Thursday, May 20, 2010

Beauty in the Hunger Games


I'd never presume to do a book review of The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, as I'm probably one of the last people in the blogging world of writers to read it. This isn't a book review, it's just me figuring out how the author made such a success of her novel - between her ideas and her writing.

First of all, her ideas: before, or while, Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games, I wonder if she in turn spent time studying The Lottery, to see how Shirley Jackson wrote what turned out to be a famous and classic short story. Or maybe she thought to herself, I wonder if I could lengthen the premise of The Lottery into a novel, taking the same horror, but twisting it at the end so there could be some hope, too.

Dystopia is such a popular genre right now, because as Beth Revis wrote so well in her recent blog series about dystopia, its "a dark frame around a beautiful picture," or more specifically, it's "about the strength of humanity beyond the cruelty of the world." While The Lottery's strength was in its shocking idea, the strength of The Hunger Games is love overcoming shocking evil (even if only for a moment).

The other premise that makes The Hunger Games so absorbing is the constant struggle for survival. In fact, that's the first conflict that comes up in the book (since "the reaping" is mentioned, but the purpose isn't explained until page 18). The never-ending struggle to find enough food. Later in the book, the survival theme becomes even more intense: searching for food and water, for hiding places, for weapons. Stories about survival grip us at our very core.

On to analyzing writing craft, starting with the first paragraph, of course:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did.
This is the day of the reaping.
The sensual details are important. Cold bed that should have been warm, rough canvas instead of the type of soft sheets most of us are used to. There's emotional detail too: bad dreams, crawling in bed with mom. An ominous hint: this is the day of the reaping. The context tells you this is no ordinary reaping.

The next couple paragraphs introduce a few important details to know about the characters (Prim's compassion, the mother's beaten-down countenance) but the details are also designed to show the difficulty of survival these people face. How Catniss, the main character, feels about her little sister's cat: "The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed." "Entrails. No hissing. This the closest we will ever come to love."

There's another brief mention of the reaping on page 2, but the plot and the main character's motivation remain the same: just simple survival. The difficulty of survival (along with dropping occasional hints about the reaping), is enough to carry us through lots and lots of telling, world-building, and backstory. Important details that are carefully woven in with little bits of action to keep up the pace.

I could go on and on about the beautiful details of Collins' writing, but others have already covered a lot of this already, including this analysis of loaded characterization on Livia Blackburne's thoughtful blog. I'll end with one last idea from the Hunger Games that I loved - The jabberjays and the trackerjackers. Neat world-building, how these two species were engineered by humans for specific manipulative purposes. But even neater, how nature took back over and turned out the mockingjays, whose songs add (strangely enough) a touch of humanity and loveliness to the bitter cruelty of the Hunger Games.

Do you think the Hunger Games is so popular because of it's dystopian world of kill or be killed, because it's a kind of Romeo and Juliet love story, or some other reason?

12 comments:

  1. I think it's popular for so many reasons. Too many to list actually.

    Suzanne is brilliant and I can't wait for Mockingjay to be released. I miss Gale and Peeta. (Especially Gale.)

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  2. I only read the books a few months ago. I had heard so many great things about the series, I was afraid to read it. I knew my writing would never come close to it (not that I knew what the writing was like). Plus it didn't sound like my kind of book.

    I was wrong. It's exactly my kind of book. The love triangle did it for me. :)

    Great review!

    Have a great weekend, Margo.

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  3. Excellent post! I agree with Karen - the reasons are too many to name. It's just that good.

    I hopped over from Julie's blog @ Silver Lining to say hi and congratulate you on your award! :-)

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  4. I haven't read The Hunger Games (yet!), but it seems that most wildly popular books (excluding those cranked out by big brand names, which can sell on name only) have more than one great thing about them. There are usually several elements of storytelling done well.

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  5. I think it's a combination of several things. Dystopian. Fast pacing. Likable characters. Reality TV. And YA. All of that combined, makes it trendy and popular right now.

    And the fact that Collins can write? Only makes it better.

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  6. I analyzed the Hunger Games this week too, to look at how she organized her plot and her pacing. It is a great book to be inspired by.

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  7. I actually just started reading Hunger Games last night, and I must say it's so refreshing to read good writing after the struggle to finish reading bad writing (sorry to any fans of the book, but Dead Until Dark is really, really bad writing).

    Oddly enough, I hadn't heard anything about the book until now and I can't even remember what prompted me to reserve it at the library. (On a side note, I did notice that Stephenie Meyer is quoted on the front cover while Stephen Kind is quoted on the back...Interesting.) But already I'm loving it. And after reading your post and some of the comments, I can't wait to get back to it:)

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  8. It's definitely a combination. A big part of it for me was the fantastic pacing. I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN because the action never let up. Suzanne Collins is awesome.

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  9. I may officially be the last person in the blogging world who has not read this, but I definitely will now - it sounds fantastic! I love your analysis, you make some really good points.

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  10. I've heard so much about this--I should probably read it. Thanks for sharing.

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  11. You bring up some wonderful points! I believe it definitely is a combination.

    Collins' writing is so spare that my favorite thing about the books is she says more with what she's not saying. We learn more about Katniss by what she doesn't tell us. I wish I could do that with a chracter!

    So have you read Catching Fire too? I'd love to hear what you think of that one. :o)

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  12. It is all of them!
    Some do it for the killing, the love, or any other reason!

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