Book Chat: How Fast Can You Run

By Hannah Lee

Starting this weekend, Philadelphia’s Independence Mall will feature an exhibit about refugees, sponsored by Doctors Without Borders.  There are currently 65 million people dislocated from their home place worldwide.  I moderated a discussion with one such refugee, the protagonist of How Fast Can You Run, last night at Main Point Books.  (The author will be speaking at other venues across Philadelphia.) 

How Fast Can You Run is a fictionalized account of Michael Majok Kuch’s 600-km (372-mile) flight, by foot, from his home in the current nation of South Sudan.  Separated from his mother at age five, and after languishing for 10 years in five refugee camps, Kuch won admission to the United States and earned degrees in a local high school, college, and graduate school.  Upon earning his master’s, he chose to return and help build a new nation.  He is now an advisor in Research and Policy in the Office of the President.

Kuch met the author, Harriet Levin Millan, when she interviewed 10 Sudanese refugees for an oral history project at Drexel, where she directs the program in writing and publishing.  Kuch had been seeking a format to tell his story.  A poet at heart— and with a MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers Workshop— Millan and Kuch decided on a fictionalized account, because of the difficulty of seeking permission from many people dispersed across the world.  Also, a novel allows Millan to enter the mind of Kuch and portray the perspective from his eyes.  Poetry would not have allowed her the scope to tell the life journey with so many harrowing incidents, including running away from wild animals and running away from Al-Shabaab, a jihadist terrorist group in East Africa.  

What was Kuch’s biggest life lesson?  Optimism.  After all the trauma and dangers of his childhood, he managed to survive.  Those survival skills give him lots of hope for a better world.  Kuch reunited with his mother in Australia 22 years after their harrowing separation.

Film Chat: The Hunger Games

By Hannah Lee

“The Hunger Games” opened this weekend to robust ticket sales, taking in a record $155 million in North America, according to The New York Times. The film and the book of the same name is about a dystopian future society, Panem, that arose after North America had been destroyed. Panem is governed autocratically from the Capitol, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. After a failed revolt some 74 years ago, the remaining 12 outlying districts are controlled by starvation rations and a cruel annual selection — the reaping — of one boy and one girl from each district to compete for their life in a televised survival competition called the Hunger Games. Beyond natural selection, they are subjected to man-made disasters — fire, creatures engineered to be more lethal, and artificially altered weather — as well as armed violence from the other contenders, the tributes, until only one survivor remains.

The movie was thoughtfully done, but fans would notice some omissions and telescoping. The author, Suzanne Collins, was listed as a producer, so it was with her approval. Still, it would be hard to understand everything if one had not read the book. For instance, the first interaction of the protagonists, the two tributes assigned to represent District 12, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, was supposed to be when they were 11 — five years ago — and her family was starving after the death of her father and while her mother was subsumed by grief. A baker’s son, Peeta, intentionally burnt some loaves of bread and he was angrily instructed to throw them out to the pigs. He threw them to Katniss, whom he knew was hiding by the pen. The flashback was quick (as were all of them) and the viewer would not know the debt that Katniss felt she owed to Peeta, for giving her hope, especially since she then spied the first dandelion of the season and she realized she can forage for her family, and later hunt for them. A nice added touch in the movie was when Peeta later told Katniss that he regretted throwing the bread, instead of walking outside in the heavy rain to give them to her personally (but we knew he was in trouble with his mother already). The two young lead actors were superb in their roles — Jennifer Lawrence as the flinty Katniss and Josh Hutcherson as the sensitive Peeta.

The movie added some foreshadowing from the second book, Catching Fire, such as a rebellion in reaction to Katniss’s tender farewell to the dying Rue of District 11 (who reminded her of her younger sister, Primrose — whom Katniss had volunteered to replace in an unprecedented act of self-sacrifice — but this allusion was left out of the movie). A clever addition was the punishment for the Gamemaster, Seneca Crane, in which he was escorted to a locked room in which he finds a bowlful of the poisonous berries that were recognized as Katniss’s rebellion.

Fans of the books may denounce parts of the movie, such as Katniss appearing beautiful and well-kept, so the transformation in the Capitol did not make sense. They may deplore the contrast of Katniss in a sleek leather jacket (it was her father’s in the book) and well-made boots to her neighbors in District 12 who were dowdily dressed in Depression-era garb. I would argue that it was a testament to her skill as a hunter that she did not look starved. Her Games costumes at the Capitol, designed by Judianna Makovsky (who also designed for “The Last Airbender” and  “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) were delightful and artfully impressed the Panem audience as the “Girl on Fire, ” an unusual and colorful representation of her coal-mining district.

Another caveat is the decision of the director, Gary Ross, to soften Katniss’s character, making her less obstinate and cynical, more likeable but less unique. Coming on the heels of the culmination of the Harry Potter series, Katniss is a fierce heroine who stands apart from the intellectual Hermione Granger. Before serving as tribute for her district, Katniss had to fight for her family’s survival. Starvation is a lonely, quiet battle, but probably no less terrifying than the adrenaline-inducing attacks by tributes wielding sharp weapons.

The Capitol denizens were depicted as ridiculous (with gaudy colorations and body decorations) and morally tone-deaf to the life-and-death situation of the Hunger Games, which they enjoy as entertainment and which they accept as rightful public policy to suppress future rebellion. A shout-out to the spot-on performance by Stanley Tucci as Games host, Caesar Flickerman, one of the two Capitol residents with kind words for Katniss (and broadcast to the entire country!). The other character, Cinna, alas, was reduced to being a less frivolous leader of her styling team.

“The Hunger Games” is a fine dramatization of the first book of Collins’ trilogy (four films are planned). The PG-13 rating meant that some violence was omitted and what is left is mostly obliquely shown or in blurry detail. Younger fans of the book could be taken along, if their parents accompany them in attendance. However, I would not advise bringing younger siblings who have not read the books.