Tuesday, 25 November 2014

My problems with the "Hunger Games" Universe

I got to admit, I hadn’t ever heard of the Hunger Games trilogy until the first film hit the silver screen in 2012. Well, my mother had started reading the books before she became aware of a film adaptation being underway quite by coincidence. She picked book one up at some train station or other, and it took me a while to connect what she called “a Running Man rip-off for teenagers with a lazy love triangle thrown in for good measure” with the upcoming would-be dystopian blockbuster I’d been hearing more and more about. 

I watched the film in the cinema. I liked it. I agreed with my mum regarding the Running Man analogies, I thought that the wannabe satire of modern media went over the movie’s head big time, and I’m no fan of the shaky-cam syndrome, but I liked it. I go into the cinema wanting to enjoy the film I’m about to watch, and in this case, what stuck with me at first was Jennifer Lawrence’s superb acting, the soundtrack, and one particular death scene – you know, the one that’s sad by default and was put there solely to make you bawl. I fell for that; I still do. It works for me. It makes me care about the characters’ struggles. It makes me empathise. 

Having liked the first movie, I decided to read the books. Yeah. That… was not such a pleasant experience. I’m going to tell you right off the bat that I hated the books; I truly, deeply hated them. They’re derivative, the prose is clunky and monotone, the scenes are badly paced, the books are so poorly researched that they pose a danger to anyone who might trust their survival or medicinal advice, the protagonist is a bloody sociopath who only reacts to stuff happening around her and never acts, the love triangle is silly, and it’s decidedly misogynistic. Just look at how high-and-mighty Katniss sits in judgment over every single woman around her, how she describes them pejoratively, mostly going by their appearance, and how she obviously considers herself to be superior because of her “boyish” attributes – whatever that even means (hint: it’s complete bull). The men in the story get much more slack than any woman, and that includes her female family members. 

But the thing that shatters my suspension of disbelief like nothing else is the painfully shoddy world-building. It doesn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny. It makes absolutely zero sense. None. Whatsoever. You see, I’m one of those people who value good and three-dimensional fictional worlds over plot, because plot-wise, there’s not a lot that hasn’t been written already. What makes a story unique in my opinion are characters I care about and worlds I can lose myself in. You cannot lose yourself in the Hunger Games universe if you spend a single second actually thinking about it – which, coincidentally, is probably more than the author ever did. I don’t even mean that you have to info-dump like George R.R. Martin is prone to do (and I love A Song of Ice and Fire), but with him, at least you get a sense of scale. He made an effort. He thought things through and therefore, his universe makes sense. 

In the case of The Hunger Games, just take a look at Panem itself. I mean, the fact that there are thousands of internet forum threads theorising about what’s going on with the rest of planet Earth in that universe, because there’s nothing about that in the books, is bad enough. It speaks for itself. I’d be more forgiving about that if the world we do get to see weren’t so bloody illogical, however. Just analyse the economy of that place. There were once 13 districts around the Capitol, each responsible for a single branch of the economy, and nothing but that. Despite the obvious fact that monocultures aren’t a good idea anywhere, I don’t get how anyone thought this could possibly work long-term. 

What if there’s a drought in the farm district? Bam! No more maize, no more wheat. What if there’s an oil-spill or a similar catastrophe in the fishing district? Bam! No more fish. What if there’s a plague infecting all the cattle that’s so conveniently herded together? Woopsie. See where I’m going with this? You eliminate one single district, and the entire economy collapses. Not to mention the population disparity: there’s millions of people in the Capitol, but only a few thousand in each district. How are they feeding the Capitol’s over-the-top decadence again?

There’s another problem with this: it’s obvious that the evil Capitol puts the dick back in dictatorship. I get that. Everyone gets that, because it’s so damn over the top villainous. They rule the poor oppressed workers of the districts with an iron fist etc. etc. Um...how? I’m serious. How the eff do they manage that? They don’t produce anything. Not even the police force, oh, I’m sorry, the Peace Keepers, are from the Capitol. The Capitol is completely dependent on the districts to survive. They quelled a rebellion by levelling District 13, who were responsible for making weapons. I have no idea where they get their shit from now, but whatever. After that rebellion, they created the Let’s-Round-up-Kids-and-Kill-‘Em Games, which would not silence opposition, but make it worse. Most people want to protect kids, even dodgier characters, and there is no way in hell people would not only take that quietly, but also watch it on TV and cheer this travesty on. Sorry. That’s how people behave when the plot demands it; that’s not how actual people would act. 

The more obvious problem with this is the Capitol’s solution to dissent: fire-bomb ‘em to oblivion. Seriously? Guys, I hate to burst your evilly despotic bubble, but you need the districts to survive! Come on, does nobody else see the problem with this infallible plan? If they level an entire district, they’re goners. Even if they only execute a handful of people, that’s still a reduction of the workforce that they obviously cannot afford. Also, that would give the district people serious leverage, as in: “either you hand out more democracy, or you can bloody starve to death”. See? This whole system is doomed to failure, and if the people in this universe behaved like actual human beings, it would have collapsed a long time ago. 

Seriously, would it have killed Collins to give her world some actual thought? The way the books are written, she must have come up with her little idea, deemed it cool, and left it at that. There is no effort put into this world. Like any suethor, she just skipped to the bits she wanted to write, and hoped nobody would notice or care if there were any inconsistencies. Fiction is not an excuse for sloppiness, much on the contrary: you have to put thought and effort into your fictional world to create art, to allow people to experience suspension of disbelief, to give a credible backdrop for whatever story you want to tell. Not thinking things through, not doing research…well, that’s just plain lazy and really disrespectful towards your readers. 

Some people are bothered more by Katniss’s rather frightening psychopathy and the books’ misogynistic undertones, but what really gets me the most is how lazy the bloody things are written. The entire setup just screams middle-class, which is not helped by the protagonist’s callous attitude and downright stupidity regarding all matters survival. If I get ripped out of a story’s flow because I constantly have to ask “how the hell is this supposed to work”, then the writer has failed. In this case, I don’t think she even tried, because there is no explanation for any of these glaring logical mistakes. That is why I hated these books so damn much…and I know that I’m not the only one capable of asking basic questions that Collins brushed aside with apparently no regard for her readers’ intelligence.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Inertia and fictional heroines

A quick search of Wikipedia gives this brief definition of inertia: “Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest, or the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion (including a change in direction).”

Okay, then. We’ve all had this in physics class (or will cover the subject, if you’re still in school). The principle is fairly basic and rather easy to comprehend - I even believe that the people who write space operas realise that “stopping dead in the water” in space is…well, tricky. Like suffering from instafreeze, or hearing stuff blow up in a vacuum.

But I digress.

To make this quick, I’m just going to dwell on my main problem with female characters in YA fiction, when modern authors really should know better: they suffer from a terminal case of inertia. Seriously. When they’re standing still, they’ll continue standing still until someone sets them in motion. When they’re moving, they’ll do it unflinchingly until an outside force (usually their designated love interest or something connected to him) either forces them to a halt or changes their direction. I’m not kidding. It’s friggin’ everywhere.

Much-berated Bella Swan suffers from this. She’s a klutz, klutzing about like there’s no tomorrow (however, only when it doesn't impede the plot), and gets rolled into motion by her shiny designated love interest. When he makes like a tree and leaves, she stops dead in space - literally. She curls up into a ball and simply stops functioning. Completely. Utterly. What sets her back into motion? Sparkly dude. That’s exactly how stuff goes down in New Moon. I’m not making this up at all.

Bella, however, is not the only culprit. You have Katniss from The Hunger Games (the books, anyway), who goes fullblown sociopath on everyone and mopes around, only bothered by her boy troubles, until circumstances force her into action. Other people force her to get her butt in gear, and she follows this motion, not ever questioning her own lack of proactive attitude. Seriously. It’s quite unnerving, once you notice this.

There’s other examples of book heroines (the usual suspects being YA protagonists of nowadays) who are pushed into motion by plot, romance, villains, circumstances…any outside force the respective author deems appropriate for the occasion. The worst offender, I believe, is the terminally inactive protagonist of the abominably bad City of Bones series, Clary. Holy cow, is that dumbo inert. If this had been done on purpose by her infamous creator, fine, but it seems to me that this was not the case at all.

Is this tendency, this trope, this cliché a requirement for YA? Is it a formula that’s necessary for portraying the journey of a character from living a “normal” life to growing through adventures she did not ask for? Well, of course not. Personally, I am sick to death of these spineless, inactive, useless people in fiction, and delight in how skilled bloggers and critics deride them into the ground. Because it may be hard to write a proactive, strong female character who nonetheless stumbles into a difficult situation, but it is possible.

My favourite example is Susannah Dean from Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. She literally gets pushed into another world, doesn’t have much choice about participating in the adventure (like everyone else in the story, really), but she is a strong, three-dimensional, proactive young woman (not to mention a POC) who takes bullshit from no-one. You can, as you read, visualise her perfectly, you can see her character developing, you can hear her voice. She is a strong character in every conceiveable way, and whilst not always in control, she is most definitely empowered.

This, dear authors, is the type of woman that YA fiction is in dire need of. This is the kind of character I wish to see portrayed more often, even though I understand that not everyone can pull off what King does in terms of characterisation. Still, it is worth a try, and as I see books authored by the woman who inflicted the Draco Trilogy upon this green Earth being adapted to the big screen, I can only hope that one day, this dream will come true. One day, female protagonists in YA fiction will escape the powers of inertia.