16 August 2012

Book Review | The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Although she refuses outright to read any books that I dare to recommend to her, I recently succumbed to my wife’s incessant campaigning for me to read The Hunger Games – a book that she devoured in just a few hours, with its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay following in short order. She felt that American writer Suzanne Collins’ blazing indictment of the media’s parallel sensationalising of war and reality television, the channel-hopping confluence of which reportedly sparked her imagination, would appeal to my admittedly rather unusual tastes, particularly as, she promised, “It’s a bit like Doctor Who… and that horrible Spartacus thing you’ve been watching.” I was intrigued.
The first thing to strike me about the book was the quality of the author’s world-building. With relatively few words, Collins is able to summon the image of a vivid, Orwellian dystopia, conveying not only its organisational structure but its history and traditions too. After reading just a couple of chapters I already felt like an expert on Panem (the novel’s less-than-subtle acronymic post-apocalyptic North America), its politics and even its genetically-engineered, crossbred wildlife. This level of detail is complemented perfectly by the vibrant, widescreen prose that carries the novel’s many action sequences. It’s rare to find a writer that is able to convey such a level of action so forcefully in print – Collins’ experience writing for television has clearly served her well.

The novel is also incredibly rich thematically; audaciously so, in fact. Much as George Lucas did when he wrote his script for the first Star Wars movie, Collins consciously looks to modernise myths and legends, conceiving her heroine as a “futuristic Theseus” and making her a participant in the Hunger Games of the title, in which “tributes” from deprived areas aged between twelve and eighteen are forced to fight to the death in Roman-style gladiatorial games for the pleasure of their comparatively affluent oppressors. The work is even littered with biblical allegory as Collins hypnotically weaves recurring religious imagery into her text – the Bread of Life stands out in particular - while at the same time explicitly championing Christian values through the turns that her plot takes. Some metaphors are so patent that they could potentially offend those of a religious persuasion – one character even undergoes a Christ-like resurrection, albeit one tempered by a thin veil of haziness.

However, despite its heavy subject matter, The Hunger Games is a book aimed squarely at young adult readers, and as such it is told through the first person narration of its sympathetic young heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Superficially there is little to set Katniss apart from the scores of young, strong female heroines that currently litter young adult media - her proficiency with a bow and well-practised hunting skills pander to what is fast-becoming a literary and cinematic stereotype, as does the responsibility that she carries despite her tender age. However, just when I thought that I had Katniss pegged, Collins managed to surprise me – I won’t spoil the story for those yet to read it, but suffice it to say that the novel’s dénouement affords the heroine an unsettling level of depth that her otherwise-generic exterior belies.

Regrettably though, The Hunger Games is marred by a surprising lack of sophistication in certain fundamental areas. Whilst the narrative itself is well thought-out and defined by moments of incredible finesse, if you look at the canvas that it’s painted upon too closely you’ll only see rampant illogic. Collins seems to have wanted to hammer home her point about sensationalism with such fervour that she’s blinded herself to its pitfalls. Why would a totalitarian regime punish its populous for a failed insurrection by helping to shape its heroes and champions; even promoting and celebrating them? As I write this, I’ve yet to read either Catching Fire or Mockingjay, and to her credit the missus hasn’t spoiled them for me, but I’d wager that the very heroes created by The Hunger Games’ villains are the very heroes that will ultimately topple their brutal regime. Such gross stupidity robs even the most beautifully-drawn of villains of their menace (though I’d be doing my political views a gross disservice if I didn’t take the opportunity to remark that such institutionalised idiocy does at least lend the story remarkable authenticity).

Worse still, despite having sold over a million copies, the Kindle edition of The Hunger Games (I can’t speak for other editions) is beset with typographical and formatting errors that will no doubt elude all but the most eagle-eyed of readers, but that I find incredibly aggravating. Is it District 13 or District Thirteen? All too often are independent authors slammed for overlooking a single typo, while bestselling, award-winning scribes whose work should be subjected to meticulous scrutiny get away with basic blunders. I’m afraid that The Hunger Games joins the Fifty Shades trilogy on the ‘lazily-proofed but rampantly dominant’ list.

For its intended audience, however, who I would imagine couldn’t care less about haphazard mid-word spaces and inconsistently-typeset district names, The Hunger Games is a dark and thrilling adventure that isn’t afraid to broach topical issues as sundry as poverty, war, attrition and even the cult of celebrity within the confines of a warped love story set on a battlefield. Much to my amusement, many have criticised The Hunger Games for its alleged lack of originality – whilst it has its faults, that is most certainly not one of them. I can count on one finger the number of “dark and thrilling adventures that aren’t afraid to broach topical issues as sundry as poverty, war, attrition and even the cult of celebrity within the confines of a warped love story set on a battlefield” that I’ve read.

13 August 2012

Blu-ray Review | Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Next Level

It’s been described as “the largest film restoration project ever attempted”, and I dare say it’s the most worthwhile one too: rendering Star Trek: The Next Generation in high definition.

The Next Level presents three classic Next Generation episodes in stunning 1920 x 1080 resolution, although only 1440 x 1080 of the frame contains the pillarboxed picture – the remainder is made up of black bars running down either side of the screen. Whilst I’m sure that most would have welcomed The Next Generation in 16:9 widescreen, unfortunately the programme was shot in 4:3 and at present the technology to convincingly ‘invent’ material to fill in the empty spaces doesn’t exist. Dependent on the specifications of your Blu-ray player or media centre, you may be able to zoom in on the 1080p image, should you so choose, though I’d advise against this as not only does it soften the image, but you lose part of the image altogether. Even were such losses acceptable, what you’d be watching wouldn’t be what the episodes’ directors agonised over framing.

The picture quality is nonetheless stunning. To their credit, rather than cheaply upscale standard definition video, CBS have instead retrieved and cleaned-up around twenty-five thousand reels of 35mm film negatives; digitised them in high definition; and then meticulously reconstructed each and every episode from the ground up, adhering strictly to the original in every case. The only changes that have been made have been to fix relatively minor visual gaffes that would probably escape notice; otherwise the much-loved episodes remain inviolate.

I found the most striking aspects of these episodes to be their deep colour. The Next Generation’s standard definition episodes (and, indeed, Deep Space Nine and Voyager’s too) are decidedly dull in comparison, the signature hues of the crew’s Starfleet uniforms devoid of any vibrancy. Their HD counterparts, however, are loud and resplendently vital. The HD model shots are an even greater improvement, particularly those that feature the incredibly-detailed Enterprise-D - it says a lot about a programme when its opening shots can take your breath away. Each episode’s once-analogue soundtrack has also been deconstructed and reassembled in 7.1 DTS audio, to my ears putting them on a level pegging with most motion pictures’ dynamic soundscapes.

However, as with any HD media drawn from film, these episodes don’t look exactly like they’ve been shot with HD digital cameras. Every episodic television show that I watch at the moment looks incredibly sharp on my television, as they’re all shot in digital HD, whereas Blu-rays drawn from film prints always look a little grainier. I understand that this is because 35mm analogue film retains even more information than even something shot in UHDTV2 (7680 x 4320, or “8K”), but not all of the film’s information crystallises in a 1080p picture. These 1080p Next Generation episodes thus look distinctly ‘filmic’, though whether that’s a boon or a curse is very much in the eye of the beholder.

The episodes on offer here are an emblematic selection, each significant in its own way. The feature-length pilot episode, “Encounter at Farpoint”, is littered with contrived character moments and its narrative is plainly comprised of two discrete plots hopefully cobbled together. However, if you can give credence to the incredible naiveté of Riker (who serves as the audience’s anchor, and thus has to appear implausibly ignorant of just about every aspect of modern starship design, amongst other slightly more credible things) there are some stunning and powerful performances to enjoy – particularly John de Lancie’s first memorable turn as Q, and of course Patrick Stewart’s nascent Captain Jean-Luc Picard, whose unsurpassable dominance is evident right from his very first monologue. “Sins of the Father”, meanwhile, begins one of my favourite Next Generation story arcs built around one of my favourite Next Generation characters, while thoughtful fan favourite “The Inner Light” counterpoints that episode’s ubiquitous shadows with scorching sunlight and an even more blazing performance from the series’ Shakespearian star.

This alluring disc offers us a taste of what awaits once all seven seasons have been released on Blu-ray, collecting together three disparate episodes that, whilst not representing the very best of The Next Generation, certainly offer an alluring taste of it. The Blu-ray season box sets might come with hefty price tags, but unlike the straight-transfer DVD box sets (which were even more expensive than the Blu-rays when they were first released), I can’t say that I begrudge them. This project looks to have been a real labour of love – one that I hope will revive interest in one of television’s greatest ever shows.