After weeks of hearing my lady’s enthusiastic recommendations of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, I finally started it last week, and at every reading opportunity I’ve had since then I’ve torn through the first book like a genetically-engineered wolf-person tearing through a poverty-stricken teenager. The book is mighty-fine pulp: cynical but not hopeless; mercilessly violent yet deeply compassionate; lean but not scrawny.
The biggest question I had throughout the book was, “This book’s supposed to be class warfare, right?” Which is not necessarily a criticism. Normally I wouldn’t condone fanning the flames of class warfare, but in a sense, most satire is class warfare, and satire is always necessary. The Hunger Games is a vicious, occasionally comic satire of the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots, and like some of its ancestors (1984, Idiocracy), it often feels frighteningly inevitable. Since it was written and published well before “class warfare” became a hot topic again, you can’t really criticize it for bandwagon-hopping or shameless zeitgeist-mining. The book’s disdain for the cruelty that festers in widening class-gaps is timeless; it was only a matter of time before its scorn became relevant again, when, say, a billionaire mayor bullied Occupy Wall Street protesters from their tents instead of, you know, maybe passing a few more laws that might actually help the unfairly impoverished and punish the unfairly wealthy.
The first thing I Googled upon finishing the first book was “Hunger Games + Class Warfare” and not surprisingly, I received over 100,000 results. Even less surprisingly, the first hit was from a post on Daily Kos. What did surprise me was that the author of that post mentioned The Hunger Games‘ use of first-person present-tense narration by its teenage protagonist (Katniss Everdeen) as some sort of strike against it. The post’s author doesn’t specify why first-person and/or present-tense narration is inherently bad, but I’ve heard similar complaints about both styles from other readers who feel such choices are a form of narrative “cheating.”
Me, I’m partial to present-tense narration whenever possible, since it makes me feel more immersed in the story. Of course, not all stories can be told in the present, so I have nothing against past-tense narration- and although the opportunities for telling a story in future tense are rather limited, I have nothing against that choice either. Ultimately, no tense can be inherently bad- it all depends on how it helps the story. The Hunger Games works great in the present, since so much of it is action-driven. It’s practically meant to be adapted into a blockbuster movie (nothing inherently wrong with that either), and there’s a reason why screenplays are written in present-tense. Also, even though I knew the book was the first part of a trilogy, the present-tense narration made me feel a shadow of a doubt that Katniss would survive the deadly game she was forced into; there was always the feeling that she could very well die in the book’s final sentence, and the next book could be narrated by someone else.
As for first-person narration, how is that possibly more of a “cheat” than some kind of godlike, third-person narration? Aren’t all fictional narratives cheating? An author makes up situations, makes up characters to react to these situations, gets inside those characters’ heads, decides what the characters do, decides what and what not to tell the audience. Really, the only bad kind of cheating fiction can do is pulling a deus ex machina, or cheating the audiences’ investment in the story’s stakes: “It was all a dream” and such.
I also noticed some critiques that said The Hunger Games‘ premise wasn’t very original. Game show-like spectacles where participants are forced to murder each other in order to escape are at least as old as Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)’s The Running Man. (Which itself was a game-show version of “The Most Dangerous Game,” no?) Then Koushun Takumi’s Battle Royale took The Running Man‘s premise and replaced the adults in Dystopian Future America with Japanese teenagers. The Hunger Games basically mates those two, having teenagers fight to the death on a TV show in Dystopian Future America. If The Hunger Games didn’t have compelling characters and plot twists, or a rich and unique vision of Dystopian Future America, then that would indeed suck- but it does have all those good things. So now it’s not merely ripping-off The Running Man and other things that have ripped off The Running Man. Instead, The Hunger Games has simply established that “Murderous Game Show” is officially its own genre, if it wasn’t already.