Failing readers – The Hunger Games and dystopian literature
Quite recently I had an interesting but brief exchange on Twitter with someone called alittlebriton, who seemed to be a bit surprised that I wasn’t all that taken with The Hunger Games. Actually, alittlebriton seemed even more surprised that I said that I didn’t think that The Hunger Games was a dystopian novel. Twitter is not the forum for an involved discussion, so I promptly declared that I would expand on my claims here.
Let’s start with The Hunger Games trilogy. First, I will say that I have not seen the film, and it is very unlikely that I will do so. The books simply didn’t interest me enough. Of course, it is very possible that the film-makers have produced something far better than its source but that hope isn’t enough to persuade me.
A writer is both wordsmith and storyteller (let’s put aside the intellectual content for a moment). On the basis of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins is certainly a competent enough writer, displaying adequate ability on both fronts. In the concluding two books, though, she just about manages to maintain her level on the wordsmith score but her story-telling declines in the second book and then falls away almost completely in the third.
Sheer boredom made finishing Mockingjay a test of my stamina and my determination not to quit. Apart from turning Katniss into one of the most uninteresting, bland and irrelevant protagonists I have encountered in quite a while, the story was plodding and dull. Most tellingly for me, the second two books had lost the elements of isolation, personal desperation and the ‘one against many’ scenario that boosted the appeal of the first book. The story of the sacrificial lamb had evaporated, replaced by a tedious and well-worn story of rebels against the corrupt government, mixed with some predictable and shallow inner conflict.
Collins avoids forcing any hard moral decisions on Katniss in the first book; the few opponents killed by her own hand are drawn as ‘bad’ guys, depicted two-dimensionally from the moment of their first appearance. The real dilemma that should have been at the heart of the story – is it right to kill an innocent human being just to stay alive? – is conveniently side-stepped. Even in the next two books, Katniss is let off the hook; the most interesting moral conclusions come from her friend Gale, and those are not exactly laudable.
The Hunger Games also misses out on the two questions that a great many people frighting either for justice, for an idea of freedom, or for a cause, have answered throughout the span of human existence: how far are the people (at any level) in society responsible for what that society does; and how complicit is anyone who participates, even unwillingly? Katniss, despite her rebelliousness, is Panem’s accomplice in The Hunger Games. Her situation is not the same as a gladiator thrown into the arena. She is not isolated from her community; she is part of the population, a part of the body politic that concedes co-operation to the political executive on the basis that the odds are with anyone individual that it will be someone else who dies.
In Panem we are given an implausible, at times ridiculously unsustainable world, which is slightly irritating but would have been bearable if more thought had gone into how that world would really function. A few moments’ thought about its structure, its population, its economy or even its values reveals how hollow an invention it is.
It is devoid of real lessons, though I’ve no real problem with that. What I do have a problem with is that it pretends to say anything worthwhile. It’s messages about freedom, oppression, corrupt government and an idle oligarchy are trite truisms we learn at our parents’ knees. It reveals nothing new about why these happen, how they come into being, nor answer the question that is relevant today: why do we let injustice flourish when we see it germinate and flower before our eyes? Bad governments have always come from the people they govern even when the majority of those people disagree or resent them.
This is one of the main reasons why The Hunger Games is not a dystopian novel. It is post-apocaloyptic, yes, but never dystopian. It is Mad Max shorn of a few years. For a novel to be dystopian it has to use those elements which are integral to the society’s malfunction; the conflict must grow out of those elements, not merely as a result of them. Think about 1984 or even The Handmaid’s Tale. These stories deal with the root causes of why the society is malfunctioning: the thinking, the values and process that led to the state of the world, not just its aftermath. What within The Hunger Games (and nearly every other so-called dystopian novel appearing now) deals with the creation and essence of the dystopia – its drivers, its ideology, if you like – and how those shape the world? I couldn’t find a thing that gives any perception about the society or the people that would have created the world Collins drew for her readers. To be dystopian means that we must the able to draw a line from where we are now to where the novel takes us and see the chosen path. Beyond some unspecified war, with unstated causes, Collins offer us no path to follow from here to there.
This is a pity because dystopian novels can provide valuable lessons as much as entertainment. I have lost count of the number of articles I have read recently claiming that the rise of YA dystopian literature corresponded to the growing disenchantment young people feel today about the state of the world. If that is true, then dystopian authors have, by and large, sold their readers short. Generalised cries of government corruption, social disintegration, greed and exploitation are of little use to those who feel those already. We need dystopian literature which can take prevailing attitudes and amplify them, pin-point their weaknesses, bring them to an unwelcome but possible conclusion. Providing stories full of nothing but what the readers already know only adds to the noise of protest; it doesn’t lead it anywhere.
The essence of dystopian literature is to separate and follow the threads of our failings.
Dystopian literature is nothing new; it has a history as old as story-telling – but it is not common. Nor is it now. We confuse post-apocalyptic with dystopian because the term dystopian has a weight of importance that post-apocalyptic lacks (and it’s shorter). Frankly, I’m not that fussed about the failure to discriminate; the endless categorisation of literature is far more serious threat to reading and writing than mis-labelling. I can’t divest myself of all irritation, though, because not only does it demean the value of real dystopian literature, but it tries to dress tosh in finery that doesn’t become it.