Rules of the Trilogy and The Hunger Games (10.13-10.15)

September 13, 2010

I’m not one to obsess over books. I never – I mean, NEVER – get so absorbed in a book that I’ll read the whole thing in a day, without some compelling professional reason for me to do so. Especially when it’s something my wife likes. All she reads is teen fiction, romance, and vampire novels. The Twilight series was a literary orgasm for her.

But when she told me about the premise of The Hunger Games – that a group of two dozen children in an Orwellian future are forced to enter an arena and fight to the death for everyone else’s amusement – I was intrigued. And then I read two and a half books in three days.

I’ve thought for a while about the rules of trilogies. Here are some of my observations.

  1. The series is about a war of some kind, with the first installment introducing the hero (who is discovered partway through the war) and telling the story of a battle that proves to be a major turning point.
  2. The first installment has to be self-sufficient. Consider Star Wars. The story could easily have ended with A New Hope, although it was clearly set up for sequels to follow. The Matrix and Back to the Future do the same thing. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t, but Tolkein always insisted that wasn’t a trilogy but a single book split into three parts for the sake of convenience, and besides the first installment of that story – The Hobbit actually was its own story.
  3. The second installment is not self-sufficient, and ends with a huge cliffhanger. Like Han Solo frozen in carbonite kind of huge. The stakes have to go way up, and this shows the rebels building their forces, though usually with huge setbacks and sacrifices on the part of the heroes.
  4. The hero goes through some serious hardcore suffering, and either dies or fails in his quest.

For the first installment, I’ll say I was struck by one thing: raising the stakes. Raising the stakes is simple. You just make the objective more difficult or more important to achieve. And Suzanne Collins certainly does that. Early on, when Primrose’s name is called and Katniss volunteers in her place, it’s somewhat expected – after all, we wouldn’t be reading this story if Katniss wasn’t going into the competition. But what makes it more interesting is that the person who’s called to go with her is someone to whom she feels indebted, but who will be utterly useless as an ally in the ring. And it just goes up from there. Of course, Peeta’s confession during the interviews makes it a whole new ball game. And then, in the climax, it seems impossible to win — but they still come out of it.

I was disappointed with the second book, Catching Fire. It starts off real well, with Snow’s surprise appearance and then the victory tour where she accidentally riles up the crowd. And it was good up until the announcement that the Quarter Quell would be made up of victors. (Although I can’t believe the author tried to convince us Katniss wouldn’t have understood Plutarch’s “clandestine gesture”. I mean, come on.) The problem I had was that the story then glosses over their training and the actual build-up of the resistance, and instead skips ahead as quickly as possible to the Quell, which was mostly just a repeat of what had happened in the first book. I think this showed a serious lack of imagination, and part of the reason why I read the second book so quickly is because I was trying to skip through and get to the part I actually cared about: the war.

Better would have been a real movement — an attempt to organize the resistance or see how it crops up — for most of the second half of the book. Show the training, and further attempts at communication with people from other districts. And then, the arena should really only last a couple of chapters before Katniss gets attacked by Johanne, which is really where it could/should have ended.

But the third book, Mockingjay, redeemed the trilogy. Although I didn’t like a lot of what happened, that was because I was so invested in the characters by then, and it bugged me when they did stupid things. All of Katniss’s actions worked with her character and the world of the story. The story with Peeta was riveting, the District 13 political drama captivating — especially considering it was the politics that got me interested in reading the books to begin with.

And of course, the story ends with a very interesting death/failure combination.

All in all a really great series, and I can see this being read in high schools. Along with Lord of the Flies and 1984, it offers some pretty serious social commentary, and left me thinking and wondering for quite a while.


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