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The idea behind this blog is to share my opinions about Post-Apocalyptic Literature, Films and Ephemera as well as my random nattering on a regular basis.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Hunger Games, Battle Royale and Deus Ex Machina

Once more it's excuse time. I know, I know been forever since an update. I have good reasons for this. The best is that I tackled The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and that simply fired my thirst for more in a similar vein. So I started reading my Battle Royale manga series. I just finished it last night. I had really intended to do a retrospective of all three 'Hunger Games' books but as soon as I got just a couple chapters into Battle Royale I knew I had to do a comparison. So of course any update needed to wait until I had completed a three-part series and a fifteen part series. Long time in other words.

The other is that I've started back subbing. This year I've made a deal with myself that is different that last year's. Last year a rotten day with the lil' bastards equaled a day for me. No work just day drinking. This year's deal is different. A rotten day equals jeans and a t-shirt the next day and also that check is set aside for airfare and happy-fun-Hawaii time. An extraordinarily rotten day (only one so far) gets the same treatment but the check is cashed and not deposited. I'll be spending every penny of it on beers and Mai Tais on the beach if at all possible. I've been living seven and a half hours of hell everyday so I can have nine days in paradise. A decent trade I think.

So yeah, not much time to read or create new and fantastic posts. But plenty of time to punish my liver. You can see the dilemma right?

Alright. Now on to the show. From here on there will be spoilers. Big ones. Don't read the post any further if you've not read the complete Hunger Games trilogy, Battle Royale, Watership Down by Richard Adams, Hatchet by Gary Paulson, Death Got No Mercy by Al Ewing and Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Seriously, stop now.

When I picked up The Hunger Games I knew what I was in for. I'd heard about the series from other people. Also being a substitute teacher I've seen 'the kids' carrying these books like they carried Twilight or Harry Potter. I knew it was gold. I got the second one from (if you feel up to joining tell them I sent you when they ask 'Fear-Death-By-Water') I got The Hunger Games from the library sale in St. Helens Oregon just before I brewed the Dinty Moore (Wasteland) Stout. I had to wait still though. I mean I love reading post apocalyptic books but if I can get someone to send it to me for free? Hell no, I'm not going to pay for it. I had to wait a little while for the book but I'm a patient sort. Then came the glorious day when I got the e-mail telling me it was on the way. I took on the Hunger Games series like I took on Harry Potter. All at once.

The books are in a distant future type setting after some sort of global cataclysm. What remains of the United States is divided into 13 districts (like The Original Colonies?) then is regrouped and coalesces around 'The Capital' and finally lead by a dictator. Perhaps a benevolent one at the start. All is pretty good until there is an uprising and civil war. The Capital is victorious at the end and as punishment completely obliterates the 13th District and sets up a lottery system. The 'winner' of the lottery (one boy and one girl ... also a Shirley Jackson ripoff? ) are sent to an arena and are forced to fight to the death. The killing cannot stop until there is only a single child remaining.

The book follows Katniss. On the day of the drawing it's expected that it will be her who gets chosen. But it's not it's her little sister instead. Even though it's her first time at the lottery, even though she has her name in only once, it's still her. Katniss utilizes a little used play. She takes her little sister's place. The male who's chosen turns out to Peeta who Katniss had pretty much ignored but who had a giant crush on her pretty much forever. So he knows that to survive he'll have to kill her or he could be magnanimous and allow her to kill him. Either way he knows he'll never see her again.

That's the basic set up. 12 districts and two kids from each. 24 kids enter one kid leaves. Thunderdome to power of four and a half. But filmed and broadcast to the entire population. For entertainment. It's a lot like a mix of both Steven King's The Long Walk and The Running Man. As the book plays out you can feel the ultimate climax coming. Katniss and Peeta both going to be forced to do battle. It's also clear that Katniss will be victorious. The only question remaining is how graphic, bloody and violent will it be?

Then it happens: Collins cheats. Just like Gary Paulson did in Hatchet: Brian finds the radio transponder in the plane crash and gets rescued just before winter sets in. Just like Richard Adams did in Watership Down: After Hazel is grievously wounded in a cat attack Adams writes himself into the story to rescue the stricken rabbit. Adams is not the only author to ever use the 'write myself in the story' tactic. Stephen King does it for eye-rolling length in The Dark Tower series and even Al Ewing gives it a shot in Death Got No Mercy (although I'll give him a pass on all of chapter 18, but only because Cade was on serious drugs). Even Susan Beth Pfeffer in Life As We Knew It. When Miranda goes on her death march to town so her mom won't have to look at her withered corpse, she finds that food is being distributed. She is saved from starvation at the very last moment when she notices a brightly colored piece of paper. The difference the separates the previous books? All those books are great in spite of the trickery.

Sure, you can give all these cheats big fancy names like deus ex machina and say it's a solid and viable literary device and that even the Greeks used it to get out of tight jams in their plays. But for me? It just derails the whole book when used with too heavy a hand. Collins cheated by having President Snow proclaim (when there was still something like seven players remaining) if two tributes from the same district survived at the end both lived. I wanted to jump up and shout 'HE DIDN'T GET OUT OF THE COCKADOODIE CAR!' Right then I knew I'd been robbed of any sort of heart wrenching climax.

As more characters die it drops down to just three. After a brutal death it's just two. Of course it's Katnis and Peeta. This is the part the whole book has lead up to. But it's taken from me either because Collins is a wuss or because the publisher had a weak stomach. Either way it was a giant let down.

I continued to read the rest of the series but it just continued on in much the same way. I had thought that the real ending would be a showdown between President Snow and Katnis. I felt it all building, coming at me like a wave. But at the end the showdown was anticlimactic. Remember the day you lit the big firecracker? You touched the match to the fuse and then stepped back. The fuse smoked and sparked and went pretty fast. Then it slowed down. Seemed to stop. But you knew that it would still have that giant payoff. So you waited. And waited. When the fuse hit the firework you expected ... no demanded the explosion. What you got instead was more akin to an overgrown sparkler. A roman candle at best. Remember your disappointment so keen it almost felt like betrayal? That's the feeling I got from The Hunger Games Trilogy. After a year of waiting just a big fizzle and a giant nothing.

Around the same time I was hearing about The Hunger Games, I was also hearing some chatter about a book called 'Battle Royale'. Talk was it's pretty similar. After I finished The Hunger Games my appetite had been whetted and so I dove in. Let me tell up front here. Everything you wanted from The Hunger Games happens in Battle Royale. Koushun Takami pulls no punches.

This novel pits an entire class of ninth graders against each other. 48 total students. The rules are simple. You are fitted with an explosive collar and sent to an island. Any attempt to leave the island and the collar detonates. Try to remove the collar and it detonates. Enter (or fail to evacuate) a danger zone and the collar detonates. Here's the real kicker: failure to have a single student death in a 24 hour period and the collars all detonate simultaneously.

So those are the rules. The class is a random group (or are they?) who are drugged and taken to an island. The island is fitted with cameras and satellite observation. When they get there the students are all issued a duffel bag containing food, water, a randomly assigned weapon (from a fork all the way to an AK-47) and other items of interest. Then they are sent to kill to the last person.

Some differences between the two book are that the Head of School is the 'bad guy' and that there are more children. It's also worse because many are dating each other and have been together since they began school. Many are best friends in other words.

It's the differences that make the book better than the The Hunger Games however. The ending is extremely satisfying. It ends just how you want it to. There are no tricks. No fancy camera work. The author makes you care about many different characters and isn't afraid to kill them off in gruesome ways.

Also it made more sense too. The whole event was broadcast in The Hunger Games and the whole time I was watching it I kept wondering why the rest of the world wasn't outraged by it. Live video of children killing each other? Bets placed on it? I was wondering where the rest of the planet was. That question is answered in Battle Royale.

In Battle Royale there were plenty shocks and lots of carnage, but unlike The Hunger Games not once did I pull back and think 'how the hell is that possible?' There was a fascinating dichotomy playing out in The Hunger Games. On the one hand the residents of the districts were eking out a just-above-starvation lifestyle while the residents in the Capital had glass roads and Star Trek style food simulators. They could genetically modify insects into weapons. They even had cloaking devices for their hovercraft. Magic in other words. Some of it was so outlandish and strange that it interrupted my suspension of disbelief. The final offensive against The Capital at the end of Mockingjay was frankly unbelievable, headshakingly out-of-control. Battle Royale did none of that.

That's it folks. If you were disappointed and/or bored with The Hunger Games give Battle Royale a go. Seriously, if you've read The Hunger Games you owe it to yourself. It's an undiscovered gem.


Unknown said...

Haven't read Hunger Games yet, but I did read and review Battle Royale last year and thought it was the bees knees.

Anonymous said...

Deus ex machina is not a fancy literary tool, it's often described as the "writer's greatest sin." Not many people I've talked to see the horrible structure in the Hunger Games. Love the post.