original text is vital, it is also important that filmmakers act as independent artists, with an end goal of creating a great, quality film, rather than a film that hits all the points in a book, but misses the emotion and intangibles that can only be elicited through smart cuts and additions. We also need to be cautious about getting caught up in the hype surrounding popular books and films so that we can make accurate determinations of quality. Conversely, we should not dismiss a text or film just because it is overly popular – it is popular for a reason, so it should be given a fair chance to stand on its own. As teachers, these points should be made with our students as well. We should push them to question why filmmakers made the choices they did and how those choices improved or diminished the quality of the film. In doing so, we are not just teaching students how to read a film or book, but how to think critically and deeply.
Capitolium.org (1999). Capitolium.org - Imperial Fora Official Website - Rome, Italy. Retrieved from http://www.capitolium.org/eng/imperatori/circenses.htm.
Everett, S. (n.d.). A Conversation: Questions & Answers. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/thehungergames/media/suzanne_collins_q_and_a.pdf
This is a great paper about The Hunger Games, Edie. I'm so glad to read your perspective on both the book and film. It's clear that you're thinking about these "interpretations" in engaged and complicated ways. Great job tracing your developing thinking across the course: from ideas about fidelity to the original, to cultural appropriation and popularity, to political considerations. I wish you would get a chance to teach this (but not to third graders!!)--your ideas are very thoughtful in considering historic parallels and notions of power and social class. The best part, though, is your section on teachers as independent artists. Lovely.
The Harry Potter Cultural Phenomenon
A phenomenon is:
1. a fact, occurrence, or circumstance observed or observable
According to the definitions provided for the word ‘phenomenon’, I am quite certain that this is the proper word to describe Harry Potter and the fervor created by the wizarding franchise. J.K. Rowling did more than create a story when she penned the Harry Potter books, she created a world so rich and engaging and characters so relatable, that it was inevitable that more would come out of her work that a children’s story. Instead, Harry Potter’s world has become our world, and our’s his.
A Remarkable, Extraordinary, Observable Occurrence
Many, many books are published every day, but how does one become as successful as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with children and adults alike? This occurrence does not happen often, especially when the subject is a children’s story. When I was first exposed to the first book in 1998, I remember watching news reports about how the book was going to change everything in regards to reading and literature for children, showing lines of people at books stores waiting to get their copies. Low and behold, this prediction was correct! There was something about Harry Potter that was able to connect with people and bring reading into vogue, a tall order considering the tech obsessed world into which it was released. Bookstores were selling out, the releases of each new book became huge events, and anyone who did not read the books was out of the loop. Prior to the release of the books, many people, children and adults alike, would not have considered themselves to be ‘readers’, but after being brought into the magical world of Harry Potter, many people like myself, found themselves being brought back to the written word.
One of the reasons for the success of Harry Potter, in my opinion, is the way that it is written. Many children’s books before Harry Potter were very “sanitized”, written to appeal to the innocence of childhood. Harry Potter, on the other hand, has a bit of an edge, allowing for students to experience a tension and thrill not found in many children’s literature books. There is true emotion, not knowing whether Harry and his comrades will be successful in their quests and perilous journeys. Additionally, the Harry Potter books are very smart. Rowling included miniscule, seemingly unimportant details that proved to be vital later in the story, such as the reference to Hagrid’s desire for a dragon early in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. This detail turned out to be extremely important later since it was this detail that led to uncovering the secret of how to get past Fluffy, the three headed dog guarding the Sorcerer’s Stone. This attention to detail respects the intelligence of children and challenges them to think more deeply about stories than many others that had been available at the time.
Another reason for the success of the book is the relatability of the characters. Everyone who reads the books has a character to which they can relate. Are you a goody two shoes? You can put yourself in Hermione’s shoes. Your family struggles to get by? Ron it is! Harry, though, is the most relatable of all the characters. He relates to the stereotypical “nerd”, wearing his broken glasses and baggy clothes. He embodies the dream of many who wish to have a secret life that they are waiting to discover. What child doesn’t envision him or herself as a long lost member of royalty? Harry can relate with kids from rough home situations in his living arrangement with the Dursleys. The most relatable element for me, as a reader, is the connection with orphaned children. Although not an orphan myself, I lost my father in 1998 and was left with a Dursley-like caretaker. This was the same year that I read the story, providing a level of empathy felt for the character and a connection that was important for me as a grieving teen. In reading the books, I was able to escape in much the same way Harry escaped his life with the Dursleys.
Even the story itself, although a fantasy, is very relatable and realistic. Harry’s muggle life in particular is very realistic. Children know that life is not fair or perfect, so they can empathize with the injustices felt by Harry. Rowling’s description of this world of muggles is relatable to the readers, but it is the realism found in her descriptions of Hogwarts that makes the story truly come alive for readers. In her descriptions, Rowling does not shy away from the outlandish or unbelievable ideas. Rather, she embraces them and describes them in such clarity that the ideas presented become plausible. Readers feel like they are at Hogwarts, making a real in their own imaginations.
Technology as a Culture Shifting Tool
The biggest influence on the Harry Potter phenomenon is film. Without the films, it is likely that Pottermania would have been limited only to readers of the books. With the addition of the films, more people were exposed to Harry Potter, creating a larger pool of people to spend money of the related merchandise. Outside of just the films as stories, the actors and music have also become huge parts of our culture. Emma Watson, for one, became known for her portrayal as Hermione in the films. Her influence, however, is not limited to just the Harry Potter universe. Rather, she famously attended Brown University, has become a fashion icon, and role model for many girls, showing that you can be fashionable, classy, AND smart. In a culture that glamourizes the clueless female archetype, seen in popular shows such as Jersey Shore and all of the Kardashian projects, Emma Watson broke the mold and showed girls that there is more to a woman than just looks.
The popularity of the books is due, at least in part, to the technologically advanced time in which we live. People were able to discuss the book, movie, and culture of the Harry Potter world like never before. With the advent of digital communication, fans are able to create their own websites showcasing their love for the franchise, buy and sell almost anything they could want related to Harry Potter, learn the ins and outs of the casts’ lives, and even be a part of the Harry Potter world through the online website, Pottermore. This connectivity provided by technology gave a sense of ownership to the fans, leading to a devout and enthusiastic following.
On a grander scale, beyond just Harry Potter, there has been a shift in attitudes toward “geeks” by the general populace since the release of the books. Perhaps it is incidental, since the internet and technology were gaining in popularity at the same time as the books, but over the past decade or so the “geek” or “nerd” label has lost some of its stigma. Instead of the isolation felt by nerds of previous generations, modern day nerds are able to network and communicate with others like themselves, possibly helping to build confidence and self-esteem that was problematic in the pre-internet era. Harry Potter himself is the epitome of the stereotypical nerd, complete with taped, broken glasses, and scrawny build. This popularization of nerd culture is evidenced by shows like The Big Bang Theory and the resurgence of franchises such as Star Trek.
Where the Book Fits In
The Harry Potter phenomenon began, obviously, with the books. The books, however, can sometimes be overshadowed by the sheer volume of merchandising surrounding the franchise. From movies to clothing, home accessories to food, official postage stamps (I saw them today at the post office) to toys and games; it is easy to see how the heart of the franchise, the books, can get lots in the shuffle. I believe, however, that it is the books that keep the franchise grounded and attribute to the continued success of Harry Potter, even though the series is now over. New readers are discovering the books and falling in love with Rowling’s tale of magic, mystery, and adventure, fueling the continuing marketability of the franchise.
This success of Harry Potter has led to a boom in young adult literature, specifically fantasy texts, including popular series such as The Hunger Games trilogy, Twilight, the Maze Runner books, the Percy Jackson books, and the Divergent series. It also brought forth a resurgence in classic texts, such as the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. Rowling was able to prove not only that young readers were capable of enjoying smart literature, but that they craved it. This new interest in reading is not confined to just young readers; many adults have been drawn into many young adult books because the high quality stories and smart writing. The franchise has also proved that films based on young adult books can be extremely lucrative and successful. Without the successful crossover from book to film achieved by Harry Potter, I am doubtful that movies like Twilight, The Hunger Games, or Percy Jackson would have been made, let alone been as successful as they were.
As a teacher, the culture of reading is evident in today’s classrooms. Growing up, I cannot ever remember discussing books with my friends. Even in school we did not really discuss books that we had read. As an elementary student in the early 1990’s, this was not that long ago. Now, however, it is not uncommon for me to hear students discussing certain books they are reading or have just finished. I provide time in class for students to discuss books, but what fascinates me is the fact that I catch students talking about books outside of class. The fact that students are voluntarily discussing books without being prompted is a noticeable sign of the shift in reading attitudes in children.
The Economy of a Cultural Phenomenon
The more I learn and think about Harry Potter as a cultural phenomenon, the more I realize how truly commercial our society is. It is neither the publishers nor the merchandisers that cause such a phenomenon. It is the consumers that drive the fanaticism; it is a simple matter of supply and demand. As consumers purchase goods, the demand increases, causing the franchises to produce more goods to keep up with consumer demands. John Pennington also argues that, “Phenomena such as the Harry Potter books are driven by commodity consumption.” Without consumers buying into the phenomenon, it would not exist.
In Joel Taxel’s article about children’s literature, the idea of “Fast Capitalism” is addressed in regards to the industry of publishing. Rather than allowing time for the writing process, fast capitalism pushes for a more regimented system of getting books from the minds of authors to the hands of their readers. As Taxel put it, children’s literature has become a “circuit of production, circulation, and consumption”. The artistry is lost, instead turning literature into a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than art to be enjoyed and savored. When this happens, the value of the text shifts from intrinsic to external. The story does not matter anymore. What matters is the amount of money to be made from sales of the book, possible films, and merchandising. This also hurts new authors since publishers are less likely to take risks on an unknown writer. Publishers would rather put their resources towards authors with successful track records.
Problems of Cultural Phenomena
While there are many positives that have come from Pottermania, such as the renewed interest in reading for enjoyment, there are also negatives. One such problem is the overwhelming effort by publishers and film makers to create the next phenomenon. Creating such a phenomenon is extremely lucrative, so it is understandable that others would like to find similar success and cash in. This can be seen in successful franchises such as Twilight and The Hunger Games. Like Harry Potter, fans have the technology at their fingertips to fuel their obsessions and access to any merchandise they can imagine. While this is good for a capitalist economy like ours, it begins to turn the focus from the literature to the accessories, a dangerous route that can lead to subpart stories. Why spend your time on the story when the screenplay and merchandise will earn far more money?
While some authors may lose motivation to create quality literature due to the merchandising aspects, many others feel the pressure of publishers to create stories with a quick turnaround time. This lack of time presents a challenge as this can lead to shoddier work. Authors are artists and work in very different ways and at different rates, so to expect that all authors can perform under such constraints is unfair. By limiting production to authors with quick turnaround times, many more laborious authors may be shut out from the industry.
Another concern is that beautifully written stories can lose their value as quality literature in the wake of the commercialization brought on by such a cultural phenomenon. As stated in the article by Philip Nel, “separate the books from the marketing.” In doing so, we can recognize a text for its merits, rather than all of the exterior distractions. This devaluation of the text can be troublesome for authors, including J.K. Rowling, who was very protective of her characters and her work. She was adamant that her characters were not to be pitchmen, for example, insisting that none of her characters would be seen drinking a Coca-Cola as a means of product placement.
Cultural Phenomena: Good or Bad?
While it would appear that there are a lot of negative aspects to a cultural phenomenon like Harry Potter, such as the devaluation of quality literature, increased pressure on authors, and more difficultly for new authors trying to get published, not to mention the increased commercialization driven by consumers, there are also several positives that perhaps negate or possibly even outweigh the negatives. The first positive being the fact that phenomena like this provide shared cultural experiences, giving people common ground with others. In a world so divided, any means of bringing people together cannot be overlooked. In terms of the Harry Potter phenomenon in particular, it was shown that film adaptations of children’s books can be well made and wildly successful, in this case leading to the success of many other adaptations. Finally, the most important and hopefully lasting effect of this cultural phenomenon is the impact on reading in our culture. Not only has Harry Potter convinced more children to think reading is cool, but it has also gotten their parents hooked on reading. In transforming our culture into one that not only can read, but enjoys reading, the Harry Potter phenomenon has provided our society with gift that not even the greatest of planners could concoct. A phenomenon is by definition is an extraordinary occurrence. It is something that just happens. No one planned for Harry Potter to change the world, but he did. Despite the commercialization and media frenzy, Harry Potter gave us, as a society, one of the greatest gifts possible, that is an internal and deeply felt love of reading.
Edie, this is a wonderful paper. You do a great job of looking at the complexities of creating a cultural phenomenon--the good things (reading) as well as the bad (commecialism). Nicely done.
“Is There a Text in This Advertising Campaign?: Literature, Marketing, and Harry Potter”
In Philip Nel’s article from The Lion and the Unicorn, the merchandizing and general commercialization of Harry Potter are examined. Nel argues that as readers and consumers, we need to make an effort towards to “separate the books from the marketing.” By looking at the book and merchandizing in one, it is possible that there are literary merits of the book that are being overlooked due to the distraction of everything else in the world of Harry Potter.
I thought it was interesting to note that J.K. Rowling, the author of the series, was not as impressed with the marketing and commercialization, as determined by June Cummins. As an author, it can be assumed the Rowling would like her work recognized for its literary merits, something that is overshadowed by the immense about of “stuff” that can make the books appear to be nothing more than another piece of merchandise to make money for the franchise. Additionally, much of the money gained from Rowling’s Harry Potter empire is donated into charitable causes, backing up her viewpoint on wealth depicted throughout the books. Nel points out Rowling’s depictions of the use of wealth, through the villianization of the Dursleys and the Malfoy and through Harry’s portrayal as a thrifty philanthropist, Rowling makes the point that wealth is not necessary a bad thing as long as it is used for good and not as a way to hurt others.
One point that he made really struck a chord with me. Early in the article, Nel quotes John Pennington as saying, “Phenomena such as the Harry Potter books are driven by commodity consumption” and “the pleasure and meaning of a book will often be prescripted or dictated by convention.” Books are not simply seen as just books anymore, but as jumping off points for larger media and marketing campaigns (or in some cases, the books follow the media and marketing efforts). As a young adult reading these books for the first time, I vividly remember thinking about how the stories would make such great movies and envisioning myself as Hermione, long before the movies were in the works. Obviously I was not alone in this thinking since the books did indeed get adapted into films.
I think the most compelling argument for the quality of the books is the origin of Harry Potter’s popularity. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone originally became popular because kids read the stories and told other kids how great the book was. Word spread, and more and more kids were reading the book. It was not the mass marketing campaigns or merchandising; it was kids falling in love with a story and sharing that with one another. As a child myself at the time, that is why I started reading the books. I did not chose to read the books because the media was telling me I should, rather it was because I heard it was a good book and gave it a try. If a book can inspire kids not only to read but to inspire other kids to read, then that is a very telling quality. As Nel put it, “hype alone is not a sufficient explanation for Harry’s appeal.”
“Children’s Literature at the Turn of the Century: Toward a Political Economy of the Publishing Industry”
I'm Edie - wife, mom, teacher, instructional designer, home renovator,
and lover of nature, travel, technology, and vintage campers!