Warning: if you have been living under a hole for the past few years and still wish to be ignorant of the storyline of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, this post contains major spoilers.
I have a confession. I'm 33 and I think The Hunger Games books are the best books I've read in years. There I've said it. After jumping on the 'must read' train and obligatorily reading and watching the Harry Potter and Twilight series, with varying amounts of enjoyment and frustration (not going to critique them here because it's irrelevant) and steadfastly refusing to read 50 Shades of Grey, I've gone and got completely obsessed with popular teen fiction. I read the books, then watched the films, then repeated the whole process again in the past few months. I wasn't a huge fan of the first film when I saw it (probably a case of too much expectation combined with fairly lacklustre directing). But I saw Catching Fire at Christmas and the romance rekindled. I loved it. I re-read the books and then this weekend I introduced my husband to the two films (he read the books when I did), watching them back to back. And I had a break through. I realised why the story resonates so strongly with me personally.
And I'm not talking about the films costume design. I think Trish Summerville, costume designer for Catching Fire, particularly did a wonderful job. To come into a world where there was already a 'look', and then take that look and improve it exponentially, while still keeping it faithful to the original, is quite a feat. And there are some stunningly beautiful pieces of clothing in the film. But more importantly costume is used in the film constantly to define character and class. The people of the capitol dress elaborately in stark contrast to those in the districts just struggling to survive.
But that's not what I mean. I mean the role of costume design within the story. Because the majority of the decisions that a film costume designer and director would make to help the clothes define the story are already well entrenched in every part of the book. I'm talking about what Suzanne Collins added to the story. I mean the Costume Design in the book.
I mean Cinna.
I've been mulling it over, and I cannot for the life of me think of another time in fiction when the role of the costume designer is so perfectly understood. All through the series costume is of vital importance. It's NEVER 'And then Katniss wore a pretty dress'. Every single item of clothing she makes a statement, clothing always has a purpose. Katniss is almost always in costume, we very rarely see her in her own clothes. From the minute she puts on her mother's old dress to go to the reaping, she is putting away any choice she has. But that is only the first hint of what is to come.
For it is only when Katniss meets Cinna that we really start to understand the importance of clothing. Cinna uses costume design to pique the crowds interest in an otherwise fairly boring District 12 tribute, both in the chariot and the interview. Particularly in the 2 chariot scenes we are shown how superior Cinna is compared to the tired old choices of other tributes stylists. He is a visionary.
For the record, I don't personally like the interpretation of this dress as seen in the film. I think more could have been done with the design of the dress (I'm sure it's described as having crystals in the book), and less of the CGI. I think the second film chariot costume combines fire and clothing much more effectively. But either way it's the costume that defines Katniss in this scene. She's not good at the PR side of things. Not for the last time does her clothing tell a story that she is incapable of voicing.
I don't think it's underestimating the story to say that costume is used within the story as a matter of life and death. Cinna dresses her as a young, innocent girl when she exits the arena with Peta, to help back up the story of young love, and deflect the anger of the capitol.
But more importantly he gets to make the ultimate heroic act in the wedding dress in Catching Fire. By designing an ingenious costume of political significance, fully knowing what the repercussions will be. The Costume Designer gets to make a heroic act and ultimate sacrifice. He knows that by making a statement with this dress, by thwarting the capital, he will die. And that's why his death scene is so moving. Katniss is too naive to realise it but Cinna is fully aware that this dress signed his death warrant, it was just the timing that took him by surprise.
Of course his work also appears with equal significance in Mockinjay, but for those who have only seen the films and not read the books I won't spoil that.
Of course it's not just Cinna. The clothes worn in the arena are important hints of what is to come. They are infinitely practical to their surroundings. And other characters too. The Peacekeepers are always mentioned in reference to their white uniforms. it is impossible to picture a citizen of the capitol without their styling coming into play. This is a book drenched in the significance of how things look.
But it's not just the clothing, it's the personality of the costume designer. I was REALLY worried when I saw that they had cast Lenny Kravitz as Cinna. My previous knowledge of him was some shirtless glam rock star who dated Nicole Kidman. Surely he couldn't play the role of Cinna with the subtlety and empathy he deserved? But I've been converted. Because that is the important flip side. Suzanne Collins understands more than just the clothes, she also appreciates the relationship of stylist and client. It is somewhere between trusted ladies maid and artistic salesmanship. To get the best out of your clothing you need the person wearing it to believe in it. You have to sell your art to them so that they believe in it (and themselves) too. Sometimes that requires obsequiousness, flattery is very useful, and at other times you need to be bossy, but it is a relationship based on trust. The costume requires both the designer and the model to exist, and so it's a relationship that relies essentially on mutual trust and respect. And when that's not there, believe me, you can tell.
Anything that is as popular as The Hunger Games is by definition going to get as much negative as positive attention. Is the idea really original? Is Katniss really a hero? I don't really care. I like the story of Katniss and her world. It's bloody good storytelling. But even so, what I think is truly great about this world is that is gives costume a platform. Hopefully people will begin to understand that good costume design is almost never about who has the prettiest dress .
Just a personal addendum: this is my favourite costume from the films, The beautiful Cleopatra-esque design and use of colour is stunning. But we're also not allowed to forget that she is the Mocking Jay