Adapt or Die: Hanna and The Breakdown of Binary Oppositions

I spent part of yesterday listening to a recent episode of comedian Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, which featured Maron and The State alum Michael Showalter discussing, of all things, semiotics. Showalter, who is currently teaching grad classes in film at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of The Arts, was discussing his interest in semiotics as an undergrad, and he was running through a general overview of how signs function in film: bad guys in westerns wear black hats, good guys wear white ones, etc.

The conversation ended up being a great warm-up for my afternoon screening of Hanna, a film marketed as what passes for a conventional in its unconventionality, comic-book-meets-pop-art action film in the tradition of Run Lola Run, Kill Bill, and Oldboy. While it’s certainly in conversation with the conventions and aesthetics of action films, Hanna is more interesting to me in the way that it turns a fairly routine story about coming-of-age into a hot mess about the limits of control. The Jarmusch reference is intentional there, as I think Hanna covers terrain mapped about by that director’s most recent film in a more immediately engaging and compelling manner (that being said, I do like The Limits of Control, and Hanna still loses out to Dead Man if you are prone to treating movies like American Gladiators).

(Spoilers Below: the short review is Go See Hanna)

Hanna is telling a story about signifiers: specifically, it is a fairy tale about fairy tales which interrogates (rather than dismantles) the narratives that shape our childhood and adolescense. It’s true that Hanna is “a Brothers Grimm story for the 21st-century,” as many reviews have observed. What this reading means, of course, may differ from review to review. The film is not shy in its nods to Los Bros Grimm: Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) and Erik (Eric Bana) read Grimm’s fairy tales (in German) during the time they spend in the woods of Finland. When they enact their revenge plot against Marissa (Cate Blanchett), the woman who murdered Hanna’s mother, Erik tells his daughter to meet him at an amusement park dedicated to the Brothers. When things go awry at said meeting place, Hanna confronts Marissa at the jaws of the park’s Big Bad Wolf tunnel, and is forced to literally enter the belly of the beast to take her revenge.

One reaction to the giant wolf and the frequency of the Grimm connections is to groan at how heavy-handed this all seems. The one moment where Hanna lost me for a bit was its playground battle scene, reminiscent in its fight mechanics of Mark Steven Johnson’s Daredevil (of all films) for the way that Erik and his enemies use the elements of this childhood terrain as lethal weapons. Here too is where Erik spells out to Marissa what everyone in the theater has figured out by now: when Marissa asks Erik “Why now?” he notes that he could not stop Hanna from getting older out in the woods.  Childish things are left behind, Hanna enters adulthood and womanhood and leaves her parents behind (as corpses, a fate Erik seems resigned to the moment he invites Hanna to set the revenge plot in motion), and many filmgoers might be left thinking they’ve just seen a pretty mundane plot carried out with style but little substance. 

On the other hand, the details and deviations of Hanna’s rite of passage seem to suggest that narratives of rites of passage are more limiting than liberating. The Brothers Grimm are often praised for the way their stories reveal, rather than mask, the dangers that face children and adults, and the manner by which such an emphasis might better acclimate their audiences to the reality of their environment. Paradise is lost by wayward innocents stumbling into witches’ ovens, but the Grimms seem more intent on reminding us that children and adults all reside in the same postlapsarian universe. Hanna introduces the Grimms to Richard Dawkins and our now-godless, post-postlapsarian condition: she is a product of a science, a secret test subject designed (not-so-intelligently, as it turns out) to be the ultimate killing machine.

However, Hanna also reminds us that our ideas about godless, post-postlapsarian worlds are only as good as our ideas about postlapsarian worlds, and that binary oppositions of science and nature, urban and rural spaces, childhood and adulthood, nature and nurture, finality and etcetera, are symbiotic and highly contingent. Additionally, though they may be subject to revision and collapse, these binaries never seem to disappear completely, nor do they here. For example, Erik frames Hanna’s mission as her intiation into the world of adults and maturity, but the film frequently presents complications and counter-arguments to the rigidity with which Erik uses this narrative to frame her upbringing. We see cracks in this and other binaries in the ways that Hanna responds to the people around her.

The film utilizes strategies of defamiliarization to simultaneously introduce Hanna to our world and re-introduce the contours of our own world to ourselves. When Hanna is overwhelmed by a cacophany of seemingly-mundane noises in a hotel room — a tea kettle brewing, fans spinning, television chattering — we are reminded of the multitude of sounds that we ignore in the backdrop of our modern lives. But the life Hanna lives in the woods with Erik seems more solitary confinement than Emersonian utopia, and the limits of Hanna’s social skills are framed as defects as much as they are commendable. We are also shown the role that economics plays into the construction of a life spent escaping from the modern world into nature: the vacationing family Hanna befriends on her journey, we are reminded frequently, comes from substantial wealth. 

While Hanna‘s action sequences (and the way the Chemical Brothers arrange the music behind these set pieces) are a substantial source of the film’s pleasures, the elements of the film that surround these scenes provide the intellectual meat beneath its well-toned, heavily choreographed bones. Its tagline, “Adapt or Die,” may drive many of its central characters, but the filmmakers behind Hanna (who emphasize their interest in binaries by highlighting this phrase in the film and its marketing) don’t seem to take the phrase as literally. Unless we are being asked (well, more told than asked) to adapt our narrative strategies to more accurately represent the messiness of our lives in the stories we tell on the screen and on the street.

I’m still thinking about my response to the film (and I’m also trying not to give too much away here), but hopefully I’ve shown, at the very least, that Hanna is worth your time. Unless you want to keep supporting Russell Brand’s career. In which case, I hate you.

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