Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Hunger Games:Let Them Have Stakes!

(It’s been a while since I blogged, so cut me a break on the rambling if it’s even more pronounced than usual. )

Spoilers ahead.
I haven't been reading as much as I'd like. The Tofu Muchacha is the most voracious reader I have ever met, so my general lack of a "book in hand" is even more pronounced sometimes.
The thing is… I love to read. When I really get into a book, I plow through it, tackling every word, plot point, characterization. It really makes me completely useless for anything else until I’m done with it. Maybe that’s why I don’t read that often…

I become obsessive. I read spoilers and commentaries and reviews and speculations. The month after I read Harry Potter 6, I spent more time on Mugglenet than I did doing work. I read every single little essay and breakdown. Who was ‘RAB’? Was Dumbledore really dead? All that stuff.

What I’m trying to say is that when I sink myself into a really good book, it’s rarely just the book.

The Hunger Games trilogy has done this to me.

How did nobody tell me how awesome these books are?

The books are told from the perspective of a teen girl. Much like in Twilight or The Forest of Hands and Teeth (both discussed on this blog in the past, even in relation to each other). The main characters in these books are similar, but not the same. Bella Swan (Twilight) is this sort of gawky, completely self-unaware moron who goes through life being oblivious to everyone around her for no particular reason. Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games books is also unaware of other people’s perception of her, for the most part, but as opposed to dumb-old Bella, she’s also capable, self-possessed, and independent. In fact, while Bella needs rescuing from… well…  just about everything ever, Katniss is a total, certifiable badass. She provides for her family, bravely volunteers to essentially sacrifice herself on behalf of her sister, and she more than holds her own in not one, but two Hunger Games (not to mention the actual war zones of the third book.). Despite her self-assessment that she’s selfish, she repeatedly displays loyalty, morality, courage, and empathy. On the other hand, Bella’s full and complete motivation is some sickening, weirdo crush on Edward the Toothless, Shiny Vampire.

Like the other books, The Hunger Games also features a “love triangle”. Yes… it’s true.  Apparently this is some sort of requirement for entry into the Young Adult genre, so just like every “Young Adult” novel featuring a teen girl main character, there’s not just one guy vying for Katniss’ attention, but two. And just like every “Young Adult” novel, she’s at least somewhat oblivious to their attentions until they’re literally licking her face and actively trying to die for her. And just like every “Young Adult” novel, a fair amount of internal monologue from the main character is devoted to her hashing out her feelings for her various suitors.  The difference here is that while in Twilight Bella’s love triangle poses no mystery whatsoever (shit… on the back of the first book, she talks about being “Irrevocably in love” with Edward), and Mary from The Forest of Hands and Teeth sort of realizes that her love life is pretty inconsequential when the world is ending,  I had a difficult time figuring out what would happen with Katniss. And more importantly, there were many times over the course of the action where I was convinced she’d end up with neither of them and be happy with that, or that one of them would die, making her decision that much easier. Nobody thinks Edward or Jacob will ever die. In fact, Jacob can’t die, because he’s not a real character. He’s simply this sort of symbol of the life Bella is leaving behind when she forces Edward to kill her in one of the grossest scenes of devotion in any book ever.  

Katniss has moments where she could go either way (or neither way), and even better is that the moments are earned in the text. There really aren’t any convenient misunderstandings. There aren’t dumb roadblocks. She simply has two perfectly good, though flawed, men whom she loves, and she has a truly hard time deciding between them for legitimate reasons. Peeta is the love for the future. Gale is the love for the now. Her world largely defines her choices. |

It makes sense that she’d pick Gale… He saved her family. He’s more like her. He’s got shared life experiences. He’s a survivor in the most traditional sense, which makes him the perfect choice for a world where there’s no order. Where survival is necessary.

Then there’s Peeta. He saved her life numerous times. He sacrificed his leg, his sanity, everything to keep her safe. And ultimately, she ends up with him, not because of any of these things, but because he’s a beacon of light and positivity that balances out her nightmares. He’s the perfect choice for a world recovering from Chaos. It’s a decision that makes sense.

Suzanne Collins refused to create a choice without consequence. She created stakes to her choice, and by keeping both men alive, and largely whole she refused to give Katniss an easy choice either way. It’s easily the most tolerable teen love triangle I can recall. (Not that I liked the constant internal tug-o-war between the two. I could see and understand the dilemma from the start, and the perpetual back and forth was sort of beating a dead horse really.

But really, it’s the consequence that makes the story good. You get the feeling that if Katniss had chosen Gale, that Peeta would not have been okay. That he would have faded somehow, like Haymitch. Gale is a little stronger, but he makes it clear to Katniss that he can’t be there and watch her with Peeta. She knows she’ll lose one by chosing the other.


The Stakes Get Higher, or… you know… exist
.

My biggest complaint about Twilight is that nothing happens, and when it does, it’ isn’t drastic or even.. like… “on screen” (so to speak). Nobody of import is ever really harmed, and because it’s established early on that any danger is by choice, there are no real stakes to anything they do. There aren’t really even any true antagonists. The wolves, sort of, but since Jacob is one, and they’d never really kill off any of them, they’re ultimately harmless. (Not to mention that the author sets up their whole mythology to be “protectors”). The Vulturi are certainly not nice, but that’s sort of like saying that the cops and judges in a judicial system are the judges. They may be dicks, but they’re just enforcing the established rules. It’s so fucking boring. There are hundreds of pages of speculation and conversations about what MIGHT happen, and then the climax is a 3 page sequence that ends in the bad guys just sort of going away after being convinced Renesme isn’t the droid they’re looking for or some shit.

It’s what makes The Forest of Hands and Teeth so good. Everyone can die. Most folks do die. The Zombies are a real danger. The people are forced into danger. It’s scary as hell. It’s a great series of books.

The stakes in The Hunger Games?

Everyone could fucking die. And for the most part, they do. Off the top of my head, here’s a short list of the important, and beloved characters who bite it in The Hunger Games:

Prim
Finnick
Peeta’s parents
Boggs
Darius
Lavinia
Cinna
Rue
Thresh
Mags
Wiress
Madge
Cato
Foxface
President Snow
President Coin
and about a million others.

There are fire bombs, horrible mutant killing machines, deadly waves, deadly earthquakes, beheadings, eviscerations, suicides, electrocutions, and dozens of other ways to die, kill, or both.

Collins establishes in the first 5 pages that these people live in a scary, dangerous, unfair world, and she sticks to her guns the whole way through. Even the ending, while undeniably positive, isn’t without reservation. I think it’s my favorite thing about the books. The books end with Katniss being released from custody after assassinating the new president of Panem (after the revolution). She’s on the verge of insanity. She’s been attempting to kill herself. She’s broken. Her mother isn’t by her side. Her sister is dead. She has no idea until later where Gale is. The world is broken. Even after she and Peeta finally sort of merge together for good, there’s a heavy heartedness to it. She ends the book wondering how she’ll explain The Hunger Games to her children, and how the world will be. It’s the ambiguity that draws me. After so many resolute moments throughout the book, I really loved how Katniss’ story ends on a positive, but certainly bittersweet note. She finds her true love for Peeta. They have children. They live in peace. Except in their memories that still haunt them. It’s really very sad, and very hopeful at the same time. That’s not an easy balance.

There’s an important theme in the 3rd book. “Real or Not Real”, where Peeta, having been brainwashed, tries to make sense of the very confusing feelings he has, as his deceptions and his true feelings mixed around.

Really, all of the books play with this in an ever maturing way. I love how so much of the books deal with perception and not necessarily reality. It’s not important in the first book whether Peeta really loves Katniss, but it IS important to the viewers. It’s not important in the second book if Katniss was really trying to defy The Capitol with the berries, but President Snow knows that the people perceive it that way. The wedding doesn’t have to be real except to those watching it. In the final book, District 13 is viewed as a force for positive change, so it doesn’t really matter if they’re just as manipulative and unscrupulous as those they’re overthrowing.

In the end, after all of the confusion, and tracker jacker induced hallucinations, and lies, and amnesias, and everything else, the perception finally dies away, and we’re left with the lovely ending where Katniss, finally confirms for Peeta the one important thing for him in the world.

“You love me. Real or not real?”

“Real”.

It’s really a beautiful way to end a surprisingly well written, and exceedingly entertaining book series.

I have a friend who doesn’t finish books because she doesn’t want to let go of the characters or the world they live in. That’s how I felt about these books.

Read them. For real.

1 comment:

Tom Reid said...

It's good book, I read it in fast like Harry Potter in childhood
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