Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Mind" -> Series Review: The Hunger Game Trilogy

"[JK] Rowling is terrific writer" is the quote often thrown around the internet.  It was said by Stephen King, one of the most successful writers of our time.  It may seem misplaced to start off a review of Suzanne Collins extremely popular series with a quote by Stephen King praising a different author, but because both Rowling and Collins are women born 2 years apart, who wrote a series to the same young age group, during the end and early part of the 21st century, it is an interesting comparison.

I started to read the Hunger Games on the recommendation of my voracious daughter who will gobble down a serving of fiction in a day.  When she states something is good, then I find my self also attracted (and it is obvious she has my genes) to the same reading material.  She was enthusiastic about the series, and was waiting for the final book last year.  My daughter believes that The Harry Potter series of books are exceptionally strong, and so I'll often ask her how any given book or series stacks up against JK Rowling to find out the literary strength of the new books.

By all comparisons, Suzanne Collins should be the better writer.  She received her MFA from New York University in Dramatic Writing.  Rowling, by contrast, attended secondary school, but describes the time as lonely and miserable.  She did not get the training that Collins received. After reading some of her contemporaries, you can realize that Rowling has something that few writers have been able to grasp. She has a tremendous sense of story and character evolution.

But this is not a review on Rowling, so let us look at the work that Collins has done.  With such a start, you might think that I am going to write that you should not read the Hunger Games Trilogy.  Contrary to this, this is one of my must buy reads.  While I will be careful to stay away from spoilers, I would suggest that there are few easier pleasures that immediately going to Amazon and either downloading or buying the books.  The review will probably be much more easy to read, if you read the books first.  And I can wholeheartedly, suggest that they are a good read.

A word of warning, however.  The books are exceedingly dark.  I don't mean exceedingly violent, although there is enough of this to warn off the youngest viewers.  And for those of us that are Christians, the sexuality is low enough that I have no problems recommending this book to my own children.  However, Collins effectively paints a picture of a dark world, and you must be willing to live within the darkness of this world.  With that being written, there is candles inside of this dark world.

A good book is going to grab you and make you want to find out what happens to the characters.  Thus we must be engaged with a character quickly to hold our interest, and Collins does this.

The lead character Kattnis "Kat" Everdeen is a gripping character. Very early in the novel you find yourself both liking and responding to her.  It is obvious, in the first few pages, that Collins's book is either going to make or break on your desire to find out what happens to Kat.  You want her to have fear when things are scary. You want her to be clever when things need to be clever.  But most of all, you want her to be brave when she needs to be brave.  The character delivers all of this.

Because the book is so gripping and so compelling, I will simply not spoil it by describing what happens inside of the book.  The book is a delicate sweet that will go down your literary gullet and disappear like the Christmas candy that is already gone in our house.  You'll finish the book thinking "well that was just perfect."

After you have finished the first book, you will be compelled to find out more of the story.  It is here that Collins follows up with two books:  "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay."

And it is here that the divergence between Rowling and Collins becomes obvious.

If the sum of both authors work was their first novel in the series, I am not sure that Collins would not be considered the stronger of the two writers.  I think that she moves at a better clip.  Her story has more punch, and her characters grab you more.  I know that any Harry Potter fan might right protest my divination of  the characters, but I would suggest that this is only because the Harry Potter fan would have read the entire series of books.  The magic of JK style is that she knows how to grow and expand her characters and give them back-story and growth.

Collins, on the other hand, is weak on this front.  As I wrote, you will read the first book and be pulled in by it.  The book is so good that you will want to read it again.  Collins basically gives you this chance by publishing "Catching Fire," the second in the series of this book.  What will become obvious, after you are done, is the second novel is simply a retelling of the first novel.  It is not an exact retelling, but it is a retelling none-the-less.  Many popular artists in popular music will have multiple hits that sound very similar.  Some clever internet youtube critics will paste videos for two popular hits side-by-side to show how the first hit and the second hit has the same basic chord structure, timing, and tempo shifts.  The first hit was inspired.  The second hit was copied from the first.

Catching Fire is an obvious copy from the first.  Because the first book is so good, the second book, in similar fashion, will be hard to put down, but not quite as hard.  All in all, the book does set up the final scene in the book which is a cliff-hanger into the final book of the three book series: "Mockingjay."

I personally don't have problems with the copy of the first book.  Both are written well and grab your attention.  However, Mockingjay is clearly called out to do two things:  set the other stories in context of the bigger world that Kat lives in.  Secondly, it must also cleanly show character development and wrap up the loose ends from the previous work.

The books are written in a straightforward fashion, and I would recommend reading all three, but with such an excellent start and clear compelling path, I am ultimately very disappointed in Collins last two books, which impacts the entire work.  Not because she did a back job in rolling up the end end of story in Mockingjay, but because she blew the chance to establish a truly enduring trilogy.

You'll get a sense of things going awry by the fact that each book is roughly the same length.  I am sure that when the teacher asked Collins for a 3 page report in grade school, her report was exactly 3 pages.  She gives the sense that some editor worked with her to make sure that the book was just the right number of pages.  By contrast, Rowling's novels only got longer as she went on.  This is because Rowling was trying to give the reader more details and understanding of why characters in earlier novels had acted in certain ways.  She was able to weave a fabric of interrelationships and back-stories that only pulled the reader into the story.  She could not do this in fewer words, so she was forced to use more.

Collins, on the other hand, seems to know that she needs to give the reader a conclusion, and she seems content to simply place things in context and report the facts, but she clearly doesn't give us the evolution or expansion of characters that we desire.  Even worse, some of her main characters don't so much evolve, but simply flip-flop in their actions.  If you changed the names of these characters, there would be no common thread back to the original character.

It also become clear in the last book that she gets trapped in the fundamental choice that she made in the first book.  She decides to continue to tell her story in the first person.  This ultimately makes her conclusion to the series open and weak. There are reasons why your creative writing teacher should warn you of the traps of writing in the first person, and Colins falls hard into the trap.

As stated, the third book is design to be the instruments pulling up a level and understanding the entire framework of the world that she created.  She is unable to do this in the context of her decision to start her books in the first person from the viewpoint of Kat.

This means that many issues, that beg to be explained or understood simply cannot happen.  Therefore, deux ex machina type problems constantly pop out of the woodwork as the book moves to the close.  There are many plot twists, but they are ultimately empty because Collins has never set them up.

If there is a lesson to be taken from this entertaining, but not quite great, work, it is the following:  Those that user first person narratives should use it only sparingly and recognize that a shift in books and subject matter dictates that a change in viewpoint must happen.

Secondly, great film makers and great writers fundamentally understand that good writing is not about a plot twist, but about creating suspense.  Alfred Hitchcock once explained that suspense comes from understanding that there is bomb underneath your characters table.  You want the audience to see and understand that the bomb is there.  The more they know that the character does not know, the better the story will be.  Those that simply show a bomb blowing up to shock the watcher of the film may have a short impression, but leave no long term impact.

Collins never shows us in her final installment the setup, and therefore, while we are fed our literary meal, she never ultimately gives us much to think about.

Interestingly, I found myself touched by the end of the series.  Not necessarily happy with the execution of the end, but I was touch by the story.  All in all, it was worth my time.

And while this was a good series to read, they will only be read once.