Spoiler Warning: This piece discusses the various events of the story throughout the trilogy, as well as the techniques used by the author.
I saw The Hunger Games books displayed prominently on the front-window displays of the local bookstore for quite some time, though while the titles changed from “The Hunger Games” to “Catching Fire” to “Mockingjay” I still had no idea what the series was about. Admittedly, neither did I care (at that point).
Popular, mainstream literature has always held, at least to me, a lack of appeal. Perhaps it’s because I consider the tastes of the general population to be more easily swayed by popcorn “surface” stories (commercial, plot driven books with no deeper meanings or truths other than “Can the puzzled detective catch the clever killer before he strikes again?”).
Of course, this perspective is built on a stereotype, but it’s one I’ve used to guide me away from the front displays into the darker corridors of the bookstore where the dusty gems of lesser known, and even lesser read, fiction sit like buried treasure just waiting to be discovered. I’ve found many impressive (in both technique and substance) books and authors in this manner, so my experiences only served to reinforce my unfair judgment: that “smart” writing goes unnoticed, and “simple” writing thrives in the mainstream.
Much like a literary ocean, I believed the “deep” works live in the depths and shadows (the poorly lit corridors of the bookstore), while the “shallow” works populate the tide pools at the surface and sprawl along the beach (the brightly lit front store displays), easily accessible to the timid land lovers and those who can’t – or choose not to – explore the murkier literary waters with their subtext, metaphor, and social commentaries lurking like so many tentacles waving beneath the surface, threatening to pull one into the depths of an intellectual abyss, or, perhaps, into a sea of boredom.
And so I continued along with my merry metaphor, thinking myself a sort of deep-sea diver among amateur snorkelers, and I turned my nose up at the glossy, shiny covers portraying the circular pendant of a bird, believing the book, the series, to be just another flimsy surface fiction of which, I was convinced, would pass quickly into literary obscurity like the changing of fads, Croc sandals, and Avatar-inspired Halloween costumes.
Somewhere along the way I gathered, perhaps from seeing a photograph or catching a glimpse of a sneak preview for the upcoming movie, that the book was about a young girl shooting a bow and arrow.
“Young adult fiction,” I thought, already stuffing the book into more pigeon-hole stereotypes, “about a girl practicing archery, in the woods. Where’s the story in that?”
I felt satisfied with my snap judgment, and continued thumbing through the dark aisles, looking (often with dissatisfaction) for undiscovered miracles of the written word.
As the days, and time, moved on, I began hearing more and more about The Hunger Games. “The Hunger Games? One word: Amazing.”, “Catching Fire? Oh, My, God.”, “You haven’t read THG yet? What on earth are you waiting for?!” Still, I was not convinced. Though, I was a bit more intrigued.
At that point I changed my perception to view the series as a new Harry Potter or Twilight: popular because of their youthful appeal. That was as much credit as I was willing to give the series, and the author, at that point.
It wasn’t until I was directly recommended to give the books a look by a user here (she knows who she is, *ahem*Sunny) that I actually decided to go ahead and give the series a read. I was only halfway interested in the story at this point, as the other half of me was mostly curious as to just why the heck this series was so popular.
And so, I began to read the first book of The Hunger Games trilogy. My mind immediately went into analytical mode as I read. “First person, young adult, dystopian fiction.” The gears were whirling in my skull like a machine, attempting to dismantle the book into useful pieces that I could use, in my own writing, to perhaps duplicate the, at this point, unexplained popularity and success.
As I read on, the gears began to turn slower. I began to sink into the story world of the main character, Katniss Everdeen. A battle began, between my left, analytical, brain, and my right, creative, mind. As I continued to evaluate the story world and the characters in it, I began to find myself pulled along, wondering where it was all leading. I found myself feeling specific emotions for certain characters. I thought Prim was adorable the moment she quacked. I thought Effie was a riot when she tried to adjust her goofy wig after Haymitch drunkenly “molested” her, as Katniss so hilariously described it. By the time Katniss began to sing to Rue I had to pause and look away, before this book – this mainstream, front display book! – brought me to tears.
Somewhere along the way I had stopped taking mental notes of genre classifications, I’d stopped categorizing the author’s techniques. Somewhere in those 250 pages I had, despite my best efforts, become hopeless caught in the story, and I wanted, desperately, to know What’s Going to Happen Next?
I rode this wave of insatiable curiosity all the way through the next two books, barely stopping to eat and drink, let alone breathe, whenever Collins dropped yet another bombshell. My analytical mind didn’t shut off completely, it was still there, calling out things such as “Notice how she describes the audience in the Capitol as likely being captivated and enthralled by the action taking place. That’s a Neuro-Linguistic suggestion to influence the reader to also be captivated and enthralled.”, but the reader in me, the one following alongside Katniss as she tried to figure out just what the tributes were up to in the Quell, or when she was standing alongside Gale shooting at the Capitol Hovercrafts with explosive-tipped arrows, that reader said “Shut up! This is just too damn good!”
By the time Katniss delivered her impassioned plea to the gun-wielding citizen of District Two, and all the other Citizens within earshot or watching the live feed, I was sure that this finally was the moment, her triumph, her success in uniting the people of the Districts in a glorified rebellion against the Capitol. Instead she... well, you know what happens next.
I had the misfortune of reading the final sentence in that chapter right before my laptop screen went black. My battery had died.
I responded calmly, and maturely, by swearing and pulling my hair out.
By the time I did manage to finish the book (later that evening with a trusty outlet nearby), I had gone through the shared reaction of others. A slight disappointment, a feeling of a bit of an anticlimax. I couldn’t tell if I was sad because of the ending, or if I was sad because the series had come to an end. But overall, I was still immeasurably impressed by the story, the writing, everything.
I moved through the stages of adolescent female fanatic (mind you, I’m a male in my twenties): saying things like “ohmaigod ohmaigod” and “Peeta I love you” and shrieking and squeezing my stuffed animals. Okay, well, not really. But, I did go online to look at the preview for the upcoming Hunger Games movie. And I did think it was really cool. And, I do plan on seeing it.
But more importantly, I returned to the novel, once I finished having the Peeta-like Tracker-Jacker flashback seizures from Collins’ adrenaline-pumping plot twists, to look at it with a more analytical eye.
How the heck did she come up with all of this?
My first attempts to crack the code were fruitless at best. I looked at the big picture: Survival. It’s a natural instinct, one all humans can relate to. If you put us in an environment where people and things are trying to kill us, it’s highly likely that we will respond by trying to stay alive.
In this, the reader can relate immediately to Katniss, whose sole motivation after entering the arena for the first time is precisely that – to stay alive.
But along the way her motivation changes. She begins to undergo a metamorphosis, changing from paranoid teenage girl to self-aware puppet, to defiant mourner (flowers on Rue) and mercy-killer (arrow for Cato). By the end of the first book she has become much more than she was at the beginning, she has single-handedly made a fool of the ultimate powers that be.
In the second book things become even more complex, when Katniss enters the quell. Her new motivation is to keep Peeta alive at all costs, even if it means giving her own life. She’s still paranoid as ever, of course, and over-analyzes every action and spoken word of the other characters around her. When Finnick is quick to form an alliance with her, displaying Haymitch’s wrist band, Katniss is more suspicious than convinced, and even decides the smartest thing to do at one point is to kill him before he becomes too much of a threat. Haymitch’s cryptic advice, of remembering who the enemy is, has yet to fully sink in.
She solves the puzzle of Beetee's intention with her arrow, though she still hasn’t a clue of how deep the real puzzle goes, and why the victor tributes seem to be working with ulterior motives. I have to admit that I, too, had not a clue, as I was busy deciphering the puzzle of the arena. I even thought myself clever when I figured out what the arena was before Katniss did, not realizing that Collins had hidden much deeper social agendas that I was unaware of, though the clues, upon a second reading, were clearly there, right out in the open, taunting with their blatant mysteriousness.
As Katniss became the Mockingjay, the face and voice of the rebellion in the third book, the smoke began to clear. The tides seemed to have turned. I assumed victory was close at hand. Surely the Capitol would have no chance of stopping a full-fledged rebellion! I was, of course, wrong again. President Snow had a certain young man as his Ace in the Hole.
When Katniss rushed to Peeta with open arms, I was expecting a gushy, sappy moment. After all, this was what I had come to expect from Peeta, with his unwavering loyalty and passionate devotion to her. Instead... again, you know what happened there. In shock, with wide eyes, I waited for my computer screen to go black again, assuming this was also, somehow, part of Collins’ calculated method for driving her readers insane. Fortunately my battery had some more juice, and I read on, not sure how I felt about this new disaster.
On the surface, it was terrific. A real, true, reversal of fortune. It was Peeta, and yet he was no longer Peeta. He was, as Johanna (whom I love as a character, with her snarky sarcasm) so accurately described, an “evil mutt-version” of himself.
The final surge, through the streets booby-trapped with body-slicing nets (Predators, anyone?), life-choking waves of oily tar, and of course, through the sewers pursued by rose-scented, fang-mouthed, pale-skinned manbeasts that whisper “Katniss” and rip the heads off of anyone in their path, was exciting, to say the least.
I felt no fear of the Peace Keepers, though. With all the deadly booby-traps and mutations, they struck me as harmless versions of Star Wars Storm Troopers. “Peace Keepers”, “Storm Troopers”, almost has the same ring to it, now that I think about it. Perhaps Collins drew her inspiration from them.
In any rate, the scene with the children and the parachutes, and, of course, Prim, was another “Excuse me while I pick my jaw up off the floor” moment. From then on Katniss fell into a deep, dark well of despair and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, until finally she, through the help of President Snow, had the veil pulled from her eyes and she learned the harsh truth, that this was no battle of Good versus Evil, but of Evil versus Evil, each side with their own twisted justifications, and she was merely a na´ve chess pawn shuffling between the two, while the innocent citizens suffered.
In the end, I saw the books as a message of the effects of war, and how there are no winning arguments in war, there is only suffering and pain and loss of innocent lives.
With that mental process put away, I set out to further dissect the writing process. I put together short formula that I felt, at the time, matched Suzanne Collins’ series quite well:
Children fighting to the death in an arena against monsters,
+ a girl who evolves from a slave, to a gladiator, to the leader of a rebellion,
+ around the clock, live televised coverage.
That is the Hunger Games. Now the formula?
The Legend of the Minotaur (children fighting to the death in an arena against a monster)
+ the historical figure of Sparticus (man who evolved from slave, to gladiator, to rebellion leader)
+ Reality Television (around the clock, live televised coverage)
Couple that with the Plot Structure of The Hero’s Journey (also called the Monomyth), which most epic adventure/journey stories follow:
- Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD (The Seam, Panem, the District 12)
- they receive the CALL TO ADVENTURE (The Reaping)
- they are encouraged by a MENTOR to (Haymitch)
- CROSS THE THRESHOLD and enter the Special World, where (Tube to the Arena)
- they encounter TEST, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES. (The Seventy Fifth Hunger Games!)
You can see here Suzanne Collins is hitting all the beats. At this point I thought I had her pegged. I thought a simple combination of plot inspirations and a monomythic structure was all there was to her books.
I was so far off I might as well have been living under a rock on the surface of Mars.
You see, Suzanne Collins has an MFA degree, a Master of Fine Arts, in Dramatic Writing. For those of you who don’t know, an MFA is the highest possible level of instruction and achievement you can reach as far as writing education goes. It is the Grandmaster of Chess, it is the Black Belt of Karate. There is no higher title. It makes her, literally, a Master of the art of writing.
So to assume that I could crack the code of her insanely popular trilogy in a few short minutes of thinking is absurd. Surely there is more to it than that. And, after digging more, I discovered a whole world of layer upon layer that Suzanne Collins had woven into her trilogy like an infinite tapestry of wisdom, foresight, and symbolic significance.
I say this with no exaggeration: the level of depth shown in her writing borders on brilliance, on genius even. But don’t take my word for it, take a look for yourself.
Let’s start with the number of books: Three. The Trilogy.
Have you seen the number of chapters in each book? Twenty seven.
Each book, the chapters are divided into three sections of nine chapters each. Three cubed.
Three three three. Gale, Katniss, Peeta.
Keep in mind this trilogy (or shall I say, Trinity), and remember nothing about this is accidental. This is all pure Suzanne Collins planning everything out to the most minute detail. Everything has significance, even the number and spacing of the chapters in each of the three books.
I’ve already mentioned my interpretation of the surface message of the book: a commentary about war and the effects it has on the people involved in it. Peeta and Katniss both came out of it behaving like war veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as they attempted to pick up the pieces of their previous lives.
But there’s also a message against television, about questioning the divisive, materialistic entertainment that’s beamed into our households on a daily basis, which our society nurses from like a visual, audible teat. The citizens of the Capitol represent modern society and it’s militaristic, energy-consuming nature, and the outlying districts represent the rest of the world, subjugated and poor, forced to watch broadcasts of reality television in which rich citizens film their everyday lives full of shopping sprees and whining monologues over which new model of car, or house, they’d like to buy today, a reminder of the divide between the Chosen Ones (The Capitol: Materialistic America) and The Others (The Districts: The Rest of the World). On the surface it may seem offensive until you ask yourself what the general public thinks of their favorite programming, worrying about what will happen next on their often watched evening sitcoms or reality shows, while others in the world are worrying about whether or not they will be able to put enough food on the table for their family, or whether or not they will survive the night. It’s clear that Collins is at least hinting that we may very well be the citizens of the Capitol, and even if it wasn’t her intention, it’s still something worth thinking about.
There’s also a message in Katniss’ constant rush to judgment (of Peeta, of Haymitch, of the other Tributes, and even of President Snow) that comments on the dangers of preconceived notions and prejudices.
But if you think these messages are just grasping interpretations, and that Collins couldn’t surely have intended for these things, then take a look at this, and see how far her meticulous layers of symbolismand meaning go, like sinking further down with Alice into the Rabbit Hole:
- Katniss evolves from the child of the Seam (the Coal Miner’s daughter) into the Mockingjay, the “girl on fire”, exactly like the Phoenix, the mythological bird born of fire which rises from the ashes. (Or as Effie puts it, from coal to a pearl)
- You have Gale, the boy of the woods. He’s free-spirited and a boy of Nature. His name, even, is that of Wind, “Gale force wind”.
- You have Peeta, the son of the baker. He’s faithful and a boy of Culture. His name, even, is that of Bread, “Pita bread”. “Panem” is even a case form of the Latin word for “Bread”. There’s Bread everywhere in the series.
- Katniss’ struggle is with these two boys not just as love interests, but as archetypes, as symbols and icons of facets of herself, of her dichotomous struggle between her identity with Culture and Nature, between Healer and Killer, between the leader of the free world and just a teenage girl from District 12. The reason she has such a difficult time choosing between Gale and Peeta is because Suzanne Collins has assigned internal symbolism for each boy as a facet of herself; to choose one over the other is to bisect her own identity.
- Katniss’ name is that of a tuber, much like the Moly tuber of Homer’s Odyssey, a tuber the god Hermes gave to Odysseus as a cure for any poison. It’s a divine plant with the power to heal, described the same way the Katniss tuber is described, with the flower atop that, as her father reminded her, “As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.” The “find yourself” is more symbolic hidden messages placed by Collins. The starvation is referring to an emotional and spiritual hunger for maturation and an expanse of consciousness. Katniss has to learn and grow and open her eyes to see the world for what it really is in order for her character arc to be fulfilled.
There are many more symbolic, mythical, and metaphorical references woven all throughout each book of the series, undulating in and upon themselves with such dexterity that Collins’ writing is operating on multiple levels and layers of meaning and significance simultaneously. Part of this comes from the simple technique of revisiting lines and comparisons: if you repeat dialogue and imagery enough, the reader will assign her own figurative interpretation, and find her own meaning. The other part, though, comes from Collins’ meticulous crafting, structuring, and inspiration drawn from social commentary, history, mythology, and her own wild imagination.
- The English word for Moly? Prepare yourself: Rue. The bird-like young girl from District 11 who Katniss could not save. The medicinal properties of Rue: to cure physical and spiritual blindness. Does Rue’s death cure Katniss’ blindness? Does she begin to see the games for what they really are? Rue also means remorse and regret, the awakening of consciousness, which is exactly what happens to Katniss after Rue dies. Something opens inside Katniss and she changes as a result.
It all points to a deeper subtext, a more intelligent design than mere surface reading reveals. It illustrates the incredible scope and depth of Suzanne Collins’ intelligence and skill. The main character may seem bewildered and assumptive and at times, plainly clueless, but her creator is anything but.
This may seem like a simple adventure epic, or a future hero’s journey, but it’s really so much more. It is wisdom, metaphor, and commentary on multiple levels. On a symbolic level, the characters represent morals, values, and conflicts of identity. On the literal level, the story is one of peril, triumph, and sacrificing for love. On the commentary level, the story is of the faults of modern society. There’s even a cautionary level in which Collins displays the horrors of genetic manipulation, a clear commentary against the dangers of our future scientific endeavors. These are not accidental, these are brush strokes that point to the hand of a Master at work.
The Hunger Games is a popular, mainstream fiction series, about a young girl struggling to survive in a future ruled by an oppressive regime. Perhaps the message is simply political, where parallels can be seen as I write this today, in Syria where the government is attempting to stop a rebellion of its citizens with its own Peace Keepers, spraying their bullets into the defenseless rebels. Sometimes Reality reflects Fiction all too well.
Above all, though, the interior and underlying structures and hidden meanings are surpassed by the greatness of one thing: The Characters.
Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Prim, Haymitch, Finnick, Annie, President Snow, Cinna and Kat's prep team, even the red-headed Avox girl.. I love all these characters. When I think of the Hunger Games, I think of them. And there is no formula or secret meaning or mythological abstraction to draw upon to create such resonating characters as these. It comes from an author's love.
Gale and Katniss and Peeta may have started out, in Suzanne Collins' sketchbooks, as symbols and metaphors, but as the story progressed and evolved, they became their own living, breathing beings that, try as one such as myself may, defy categorization and explanation. They simply are who they are, and Collins is likely a fan of them as much as you or I.
In the end, The Hunger Games turned out to be far more than I expected when I picked it up to read. I feel that I have, like Katniss, gone through a change of my own. Perhaps now I won’t be so quick to dismiss the other popular, best-selling fiction authors on the front store displays. If they are anywhere near as good as Suzanne Collins, I’m clearly missing out.