‘The Hunger Games’ and Storytelling- why the series falls short

I’ve seen The Hunger Games twice now and I’m still not sure what I think of it, and of the series as a whole.

I enjoyed the book series quite a bit. I don’t think they’re best books I’ve read, and they certainly don’t qualify as the new 1984. But I’ve also read and heard plenty of critiques of the series, such as this one, and while I think in some places the criticism is misplaced, I can agree with them on one thing for certain.

The writing and world-building of this series is awful.

I realize I’ve probably annoyed a lot of people by saying that the writing of the series is awful. But it is. Anyone who writes on a semi-regular basis has probably come across the phrase “Show, don’t tell.” The Hunger Games has far too much telling. There are two huge info-dumps within a very short first chapter- and it doesn’t let up throughout the rest of the series. Whenever Katniss is describing life in her district, the Capitol, the customs, or her surroundings, she functions as Captain Exposition. She lists off everything around her, never trying to layer it within plot developments or paint a picture. There is no immersion in her world; there are very clear action sequences and very clear explanation sequences in these books. The entire series is told as if she is talking endlessly at the reader, and this is a really bad way to tell a written story- or at least, it’s very hard to do well outside of a short story. Throughout the entire Hunger Games story, I felt like I was reading a transcription of a recording or film. It feels like something dictated.

This is bad writing.

The fact that the entire story is told in first person present tense makes for even more difficulties in the “Show, don’t tell,” department because the line between the two is very thin with this kind of narration. At some points in the story, Suzanne Collins is able use that narration well- the action sequences in particular are spectacularly written and horrifyingly vivid. I also admit that I liked Katniss as a character, because I’ve always read her as an unreliable narrator, one whose outlook on the world is warped and not necessarily correct. I liked seeing it from her point of view because I felt very often that hers was not the only way to look at the world in which she dwelt. I enjoyed seeing how what she endured was altering her and her interactions- and not always for the better.

Unfortunately, the extremely limited window of narration made it almost impossible to get a better and fuller sense of the world in which this took place. And for a series with a premise as strange as this, the limited viewpoint cuts off any chance we might have had to build the world and the reasons for the Hunger Games- in which twenty-four children are sent to kill each other. A setting such as this needs more thorough world-building and exploration of people’s mentality in that world than Collins gave it. I think the film did a better job with showing what the world was like- but it never showed the why. And understandably so when the original source material never did.But a why is needed. People generally need a reason, especially for something like this. In the Roman gladiatorial games (which Collins never fails to remind us of with her names), the gladiators were slaves, property which was perfectly acceptable for entertainment use. We’re told that the Capitol is using the Games as a reminder of power- but this is asking for rebellion in a way that should not taken nearly as long as it did in the story. Check out what happened to the last king of ancient Rome. The point I’m trying to make is that I don’t think sending children to die should have worked as a statement of power. In order for people to accept that for seventy-four years, there needs to be a very definite mental state of the nation. I think the people’s mindset in The Hunger Games had shades of this, but it was never adequately explored.

People who accept this world will do so for a reason.Take Orwell’s 1984. The reader is thoroughly immersed in what living in Oceania would be like, and not just in terms of a physical setting. We get to see what this kind of living does to the minds of the people involved and how it warps their perceptions of themselves and what they can do. It does a great deal to explain why they accept their horrible living conditions- it’s because of how the government has affected their outlook on life.

This is never consistently explained in The Hunger Games. It’s very strongly implied that the districts hate the system and that the Capitol lives in oblivion, but we never get to see this played out in depth. It’s touched on, and it’s mentioned, and there are instances where the dichotomy seems like it will flare up to something central. But then the considerations of who can be blamed for what are never fully explored. There are many instances and mentions of the difference in the Capitol and the districts’ mentality, but the bulk of writing is given to war and fighting, which undercuts the premise of exploring what the lust for entertainment can bring. Katniss ruminates on these themes towards the end of Mockingjay, but since these concepts haven’t been highlighted as well as they could have been, it has less impact.

Having said all of the above, I still do like these books. But they could have been so much more. The poor writing makes what could have been an effective allegory or satire a cheap action thriller, with many implications but not enough substance. When I re-read the books, I feel as though I’m reading a rough copy of something that could have been much more. The violence the book decries is the most entertaining aspect and well-written aspect of the series, and that has grim implications for what we consider entertainment. And those implications stem from The Hunger Games’ writing and telling, rather than their message. It doesn’t say much for the telling of that message.

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17 thoughts on “‘The Hunger Games’ and Storytelling- why the series falls short

    • Collins was a screenwriter before she began working on THG, which I think accounts for a lot of the writing. I think she had a really cool story idea- but yeah, on re-reads I’m not terribly impressed with the writing.

  1. First off sorry it’s taken me a little while to get round to reading this (but I didn’t forget!) 🙂
    I’m really glad you decided to blog about this topic, and I think you’ve argued it really well. I have to admit that I know little about what official counts as good or bad writing, but since I’ve been on WordPress I am beginning to learn. The concept of a bad writer is something I find very difficult to grasp, because I stuggle with a way to define it. Is a good writer someone that is technically brilliant even if their story is terribly boring? Or is a good writer some that captures your attention from start to finish but has terrible prose? And what does it say about the readers of today that two of the most popular book series; Twilight and THG are both technically poorly written. Do we need to redefine what it means to be a ‘good writer’
    Definitely something to consider, I will be interested to see what you think. 🙂

    • Oooooh… what consitutes good and bad writing- I may have to do a full-length post on that, that’s a very intriguing idea! But at an absolute minimum, I think story-writing needs two things to qualify as great: 1) a thorough understanding of good sentences and how to use those sentences to tell a story and 2) a good story to tell. A lot of mediocre stories have one or the other, really bad stories have neither, good ones will have both and something more. However when it comes to best-sellers, I don’t think that writing quality has as much to do with success as marketing, word of mouth, and the kinds of things people are looking for and are interested in. I’m not saying that’s what solely necessary for a book to succeed, but in a world where media and promotion have a huge effect on whether or not people will take a look at something, I think it has a big impact. Flannery O’Connor actually said once that if you learn to write badly enough, you can make a great deal of money. I know it sounds cliched, but honestly, what sells isn’t a good indicator of quality.

      • Haha it certainly is.
        I think your two points are probably right. I bet a lot of authors out there must get annoyed when they have great technical writing and people out there with with ‘bad’ writing become so popular.
        Strangely enough I tend to be one of those people that doesn’t get put off by bad writing, unless it’s realllllllly bad, it’s when the story is bad that I get fed up with a book.
        I think you’re right about the media as well, it amazes me sometimes the books that get onto bestseller lists!
        You should do a post on it, I’d be interested 🙂

        • I definitely have more tolerance for a story that’s good despite poor writing, but I still feel like it’s important to acknowledge that it has flaws, and that it could have been a lot more. I actually feel like the series would have been a much more effective counterpoint to reality tv if the contestents entered voluntarily in exchange for benefits. If food and living conditions were so grave, it would present a really horrible moral dilemma- do you go into the violence if it’ll help your family? And if you win, will the benefits and help that brings outweigh the cost of it? That’s how I would have liked to see it written, anyway. I think it would have lent more force to the reality tv parallel, since no one forces the people on those shows to go on- so can you imagine what would happen if you knew you were starving and could get out of it by throwing yourself into this? It would be a horrible- and fascinating exploration of the fighting and why those who fight in the games do what they do.

          That would be one hell of a long post- but I may do that. It’s a very intriguing question (especially since I’m taking a writing class now…)

  2. I agree with you 100%. But I still like the books – and if it encourages children to want to read more and discover books then I don’t mind the writing so much. This is however a great post. I look forward to seeing more of your ideas expressed in your posts 🙂

    • Thank you! I like the books too, but I don’t think they’re the best books I’ve ever read, and oddly enough, my liking for the film- which I really enjoyed- was what got me to read the books again. And I was a bit disappointed, since I’d been swept up in the action the first time around, and had missed out on how clunky some of the writing really was.

  3. I still haven’t read this but everyone is going on about it. I feel compelled and don’t want to miss out on being able to praise it or annoy people by saying it is rubbish.

    Are you on Goodreads by the way?

    • It’s worth a read- I *do* like it, but I get a bit frustrated when everyone around me is reacting as if these books are greatest things to happen to young adult literature, whereas my reaction was along the lines of “good story! Violent, but fun to read” and it seems like a lot of people love it in ways that I just don’t.

      I’m not- I have to admit I know very little about that particular forum. Is it worth signing up for?

      • If you like reading and talking about books – which I am sure you do – it is perfect. It took me a bit of getting used to at first as there are different groups that act as separate forums, but it’s been invaluable for me.

        There are also hordes of authors willing to give out free copies of their work in exchange for a review on a blog/Goodreads itself/Amazon, etc. Most of them are happy to do interviews and giveaways as well.

        You can add the books you have read to your account and rate them accordingly. You can then have discussions with other people who have read that book.

        Generally the people are fine; the angry hordes that populate most forums are nowhere to be seen.

        I can invite you to a couple of groups if you sign up and add me as a friend.

        • Since this whole blog is pretty much my soapbox for reading and talking about books, I think I would love this place very much. I’ll try and sign up as soon as my schoolwork a bit under control (ie not tonight but probably Friday or this weekend). I’ll be sure to add you once I do!

  4. I have not read the books (I may be the only person at work who hasn’t, and the same for Twilight) but I did have hope the movie would be interesting. I’m not quite sure if it was. I’ve been told it deviated from the books here and there, and to me the bits it left out would have provided some much needed explanation about the character relationships, so thumbs down for that. But I also felt the whole reason for the games was not made even remotely clear (at least not clear enough for my brain to get behind). What was causing the fear of the elite? I don’t know. I can’t believe the books were even more vague. ugh. That’s a pretty grim assessment you make about the very parts of the book that we should find deplorable are by far the best sections.

    • In the books, we’re told about why the games started, but we’re never really told enough about why, as you put it, there’s this fear of the elite. I could buy that the first few impoverished generations would accept the games out of fear, but for it to have lasted 70+ years, I think there needed to be more explanation for the people’s submission other than brute force. For instance, if the whole society bought into the games a la ancient Rome, I might have been able to accept it. But it’s shown that a fair amount of people dislike the games- which somehow have been going on for years. It’s a shame, because the series is a good action one, with a lot of potential to make an effective satire, but it just falls short in too many ways.

  5. I found your post by Googling “Hunger Games terrible writing.” Thank you for your review. I agree with you on both your points. I love the premise of the THG books, but I feel the execution is poor. I too wished the world building was better, i.e. more fleshed out. I too felt the first-person present-tense was limiting.

    Also, there is some really clunky phrasing, something like “Peeta’s injuries made him walk in an awkward fashion” or “the light had a glaring quality” (these are not actual phrases from the books, just my impression).

    But poor prose isn’t that big a deal until it becomes so poor that you have a hard time visualizing what’s going on. I had to Google an image of the arena from the Quarter Quells in _Catching Fire_ in order to be able to visualize it. It’s not like I need endless compound sentences describing settings in detail, but I at least need to be able to visualize the basic lay of the land.

    Strangely, a lot of folks have commented on the amount of chilling violence. I did not find it that chilling. I mean yeah, the violence is conceptually brutal, but I never experienced it viscerally. It this is because the writing isn’t compelling enough to cause a physical reaction. Again, this is just my opinion.

    Thanks again.

    • I’m glad you liked my thoughts on it! And yeah, the writing as a whole is just really shaky. It feels like a first or second draft of something really interesting, rather than a final copy. And the narrative and phrasing problems are only part of it. It’s like you said, the world just feels incomplete and really flat. There’s a lot of potential for it to be interesting, but it’s never really set up in any depth or explored beyond how it affects Katniss and those immediately around her.
      I think the action is decent in that it kept me reading, and I still think there are some good points about the series. I do like Katniss as a character, and I find some of the side characters intriguing. But neither Katniss nor those characters are really enough to raise the series above poor-to-mediocre quality.

  6. Pingback: Story Must Matter | I Could Be Arguing In My Spare Time

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