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