Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Hunger Games; Soon to be a movie

I've never read any of the Harry Potter books. I'm aware of their content, because it's pretty hard to be a functioning adult in the 21st century and not pick up on a pop culture phenomenon on a scale that takes a woman from living on benefits to having as much money as the Queen of England. For me the most interesting thing about the Harry Potter books is that suddenly everyone's writing for pre-teens and teens and marketing the blue hell out of the product. Which did not used to be a thing. Small people are waiting with bated breath for the next volume of whatever's hip. Small people of a very different kind are waiting with even more bated breath for the next big juggernaut, now that Ms Rowling's disobligingly derailed THAT gravy train. Which is why we've all had to live through Twilight for the last five years. Next big thing after that looks like being the Hunger Games trilogy, so I thought I would finally read something which is going to be a media juggernaut and see what the fuss is all about rather than trying to figure it out from listening to people arguing about it.

It's not at all a bad book; Suzanne Collins is not a jarringly bad writer. You don't find yourself holding the book out at arms length and marveling at how broken the writing is. She's not a genuine lyrical talent either, though it's hard to tell whether the flatness in the prose is Collins' own style or the result of Collins deliberately trying to get across the voice of her narrator. Either way, it's perfectly workmanlike writing, and it motors along in a Stephen King kind of way. I read the book in more or less of a hurry, wanting to know what happens next and dreading the worst for the characters. An author's done a good enough job when I'd rather not put the book down.

Having said that, the book was less than I had expected it to be. The funny thing is how much that leaves for me to unpick about it. The Hunger Games, for any of you who have been living under a rock, is all about a reality TV show in a post apocalyptical America, in which teenagers have to duel to the death in an arena. I gather that Collins was inspired to write it out a general irritation with reality gameshows, but I have too much respect for anyone who can get a book published to buy that as her sole motivation. There's a lot more going on in her mind than just being annoyed with the TV set. She had to cook up characters and a back story and a whole bunch of other things, and then weave them into a coherent whole. If she'd just been annoyed with the TV, she'd have done what everyone else does, and yelled at it till she could find something on another channel.

Picking at the idea of people being killed for our entertainment isn't a new idea in fiction; Stephen King has covered this twice in The Running Man and The Long Walk. The Long Walk, like the Hunger Games, is set in a dystopian future America, but don't expect a sudden revival in its readership because of that superficial similarity. It's a bleak, heartbreaking piece of work, which is not quite well-enough-written to be worth reading twice. Over in Japan, the exact theme of kids being forced to battle it out till there's only one left was done - probably unimprovably - more than a decade ago with Battle Royale.

Suzanne Collins is not, in other words, the first person to have had this particular idea. She is the first person who looks likely to get rich off it. The Hunger Games has been the best selling book in Amazon's Kindle website since I first started looking at the site, and still is as I type this. Some time in the next couple of weeks, the movie is coming out, and unlike the Twilight movies, the adaptation has a pretty respectable cast; Jennifer Lawrence, who'll play Katniss Everdeen, was nominated for an Oscar; the backfield is littered with talent like Donald Sutherland. Of course the movie is going to make money, but it might actually be a good movie as well. Has Collins just got lucky? Was it just that the time was right for another blockbuster?

You can't rule out timing. Rowling created a new economic niche, an all the more marvelous achievement in a world where kids looking to pass the time have options I could have never imagined when books were my constant childhood comfort. There'a huge market out there, ever hungry for the next big thing. And the next big thing isn't about quality, necessarily. There was a time when you couldn't ride a bus or take a plane without seeing someone reading the Da Vinci Code. The Da Vinci Code is a terrible book, that rare book which can actually make you stupider than you were before you read it. It's wrong about everything; the details, the big picture, the way that people are, even the way that they aren't. It's a book which could conceivably have got the simple matter of the sunrise wrong, if the author had taken the time to consider the dawn. And yet, it sold. Quality is irrelevant to these waves of enthusiasm which sweep along. Which is logical, really. The huge sellers are precisely those books which are read by people who DON'T ordinarily read books.

So Collins didn't need to write a good book to get lucky. She needed to write a book which teenagers would like. And she did that, whether by accident or design. Accident, probably. You write the book that's in you, no matter how good you are at pitching it to an imaginary reader. Collins did her very best to write the book that was in her, and when it was done, it somehow resonated with enough teenagers to become the next phenomenon. And there it was just as the market needed another wave to surf on, and so she's minted. I'm happy enough about that; it could have happened to a lot of worse things. I'd rather see Patrick Ness or Philip Reeve rolling in money, but them's the breaks.

Still, I've got reservations. Obviously, no book published in America for teenagers is ever going to have the sheer nihilistic bleakness of Battle Royale or even The Long Walk. The Hunger Games was always going to have to pull its punches. An honest depiction of real children being forced to kill each other for the entertainment of the rich would be a hell of a tough read. The challenge that Collins sets herself is tricky. She's imagined a world in which two dozen teenagers are thrown into an arena all Thunderdome-style, and then decided to tell the story in first person narrative. So her narrator has to be the last person standing. To be the last person standing, she's going to have to kill her way to first place. It stands to reason that the last person standing in a battle like that is going to be a tough person to like.

For the most part, Collins gets around the problem by dodging it. Most of the killing is done by other kids; within the first few minutes of the tournament beginning, almost half of them are dead in the struggle to get at the weapons cache at the centre of the arena. The survivors of that melee pick each other off. Our two main protagonists get to stay above the killing until the very last, and even then the killings are feathered to keep them from looking ugly to the reader. There are good guys and bad guys, and for the most part, the bad guys do the ugly work and then get their comeuppance. And the ugliness is further distanced by making the other teenagers ciphers; we never really see them as characters, or even as names. Just as soldiers are taught to kill by teaching them not to think of their opponents as really people, the reader gets past the deaths of 22 children by keeping most of them as just numbers. How much of this is the narrator trying to keep a distance so that she can live with what she's doing, and how much the writer trying to keep a distance so that the book remains readable for teenagers?

My real headache is the background rather than the foreground. The world sketched out in the book doesn't make a lot of sense. We know, from one reference, that the Hunger Games tournaments have been going on for thirty years. We know that coal is important, and that the ruling class of the nation of Panem has access to technology almost indistinguishable from magic (invisible hovercraft?). We know that each of the 12 districts around the Capitol specializes in a single form of economic activity to the effective exclusion of everything else. Now, to some extent, this kind thinking is a standardized narrative simplification that you see all the time in fantasy and SF novels and other prose for the immature, and you ignore the implausibility and motor on. But I kind of choked on the notion that the culture's been in this kind of stasis for thirty years despite the fact that they have high technology. In just the last decade, with far less cool toys, the world has changed dramatically. It doesn't make sense that the Games would just go on and on for so long in an unchanging world.

The "this is just the way it's always been" phenomenon in genre fiction has long been a bugbear of mine, and I sometimes think that it's a cry for help; this constant invocation of unchanging societies is a kind of wish fulfillment, with writers - who are a comfortable lot, by and large, or else they wouldn't have the leisure to write - just hoping that everything will stay the same so that their comforts are preserved.

As I finished the book this morning, I found myself pondering the irony of the book becoming a movie. As the book closes, Katniss Everdeen, our narrator, is wincing at the way the powers-that-be are turning her ordeal into a three-hour TV special in which everything will be edited into shape to make a satisfying narrative. How WILL the movie address that quandary?

The thing is, it's hard to judge the overall work on the first book. When I was finished reading the first book of Patrick Ness' magnificent Chaos Walking trilogy, I knew I'd read something excellent no matter what came next. Having finished The Hunger Games, I don't know whether the things which bug me about the first book will be sorted out by the other two books in the trilogy, or made worse. There's a tension, for example, which has been created between Katniss and two other characters which I fear could yet turn into Team Jacob and Team Edward. Will I see my misgivings about the imagined world sorted out once Katniss is in a position to learn more than she knows right now? Could go either way, really. But I'd like to find out. The Hunger Games is not a great book, but it's got its hooks into me nonetheless.

PS: I just came across this, which like most things I come across is much funnier than anything I've written.


werkkate said...

Stop now, while you still can. It will be everything you fear, and so much worse.

RickM said...

You're last line pretty much sums up what happened to me. The time spent on the train and in capital was almost unbearable. I simply couldn't stand Peeta and his 'perfection' and that prep team felt like a such a cartoon. I also hated the fact that Katniss was never forced to make a truly moral choice. All the of people she killed were basically 'bad guys'. But the conceit of story was enough for me to overlook the problems.

I thought the second book was even worse but essentially harmless.

Then came Mockinjay. Oh Mockingjay. Mockingjay was so bad that it actually offended me.

Of course I won't get into spoilers in case you decide to read it. I will just say that Ms. Collins wants to make some grand statement but it just fails on every level. I think Collins bit off more than she could chew. The story was too big to fit into 400 pages and as a result, both the story and characters suffer greatly. Plot contrivances out the ying-yang. She spends too much time on the first two thirds of the book and not enough on the last third. And if you think the first person POV is bad in THG, it almost ruins Mockingjay.

I was very interested in seeing how they would translate THG to a movie - especially how getting away from the first person POV would change the story. But Mockingjay left such a bad taste in my mouth, I have no urge to spend my money on the movies. It's bad enough I wasted money on the books.

Max said...

I should have believed the commenters and cut my losses. I still think that the first book is quite a tidy little piece of nonsense, but dear lord, the other two books....