29 August 2010

Why Suzanne Collins is a Gutsy Writer, OR, Why The Hunger Games is a smarter series than Twilight

Warning: This post will contain spoilers for each book in The Hunger Games series. If you have not read them before and would prefer not to be spoiled, then get them read and then come back.

It's no secret that I don't like the Twilight books. I have made that abundantly clear in various blog posts and personal rants over the years. My primary complaints rested in the weakness of the main character, whom I found altogether to repulsive to like, and a male lead, whom I found far too sappy to be in any way tolerable. Other complaints rested in Meyer as an author completely unaware of her own message and the cop out of having her main character be so spineless and unwilling to consider consequences for actions.

Ahh, but then I discovered The Hunger Games.

It was such a breath of fresh air to read a book - probably the first since Harry Potter that managed to find a book that lived up to the mass hype it had received. It was bold, entertaining, and so wonderfully different that I couldn't stop talking about it. It was one of those books that mattered. A book that could be read by a person at any age and still mean something.

The trouble was, Collins gave herself an almost impossible set up for American readers. Americans are big fans of tight, happy, fairy tale endings. It's all part of that American Dream mentality. We like the couple to get together. We like what Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest calls fiction: for the "good to end happily, and the bad unhappily." But it wasn't going to be that easy in Panem - not with the complicated set up Collins gave herself. Panem wasn't a nation that had barely entered some kind of complicated, oppressive government - Panem was a government with a 75 year long tradition of sick, public mutilation. Obviously the ultimate goal of the book series wasn't just to survive the game itself alive, but to survive the government - surviving the game wasn't good enough.

That's a huge task, particularly in a government so intricately structured and varied and unpredictable as the one Collins created.

This is why, I think, the last book in the series will raise some eyebrows. Is it perfect? No. Is it still pretty darn brilliant? Yes. Is it going to please most American readers? I'm not sure. Most of the Twilight obsessed teen crowd will likely be disappointed by the lack of romance in this book compared to the others. In fact, the resolution of the "will she or won't she" conflict between Katniss and the two men was almost an afterthought, because it really didn't matter as much as everything else (though I still think I could have done with at least a proper send off for Gale. Not that I thought Katniss should be with him - I didn't - but I felt as though his character deserved more credit than he was given.)

All the same, Collins dared to write a book that was not happy and did not end entirely happy either. Readers who wanted a story full of hope without the taint of dread that it was all too good to be true at the end were not going to find it in Katniss, who, as a narrator, had enough scarring after the first games she participated in to make her suspicious of every good thing for the rest of forever. Katniss is wary, and with good reason. Things weren't ever going to be cleanly finished.

But that isn't the point, is it?

As far as I'm concerned, the most important part of that last book was in the transformation of Peeta, who has always represented the hope for a better future. No matter what has been thrown at him in the past, Peeta always managed to keep his chin up and find the bright side of things, without being Pollyanna like, but by being practical. He was an incredible judge of character. Until the Capitol got hold of him and addled his brain. Throughout the entire book he is fighting for himself back - trying to figure out what is real and what is not real. It's even turned into a game. Isn't that the point Collins has been making all along? The importance of asking yourself what is and what is not real? In a society so steeped in "keeping up appearances" and glamorizing the grotesque for the gain of others - isn't that the whole purpose? If that was her purpose, then she accomplished it wonderfully.

Did the government miraculously turn pure and clean overnight? No. Will Katniss and Gale and Peeta and all the rest of them ever lead "normal" lives? No. But have we as readers learned a little something about where our values are? Hopefully. Is there hope for their future - and ours? Definitely.

So thank you, Ms. Collins, for writing a series that took nerve. Thank you for making me think. Thank you for providing me with endless conversations with friends and students about the value of entertainment and the value of reality. Your books are masterful.


Suzanne and Nathan Tanner said...

I completely agree with you. Collins was brilliant. The series was bleak, depressing, and without the hope that is prevalent in the endings of other dystopian novels, but it was gripping and thought-provoking. No, the books weren't perfect. I felt like there were so many questions she didn't fully explore, but it has been such a long time since an entertaining young adult novel has provided so much deep food for thought. Collins has written something enduring. Thank you for introducing me to the series. I owe you.

Rachel EM said...

You thought Mockingjay held a message of hope for the future? DARKNESS, people. Your past forever haunting you no matter what you do--that's what that book is! I'm fine with shadows of horror still stalking the characters, but an unwillingness to see any rays of hope or goodness or light after being in the dark so much... Katniss is not the type of character we should applaud.

Finnick, on the other hand. Finnick Odair is BRILLIANT.

Me said...

Ah, Rachel. My dear Marianne ;)

I see the ending of this book very much like the ending of Pirates of the Caribbean 3 - the ends aren't all tied up, but they've come out alive and are in the healing process. That's why I loved the Epilogue - the last few lines about forcing out depression by counting good deeds. I feel like these characters, in many ways, aren't quite equipped to deliver the message of hope most people would want because they've seen too much - but their kids will get there. They're moving on even when they don't know entirely how to do so, which is huge.

Maybe I liked this book because I feel like I've FELT that. I feel like I've been there. Moving on when you don't know how. Never quite free of your past, but forcing yourself onward anyway. I still loved the book :P. And I still think Katniss is an honorable, interesting narrator.

Finnick was brilliant. I agree.