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Interrogating the Text #5: The Hunger Games

March 27, 2012

This is a continuation of my occasional series on what I can learn on the craft of writing from reading the stories of accomplished professionals and examining and understanding my reactions.

For an explanation of what I’m attempting in this series, go here.

In the second post in my in this occasional series (what was actually a three part post), I tackled a novel I had just finished.  Having recently finished Suzanne Collins‘ widely-acclaimed The Hunger Games, I thought now was a good time to similarly analyze this book – the recent release of the film notwithstanding.  (Note that Dear Wife and I have not seen it, yet, but intend to.  Getting a babysitter on short notice is not generally easy – especially when all your stand-by babysitters are themselves going out that same weekend to watch the same movie.)

Obviously, now, no links to the book – but if you haven’t read it you can probably obtain a copy from your local library, and a nearby bookstore is almost certain to have a copy.

I picked up The Hunger Games on the recommendation of Dear Wife, who picked it up on the recommendation of other friends.  She read it a couple years ago while I was still in Grad School and thus unable to read it myself at the time.  But with the movie coming out this year, I was determined to give it a read before seeing the film.  (And in fact I finished the book about a month ago… I just hadn’t had time to write this up, yet.)

I will say, right off, that I didn’t have the same conflicted relationship with this book that I had with the last novel that I analyzed in this blog (the aforelinked The Magicians).  Whereas I found the ending of that book problematic, I found the ending of this book mostly to be quite satisfying.  That said, I don’t come to this analysis without some criticism for The Hunger Games.  But criticism aside, it’s a good book and well-worth the read.  It doesn’t have the same lyrical narrative flare and style that some of the other works I’ve analyzed have.  But that’s of necessity, being in the first person perspective of the protagonist.  Obviously, though, the book has become a phenomenon for a reason, and that reason is valid.

By now you’re likely familiar with the book and its plot.  But here’s a short run-down anyway (and my usual warning: There will be spoilers): it’s the dystopian future, and what was once North America has given way to the oppressive regime of Panem, as ruled from the Capitol.  North America has been divided into a number of tightly-controlled districts.  There is no commerce or interaction between the districts – all of that control lies with the Capitol.  Some 74 years prior to the start of the story, the districts of Panem had attempted to revolt against the Capitol, but the revolution was put down, and the Hunger Games were instituted as means of controlling the population.  You learn all this backstory in the course of the narrative.

So, each year, the 12 remaining districts send a “Tribute” of one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to participate in the Hunger Games – where the twenty-four children are dumped in an arena and fight to the death while cameras catch their every move, broadcasting the macabre competition to a reality-television-gone-sickeningly-wild hungry populace back in the Capitol and ultimately all across Panem.  Katniss Everdeen, the heroine, volunteers to represent District 12, to replace her younger sister who was selected in the lottery.

But the games get complicated for Katniss when her co-tribute turns out to be a boy named Peeta Mellark – a baker’s son who once saved Katniss’s life when she was starving after her father died.  And so as Katniss battles well-trained and financially-privileged tributes from some of the lower-numbered districts (the relative prominence of a District seems to be a direct correlation with its numerical designation, such that District 1 is the wealthiest and most-favored by the Capitol), she also battles budding feelings for the boy who saved her life, and questions her prior feelings for her hunting-buddy, Gale.  The nascent romance is in mortal danger – because only one of the two can leave the arena alive.

In the end, though, both Katniss and Peeta survive – having discovered a glitch in the underlying facts of the Games: it is a Reality TV program, after all, and the star-crossed lovers storyline proves immensely popular with the viewing public of the Capitol.  Gambling on this, Katniss and Peeta are able to play up the romance angle (and Katniss thinks this is all for show), forcing those who control the games to declare them both the winners.

There are several key lessons I took from this book.  It’s got a lot going for it, after all.  There’s action, of course.  And there’s romance.  And a love-triangle.  And just as Katniss and Peeta play up the star-crossed-lovers storyline (I must admit that I found it interesting that the phrase “star-crossed lovers” remains extent in Katniss’s vocabulary despite the fact that she was likely not exposed to Shakespeare during her young life), Suzanne Collins plays up the same storyline to keep the readers on their toes.  Throughout the book I assumed that Katniss and Peeta would somehow find a way to both survive intact.  But I was never sure that they would (at least not until the “rule change” announcement).  It’s not unusual for readers like myself to start a story expecting the protagonist to win.  It’s a real trick, then, to make a reader worried for the fate of the protagonist.  In the case of Katniss Everdeen, I knew she would survive the book.  (There were, after all, two more books in the series.)  But while I had no uncertainty about the protagonist’s survival, I had less certainty about the fate of the other characters, and whether Katniss would have to descend to a particularly dark place in order to survive (i.e. whether she’d have to kill or watch Peeta be killed).

That’s a positive lesson of this story.  As an author, you’re not working only with your protagonist’s life.  You’ve got other resources to build up tension.  There are other characters that you might have to threaten or kill.  There are dark places you can threaten to take your character.  And, sometimes, you have to kill those other characters and take your protagonist to those dark places.  We all know the hero wins in the end.  But the winning isn’t easy.  That’s what makes for a good conflict, and that’s what makes for engaging tension in a story.

I did mention that I had some criticisms of the story, though. My primary criticism, and the thing that most made me disengage with the story, was the way in which background details and backstory was fleshed out.  Frequently, the flow of the book is interrupted when Katniss stops to reflect on some background history and how that history is relevant to the immediate conflict at hand.  I first noticed this early in the book, when Peeta’s name is called as the second Tribute of District 12 – and Katniss enters an extended recollection of her first encounter with Peeta on a rainy evening, when she’s starving, and he brings her bread from the bakery, followed by further recollections of their infrequent interactions.

When Peeta’s name was announced, it’s clear that Katniss has an emotional reaction to it.  But the context of that emotional reaction is given to us in the moment, instead of being something the reader was already familiar with.  For me, as a reader, this robbed the moment of the appropriate emotional resonance, since instead of feeling what Katniss was feeling, I got fed a dose of “Katniss is shocked, and here’s why she’s shocked…”

Early in the story, this was easily forgivable: the characters of Katniss and Peeta have to be established somehow.  But the same technique is used over and over throughout the book.  Katniss’s sudden fear at encountering the avox serving girl is followed by a flashback that explains it.  Katniss’s encounter with the Tracker Jackers (and her subsequent use of their hive to kill some of those chasing her) is interrupted by an explanation of what Tracker Jackers are and what role they’ve played in the history of Panem.  And so on.

There’s a name for this narrative technique: it’s called an infodump.  And it gets a bum rap for a reason: it yanks a reader out of the moment of the story.  It reminds them of the fourth wall of the book.  It cuts the cords that hold the weight of their suspension of disbelief.

Granted, now, there are several instances when things are effectively foreshadowed instead.  The importance of the mockingjays is established before Katniss joins up with Rue and the two use them to communicate, and before they take up their song at Rue’s death.  The poison berries are introduced before Katniss and Peeta use them to force the hands of the Gamemakers. But my impression was that effective foreshadowing was used more rarely in this book than outright infodumping.

Within the context of this book, perhaps these infodumps were the best and most expeditious means of relaying this relevant information.  It was a lean, tight novel clocking in under 100,000 words.  It would be difficult, I think, to write the book in such a way as to fully contextualize and foreshadow all these elements and keep the book as lean as it is.  (Note, in that prior link, the discussion of trends forcing books to be shorter for marketing purposes.)  You save some small wordcount in the scenes where the infodumps occur, when you rip those infodumps out.  But adding new scenes earlier in the story to replace that context would add substantially more wordcount than is saved.  But, in my opinion, the story is better-served when relevant information is foreshadowed rather than infodumped in the very moment of their relevance.  So this is my second critical take-away from The Hunger Games.  As I am more interested in the artistic integrity of the story, overall, than I am in artificial marketing constraints (not that I don’t think those things are important, from the business-side of writing, but when you’re writing, the story is everything), I feel that this is something for me to strive for in my own work.

I don’t want to dump detail and information on a reader in a ham-handed way.  I want the world and its detail and its backstory to flow naturally to the reader, and for the pieces to fall together and make sense.

My final take-away from The Hunger Games concerns characterization. Suzanne Collins does a masterful job of developing her characters.  Although the story is told in a first person point of view, the reader is able to get a sense of the depth of all of the characters through Katniss’s observations about them.  The reader understands how deeply traumatic Haymitch’s prior experience in the Games had been.  They can sense his antipathy toward the Capitol and his unresolved self-loathing for playing into their game.  The reader understands immediately that when Peeta says he’s in love with Katniss, he’s being wholly sincere.  For that matter, when Katniss tells herself that saying the same thing is just for show, we glimpse the inner turmoil and we understand that what she tells herself about her feelings – what we see in the text of the story – don’t accurately represent her true inner feelings – the narrative we see emerging between the lines.

Putting a story and an idea into the minds of readers that isn’t explicitly supported by the text of the book, but which is very clearly the intending meaning that one is expected to draw from that text – that’s a really fancy trick.  It’s one that should prove especially useful to any given writer, should they master it.

A big part of what makes this all work is inextricably linked to the protagonist herself: The Hunger Games introduces us to an active, engaged heroine.  She’s not a passive character to whom plot is something that  happens.  Katniss creates her own plot.  She reacts to her world, and her reactions are consistent with her character.  She cares about things, she has values and convictions.  And she does what she can within the constraints she believes she has to act according to those convictions.

A lesser protagonist would not have volunteered for the Hunger Games – she would have been called up by the Lottery.  And that moment, that act of defiance early in the story, sets the tone for everything that comes after.

I would do well to learn this lesson for myself, I think.  My own WIP, “Book of M”, centers on a female protagonist.  I must admit to having had some trepidation about the idea of writing from the perspective of a protagonist who is not of my own gender.  Would I get it right?  Could I capture the essence of being a female character?  I worried that I’d be ridiculed or pilloried for effectively writing a boy character with female parts.  It was probably a stupid worry.  I chose a female character because a female character is what my story demands.  But The Hunger Games has shown me, especially, that what makes for an engaging and interesting protagonist is a more universal quality that transcends gender and identity.  It is in the having of values, beliefs, convictions, wants, and desires.  It is in acting on those qualities.  And it is in finding the tension and conflict – external, internal, and deeper still, below the level of conscious awareness – between those qualities.  And I’m glad for having that experience.  And I hope I can learn those lessons and act on them in my own work.

Have you read The Hunger Games?  Did you enjoy it?  Why or why not?

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2012 7:35 pm

    I read the book a couple years ago on a co-worker’s recommendation, and here’s the strange thing: I didn’t enjoy it, but I kinda loved it.
    Reading it was like living Katniss’s nightmare (as I recall, I did have at least one actual nightmare following my experience with the sequel, “Catching Fire”), and I really dislike being scared pantless like that. But dang it, I loved Peeta and Cinna, and thought Katniss was pretty cool*, and like it or not, the plot dragged me in and left me feeling…I don’t know, but FEELING. The story claimed a part of me, the way good stories will.
    It makes me I wish I hadn’t read “Mockingjay” (book #3), because I considered it a disappointment (*both story and protagonist, totally derailed), and that’s tainted my emotional reaction to all things “Hunger Games” now. (That, and its massive popularity. Part of me hopes my books never get quite *that* much of a cultural obsession, because I know it’ll only turn contrary folks like me off of touching my work with a ten-foot pole. Somewhere just a few shades below “Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter” will suit me just fine, thanks so much.)
    All that being said, I’m hoping to catch the movie this weekend (’cause, well, I kinda can’t *not*, now).

    • March 28, 2012 9:28 am

      Dear Wife had the opposite reaction to you on Catching Fire vs. Mockingjay (She liked Mockingjay more… but then she tells me once she got over her hangup in Catching Fire she liked it better than her initial reaction was.) I haven’t read either (yet). So NO spoilers for those, yet, pleasethankyou. For myself, I have fewer qualms about having my pants scared off me. (And Hunger Games didn’t do that for me. I don’t see many horror movies, or read much horror fiction, so actually I don’t get the pants scared off me much. The last thing that truly and deeply unsettled me to the point of considering myself scared was actually “The Dark Knight”.) Also… popularity doesn’t put me off of something that’s good. As a matter of fact, I didn’t read either Hunger Games nor Harry Potter until they were already immensely popular.

  2. March 27, 2012 8:08 pm

    I shouldn’t even comment on this. I know that. I’m not qualified having never read it. But here goes – I have this unfounded disgust towards whatever wave of pop-lit junk that hits every few years – and my rolling wave of disgust is even more furious since it involves my one true nerdy love of sci-fi/spec/fantasy. I tend to feel that this novel:

    1. May be a rip-off of Battle Royale. Just check it out.
    2. The socio-economic message is getting lost on the masses (not the author’s fault).
    3. An author is getting famed, paid, and wooed by the public for an idea that’s been in almost every sci-fi anthology since the 50′s.

    Okay. Are these are not valid reasons for hating a book. They are horribly ignorant ones. I just wish people were reading something of substance – or better SEEING something of substance in what they consume, not just latching on to a mindless ride of pop-words like pin-wheels. Sadly, the female lead role in this movie will get more coverage concerning her looks then any message from the pile of words flying off the shelf.

    This all may sound horribly convoluted, but I had to throw my worthless two cents in.

    • March 28, 2012 8:03 am

      I’ve seen the comment of it being just “Battle Royale” in another guise, or a rip-off of some other story idea. The problem is that there are actually relatively few, if any, truly original ideas left. If it wasn’t done in previous literature of the same genre, it was done by Shakespeare, or in the Bible, or it’s part of a myth or other lore.

      An author’s task is to take the idea and make it her own. There are numerous ways to do this, including through characters, setting, tone, POV, pacing, etc etc etc. Nobody dings “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” for being a rip-off of the original P&P, because it has an interesting take on the idea. “Shades of Milk and Honey” was fairly typical of Regency romance stories, except it was written in the present day with magic thrown in. If an author is doing it right, while the basic set-up may sound the same, the characters, setting, and all those other little details are what separates their implementation of an idea with anybody else’s interpretation. Ms. Collins, I would say, has taken an idea that has been present, as you say, but put her own twist on it. Maybe not masterfully, but certainly successfully. Heck, I hadn’t heard of Battle Royale until people started comparing the Hunger Games to it. The Hunger Games has managed to appeal to a larger set of people than Battle Royale, and possibly than all those stories in 50s anthologies.

      You can dismiss it out of hand if you like (I certainly do that all the time based on movie trailers), but “it’s not an original idea” seems fairly weak to me. Now “It doesn’t look like an original take on that idea” is perhaps a better criticism, if you feel that way. There are plenty of epic fantasy novels I don’t bother with because they just feel like yet another farm-boy-making-it-big story with nothing new in terms of setting, style, or even character.

      I didn’t personally care for the first book, not enough to finish the trilogy, but I will say that the characters, setting, and writing itself felt fresh enough to enliven the idea. (Just not in a way that appealed to me on a deeper level.)

      • March 30, 2012 5:19 pm

        I truly enjoyed reading your response – and I definitely did not mean to knock it simply because it wasn’t ‘original’ – I just don’t like how someone can seemingly get credit whereas dozens of authors who did it earlier when it wasn’t popular won’t.

        Rational thinking? Well, not really. I know. *sigh*

        BUT I do not, nor will have any interest in P&P with zombies. I don’t think it’s interesting – again, judging without reading – and I like my Austen just fine without Zombies. I feel the issues of feminism, era, and author are fascinating. Add Zombies, and feel ‘meh’ about it. Because her content has changed – and the populace will ignore the inherent message in the work/make light of it. I mean, women have come along way – and then again, they haven’t. Who knows – I could be wrong, and they simply needed zombies to help do it. Though the semiotics on that would be awesome to dissect.

        But I do realize I am in the minority – especially in my age group where I’m most frequently shut down – where everything has to be quick, popular, and mass distributed to be read or found interesting.

        I suppose I’m just unjustifiably possessive over older sci-fi/spec/fantasy – I feel it was truly a socio-economic (and escapist) mouth piece for decades – like Bradbury during McCarthyism, or became a prescient launch pad for technology decades before it was created.

        Forgive my babbling, I’ll stop now – and what a wonderful response!

    • March 28, 2012 10:08 am

      I learned long ago to get over thinking that something that’s “popular” is somehow therefore of lower quality. (I have from time to time felt that way before.) In fact, at least with regards to books, I’ve come to embrace the opposite conclusion: very often, if something’s popular, then it’s because there’s something that’s good about it, or at least something useful to learn from it (as a writer). (And yes, I mean this even of Twilight; while I have never read it nor do I yet intend to, I suspect that there’s something good about it that makes it worthwhile or else I’m not sure how it could’ve gotten so popular. I expect the people who enjoyed it would agree with me in that regard.)

      On the other hand, I’ve also learned that my tastes don’t always align with what’s popular. (Take, for example, Michael Bay’s Transformer movies. I saw the first. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted. I passed on the second and third. All three have been immensely popular, and I recognize what about them is well done that makes them so {incredible special effects, explosive action, giant robots, etc.} but for me I felt there were things that were not well done {flimsy characters, weak dialogue, poor suspension of disbelief, etc.} that overrode the things that were well done.) So I’ve learned that popularity is a potentially useful signal to me that a work of fiction has some merit or value that might be worth exploring, but I have to judge each work individually for myself. Popularity alone is not a sufficient indicator either of quality or lack thereof.

      Lisa above has captured my feelings pretty well on the “originality” side of things. For myself, I’d heard of “Battle Royale” in passing before I encountered “Hunger Games”, but I’d completely forgotten about it’s existence until the comparisons started popping up. I only ever heard of it in the first place, I realize, because of my occasional attachment to the anime fandom, and Battle Royale having appealed to a similar segment by dint of being a Japanese import. That said, as SF author and SFWA President John Scalzi points out here, there’s not a lot of foreign-language translation fiction moving around or making much of a splash in the US market. So I find it wholly credible that Suzanne Collins had never heard of “Battle Royale” before writing “Hunger Games”. What’s more, an examination of the two reveals that there are substantial thematic and plot differences between the two. (At least with respect to the first book, I haven’t yet read and so can’t comment on the latter two Hunger Games books; and my experience with “Battle Royale” comes from the Wikipedia article, so is worth whatever you get from that.) Significantly: “Hunger Games” depicts its “there can be only one” arena battle as a twisted reality TV show (with cameras everywhere) whereas a major plot development in “Battle Royale” hinges on certain events not occurring on camera (and I understand there is no “reality TV” aspect to Battle Royale anyway).

      Besides that, there are clearly other even older explorations of similar ideas that one could legitimately point to. Which gets back to Lisa’s point. Originality of ideas isn’t really the point of a good story. Most ideas have been done in one form or another. Originality of execution is more significant. In the grander scheme of things, every work of fiction exists in a long literary tradition, with ideas getting exchanged, rehashed, recombined, and revisited over and over again through history. That said… none of this means that you necessarily ought to read the book. Personal tastes are what they are, and you like what you like.

  3. March 28, 2012 7:46 am

    “For that matter, when Katniss tells herself that saying the same thing is just for show, we glimpse the inner turmoil and we understand that what she tells herself about her feelings – what we see in the text of the story – don’t accurately represent her true inner feelings – the narrative we see emerging between the lines.”

    Actually, I think this was the biggest sticking point for me in the books. I didn’t really get this sense at all. I got that she might care about him as another person she’s known and has been kind to her, but no sort of romantic feeling. Definitely a challenge to portray when the protag is ignoring or hiding or doesn’t realize she has certain feelings or problems but the reader needs to know, I confess. But … whatever was there didn’t do it for me.

    A very interesting analysis. I find this sort of take on a book review to be very helpful as a writer. It drives my non-writer friends crazy, but that’s their tough luck. :D

    • March 28, 2012 1:41 pm

      With respect to Katniss & Peeta, I came to an understanding of the underlying feelings due to Katniss’s self-admission that she’s noticed Peeta and kept track of him over the years. It seemed to me that you don’t take such an interest in someone over a sustained period of time unless there’s some underlying emotional motivation. The second point-of-reference was in her struggling to decide how she felt about Gale as well. It was telling, to me, that she’s never questioned her relationship with Gale until she started thinking about her situation in the Games with Peeta. And suddenly, it matters, and she’s worried about it. For that reason, regardless of what she expresses in text, it seemed to me that there were other, underlying emotions that were not fully expressed. But I can certainly understand how that might be read differently.

      As for the analysis/review… yeah. That’s the whole idea for this. I figure there are plenty of reviews out there for people interested in whether they should buy/read a book. By the time I get to it, there’s not much new I can say on that front. But this sort of analysis is actually useful to me, and it’s a different angle than your average review. That’s why I decided to start doing them.

  4. March 31, 2012 9:59 pm

    Good thoughts… Having not read the book myself I’m not as connected, but your explanation of instances of info dumping painted a clear picture. These were issues of exposition and doing it well is something I’m discovering is an art in and of itself. A resource that was immeasurably valuable to me was Orson Scott Card’s “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy”. He spends a chapter on exposition since it is a vital part of spec-fic where the reader doesn’t know the rules of the world. He takes you step by step through the opening sentence, paragraph and beginning of Octavia Butler’s “Wild Seeds” to show how good exposition is handled. I highly recommend it. I’m amazed at how little is often necessary to give the reader the necessary information.

    • April 3, 2012 8:34 am

      It is indeed a difficult skill to master, I think. But I think that’s right: often with exposition, less is more – because most readers are smart enough to put the pieces together themselves, and don’t want everything explained to them like they’re children. But figuring out the balance – how much is necessary versus how much is too much – that’s a difficult balance to find.

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