What is Drastic + Dramatic

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hunger Games Ends

You may have heard of the Hunger Games series. Three novels tell about a society divided into twelve districts that are controlled by a generally heartless governing power housed at the Capitol. The Hunger Games are a political punishment enforced by the Capitol on the twelve districts of Panem in remembrance of past rebellion, to keep it clear in the minds of all citizens who has, and always will have, the control. Every year a human harvest is reaped in the twelve districts of Panem, and two citizens from each district, one male and one female tribute ages twelve to eighteen, are forced to battle each other to the death in a Capitol-rigged arena. The last one left alive is taken back to his or her isolated district with an increase of provisions for all, then forever more becomes mentor to the future tributes chosen from his or her district for the next Hunger Games.

You may have read one or all of the books in the series. You may have your opinion, and you may have expressed it.

Well, I've had it. There is no "here" up to which I can say I've had it, because it has gone far higher than "here" can reach. And it only gets higher the more I hear:

the mild and uncommitted,
"I really didn't like the way the series ended."

the excruciatingly horrifying,
"It's just like Twilight."

and, the dishearteningly under-educated,
"If you're reading for entertainment, skip the third book, it's awful!"

To give you an idea where I'm coming from, here is an overview of my opinions of recent and massively popular Young Adult literature:

Harry Potter series: practically perfect; complete story, very few holes, start to finish writing and entertainment consistent.
J.K. Rowling: brilliant; created a new world that inspires creativity in our own.

Twilight series: I only made it, begrudgingly, through book two; start to finish uninteresting characters, logical inconsistencies (or perhaps illogical consistencies, as she made up all her own absurd rules and stuck to them), and hollow entertainment.
Stephanie Meyer: ruined the words/names twilight and eclipse, Edward and Jacob.

Hunger Games series: practically perfect; complete story, incredible first-person present writing, start to finish compelling plot and characters, impressive young-age protagonist development.
Suzanne Collins: created a world that makes us rethink the power and potential in our own, as well as in ourselves. gifted writer.

First, to those who think The Hunger Games was like Twilight

I will be the first to openly acknowledge the inequality of my argument in comparing the Twilight and Hunger Games series, since I did not finish the former. Were someone to complain (for reasons certainly unfounded), "I do not like the protagonist (Katniss) in book one of the Hunger Games," I would soundly counsel him or her to continue, to see the rounded development that happens in the next two books. If by chance this person were then to stipulate that he or she would only read on in the Hunger Games series if I also continued the Twilight series to its pungent end, I would then present this argument:

If a protagonist is the champion or advocate of a particular idea, ideal, or cause, I do not want to read a story about an empty-headed misfit and the dead man who finds her decayingly attractive. I have read enough words about her to know that any personal realization she makes will not benefit my creative powers or my understanding of whatever cause Twilight pretends to champion to the world. The two protagonists are remarkably different; and the stories they tell have an even wider gap of things in common (pretty much infinity-zero).

Katniss Everdeen is, in the literarily literal sense, a veritable champion. The Hunger Games chose her to represent the cause of youth's deep-rooted ability to surmount the confusion of life's harried efforts to cast them aside. Bella champions the Twilight idea that when you get uprooted, be reckless and impulsive.

Katniss is first presented to us as a scavenger and survivor. She will do anything to keep her family and friends fed and free from harm, alive and safe. Her father died and she provides for her mother and sister best she can. Bella (and now, it has been a while since I read her story, and since I have meanwhile been burying it with better stories and images, my remembrances may produce askew judgments) has divorced parents, she mostly complains and tries to keep away from too much family time.

Katniss maintains her loyalties to family when she volunteers to be tribute in her sister's place, is thrown into battle, and into a face-saving relationship with Peeta. In that unexpected relationship, she faces the uncertainties of young love with reserved skepticism (instead of heedless rebellion against her family's counsel). She considers where she has come from as she calculates her every choice and its consequences. I think Edward gets the cold shoulder (pun intended) from Bella at first, but does she, after falling for him, think much of the consequences of her choices? I know in the second book all she tries to do is put herself in danger so she can sense Edward's familiar presence.

Bella puts herself in danger...and I suppose so did Katniss, but to save someone else from danger, not to be melodramatic because of lost love. Because the lives of her family and friends, and her own, are in danger, Katniss uses the facade of love for Peeta for how it serves to preserve their lives. Bella cared for little more than her sad and lonely life to find a little sparkle in the scarce Washington sunlight.

Bella didn't want a boyfriend, she wanted to pout about. Edward caught scent of the newcomer, and, discovering her head to be completely void of thought, found her refreshingly attractive. There may be many girls who relate to this situation (or wish to) (unfortunately).

Katniss also didn't want a boyfriend. She has a good friend, Gale, whom she trusts and knows as dependable and faithful, but she didn't think of him as more than that. I think many, many girls can relate to this. We have male friends we've known for however many years that have built trust within us, and, until distance of time or circumstance challenges the tether of those trust-ties, most of us girls don't consider him as more than a friend. But in those circumstances we might question, do we love him because we trust him? because we are faithful friends? because of our experiences together? That's a readily common, real life, internal debate we all have at some time or another.

The female audience of Twilight enjoyed the unreal ease with which Bella and Edward set fire to the pages, finding each other fatally drawn one to another. Certain girls love to read this because it rarely happens in real life, because it tickles the tendrils of suppressed, explosive desire. (Yes, both stories are fiction, I know. Vampires and werewolves aren't real life, you say, just let me pretend, dang it? Go right ahead. Just remember not to try later to apply that fiction to real life when it only works in fiction.)

Certain other girls are aware that those short-fused feelings are very fleeting, disposable, without substance. These girls appreciate Katniss, her honesty and realness despite her obvious fictitious status. They recognize that substantial love will only be extracted from life with substantial effort. Maybe Katniss does make love seem harder than it should be in usual life--what with being under stress of battle and all--but her weighted deliberation is true to life. Things like love don't figure themselves out in a glance, in a kiss. Volumes of love can be communicated in these briefest moments, yes, but to believe you've gained a full understanding of love after those steps is to risk leaping into a darkness where nothing waits to catch your falling heart.

So perhaps there are evident reasons that may cause one to compare the protagonists Katniss and Bella. However, to state simply, "Hunger Games is like Twilight," is an extremely hollow, unwarranted comparison. There are too many blaring differences in the fundamental causes championed by each story. One story invites a girl to stand strong and immoveable in a crumbling society; the other proposes to a girl to crumble under intense infatuation. One protagonist is a heroine, the other is a pill: a supplement; or perhaps even less than that: a placebo.

It would be interesting to present both of these series to the Panem citizens of the Capitol. Which set of book-based movies would they prefer watching? I would confidently wager that, for quickest injection of sugar-rush entertainment, Capitol citizens would prefer Twilight to Hunger Games. Because to those in the Capitol, entertainment does not involve thinking.

This leads to my next response to those who say:
"If you're reading for entertainment, skip the third book, it's awful!"

How that sets me off! Okay, calmly now.... 

Under this circumstance quoted above, we're going to assume that if you have chosen to read, you are hoping to be entertained. You've heard from a reliable comrade that Hunger Games is good, so you're giving it a chance. As you go through the first book you're thinking, this is nice, I'll keep going. But, by the end of the third book you're being quoted here as thinking that "it's awful." Now I ask you, have you stopped to ask yourself why?

Is it well written? Yes. Let me assure you, Collins' use of first person present tense was impressively executed. Not only is that an unfamiliar point of view to read, but it can be a challenge to maintain a consistent grasp of the story and the author is extremely limited in what information can be transmitted. Using this point of view, we as readers never know what's about to happen next; we are with Katniss only insofar as she is conscious and learning and observing things in the present moment. What an awesome form to fit the content. If you think it wasn't well written, defend yourself.

Is it gruesome and sad, the way war always is with life? Yes. What were you thinking, after the first book, that the third book might be? Planting flowers and kisses, making babies and happiness? I think those readers disappointed at the end of Mockingjay lost sight of those fundamental causes championed by the various, bold characters. It is not fundamentally about a girl trying to entertain an audience with a saga about love. It is not solely about war, poverty, starvation, political corruption and rebellion. It is about the human will to unite for freedom, to refuse to be a mere peon in the games of the controlling forces, and to live. And sometimes, die.

Did it disappoint you that just about everyone heralding the cause for liberty and love was killed in the attempt? Did you connect to the characters, and then, seeing the author kill them off, it upset you? I continually marveled at the natural progression of the story. So many times, I saw the characters headed for predictable events of traditional fiction, and then the real life of the story breathed, and blew my expectations--and the characters--off course. In no way was I disappointed that the characters were forced to deal with surprise, loss, traps and setbacks of the sort I could never expect. Indeed it thrilled me.

Or, did you predict it all, is that why you were disappointed? The odds of that possibility don't seem to be in your favor. And there's no way you could prove such a claim, so we won't even argue that here.

So, if you were looking to be entertained and the third book didn't meet your expectations, what were your expectations? Why is it "awful" in your opinion? (If you say because she didn't end up with Gale, like you'd hoped, I'll poke you in the eyes so that you can't read and then you will never have to be disappointed in reading ever again. There are going to be a lot of stories that are entertaining but that aren't trying to entertain your lustful desires and cater a happily ever after--but these won't be entertaining to you. And that says more about you than the stories. So instead of saying "I'm reading for entertainment, but this book--it's awful," say, "I'm a shallow reader and need instant entertainment and this book did not deliver it; I know, it's awful.")

Now we address the following pitiful remark:
"I really didn't like the way the series ended."

I had heard all of the above criticisms before I read any of the Hunger Games series, and as I was reaching the last 150 pages of Mockingjay, I started experiencing a strange end-of-story anxiety that I had never felt before in my life. And I've read plenty of stories to their perturbing ends in my 27 years. I really, really, really didn't want Mockingjay to disappoint me. I didn't suspect it would, but what was it in the books that was causing some people to say that?

At one point in Mockingjay, before Katniss and her small band of doomed followers is about to storm the Capitol, I had to stop. I stopped mid-chapter, knowing any chapter ending would suck me in to the next unstoppable current of action. And for a whole day I let the untiring beast of suspense claw at my mind, less about what would happen next, but about what would disappoint me. I really felt I couldn't handle being disappointed after having been so well entertained.

Here's what I wrote about it that tortuous day:
"So when it ends, what’s the big deal, Emily? Will I like the ending? Does that matter? Is that what I wonder? No. Am I riding on a literary horse, expecting the end to be narratively triumphant? I am. I don’t expect to be disappointed on that front.

Perhaps it’s the fact that I could read the books over and over and they would always be the same and I already know I can’t change, no, I can’t extend the ending. If Katniss dies, the story does. It’s hers; she’s the first person, the only person. All the characters, the entire story, because of her. I will have the sense that Panem will “live on” but I have only ever been reading Katniss’s story. Even if Katniss doesn’t die, she will die when the words end, because she is present.

Perhaps…perhaps I am anxious because the story is like my own life, my journal. As I write and live, I am present. Unlike Katniss, however, I live without pages marking my end, I am present, but my end is somewhere; only, it’s not measured in thickness of numbered pages left. But her present is. Her present has a past and future as I hold the book in my hands. It’s impossible. The end of Hunger Games will come, and it will still be her present. As she is the reason her life is living, she is only ever presented through her own view in the present. Her death will never be in the past, because she will not survive it; her survival will only be in the past--in my memories, which, ironically, only exist when drawn and replayed ever in the present consciousness. It’s uncanny.

I will feel like I’m killing her if I read to the end, even if her character doesn’t die. She will end. I will kill her. Great, Suzanne, I’m just another starving player reading in your games. I will be the only survivor. The odds were only ever in my favor."

As you can see, I was trippin. ha. The story, mixed with the reviews and criticism of other people really did a number on my mind. But then, I simply stopped with all the brain-frazzling drama and read to the end. I knew it would be an impossibility not to finish. This is what I said after the end (warning definite spoilers below):

"When I recommenced my role as literary tribute in the Hunger Games, I realized my thought patterns easily re-merged in to the first person narration by Katniss. For two books already I had been hearing her tell me the story, and I felt I could somewhat predict what her reaction to the action would be. But that was the illusory power of the narration, of the story: I felt as though I were in the present with Katniss herself. 

I held my breath while we hid in the basement shelter. I kept on my guard as we tried to blend in with the flow of refugees pressing on toward the President's mansion. My mouth was left gaping as the little girl in the yellow coat slumped over dead, red bullet buttons down her back. I knew we were trying to make our way to the President’s mansion, but somehow I knew we would never enter. How could we? If opportunity arose to assassinate the President, it would only be from a distance, if he even showed himself in public, and then we might have a shot. Somehow I knew it was a failed mission, but I would stay with them to the end.

No, I did not expect to see Prim show up and die in one brief page. But it didn’t surprise me. We already knew President Coin was using Katniss in as much a strategy of her own as was President Snow. We don’t love that it was probably Gale’s trap conception that led to Prim’s death, to Katniss’s further physical and emotional injury. We don’t know why a lot of things happen in war. Any strategy successful against the enemy is instrumental in controlling the friendly, forcing them to compliance. I’m certain the rebels somehow knew where Katniss was the whole time. Perhaps they hoped she would be a casualty of those silver parachute bombs. It was a reliable prediction that she would get close enough to her sister the moment she knew Prim was there. All Katniss wanted to do was protect her sister, even if it meant death. That was her hope, but not the fiction’s reality.

When she was repaired enough to walk, but not yet talk, and President Coin said she had saved President Snow for Katniss to kill, I knew without doubt we would kill President Coin. And when Katniss stared at the tied up Snow, arrow at the ready, I was also ready, turning the drawn arrow on President Coin. And since, as emotional Avox, Katniss would not speak, as I read I spoke for her: “Game Over, Pres. No one voted for you.”

Some people have complained about the ending, that it either felt rushed to meet a deadline, or incomplete somehow. Maybe it's because I'm a writer, too, but I recognized a fantastic ending. I was stressed that it was going to disappoint me. I kept looking for the disappointment, waiting for it, waiting for it. I was so relieved it never came. 

Here is why you never let what others think influence your way of reading: it ended perfectly. Not “awful” or “unexpected”; nay, perfect."

How do you end a story about war? Even true war stories, where do they end? If you've read stories by Tobias Wolff or Tim O'Brien, you know from the start how they own up to the impossibility of ending their war stories, or of telling the whole truth. That same idea should be evident in Hunger Games, especially considering how Katniss is the only lens through which the series is seen.

Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Prim, they were all introduced as being one way in the first book, with various weaknesses and strengths, but each one was dramatically changed by war. No matter what strengths you believe you have before entering war, if you survive it, you are altered. As you proceed through war, your every expectation for life, love and liberty will splinter--in much the same way your friend's bones shatter when met with bullets that could just as easily have taken you--until you're left with a mute gelatin of survival instinct in place of that thriving hope that moved you to enlist and preserve freedom. In war, it is impossible not to change; it is impossible to find a moment where the story ends once it begins.

So what should Katniss say at the "end" of her story? Katniss told her story; she survived. She and her once-best friend and hopeful romance interest Gale had for so long been miscommunicating, that their friendship and romance became casualties of the rebellion. Were you expecting them to live happily ever after and that's why you're disappointed in how it ends? I hope you were attentive enough to the amazing character development throughout the series that this is not your expectation by the end.

Read closer and you'll see it all--see where Gale started fading into war and strategy, tainted by jealousy and disappointment, and therefore Katniss no longer had the sight to tell you what's going on in his life. See where Katniss discovered that real love comes from an unselfish place within. I saw this when she is shocked and hurt that Peeta no longer worshiped her, and she realized she must earn his admiration, and help him overcome his brainwashed anger. She finally convinces us (and maybe that cankerous President Snow) that she truly loves him. You'll see where Peeta's amazing heart overcame the poison in his mind, how he proved that he was never owned by the Capitol, and how he was finally chosen as husband by a woman impossible to tame. You'll remember that The Girl on Fire wasn't made President; she quietly retired to her home, and doesn't really know all the goings on in the new Capitol, let alone the other districts. It's all there--if you're looking for more than fuzzy, feel-good entertainment.

I heard it said that the ending felt rushed, as though Collins was racing to meet a deadline. I don't believe that for one second. Someone who just spent however many years writing three compact and powerful, intelligent novels is not going to have to rush the end of her story to meet a deadline. I believe she added the epilogue because she knew her audience, her Capitol audience, would complain if there was no resolution, no glimpse into the future, of what becomes of Katniss.

If I were Collins, I would be just about seething with spite, jabbing at each keyboard letter with two index fingers as I wrote the epilogue. Maybe she's much more gracious than I. I hope so, just for her own sake, because graciousness is a rare beauty in this world of ours. But, subjected to entertain her audience, the author isn't much more than a player in the Publishing Games of selling books and making money. Her agent, publisher, editor: they all knew she wouldn't sell a book without a "proper" ending.

Whose story is being told? Katniss' story. By whom is it being told? Katniss. Although Collins is the vehicle for the story, it stops coming when Katniss stops telling it. Any creative writer will understand this--that a story, to a large degree, somehow writes itself, when the characters are put in motion. But I imagine a small percentage of Collins' readers are also thoughtful, methodic, creative writers. And that may be why so many struggle with the end, one that doesn't give answers to certain questions. Katniss doesn't care any more. After all she went through, the chance to make a life with Peeta, whom she actively and rightfully loves, and chooses to love--the other things are lost to her. That's why she doesn't share more. And Collins respected that.

But! you cry. That's unentertaining literature; it's lacking totality! It's awful, I don't like it! 

Just remember, dear disappointed Captiol reader, authors do the writing for you, not the thinking. When written well, like in the Hunger Games series, an ending will make a good reader recognize that the last page is the moment to detach oneself from the fiction and thoughtfully resume reality. Good readers will continue to wonder, maybe have some questions, but they recognize that good stories end with as many answers as are necessary to the fundamental causes of the tale--not of the author, but of the characters.

So, before you criticize, be sure you've read closely. Collins isn't perfect; also, no draft of any novel is ever perfect. There is always something else to add, to say, to know. But something has to be published. And Collins gave us an awesome series.

You may have read the Hunger Games series. Now read it again. And this time see why it isn't awful.

And whatever happens March 23rd, don't judge the books by the movie! Although I certainly hope the movies don't fail when the written story is clearly intended for a viewer audience, we have no power over the imaginative interpretation of words.

Bottom line: just don't be a Capitol viewer. Of anything!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Bella didn't want a boyfriend, she wanted to pout about. Edward caught scent of the newcomer, and, discovering her head to be completely void of thought, found her refreshingly attractive. There may be many girls who relate to this situation (or wish to) (unfortunately)."

Pure genius.

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