Hungry, Hungry Games
February 26, 2012 § 1 Comment
For those who are not on my Facebook, I had a specific request for this week:
I’ll pay for the book if you read and give a writer’s perspective review of “the Hunger Games” before the movie comes out as part of your book a week challenge.
So although I did indeed read Ready Player One as part of my regular schedule (which I’ll briefly comment on later this week), and considering I’ve already read the book before I started my book-a-week program, I’m going to talk about The Hunger Games.
Week 8: The Hunger Games
It’s impossible, and wrong, to talk about the Hunger Games without talking about the phenomenon that it has become. It’s transcended a simple story to become something more. In the words of Dr. Seuss, it’s become “biggered” and I am at a bit of a loss to say why.
A small addendum: I’m still not going to give a review, per se, but I will take a closer look at some of the techniques and methods Collins uses for her book.
So first: the book itself. This book, which clocks in at a rather small ~93,000 words, reads like wildfire. You can devour this book, probably in one sitting if you really pushed yourself. The writing is sparse and quick, and because it is a first-person narrative, there are long stretches of description and paragraphs (upon paragraphs) of Katniss’ (the protagonist) thoughts. In terms of Collins’ writing, it’s not the most poetic, but this isn’t a story that would hold up well having long stretches of lyrical writing.
And yet, there are points where it suffers for it. For example, here’s how she sets up Katniss as she sings a song for her dying friend, Rue:
Sing. My throat is tight with tears, hoarse from smoke and fatigue. But if this is Prim’s, I mean Rue’s last request, I have to at least try. The song that comes to me is a simple lullaby, one we sing fretful, hungry babies to sleep with. It’s old, very old I think. Made up long ago in our hills. What my music teacher calls a mountain air. But the words are easy and soothing, promising tomorrow will be more hopeful than this awful piece of time we call today. (HG, 234)
It’s simple, and it’s clean, but only the last sentence really has weight. Here’s how Guy Gavriel Kay describes riding north:
They saw gazelles, great herds of them, almost unimaginably vast. They watched cranes and geese flying south, wave after wave as autumn came, bringing red and amber colours to the leaves. There were more trees now and more rolling hills as they moved out of the grasslands. One evening they saw swans alight on a small lake. One of Tai’s archers pointed, grinned, drew his bow. The Bogu stopped them with shouts of menace and alarm.
They never killed swans. (Under Heaven, 106)
That whole paragraph builds up to that sentence, and instantly, you get to see how the Bogu are compared to the Kitan (“Tai’s archers”), and the lyricism of the paragraph is a big part of that. Is it fair to compare those two books? Not exactly. HG is written for a different audience, a younger audience, and also has to work under significant differences in terms of length and author expectation. Suzanne Collins, before Hunger Games, wrote a popular series for the 9-12 age bracket. Before Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay wrote some incredibly important fantasy and had been writing for around 20 years. They aren’t the same person and it isn’t the same book.
However, this does illustrate a certain point about the writing: it’s a framework that the story hangs on, rather than something that is beautiful in and of itself. One of the reasons why I think this is because there was too little dialogue. The characters experience and interact with the world, but the way it’s presented is through description and explanation. Collins was telling a story, admittedly a cool and edgy story, but the way she was telling that story wasn’t important. She needed her language to be clear and quick and to tell her story without distraction. That’s both a blessing and a curse. Let it not be forgotten that it’s a YA book, and that teenagers have shorter attention spans (not to mention you’re competing against a billion other entertainment sources nowadays). She needed to cut all the fat in order to make it as interesting as possible.
But with no fat there’s no sizzle. While Katniss is an interesting and developed character, no-one else really is. Peeta and Gale, the love-biscuits of the book, are explored, but that’s about it and it shows. There’s not much in the way of dialogue, and there’s no chance to explore the other characters without Katniss’ views getting in the way. While that is a weakness of the first-person narrative, it’s pretty glaring in this case. I devoured this book and wanted more, not because it was so amazing, but because I was hungry for it(take that, no-pun February!).
If the writing was only a frame to support the story, the next question is whether the story is enough to support the book or not. In this case, I think it is. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic (probably post-nuclear) world that is grossly unequal. There is the Capitol and the Districts, and the Capitol rules with a technologically-enhanced iron fist. The Districts are poor, technologically backwards, and filled to the brim with resentment against the Capitol. The Hunger Games (note the lack of italicization) are held every year to remind the Districts, after a failed rebellion 74 years before the start of the book, of their subservient position. The Games themselves are gladiatorial battles between children of the Districts where they fight to the death for the enjoyment (or horror) of the viewers.
For a book aimed at teens, that’s gutsy. I respect that, and it actually fills me with hope for the YA “genre”. The more difficult topics, the more edgy topics, that are dealt with, the stronger the genre will be. If I want to write a bloody zombie book for teens, or a horror story that takes place in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (for, y’know, example), I want to be able to and not have snotty-nosed parents say “Ohh, isn’t that too mature for teens?” Screw you, imaginary parents, with your rules.
I can also say that Collins handles the tournament well. Punches are not pulled and children (the tournament pool is from 12 to 17) die. She isn’t afraid to show it, either. There’s enough blood and guts and mangled bodies to prove it.
But for all that, I’m a little bothered. The number 1 question I was asked by people when I said I was reading the series was “Peeta or Gale?” And that’s when it hit me: the Hunger Games isn’t just a libertarian fable about how dangerous government can be and the necessity for independence and personal revolt, it’s also a teen angst romance.
The genius about the romance is that it is crucial to the plot, both for Katniss surviving the arena and the romance in and of itself. The inclusion of it, however, is something I would still consider a blow against the book. It is not enough, apparently, to tell a story about how horrible it is when we are forced to turn upon each other for the amusement of others. No, dying children and sci-fi arenas of death aren’t enough, I also need drama. And romance. And scenes where the protagonist describes her first kiss with a boy (ewww, I am told that girls in the future still have cooties).
Don’t get me wrong, people. I’m pro-romance (too much so, if you know me) and I have nothing against writing a romance or having romance elements in it. But look at the story I’m writing now: the building block of the story is that it’s about two people who reunite despite thinking they never will again. Romance is built into the bricks of this story and can’t be removed without changing the story. In the Hunger Games, the romance is the mortar that holds the other bricks together, and can’t be removed without the story falling apart.
This makes me a little grumpy because I can totally see she why she did it. One of the difficulties of YA is that you need to relate to your audience. I would guess that 99% of the drama in teenage reading audiences today is relationship-related, and as an author who probably wants to eat and keep the lights on, you need to sell to that market. I, however, as an outside observer, get to chirp endlessly.
At points, the relationship feels like a distraction from the reality of the situation. I don’t doubt that love can bloom (even on the battlefield), but at points it distracted from the reality of the situation, in the way that the best relationships do sometimes. We forget they’re trying to kill each other when they’re kissing, and I don’t know if that was brilliant or accidental, but it was off-putting. Did they focus so much on the relationship because they, as children, are using it to escape the reality of the death match they’re in…or because sigh, he’s so dreamy!
I don’t know, but I suspect more of the latter. In the end, I found the Hunger Games an interesting book that is one of the best examples of how to do YA right. However, it doesn’t stand by itself. It is part of a series and can not be considered outside of that series. The story is not only incomplete without the others, it lacks nutrition. You will eat it in one gulp but it will not satisfy.
Now, the other two books are a whole another can of worms that I won’t get into here, but suffice to say that it would make an excellent movie. Perhaps a better movie than book, but that remains to be seen. In the end, you’re better off reading this book for yourself, because it’s worth a read. I’d just have another book lined up to read afterwards.
We wouldn’t want you going hungry, after all (zing!).