The taxonomy of The Hunger Games is notable insofar as you can confuse its literary identity with a slew of classifications. It is science fiction. It is dystopian science fiction. It is a romance novel. It is an adventure story. It’s a classic hero’s journey. It’s a hip YA novel marketed at a specific demographic. It’s a social novel criticizing everything from class to politics, to how we perceive art and entertainment. It’s not a western.
But like a silver parachute falling out of the sky, the The Hunger Games is a piece of literature we were craving, but didn’t know what form it would take. Suzanne Collins’s prose alternates from super-deft to hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-rock obvious and in doing so, succeeds at creating a super-memorable novel that is actually for everyone.
One of the things I try to get at in Genre in the Mainstream is not just recommending great books to readers who might not be aware of them, but also to try to explore why something fantastical is perceived differently outside the wall of a genre camp. I’ll likely argue about definitions of science fiction/fantasy and why something is or is not work of genre fiction until Katniss shoots me through the eye with an arrow. And though the jury is going to be out on the answers to all these question for awhile, one direction I’m leaning is this: something becomes mainstream when the mainstream picks it up.
This isn’t to say the popularity of the The Hunger Games removes its science fiction stripes, but it is a mainstream novel inherently. And that’s because Collins does things in the text itself to make this the most risky/safe book written in ages. To me, the compelling thing about The Hunger Games isn’t just the premise of teenagers fighting to the death, but that notion coupled with the fact that it’s written in 1st person present-tense. Sure, Twilight is written in first person too, but the stakes of Twilight aren’t exactly life or death. Oddly, despite the death-struggle inherent to the premise of The Hunger Games, it also doesn’t have life or death stakes. And that’s because you know for a fact the main character will not die. In a lot of hero-narratives we know this in the back of our mind, but the use of the third person (like in Harry Potter) makes the reader think there’s a chance the main character might die. If the reader is confronted with a story told in the first person, we know intrinsically the last line of the story will not be a “and then I died.”
The 1st person present tense serves The Hunger Games well because nothing about the book or the fictional universe it takes place in are remotely objective. In the first book, we don’t wonder too much about the rebellions that preceded everything because we’re too busy getting to know Katniss. She’s kind of badass and she tried to drown a kitten at some point. This isn’t a textbook sympathetic protagonist, but she’s not an anti-hero either. By giving Katniss a little bit of a temper, but not a caricature of a temper she becomes the most difficult thing to accomplish in literature, a character who seems like a real person who is also a bona fide hero. Part of the reason she’s so likeable is the adult reader is often several steps ahead of her, as if we are actually watching the Hunger Games on our screens too. We know for a fact that Katniss shooting the arrow into the apple of the pig will win her favor with the gamemakers, and it’s charming that she thinks that it won’t. One couldn’t really accomplish this in a third-person point of view, even if it was a close third person. The straight, immediate narration is what makes the naivety of Katniss so great and compelling. Here’s what I mean:
The pain in my hands can in no way compete with that in my calf. I hate burns; have always hated them, even a small one gotten from pulling a pan of bread from the oven. It is the worst kind of pain to me, but I have never experienced anything like this.
Collins does this a lot: she gives us Katniss’s opinions and wonderful imagery from her past all wrapped up in a present-tense conflict. This scene is not only gripping and exciting; it’s calm and emotional too. I love the idea that Katniss is in deep shit here and is meditating on how much she dislikes burns in particular. It’s such strange contradiction, and not at all a clean or efficient way to tell a story. And yet, though conflicts and stakes and obstacles and goals pervade the structure of The Hunger Games, it isn’t a plot-based book, or a concept-driven SF thing. It’s just a character piece. It’s all about hanging out with Katniss and seeing how she gets through her day. In this first book, we happen to hang out with her through some of her worst days, but the writing is so good, so rich with a real, developed and pleasantly rough character, that I could easily read an entire book about Katniss driving her Honda Civic to work in the morning.
You can’t make a character likable by choosing to tell your novel’s story in the first-person. In fact, I might argue you make your job even harder, because a direct address to the reader can come across as too precious, or worse, precocious. But when you’ve got a person who admits to trying to drown a kitten in the first page, and the bitches about seemingly petty things in the midst of mortal danger, you’ve gotta love her. The conceit of everyone watching her is part of what makes the reader fall in love with Katniss. Just like the audience in the Capital and various districts are being manipulated into feeling certain things about the tributes, we the readers are equally manipulated.
And it feels great.
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He would last 2 seconds in the Hunger Games.