For the past few weeks, I've been deliberating on The Hunger Games trilogy, and even thought of writing a review, but an innocuous "good morning" on Twitter the other week spiraled into a lengthy discussion on the subject.
Novel vs Trilogy
When talking about The Hunger Games, we need to assess whether we are talking about the novel, or the series. For example, I felt that the first book was a competent endeavor—perhaps even contrived, which I'll explain later—but the series, as a whole, is an interesting narrative that tackles several subjects and themes.
An aside is how we are able to judge a series, which seems to be the staple of genre. In most awards, for example, the judges or the voting population should theoretically judge a novel on its own merits, as opposed to the entire trilogy or series. (Which is why Abigail Nussbaum wrote An Appeal to the Hugo Nominators when it came to Blackout/All Clear.) While novel criticism already has a system in place, I think we need more tools and dialog when it comes to discussing—and rewarding—the merits of an entire series.
The Conceit of The Hunger Games
For the past few months, this has been a pet peeve of mine: when people simply dismiss The Hunger Games as a lesser Battle Royale. The claim is as ridiculous as a non-writer approaching writers, and giving them this pitch:
"I have a story idea for you. I'll sell it to you, you write the novel, and we'll split the profits."The fact is, there's more to writing than just the concept (although concept is important). When it comes to vampires, for example, no one chastises Bram Stoker for ripping off Lord Byron or John Polidori. And (usually) each generation's incarnation of the vampire story, from Anne Rice to Stephenie Meyer, adds something to the mythos. Taking a more modern concept, there are significant differences between Superman, Marvelman, Captain Marvel, Apollo, The Sentry, and the Plutonian, despite their similarities to each other.
Or, if we're just going to talk about possible influences, why not state the ensemble of authors who predate Collins: Shirley Jackson, William Golding, George Orwell, William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, etc.
And then there are the differences between the two books: first-person vs. third-person, survival vs. innocence, trilogy vs. novel, etc.
An essay that best explains this phenomenon is from the US publisher of Battle Royale, Haikasoru: Battle Royale vs. The Hunger Games.
The movie, for me, is an interesting adaptation.
It's definitely different, and there are significant changes that changes the entire tone of the narrative. There's the shifting perspectives, for example, a stark contrast from the novel where everything is filtered through Katniss's perception. Her romance with Peeta gives a completely opposite impression, even if the actions she performs are identical to the book.
Aesthetically, because Suzanne Collins is sparse on description, there's much room for interpretation when it comes to the visuals and the casting. For example, there's a certain flamboyance to the fashion that wasn't readily apparent in my reading, and that's a valid interpretation of the books.
One detail I'd like to focus on that I haven't seen anywhere else (everyone by now should have read the racist tweets commentary) is the portrayal of violence. Without elaborating on the hypocrisy of US media's approach to sex and violence, I'll note that in the film, there's a lot of avoidance of showing gruesome scenes. This is accomplished through shaky cameras, off-screen death (some of which does occur in the books), and blood-less murder.
As far as the film is concerned, there's a level of streamlining the narrative, making it a shorter and probably much more engrossing movie, but it also loses a lot of the nuances and implications of the book. I enjoy it for what it is, and it's a good supplement to the novel, but if you really want to get to the meat of the story—and it's not exactly a very thick book—read The Hunger Games.
Details, Details, Details
What immediately strikes me about the books is the style. It's a first-person narrative that focuses on the action and essential plot points, but skimps when it comes to the details. This is best seen in Catching Fire, when Katniss tours the districts. Collins only describes Katniss's experience with District 11. The rest is quickly glossed over. Not that those details are required, but if this was an epic fantasy for example, one of the tropes would have been to explore all twelve districts as part of the character's journey, to flesh out the world-building.
This is a consistent style in all three novels, and extends to character details. Do you know why some readers mistook Rue for a white girl? It's not that she wasn't described as such, as there is textual evidence, but it's not a point that's emphasized. Most characters in the book get a line or two of description at most, so there's this space for ambiguity.
I don't profess to know the intent of the author. There are several valid reasons for using this technique. Maybe because Collins wants the readers to project themselves into the character. Maybe it's to maintain the momentum of the narrative and descriptions will simply bog it down. Maybe it's part of the character conceit, that Katniss doesn't value physical appearance as much. Maybe Collins simply doesn't enjoy delving into the details. Or some combination of what I previously mentioned. Whatever the case may be, that's how the books are written. Objectively, it's not necessarily a weakness, but readers will have their preference (some will be content with the sparseness, while others will feel dissatisfied).
I was listening to Geek's Guide to the Galaxy chatting with Tobias Buckell and one of the latter's agendas is to introduce people of color into science fiction, so his protagonists are often POC. These details are interwoven and hammered in the narrative, so that when it comes to the covers, it's hard to whitewash them—or at least that's the experience of Buckell when it comes to his Xenowealth series (that wasn't the case for Justine Larbalestier's Liar until much fan outcry). That's one way of handling the subject, but in this case, Collins veers in the opposite direction. Hiromi Goto covers some of the problems with Collins's approach, although I'd argue there is still some sense of culture in the books (each district for example specializes in a specific industry), just not a lot of race.
And again, that's not to eliminate the possibility of writing a post-racial story. For some of us—myself included—it just wasn't convincing, or rather, maybe Collins should have taken a different approach with regards to the matter.
The main reason why I felt The Hunger Games was underwhelming was that the conflict felt contrived. For a survival scenario where the point is to kill your fellow competitors—and preservation of innocence isn't the point—Katniss didn't have to make any "difficult" choices. Arguably part of this is to win over reader sympathy, but the book is transparently manipulative in establishing Katniss as some form of innocent killer. The deaths she is responsible for is arguably indirect (death by tracker jays), out of justified rage (the murder of Rue), and in the end, a mercy kill. Her enemies are also portrayed as lacking any redeeming qualities. What would have been more compelling for me, for example, is a scenario where Katniss had to kill Thresh.
That's not to say the argument against it doesn't have merits. One fact pointed out to me is that Katniss had to make a difficult choice by pretending to love Peeta. As for the two-dimensional portrayal of the District 1 and 2 tributes, that could have been to illustrate the point of how the colonized are used against one another (they were only all too obliging in oppressing their fellow oppressors, as long as it suited them).
But whereas I found The Hunger Games lacking, I was much impressed with Catching Fire and Mockingjay, as it went where the first book didn't. If in the first novel I felt that Katniss didn't have to make difficult choices, it's mined in the next two books, and culminates in her execution of Coin. There's also various facets the books explores, such as PTSD, the complexities of politics, morality, etc. The trilogy is greater than the sum of its parts, and The Hunger Games for me was the weakest of the three.
Nor do I buy the opinion that Catching Fire was a rehash of the first book, as it took the next step in the narrative, whether on a plot level or on an emotional level. Katniss, for example, is in a very different place in the second novel compared to the first. Nor did I feel that the conceit was strained, and follows the progression of reality TV like the transition from Survivor to Survivor All-Stars, and highlights the tyranny of the Capitol.
There's some criticism with regards to Collins's world-building. On one hand, this ties into her sparse description (for example, only select districts are fleshed out, and the rest are this vague haze of oppressed societies). For others, it's the initial premise: that an intelligent dictator with access to state-of-the-art technology would use a violent show involving children as a means to subjugate most of the population, and has been going on for the past 74 years. It's not wholly implausible and was used in history (gladiatorial combat), but at a certain level, you have to ask: isn't there a better way of controlling your society?
Personally though, establishing that is not the point of the book. We take certain assumptions as a given (in this case, the existence of The Hunger Games and its rationale) and roll with it. What comes after is where Collins excels in, and explores the implications of this dystopia.
The structure of the books is interesting to me.
If you analyze them as individual novels, they follow a two-act structure: pre-Hunger Games, and The Hunger Games proper (or in the case of Mockingjay, the actual excursion). If this were a caper movie, it would be divided into the preparations for the heist, and the heist itself. The first part establishes the characters, makes you sympathize with them, and acts as a vehicle for exposition. The second part, on the other hand, where much of the action takes place, and where we feel the character's lives are at risk.
If you assess them as an entire series, however, they follow a three-act structure. The Hunger Games establishes the premise, Catching Fire addresses that conflict (and where the rebellion tips its hand, at least to the reader), while Mockingjay provides us with the resolution.
There's a lot to discuss when it comes to The Hunger Games series, and some of the points I mentioned are entry points to discussion, not the final commentary on them. It's not a perfect series (what are the books that are?) but that doesn't mean it should be quickly dismissed as a Battle Royale clone, a fad, or poor writing.