When I was in high school, my slightly underdeveloped instinct for teenage rebellion manifested through a fascination with dystopia literature. Kicked off nicely with being assigned John Wyndham’s the Chrysalids, I worked my way through the great classics: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451.
In addition to that, Young Adult Literature, the place where we went to meet the dark side of our society, yielded such gems as Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Lois Lowry’s the Giver and Gathering Blue, and Monica Hughes’ the Story Box and the Other Place. All are fine tales of young people rising up to defy totalitarian regimes, often projections of the injustices festering in modern life, our worst aspects carried to extremes and resulting in insidious and darkly nuanced societies.
It was with this fine tradition in mind that I cocked an ear to the buzz and sought out Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy.
This trilogy is hot property at the public library with young readers and the movie recently broke opening weekend records at the box office. As a female heroine, the main character seems to be breaking new ground in people’s preconceptions of girl heroes only being of interest to girl audiences.
Taking place an indeterminate distance into a future where human civilization collapsed, the story features Katniss Everdeen, from District 12 of the nation of Panem. She volunteers, in place of her little sister, as a ‘tribute’ in the annual Hunger Games. In it, a girl and boy between 12 and 18 from each of the 12 districts are selected by lot, hailed like reality TV stars, trained in combat and survival and then sent into an arena. There, under the constant vigil of cameras, they fight each other to the death for the amusement of the masses. 24 go in, 1 comes out.
The first novel, the Hunger Games, introduces Katniss and her life in the impoverished District 12 as she enters the 74th Hunger Games alongside Peeta, the baker’s son who has loved Katniss from afar for years. Together they enter the pre-Game ceremonies and then the arena, and Katniss has to struggle to survive, forge alliances and friendships, and confront the sadistic Capitol through the instrument of their tyranny.
The second novel, Catching Fire, sees Katniss trying to adjust to life now that she is a ‘victor,’ only to discover that the Capitol’s ruthless exploitation of her has not ended. She tries to play the role expected of her, but finds that her performance in the arena has inspired the downtrodden people of Panem to rebel. Thrown once again into the arena as part of the ‘Quarter Quell,’ an extra special version of the Hunger Games held every 25 years, she and Peeta once again have to watch each other’s backs as they try to make it through the Games while still working against the will of the Capitol and the cruel President Snow.
Finally, Mockingjay, the third novel, finds Katniss and her friends, family and allies in the keeping of the optimistic but autocratic rebel forces, and the districts are now in a state of open warfare. Katniss continues in her constant struggle to balance protecting her loved ones with doing her part and keeping from simply becoming a tool of the rebel leaders.
If I had to describe the series in one word, it would be ‘suspenseful.; From first to last I was kept wondering what would happen next to Katniss and the other characters. Watching these kids fall one by one was heartbreaking, and a general air of man’s inhumanity to man hung over the whole experience. I have to say it was also rather refreshing to see a dystopian future where the human element is the sole indicator. The landscapes seem fertile and vibrant, rather than a run-down urban hell pit like in Fahrenheit 451 or a bleak wasteland like the Chrysalids.There’s a real sense that the biggest threat to the people is themselves, rather than circumstance. Moreover the entire scenario has a charming familiarity for me since it’s the same cloth a lot of classic Doctor Who and Star Trek episodes were cut from.
As much as I enjoyed the first book, the suspense factor is really the main thing it has going for it. Character development is flat; Katniss is not a noticeably different person at the end from who she was as the beginning. Collins seems to be in such a rush to get to the suspenseful and dramatic bits that she skips a lot of the development and groundwork, breaking the cardinal rule of ‘show, don’t tell,’ dulling a lot of intense moments and turning Katniss into an exposition dispenser in the process.
This improves in the second book, as Katniss starts contending with some serious questions about her identity vis a vis the rebellion, and other characters get more thoroughly fleshed out. All this is capped off with the same suspense and a rather clever ending.
That takes us as far as the first two books right there. I feel that Mockingjay, the third and final installment, needs to be treated independently. Mockingjay is to put it bluntly, terrible. With the rebellion fully underway, Collins and her editors themselves seem to be rebelling against the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. Three chapters went by before I got to read anything that wasn’t Katniss’ internal monologue about what had been happening, what her life was like now, and who the new players were. God forbid I could actually meet any of them.
A new secondary villain is introduced and given seemingly less than a dozen lines of spoken dialogue! There are lots of intense, touching and interesting scenes, but they feel like stitched-on patches that don’t carry any weight in the rest of the story
We get so deluged in new characters and shown so little of who they are, that I neither could keep adequate track of them, nor bring myself to care very much. Katniss , meanwhile, is continually going through what Tropers call a ‘Trauma Conga Line’ that caused me to reach angst saturation way before she was done, and left me numb before the climax was anywhere in sight.
A common criticism often levelled is the focus in the latter two books on Katniss’ love triangle with Peeta and her best friend Gale, which gets a little soap-opera-like as the story goes along. Personally I didn’t mind it, and the way Katniss and Peeta form a team seemed like a sound progression to a relationship, but the reason I didn’t mind it was chiefly because it gets handled in the same dry way as most other aspects of the story, so that I can neither be invested in or annoyed by it all that much. It also gives birth to the interesting but out-of-place and strange Deadly Hallows-esque epilogue.
However, Mockingjay’s frankly careless handling of storytelling apart, I enjoyed the series, and the first book in particular, despite these flaws. The movie was actually very successful in compensating for the ‘show don’t tell’ issues, as a film necessarily does, and I’d go so far as to call it better than the book, a rare event.
But book or film, the franchise for me will be dangerously set back by one major problem, and that’s the villains. If you can remember all the way back to the start of this post, I mentioned that I’m a self-styled connoisseur of the dystopia genre. Consider Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the Party gets inside your head, manipulating you to Love Big Brother, or the Giver, where a society has bought peace and tranquility in exchange for callousness and ignorance.
In the Hunger Games, I theorized going in that the biggest danger of the society would be that the masses were sold on the spectacle but detached from the consequences of the Games. I assumed they were a device to distract and indoctrinate the masses, a little like Orwell’s Two-Minute Hate. I also imagined that Katniss’ resentment of the regime would grow out of what she and her fellows endured in the Hunger Games.
But instead the Games is only really entertainment for the Party people, the Districts are compelled to participate out of spite, and everybody knows that. Katniss’ slow character growth is due in large part to the fact that she already hated the Capitol, making the Games seem like her going through the motions instead of on a real journey. The nation’s name ‘Panem’ is from the Latin for ‘Bread’ as in ‘Bread and Circuses’ but the thing is that the Roman elite used B&C to keep the masses docile and distracted while they were really being exploited and subjugated. In Panem, the Hunger Games are used to rub the Districts’ faces in the fact that they’re exploited and subjugated.
Launched from that premise, in both the books and the movie, the Capitol and President Snow’s behaviour becomes increasingly sadistic, vindictive and suicidally stupid. The victors – particularly Katniss, despite her being a rebel figurehead – are relentlessly bullied and tormented by the villains. District 12 seems less like a real, if poor, community and more like a slightly posh concentration camp, and they’re kept in that state that for no apparent reason. The existence of a rebellion is not remotely surprising, nor does the enemy come across as anything but brutes. Dystopia villains are scary because of their ability to get inside your head, and President Snow, despite attempts to depict him as a smooth plotter, doesn’t appear to have anything in his head. Even accepting that such shameless despots have really existed, none of them held a regime together for anything like 75 years.
I feel that the series overall could have achieved true greatness except for the cartoonish villains and the abovementioned excess of telling over showing. More study of the concept of ‘Bread and Circuses’ and the psychology behind it, which has been crucial to Dystopia literature’s entire history, and more time taken for characterization and world-building would have created something really amazing.
The first book at least is fun and intense, the movie is breathtaking, and I’m pleased by the revolution Katniss is sparking in real life. I just wish they’d put her in a better story…