Games People Write

So I just finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy as part of my #50in2013 challenge to myself and, in short, Mockingjay just made it in as my favourite book not just of the year so far but probably ever. I was convinced I wasn’t going to like these books as they were normally mentioned in the same breath as the Twilight series but having seen the film and enjoyed it I put the first book on my list and read it earlier this month. It was the first book I’d read in a day in about 10 years or more. What immediately became apparent is that it is nothing like the Twilight series at all. I have also been reading Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy (I am yet to read the last book of which) and there is a similarity between each series. All three have a female in the lead and Hunger Games and Twilight have a ‘love triangle’ central to their premise. We will come back to this comparison but for the moment I want to look at the Hunger Games a little more closely.

The most notable and immediate difference between HG and Twilight is that Suzanne Collins is a MUCH better writer than Stephanie Meyer. Collins’ prose is tighter, simple even, but direct and is dusted with enough analogy and sharp simile that you are engrossed quicker. I don’t want to get into the ‘Literary Fiction’ debate and defend simple prose just yet but I honestly do not understand the need to over burden a novel with text. The more ‘mature’ fiction that follows the rule of why use one sentence when ten will do is not necessarily the correct one and certainly doesn’t mean the wordier book is better. ANYWAY, my point is Collins gets to the point but without sacrificing detail or the odd flourish. She is more concerned with character and plot as it is anyway, something Meyer all but ignores in her single minded approach to displaying teenage romance and a Mormon sentimentality and rhetoric. This is HG’s strongest point. Collins paints people and events that are rich and detailed while Meyer delights in splashing around in the frothy waters of squeaky clean ‘love’ without lust. Ness also has a much more direct and visceral style to his writing that engages immediately and is what propels the narrative. I should also point out whilst I ultimately do not like the Twilight series I do quite like the first book and have read the first three. I read Twilight before it was even released in this country in fact. Meyer’s prose is slapdash at worst and merely fuctional at best. Lazy and cliched writing conventions litter each book (“love you to death” the most over used) but through an equally unpretentious prose Meyer does get right to the heart of a romance and captures the doe-eyed, rose-tinted view of a teenage relationships that I succumb to all too often. As such that kind of saccharine luvvy duvvy stuff sat well in my book but I understand why others loathe it.

Returning to that love triangle is a key matter at the heart of Twilight and Hunger Games. Ness’ Chaos Walking takes a back seat a bit as it simply has a relationship in it and even that is very much on the back burner so far in the series I have read.

To create a narrative you must have drama and to create drama you must have conflict. To create a character you must have an identifier, something that an audience can latch onto so they can sympathise with your character. The laziest method to get an audience involved is to use a love plot. Everyone knows how love feels so people latch onto it and can identify immediately if you start any narrative with “so and so loved so and so”. This is not necessarily a bad thing so long as it is given view and attention. You often hear people mention a “tacked on” love story, these are the problems. Romance is often seen as a fix-all cure to most films/books/computer games as it gives the main protagonist a character trait and an objective in the same swoop so is dumped in the middle of a story to glue the disparate parts of a story together. (Most Hollywood blockbusters LIVE by this device). So you’ve immediately got a character and given them an objective – ‘Boy meets Girl’ – but now you need DRAMA and therefore conflict. The lazy writer will then add an extra player in the love plot to create that ever famous Love Triangle. This creates immediate tension as you now have three characters in lurrrve, two of whom hate each other or at least must rub against one another and a third who must choose between them. Its like a narrative ready meal. For this reason very few people do the love triangle thing well. Shakespeare and Helen Fielding leapt to mind as examples of good Love Triangles. Now Collins will leap to mind too. Meyer does not. The reason for this is simple: Meyer negates the drama in the first book completely. At no point does she make you think Edward and Bella will not be together, even after a whole book with Edward absent (the second one) you know they’ll get back together because Meyer bases her entire plot on Bella and Edward’s union. She returns full force to the love triangle in book three but we know Bella isn’t going to choose Jacob. There is no drama there but she continually bats it around and all it does is aggravate. Collins on the other hand never puts a single egg in either basket.

Gale is Katniss’ friend before the books even start, Peeta is introduced later and their “Romance” is forced upon them in a survival effort. Therefore Katniss, who genuinely cares for both men is also in an impossible position that the extremity of both relationships is cause for significant harm to all involved and their families. The love triangle is also not central to the plot, it moves in tandem with it and is used to serve both character and plot function. How does Collins achieve this? Peeta, Gale and Katniss are individual characters in the first place. The romance is not the defining focus of each character. We know who each person is long before there is any romantic conflict involved. What is most impressive is that Collins doesn’t even have Gale and Peeta talk to each other until the latter part of the final book and when they do it is not an argument over Katniss it is in service to the action and adds to the dilemma and crisis. When they do finally talk to one another about her it is an almost identical scene to Meyer’s in Eclipse. Both girls feign sleep while the two male love interests discuss her and their feelings towards her. This is where there is another big division is for me.

In Eclipse both Jacob and Edward are supposedly being altruistic and saying how they might defend her and how fragile she is and who has the “right” to be her lover/partner. While Bella bristles at this it never contradicts her love for Edward or friendship with Jacob she just gets a bit mad at these silly big men fighting over her protection. In Mockingjay, Gale a Peeta calmly discuss their current plight, acknowledge Katniss can look after herself and agree it is her decision. Katniss still bristles at this but the difference is she (at this juncture) disregards them both as love interests for the time being. (That’s not a spoiler by the way) And that is why I loved these books and Ness’ more than Twilight and why they are provably better.

All 3 series have a central female role but Bella is purely reactionary. Bella has no say in the plot she merely fends off trouble till the boys arrive or sits around till the boys arrive. The plot falls on her, her actions and decisions do not drive the plot. Her love for Edward is frequently pointed out as being ‘not in her power to control’ etc. She is the Lamb, he is the Lion, better do what the Lion says eh? Viola in the Chaos walking trilogy is sadly dumped in the centre of the mess Todd is in and despite staying silent for the books majority saves Todd’s ass more than the other way around. She also makes a decision in the first books that basically defines it and makes a similar one in the second book. Viola acts in character against actions taken against her and makes decisions that effect the arc of the story. In short Bella is Passive, Viola is continually active. Katniss on the other hand is something else. The entire series of books rests on a single decision she makes within the first few chapters. From then on Katniss’ decisions butt against the plot’s movements at every turn. None of the books would function properly without Katniss playing and active and pivotal role in their shape. Considering the density of the plot over the three Hunger Games books, this is no mean achievement.

A friend commented to me she hates the phrase “strong female character” as she thinks it denotes all other female characters are weak. This surprised me. Whenever I think of the phrase I think of it meaning strongly written not that the personality of the character is strong. Katniss is strong but equally fragile, her choices and decisions base themselves on emotion as much as a neutral desire for success. Bella is nothing but ancillary to the plot and is purely dependent on others decisions. In this way she is very weakly written. Viola is probably the most “fragile” but also makes some of the most surprising and shocking decisions of all three women based on her character and the effect of the plot on her. These are ‘strong’ points in the way she is written. What is most pleasing about this is that three of the biggest series in modern literature alongside Harry Potter and 50 Shades are of hugely varied context (a dystopian future, a sci-fi wild west and a romance myth with monsters) and all written in the female first person. Its this kind of variety in YA fiction I prize much more highly over Literary fiction. My overall distaste for quote/unquote Literary Fiction is undisguised but particularly when they tend to offer nothing more than a middle class couple in suburbia with fertility issues. Most “Literary Fiction” plots can be summed up quite quickly and its more to do with the “adherence to language” as I heard it put recently. I would happily argue HG and CW trilogies have just as inventive plot devices, language and writing styles as any adult or literary fiction. I think its the “themes” where this becomes more of an issue.

Literary fiction supposedly tackles more important social issues in a more acute and mature way. I would point out some of the most pertinent and penetrating literature from previous decades would have been described at the time as “childish”. Modern critics often dismissively refer to this style of writing as “Genre Fiction”, despite Literary Fiction being a genre in and of itself. Lord of the Flies, Count of Monte Cristo, She, Christmas Carol, Lord of the Rings, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Treasure Island even most of Shakespeare is aimed at/written for a wider/younger audience but is now called Literary and studied at great length. Most of the great books could be termed “Genre Fiction”. I personally hate the definition and subscribe to the old axiom: “There are only two genres – Good and Bad”. It is merely a small clique of the so-called literary elite who delight in back slapping and prizes over what they have written and it pisses me off that something so brilliantly written, so pertinent, so important and so widely read a book as the Hunger Games is ignored or belittled as a book for children. Featuring a teenage protagonist does not make a book instantly not for adults or not worthy of consideration. Nor does not setting it in middle class suburbia or politics. I would encourage people of this mindset to read Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses to see how a powerful message can be subtly woven into YA ficition to great effect.

Rant over.

Hunger Games, Twilight and Chaos Walking all have an agenda. They all have a thinly veiled sub text to their stories that should cement their place in literary history, for good or ill. Ness, with his stabbing prose and ratcheting tension, takes on big subjects on an emotional level namely sexism, misogyny, racism, growing up and the horrors of war. Twilight, conversely, sets its stall out after the first book when Meyer’s religious proclivities and somewhat unpleasantly conservative views come into play: no sex before marriage, male dominance, anti-abortion, etc. This makes me uncomfortable but I realise all authors do this and all books are part of the time and place in which they are written so whilst I am not for it I recognise its right to have this agenda. For me it is Collins’ agenda that A) I approve of most and B) Is the most effective.

The Hunger Games is heavily critical of American foreign and domestic policy, tackling as it does, wealth and class, war abroad, terrorism, immigration, political bias, human rights, capital punishment, none too subtle anti-Quantanomo Bay sentiment, Capitalism and Socialism and reams of other targets fall in her crosshairs. Collins is clever with it though. She hides it in plain sight. For the most part she uses the same ideas of modern society but simply pushes them further within the narrative and its context (a futuristic post apocalyptic dystopia) but her prose is so plain to the point of almost being transparent that subtext is taken as text for the most part. She only plays her hand explicitly in the closing chapters of Mockingjay. All the previous metaphors, subplots, themes and similes are tied together so beautifully: the rose, the fire, the game, the birds, mockingjay, the notion of truth, all are tied together in a final sentiment that grabbed me by the balls and won’t let go. I admit the sentiment that “Humans are awful” strikes a chord with me more than other people but its somewhat cynical appraisal of the situation is welcome in any fiction. It is criticised in America for its “Liberal Rhetoric” but this is only ever a point in its favour.

Critics of Mockingjay say that Collins delights in torturing Katniss and the ending is ‘flat’. The closest trilogy I can think of that I can associate a similar set of clauses to is the Lord of the Rings. Throughout Fellowship, Two Towers and King, Frodo and Sam are subjected to torture of an uncommon kind yet no one makes the same comment. The finale (without wishing to spoil) of both LOTR and HG is similar. Both are about the individual in a time of war choosing to sacrifice everything for a greater good. They both end in a way that truly proves the horrors of what man is capable of and that after such an atrocious experience the world and our lives are not the same and only the individual can save the other and pull them through, not a society or “policy”. HG is a valid, worthy, contemporary and intelligent entry into literature that celebrates humanity’s bizarre ability to persist, survive and succeed at all costs but like LOTR it is a bloody good fun ride along the way.

Needless to say I recommend everyone go out and read all three Hunger Games books with an open mind and shed the completely false similarity with the Twilight series. Collins has written a modern classic that will hopefully be studied and appreciated in the decades to come as a piercing social commentary but also a riveting and enjoyable read. Highly, Highly recommended.

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May the Odds be Ever in Your Favour.

 

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