Divergent is not The Hunger Games

I was really excited to read Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy because I’d had multiple friends describe them to me as “The Hunger Games but better.” The movie trailer made the books look even more promising, but after reading the entirety of Divergent and part of Insurgent, I have to say that I was severely disappointed. I feel like I am suddenly in the opposite position I was in with my Hunger Games posts, because I am criticizing a series everyone seems to like, while before I was defending a series people have been prone to over criticize (you can read my two part blog post In Defense of the Hunger Games here [part 1] and here [part 2]). I tried not to be the type of person I condemned in my previous posts for demanding too much of The Hunger Games, but there is too much lacking in Divergent to ignore.

Like The Hunger GamesDivergent is set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic United States, where the population has been divided into five factions. Each faction emphasizes a different character trait–bravery, selflessness, intelligence, truth, peace–in an effort to eradicate corruption. At the age of 16, citizens are tested to find out which faction they would fit best with, and then are given a choice to remain in their old faction or join a new one. Beatrice Prior’s test results come back inconclusive, and Tris is told that she is Divergent, someone who doesn’t fit into any single category. She is also warned not to tell anyone, because being Divergent is dangerous and undesirable. Tris decides to leave Abnegation, her old faction dedicated to selflessness, for Dauntless, the faction dedicated to bravery, and spends the rest of the book fighting her way through initiation.

I think all the problems I saw in the books arose from the same issue: Veronica Roth’s writing is sloppy and stilted, inhibiting her ability to portray complex characters, themes, and story lines. I spent an entire blog post defending Collins’ writing style in The Hunger Games, but while Roth’s style is similar to Collins’, Collins was able to effectively convey a compelling story while Roth does not. Here are a few examples of what I mean by stilted and choppy:

“Uriah jogs toward me. Lynn and Marlene are behind him. Lynn is holding a muffin.”

“I have gotten used to aching every time I move, so now I move better, but I am still far from healed.”

I found Roth’s descriptions of human movement to be unnatural and difficult to visualize. She focuses too much on exactly how people stand, what they do with their hands and feet, leaving nothing to the imagination: “One of his knees is bent next to my head and the other is curled beneath me so I’m sitting on his ankle. We are a jumble of limbs. I feel a harsh breath against my ear.”

There are 87 uses of the word “cheek” in Divergent alone, and about 25 of them are mentions of one character touching another’s cheek. That is not a thing I generally do in my daily life, even as a sign of affection for another person.

I understand that like The Hunger Games, Divergent is not meant to be a literary masterpiece, but even then I believe there is a certain amount of responsibility the author has toward the audience. I think the biggest difference is that Collins’ characters are compelling, while Roth’s writing style is too erratic to convey consistent, complex characters.The forced style of the writing leads to the forced feel of the characters and the mass inconsistencies in their personalities. While Collins succeeds in infiltrating Katniss’ head, Tris’ thoughts seem forced.

*spoilers below*

The forced style of the writing also contributed to an inability to properly convey emotional complexities and difficult topics within the work, such as depression, suicide, and abuse. There is a certain responsibility an author holds when delving into such subjects, and, frankly, Roth’s sloppy portrayal trivialized them. Al’s suicide is portrayed as “cowardice” and “selfish,” which is a rather general blanket to be throwing over such a complex and multi-faceted issue. Likewise, Four’s abuse is trivialized in Tris’ extreme reaction to his father, meddling in something that is not her business.

The relationship between Tris and Four is also problematic, falling into the same trap that so many other young adult novels fall into: Tris is a girl, Four is a boy, therefore they must be destined for each other. Tris spends half her time with Four thinking about how hot he his and how much his muscles ripple. The only attraction for him seems to be that she came from the same faction he did. When they do finally get together, they spend more time making out than talking, leading me to believe their attraction to be purely physical. There is also a weird, repeated mention by other characters that Four is “too old” for Tris, because God forbid an 18-year-old boy fall for a 16-year-old girl.

I haven’t even mentioned the fact that there appeared to be no plot in this book until the last ten pages. Roth drills her readers through pages and pages of Tris going through Dauntless training camp, lulling the reader into believing there is a semblance of a plot without actually creating one. The title of the novel is Divergent, and as readers we learn early on that Tris is Divergent, and that Divergence is special and dangerous, but we never learn why. Roth attempts to weave a significance around the word that ultimately fails when the reader realizes he or she has no idea what that significance is past multiple characters making reverent mentions of the word. These last two points, more than anything, frustrated me, because even if your characterization is sub-par (which is generally the case with young adult novels), you should be able to crank out a half decent plot.

In conclusion, I do not recommend reading these books. If you want The Hunger Games, turn to them. You will find a much more constructive narration and compelling characterization there.

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In Defense of the Hunger Games – Part 2

This post contains spoilers and is written assuming you have read The Hunger Games trilogy.

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I have heard a number of complaints that the second and third books are “just the stupid love triangle stuff.” I think my rebuttal of this charge can basically be summed up by this quote from Mockingjay:

“It’s Katniss’ problem. Who to choose.” Gale yawns. “We should get some sleep.”
“Yeah.” I hear Peeta’s handcuffs slide down the support as he settles in. “I wonder how she’ll make up her mind.”
“Oh, that I do know.” I can just catch Gale’s last words through the layer of fur. “Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can’t survive without.” . . .
It’s a horrible thing for Gale to say, for Peeta not to refute. Especially when every emotion I have has been taken and exploited by the Capitol or the rebels. At the moment, the choice would be simple. I can survive just fine without them.”

Katniss’ motive from the very beginning is survival. She is a woman thrown into a war she did not ask for, a role she did not anticipate as the face of the rebellion. She has been exploited, treated as subhuman so many times that she has lost the ability to feel anything. Not only has she lost the ability to feel, she simply does not have time to worry about romantic entanglements.

Unlike Bella in Twilight who falls apart the instant Edward leaves her side, Katniss does not need either Peeta or Gale to hold her together. She struggles to take control of her own life as much as she is able beneath the iron fist of the Capitol and the rebels, and to protect those she loves. Rather than playing the damsel in distress, Katniss does everything she can to protect Peeta, and he comforts her when she experiences nightmares—the only realm where Katniss cannot take care of herself. They complement each other, and neither is weaker than the other.

What some readers don’t understand, I think, is that Catching Fire and Mockingjay offer a complex and compelling portrayal of a girl suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve heard a number of readers complain that Katniss just mopes around for the entire third book, and while her mental stability is severely compromised, it is insensitive to call it moping. She is sixteen-years-old and has killed other human beings. She has been placed under emotional, mental, and psychological stress by simply existing in a society where children fighting to the death is condoned as entertainment. The psychological repercussions of knowing that everyone around you will be dead within the week, and many by your own hand, are inescapable.

I really appreciate Collins’ attention to consequences. Our culture often downplays the effects of violence on the human psyche, with characters in action flicks continuing on with life after an incredibly violent experience without any psychological backlash. We are expected to be like the superheroes of comic books, able to save the day and to return to normalcy as if nothing disturbed our peaceful lives, and when we aren’t, we, like many readers want to say to Katniss, are told to “get over it.”

Katniss is not a superhero, but a very human, very young girl who is plagued by nightmares, physical pain, and a severe reaction to seemingly innocent objects. She reacts so severely to the smell of roses because of her associations with President Snow and the horror of seeing her bombed out home in District 12. She has permanent hearing damage from the first Hunger Games, where Peeta also lost a leg.

Just look at Holocaust survivors, Vietnam veterans, etc. My grandmother was a kid in Germany during World War II, and the sound of tornado sirens make her nervous to this day. I have a friend whose home burned down eight years ago and he still suffers from PTSD so many years later. Katniss, who experiences physical and psychological horror along the lines of a Holocaust survivor and a war veteran, holds up surprisingly well considering her circumstances. In my opinion, she has every right to be a mess in the third book. We, as a culture so inundated with violence in movies, have lost our ability to feel horror at the things that should shock us.

One of the most moving lines for me in the series comes in the epilogue of Mockingjay as Katniss discusses the legacy of the next generation: “My children, who don’t know they play on a graveyard.”

After having lived for four months in Berlin, Germany, this line resonated very deeply with me. I have seen with my own eyes a city completely leveled, its people murdered, raped, starved, and slaughtered, but reborn. District 12’s fate eerily mirrors the fate of World War II Berlin. Like District 12, there are sites of mass graves marked only with a lone wooden cross.

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A single wooden cross marks this mass WWII grave in Berlin, Germany. The remnants of the Berlin Wall stand behind it.

The epilogue of Mockingjay captures the tragic necessity to go on living for the generation who experienced the war. It seems so strange that human beings can live through so much suffering, but people do it, and have been doing it for generations. Katniss’ children play on a graveyard, just as I did in Berlin. There is a supreme importance in remembering the horror, but there must come a time when the next generation is able to rise from the ashes and start a new history blooming with life.

I think, for me, this was the reason the ending was so satisfying, wiping away some of the less well-done elements of the trilogy. Katniss did not simply go back to life as before, unscathed and triumphant. The books are full of a very human gray area, where there is a blurred line between good and evil. My Hungarian grandfather who lived through the brutalities of WWII, Nazi occupation, and then Russian occupation of his homeland told me that it is war that is the true evil, not the differing sides. Collins’ shows what human beings are capable of, both in good and in evil. Katniss—the supposed heroine/good guy—votes to host another Hunger Games with the children of the Capitol. I know I, as a reader, was just as furious with her as Peeta was. But in Katniss’ mind, the Capitol deserves to pay. Katniss is human, not some great, selfless heroine.

And this is why the slow, subtle way she and Peeta begin to heal together was so beautiful to me. She needs someone to dull her hatred, not kindle it, and both she and Peeta need someone who understands, someone with whom they can endure the pain of healing and emerge, scarred but alive:

“Peeta and I grow back together. There are still moments when he clutches the back of a chair and hangs on until the flashbacks are over. I wake screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children. But his arms are there to comfort me. And eventually his lips. On the night I feel that thing again, the hunger that overtook me on the beach, I know this would have happened anyway. That what I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That is can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that.”

In Defense of The Hunger Games – Part 1

This post contains spoilers and is written assuming you have read The Hunger Games trilogy.

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           Unless you have been living under a rock for the past three years, you are probably familiar with the phenomenon that is Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. With the release of The Hunger Games movie two years ago, and Catching Fire last week, the books’ popularity have skyrocketed until almost every teen and twenty-something I talk to has read the first book, if not the entire trilogy.

As a junkie of young adult fiction, I read the first book three years ago in one six hour sitting. I only made it through the first few chapters of the second book before the rigors of college caught up with me and I had to put it down. It wasn’t until I saw the incredible movie that is Catching Fire last weekend that I decided to pick up the book again. As I was reading and telling people that I was reading Catching Fire and then Mockingjay, I noticed a reoccurring trend in my friends’ responses to the books—they generally liked them, but almost everyone pointed to a few problems. Two charges, I found, were brought against the trilogy more than any other: that it was sloppily written and that it was too “angsty.” I will be addressing the first charge in this post and the second in part two.

The first charge is not as big of a deal, and honestly, I agree with it. While the first book is more tightly crafted, the second and third books are rife with structural inconsistencies and sloppy language. Collins’ word choice is not extremely varied or creative, but she effectively conveys her point to the audience. Catching Fire, as the weakest of the three, is the only book I can say was enhanced by seeing the movie first—as a book, its slow moving beginning was not enough to hold my attention on its own, but I would not say the same for The Hunger Games and Mockingjay.

Collins did not write these books in an attempt to be literary, or to make the most eloquent political statement against totalitarian regimes, and I think it is unfair of people to expect as much from the trilogy. It is only because The Hunger Games has become such a cultural phenomenon that it has come under such close scrutiny. Otherwise, it probably would have been known among its fans as a unique and welcome change from the cookie cutter dramas that litter the world of young adult fiction. I recognize that the books are not The Handmaid’s Tale in dystopian social commentary or even Harry Potter in literary value, but they are still enjoyable, stimulating, and well written enough that I did not have any desire to chuck the book across the room—which is an annoyingly common impulse when reading from the young adult section.

I have heard some readers grumble at Collins’ choice of first person, because it limits her ability to portray Panem as effectively as a third person narrative might. I think these readers are missing the point of Katniss’ story—that it is Katniss’ story. The focus is not so much on the intricacies of Panem as a dystopian society, but on Katniss’ character and her struggle for survival in a world that will not allow her to exist in peace.

The emotional intensity brought to Katniss’ story through the first person narration is not so easily replicable in third person. The reader is directly in the action, experiencing what Katniss thinks and feels, and has a front row seat for the extreme disorientation and psychological horror of the Hunger Games—and it is this tale of human psychological reaction under extreme duress that fascinates. Katniss’ story, her relationships, and struggle against the Capitol is compelling enough despite the flaws in Collins’ writing that I find myself tending to overlook them because I have been so caught up in the hurts, fears, joys, and sorrows of Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Prim, Finnick, Haymitch, and so many others. I want to know what happens next.

One of my favorite things about a first person narration is the trope of the unreliable narrator. While Katniss may not be the epitome of the unreliable narrator, the reader is still trapped in her head, and Peeta, Finnick, President Snow and a myriad of others are presented through Katniss’ own misunderstanding and mistrust. We find ourselves second guessing Katniss’ perception, and wondering what she’s missing, which gives the story a layer of intrigue.

The unreliable narrator is a difficult but rewarding trick to pull off, and while Collins’ does not achieve a perfect rendering (particularly in the latter two in the trilogy), she achieves her goal of immersing the reader in Katniss’ many-times-not-straight-thinking mind. Collins’ ability to write unique, compelling characters is where her talent ultimately lies, and, I think, this glosses over the inconsistencies in her storyline and the short comings in her writing style.

Since this blog post was turning into a novel, I’ll get you part two sometime soon, in which I’ll discuss the charge of angst in the series.