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Violence as Narrative Drive in “The Hunger Games”

“When you resort to violence to prove a point, you’ve just experienced a profound failure of imagination.” – Sherman Alexie

Every writer successfully crafting a narrative, just like any runner successfully crossing the finish line of a marathon, needs some kind of driving force. For a runner, that force might be years of training, headphones along with a good running playlist, and a carb-loaded meal eaten at just the right time.

Just like a runner, a writer can use tools and employ certain strategies to make the reader want to keep reading until the end; I call the thing that moves a narrative forward “narrative drive”. When I teach narrative drive to my creative writing students, I usually explain to them that a narrative can be driven by five different forces: plot, character, setting, form/language, or idea/concept.

A plot-driven story is any page-turner like a crime drama or mystery; think The DaVinci Code or Lord of the Rings. Examples of character-driven stories include The Catcher in the Rye or almost anything a student might read in a high school English Literature class. A setting-driven story is 1984 because the narrative depends on the fact that the world Orwell describes is so unlike the one where the reader lives. A book driven by form/language might be James Joyce’s Ulysses, and 1984 – in addition to be driven by setting – could also be driven by an idea/concept because of the way Orwell explores a dystopian future. As you can see, not all narratives are driven by just one force.

I’m especially interested in how best-selling authors like Suzanne Collins use narrative drive to their advantage, making books fly off the shelves. Excited to discover what makes The Hunger Games “tick”, I began reading it with an eye for its driving force.

Almost finished with the book, I have decided that the book is driven by a mix of plot and setting, with plot being the most dominant driving force. The book is indeed a page turner. However, the more I thought about what keeps making me want to turn the pages, the more I started to think about the violence very graphically described throughout the story. Did the violence, though cringe-worthy, make me want to keep reading? Violence is a plot device used in many plot-driven – especially crime and murder-mystery – stories.

When I first started reading The Hunger Games, I couldn’t help but think of Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery” (read it!), which describes a village’s annual lottery very similar to the one described in The Hunger Games. What’s different about Jackson’s story, however, is that the narrator describes no violence until the very end; still, the reader is compelled to keep reading from beginning to end because of all the mystery surrounding the premise of the lottery. In Collins’ novel, the violence is extremely explicit, and no secrets are kept from the reader. In fact, we keep reading because we want to indulge ourselves. We want to see the violence performed for our reading pleasure.

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with including violence in a narrative, and I’m certainly not suggesting that Collins should have censored herself. However, I do believe that violence used as narrative drive can be rather perverse, a cheap trick. Even further, I believe violence used as narrative drive in a book marketed to young adults (American Library Association defines a young adult as someone between the ages of 12 and 18; this just so happens to be the exact age group subject to violence in The Hunger Games) is clearly just a book-selling strategy, meaning the author is not as interested in exploring the idea of violence on a serious level as much as she’s interested in selling books.

In contrast, authors who use violence in their narratives but who also successfully use it to prove a greater, more important point include Dave Eggers (What Is the What) and Selah Saterstrom (The Meat and Spirit Plan). In the first novel, the narrator experiences violence in the form of war, while in the second work, the narrator experiences and inflicts violence upon herself. The descriptions are graphic and made me more uncomfortable than The Hunger Games ever could, but I’m still less disturbed by the violence in the first two books than by the violence in The Hunger Games because the violence in both those books is presented very carefully, with thoughtful and deep reflection done by the narrators. Violence described on a superficial level is simply gratuitous.

Many people would argue with me. I’ve heard readers search for deeper meaning in a book that I believe lacks meaning unless the reader is really trying to analyze the hell out of it. David Denby of The New Yorker writes, “Trying to explain the trilogy’s extraordinary popularity, critics and commentators have reached for metaphors. Perhaps it’s that the books offer a hyper-charged version of high school, an everyday place with incessant anxieties: constant judgment by adults; hazing, bullying, and cliques; and, finally, college-entry traumas. If you stretch the metaphor a bit, the books could be seen as a menacing fable of capitalism, in which an ethos of competition increasingly yields winner-take-all victors.” The thing is that readers don’t know what the violence is supposed to mean, and if people like Denby and I, who read and write seriously for a living, don’t know, then why should a 13-year-old know or even try to discover the reason for it?

Though I haven’t seen the movie yet, I suspect that watching it will confirm my thoughts. The movie, edited slightly to reduce the amount of violence, loses the narrative drive, the very thing that holds The Hunger Games together and moves it forward. In his review of the film The Hunger Games, Denby writes, “[Gary] Ross consistently drains away all the tensions built into the grisly story—the growing wariness and suspicion that each teen-ager must feel as the number of those still alive begins to diminish, or the horror (or glee) that some of them experience as they commit murder.”

I don’t advocate banning The Hunger Games or advising readers to avoid it, but I do invite everyone to examine what it is that makes you want to turn the page.

(Photo by michi003)

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