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SPOILER ALERT: Questions and answers may contain spoilers for all three books in the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins.

Symbolic Conflict as the Climax of Social Conflict

I noticed an interesting structure inherent in Suzanne Collins "Hunger Games" trilogy. It seems an unusual structure, presenting an interesting challenge of plotting, setting and structure.

The core of the narrative - the overarching plot - is concerned with the subjugation of Panem's Districts by the Capitol. This core conflict is given an extreme, exaggerated, and intense representation in the eponymous Hunger Games - which are explicitly designed within the story's setting to demonstrate Capitol's complete dominion, to humiliate the Districts, and to pit the Tributes against each other. So the Games are designed to symbolize the social plight of the twelve Districts.

The books focus very heavily on this symbol. They spend the climactic portions of the first two books focusing heavily on the symbolic scenario - playing out the larger conflicts of the setting on a more immediate, visceral level.

Symbolic Conflict as Interruption of the Primary Conflict

However, it seems to me that this structure also presents an interesting difficulty. The Games symbolize the larger conflict, but they don't affect it - not directly. In many ways, both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire start out one type of story (highlighting the abuse of the Districts at the hands of the Capitol) and then shift into a very different type of story (a brutal survival game against constructed dangers and harsh competition). The survival-game story clearly stems from the class-war story, but does not seem poised to directly go back and affect the class-war story in return. In fact, both these books portray, as a climactic moment, ways the Games' outcome does affect the rest of society - and this is seen as unexpected, unpredictable, destabilizing.

In my opinion, this is a problematic structure. The interruption of the "main" thread in favor of a "secondary" thread, which doesn't clearly advance the "main" thread, runs the risk of the "secondary" thread feeling like a side-trek, a distraction - a thread you're waiting to get over with and "get back to the real story."

Question

As I see it, using the Hunger Games to reflect the entire social conflict is the central concept the trilogy is constructed around. So the issue I'm presenting is inherent to the trilogy concept. I think Collins found many ways to alleviate this difficulty. I would like to ask:

  • What techniques and structure/plotting choices did Collins make which directly helped make the "survival-game" thread feel like part of the primary narrative, and not an interruption of it?
  • What ways can you suggest of dealing with this issue beyond what Collins did in the original books? I am interested even in methods which would require drastic changes to the originals.

NOTE: This is my first attempt at a case-study question. I'd be happy to hear what people think of this type of question, and what guidelines might be appropriate. If you have any thoughts, please join the meta discussion!

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Do I take it you already have your own answer to this question? –  One Monkey Mar 5 '12 at 16:09
    
@OneMonkey : Not at all. I have a few pertinent observations, and I expect I could sit down and come up with an answer if I tried. But I don't have an existing answer of my own, no. –  Standback Mar 5 '12 at 17:23
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I feel like I'm getting more "here's my take on the books" responses than answers to my question, which implies that my answer wasn't clear or pointed enough (and/or that posters disagree with my critique, which the question is founded upon). As such, I'm closing the question as nonconstructive. –  Standback May 28 '12 at 11:23
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closed as not constructive by Standback May 28 '12 at 11:24

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5 Answers

OK, this is my take on the stories.

All three books contain a hunger game. The first one is the standard hunger games. The second one is the results of Snow being determined to kill off Katniss, and the third is the "real" games, spread into the Capital.

At another level, the Capital represents the entertainment industry - Hollywood, if you like, but more than that, and wider. They are untouched by the suffering that they inflict, just to have their entertainment. It reminds me of things like Jerry Springer, where peoples suffering is used for ratings. It is also drawing from the reality shows (x-factor etc), where people are "used" for the purpose of entertainment, without any real consideration - often - for what it does to the people concerned.

For me, the message that was throughout the books was about what happens when your entertainment becomes real. When you are entertained by oppressing people, what happens when the oppressors fight back, and confront you in the street. The games started as a rather symbolic indication of oppression, but in the second book became a more explicit weapon of Snow to destroy opponents. In book 3, the game became real for everyone ( not that, for Katniss and the other tributes, it wasn't in the earlier versions ). We like killing and death for entertainment, as long as it is carefully controlled and contained. We don't want the reality of it brought to our faces.

Questions: What plot thread .... In the first book, the games were just an interruption to the normal oppressive life that District 12 lived. But it served to highlight the difference between the poor districts and the rich capital. By the third book, the games had erupted out of the arena (the rescue at the end of book 2 can be seen as symbolically taking the games out of the safe arena, and Katniss breaking the force field was critical to that). And it showed that the oppression that the games represented was far more significant than appeared in book 1.

How would I change it? Actually, I think Collins did a good job. The writing is not brilliant, but it kept me reading, and I enjoyed it. Yes it could be improved, but then, so could pretty much any book. I might want to change it by looking at the other districts more, to see how the social oppression was experienced in other places, to see the various forms it took. In District 12, it is mainly either quite gentle or totally destructive. But there are other forms of social oppression, that could have been shown around the other districts. I can see that for some of them, being selected as a tribute might have been a positive, as dying would be better than living.

In some ways, Collins makes the situation too simple. District 12 are poor, but happy, and their oppression is that they are kept poor. In district 13, they are oppressed by their own people ( which is significant for the finale ), but accept it as fighting for the right cause. But seeing the real breadth of oppression would show how significant it is - and would probably make it unsuitable for the teenage audience it is aimed at.

TLDR version - more experience of the breadth of the oppression, and the forms it can take. The insidious forms, and the explicit forms. To see all of that in the context of the games might have made the connection better.

I hope this is answering your questions!

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Interesting take on the series, and I can certainly see your point, however I do not completely accept your opinion, and therefore cannot offer you an answer to your question, only provide my own views and hope you can glean some insights from them.

Note: I've only recently finished the trilogy, which I suspect I will return to for repeated readings in the future, but so far, from one read, this is the way I see the structure presented.

While I agree with you that there are two distinct conflicts (the social one and the Hunger Games), and that the latter stems from the former, where I disagree is the notion that they are separate except for when Collins consciously tries to integrate them. I see the trilogy more in roughly this paradigm:

1) The Hunger Games - thesis 2) Catching Fire - antithesis 3) Mockingjay - synthesis

I'll elaborate. Book One more-or-less presents the "classic" situation you describe. While the subjugation of the Districts is certainly present throughout the book, it's actually the secondary conflict - the Hunger Games - that takes the stage, with the everything else in the background. While the Games don't actually begin until about halfway through the book, the build-up towards them is almost immediate and they occupy the entire novel, either in preparation or execution. This is what has enabled it to be adapted so successfully to screenplay form, a feat that will be much harder as the series progresses. It's no accident that the main antagonist - President Snow - is reduced to an "extra" in the book, and that the head Gamemaker - Seneca Crane - is nowhere to be seen and in fact is only introduced in Catching Fire as a posthumous character. In fact, the movie had to bolster these roles as preparation for the sequels! If the film was stand-alone, I doubt they'd even appear. The first book focuses almost exclusively on the personal - Katniss' struggle to survive and her relationships, particularly with Peeta and Haymitch. Any social commentary is incidental and provided as background information, and the "game-changing" ending is in fact precisely as you describe it: unexpected, unpredictable and destabilizing.

However, Book Two, while seemingly retaining the same basic pattern, actually does quite a lot to subvert it. So much, in fact, that in many ways it's the complete opposite of the first book. Unlike it, it focuses almost exclusively on the political rather than the personal. Consider: first of all the Games do not feature into it in any meaningful form until Katniss' discovery that she will be forced back into the arena, again about halfway through the book (a reveal heavily implied to be itself a political move). The relationships have been firmly established and while we still spend some time on them, they don't actually develop in ay meaningful way, except for the artificial, playing-to-the-camera aspect, which become more and more absurd and obvious political machinations. President Snow and the new Gamemaster are introduced and are prominent characters, and the repercussions of Katniss' actions in the first book are spreading into a full-scale rebellion along with the reveal of the mockingjay as its symbol, culminating in the destruction of District 12 at the end of the book. Most importantly, the Game itself this time is an arena of political maneuvering, not simple twisted mass entertainment. The tributes this time are all victors, experienced not just in killing but also in the way the world really works. They know each other beforehand and, indeed, many are involved in a secret pact to subvert the games by making sure Katniss and Peeta, the symbols of the rebellion, are saved, even at the cost of their life. This pact was engineered by non other than Haymitch, the so-called clownish, drunken mentor figure, who is revealed to be in reality a cool, calculating political animal (a fact hinted throughout the first two books but only confirmed at the end of the second) who is in fact one of the leaders of the rebellion. Even Katniss' personal agenda is reversed - whereas in the first book every single move she makes apart from volunteering is designed to increase the odds of her survival, here her aim is to save Peeta, a sign that she is moving beyond small-time, self-centered thinking into a realization that she is part of something bigger than herself, which may require her to sacrifice her life. While the ending is still unexpected, it also sped a process already underway, and is therefore no longer unpredictable and destabilizing.

Book Three can easily be seen as the culmination of the action in the series. There are no longer any Hunger Games, and now it's an all-out war, with Katniss playing a figurehead as the Mockingjay. That's a valid viewpoint; I just don't happen to agree with it. As Katniss realizes early in the book, the Game never ended, it just transformed. The third novel abandons the structure of the previous two and instead fuses together the political and the deeply personal on every conceivable level. All the elements from the previous two books are still there, but they are now so mixed together it becomes impossible to tell them apart any longer. At one point Snow himself is referred to being a contestant in the Game - the Game of who lives and who dies, which reaches its terrible climax with the death of Katniss' sister, the one for whom she kick-started the whole thing to begin with, as the result of a coldly calculated war-crime, which on a smaller scale could be seem on the arena. This action in itself, because it is so personal, has profound political implications in the rest of the war and Panem, as Katniss realizes there is no real difference between Snow and Coin and goes from being the symbol of the revolution to subverting it by actually killing its leader in retaliation for Prim's death.

This is my understanding of the series as a whole. I apologize if it failed to directly answer your question, but I hope it might provoke some sort of insight or discussion.

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The disconnection you point to is vital to the initial volume of the trilogy. The Hunger Games are a satirical device, the oppressive Panem actually come from the desire to frame a story around a satirical look at reality television Collins says as much in the interview printed in the tail of volume one in the edition I have.

This does leave a problem when we go from satirical statement to epic adventure. As the story continues the wheels start to come off the premise in various ways. The core of the story is rotten because it really doesn't make any sense. The key clue to this is that Snow's only tactic is to manipulate the Games, he has no other military plan to contain unrest in the districts. The actual concept of the games is riddled with problems if you think about them too hard. The plan was originally that at the outset the holes would be covered by the presumed virtue of the topic.

Collins has some really nice characterization going off, and knows how to craft symbols and dramatic moments. It's a testament to her skills that many of these symbols, moments and characters remain engaging and resonant even when it is obvious that the main story is rather silly. As the epic winds to its conclusion the Hunger Games become more of a problem to the new, weaker story.

I always find it interesting when an author sub-consciously rejects the set up of their story by choosing to kill almost everyone at the very end of the story. I could be wrong but I always think that such an action expresses a dissatisfaction the author has with the shortcomings of their own work.

Dramatically the oppression of the Districts exists to serve the Hunger Games, that is why the Capitol has a very limited play book when proper unrest comes out of their key initiative for oppression and control.

All it really would have taken to strengthen the story would be to evolve and consider the Capitol as if it really existed, instead of as a large piece of set decoration surrounding the Games. If the Capitol had been fleshed out to be far more insidious and evil it would have given more liberation for the Games to be the fostering ground of a revolution.

If the Games were like a special event in among a calendar of "Circuses" (as in Bread and Circuses) the whole televised game industry could be seen as the bedrock of Panem's aspirational society. Gladiatorial combat for adults a la Death Race and Gamer could be seen as the way out of the life of a drudge. The kick back is that people in the Districts could be against the Hunger Games but for the Games in general, allowing the question of how far is too far.

Of course this makes the satire far deeper and more complex in turn and is far harder to stage manage.

But don't be fooled. All things in the books exist to fuel some form of organised combat in books one and two the pantomimic President Snow is the manipulator and the combat is in the form of the arena ritual, in the final volume President Coin is the manipulator and the combat is a real warzone. Only the capitol's "pods" exist to inject that grim gallows jollity that leads Katniss to explicitly dub the climactic military mission as just another stage in the Hunger Games.

None of it particularly holds up to close examination purely because the Games have far more weight than the oppressive ruling class strand. If they were held in an equilbrium of attention and story weight it would have dramatically altered the character of the story and made the whole thing more robust and less prey to the weaknesses described.

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Alright, everyone Stand Back. I've got this. I think a specific case-study is a great idea for a question.

I read those books pretty fast last spring. Before I get started, I have to say: they're not the greatest books ever. Her writing is very hit and miss. Somehow, the plot was engaging enough for me to finish the series, but I was constantly thinking "well this is boring," and "I don't care about this character/scene at all," and sometimes even "this is awfully disappointing after so much build-up." The problems became more flagrant as the series wore on. That being said, there are definitely structural flaws with the way she put the plot together. It seemed to me at times that she wasn't certain what she wanted to focus on.

Anyway, as for ways Collins tried to thread her plots together: periodically while Katniss is in the arena, and constantly when she's out of it, the reader is doused with indicators that just about every man, woman, and cat in the country is clinging to their television for dear life, watching the Games. In the arena, when she's out of contact with the outside world, these indicators come in the form of her own suspicions, usually written in a form similar to "I could just imagine the crowds aching for me to kiss Peeta." The gifts from sponsors, usually showing up as rewards for tv-friendly behavior, encourage and strengthen these thoughts in the minds of both Katniss and the reader.

One of my favorite aspects of the novels is her personal fashion designer, whose name I can't remember for the life of me (EDIT: Cinna!). It is frequently implied but never stated that he is some sort of not-very-subtle revolutionary agent working against the Capital, and the outfits he provides for her as she goes into the Games are repeatedly emphasized as designed to light sparks beneath the discontent of the Districts.

On a less tangible note, I suppose a major aspect of the early novels which aims to tie these two separate worlds together is the obscure nature of the Capital. Nearly every developed character in the books is anti-Capital, just another unhappy subject of their oppressive regime. What characters there are who actually support/are members of the Capital are kept in the background as soulless creatures without lives or motives beyond stomping on the Districts and running the Games. My point here is that for a long time Collins makes it feel as though the book's entire plane of existence is held in chains by this hated but untouchable ghostly Master. Early on, one gets the impression that there is no fighting back, and the Games are all there is to think about.

I don't recall whether it was in the second or third book that the arena contestants astonishingly managed to break out of the arena by directing lightning into the wall, but this seemed to me to be a rather contrived way to shift the plot. Suddenly the Capitol has a physical nature, an army: suddenly it can be struck against. This shift was too sudden for me. It felt like the plot-board had just snapped under its own weight, and a handful of characters had tumbled off onto a separate conflict on the floor. I would say that despite her best attempts, Collins did a mediocre job of tying the Games into the greater national plight.

Against my better instincts I will take a stab at offering what I would have done to improve the plot's continuity and verisimilitude:

  • Start the district conflicts sooner. Perhaps have one of the less important districts revolt and be destroyed early on. this would be even better if Katniss got to know the tribute from that district.

  • Emphasize the physical threat of the Capital outside the Games. In the first Games, perhaps one of the other tributes could have found a way out and tried to escape. This could be the same person as the last idea, and he could ask Katniss to come with him (she says no), only to be caught and thrown back in and then killed by the gamemakers.

  • Figure out a better way to get Katniss out than directing lightning into a wall. It just wasn't believable.

Alright, that's all I've got off the top of my head. let me know what you think.

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Reading back through my answer, I think it would be more useful if I made some generalizations that weren't so specific to this series. I ought to speak of literary techniques in general, not just details that only apply to this story. But similar to this being a case-study test question, this is a case-study test answer: to be improved in future iterations. –  Aerovistae Mar 17 '12 at 19:09
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Not sure if this is along the lines of your question exactly, but:

  1. The first book was great (mostly about the games),

  2. The second book was good (more politics, but still plenty about the games)

  3. The third book was disappointing (all about politics).

I guess if I were to improve the series, I'd simply have found some way to resolve things in book 2, honestly.

(I think Collins did try to find a scenario that could "condense" or "focus" the wider conflict in book 3 like the games did for book 1 - that's what the guerilla fighting, especially through the capitol, seems to be trying to do, but I don't think it really worked).

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I'm sorry, this doesn't address the question at all... My post consists of a description of a structural problem, and two questions on how the problem has been/might be dealt with. Your post doesn't refer to the problem I described at all, and it doesn't answer either of the two questions. What you've given here is your general opinion on the books, but that's not what the question was about. –  Standback Mar 2 '12 at 6:58
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