3.05.2012

I Write A Book Review of "The Hunger Games" In the Present Tense (No Spoilers)

On Saturday, March 3rd, I get up at 7:30am. I get on the computer and prepare for Comic-Con 2012 badge sales to go live. I text with my Comic-Con buddy, and we share that we are nervous and really paranoid that something is going to go wrong. My atomic watch is in my hand, and I watch the seconds tick by. The clock strikes 8am, and the email link we were sent goes live.


The link is broken.


Panicking, my Comic-Con buddy and I check Twitter and Facebook for a solution to what is happening. You're supposed to copy and paste the link, they say. You can get to the badge sales through a button on the website, they say, contrary to ultra-specific instructions all registrant-hopefuls were given.


We finally make it into the "internet waiting room" for purchasing badges. I am approximately number 26,000 in line, and my Comic-Con buddy is approximately 24,000. We are upset that the email link we were sent was faulty, that people who did not follow instructions were the first into the waiting room, and we are still nervous, but at least we are less than number 40,000 in line. They said you can probably get a badge if you are number 40,000 in line or less.


We watch the 4-day badges sell out. We watch Saturday sell out. We watch Friday sell out. Only two days left - Thursday and Sunday. I've never even attended on Sunday. We decide we cannot make the 600-mile trip and spend those hundreds of dollars just to attend the two least busy days at the con. We are crestfallen.

Angry and disappointed, I say, "Well, since I'm not going to Comic-Con, guess I'm gonna go buy a tablet." This is not an impulse buy, since I have been mulling over the idea of an eReader or tablet for some time, but it is most definitely an instance of retail therapy. You are welcome to comment on my foibles, just keep in mind I had a whole ton of money saved up for the con, prepared to purchase both my badge and my Comic-Con buddy's if I were ahead of her in line. Also, I'm not the only one who has looked for a way to cheer themselves up after a terrible day.


Anyways, I eventually end up at Barnes & Noble, looking at the Nooks. I decide this is the best product I have seen all day, and I purchase the Nook Tablet. I step up to the check-out counter with the Nook expert girl, and she says, "Would you like to read 'The Hunger Games?' You can get one of the trilogy for free with the purchase of a Nook." Um, yes please, I say.


I get home. I read "The Hunger Games" on my Nook. I discover it is written entirely in the present tense. Oooooh-kay. I manage to get somewhat used to this fact, and I admit that the book is what they call a page-turner. Despite the awkward prose and plot-holes, I think the pace is good and I do want to know what happens next.

Okay, I'm done. I've had my fun. Time to get serious. I am aware this review is not going to align with general public opinion - "The Hunger Games" and the two novels that follow it are a worldwide sensation, and everyone I know who has read them has loved them. It's not that I didn't like it - I did like it. But I think I would have liked it a lot more when I was eleven.

I read "The Hunger Games" in a matter of several hours, just like everyone else, but that's because it is easily digestible, like white rice or Saltine crackers.  The sentence structure barely varies, but I suppose that is the price a Y.A. author pays when they decide to write something in the present tense. When you decide to relate a tale to your readers in the present tense, it ceases to be narrative and becomes a play-by-play. It is akin to sportscasting. Can you imagine if Charles Dickens wrote in the present tense? Jane Austen? What if "Beowulf" was in the present tense. I agree - bleck. When I think of writing in the present tense, I remember a class period in 8th grade when we had to write short stories and read them aloud. One kid wrote in the present tense, and when he finished reading, the teacher complimented him for doing something so unusual. I took one look at his bewildered face and thought: "Yeah, that was unintentional." I can't help it - from that moment on, I equate writing in the present tense with a grade-school mistake.

It is not lost on me that "The Hunger Games" is about a sporting event of sorts, so it's likely she chose the present tense to try to match the mood of the Games, but I don't think it was a good choice. The problem is that in a book written in the present tense, the character whose point of view we are reading from doesn't receive information any faster than we do. We learn things and reflect on them - if there is any reflecting at all - at the same time. What the present tense is missing is insight. When we read "The Telltale Heart," by Edgar Allan Poe, we trust that the narrator has insight. He has already experienced the whole event around which the story centers, and therefore we trust him to tell the story in the most beautiful, most concise, most sensible manner possible. The fact that we trust the narrator is the genius of Poe's short story, because in the end, we discover we've been tricked into listening to the machinations and meditations of an insane man. We would never have had any reason to place faith in him if he were telling the story in present tense. We would be reserving our opinions and holding out judgement until the end, because it would have been a play-by-play and not a narrative.

Am I criticizing "The Hunger Games" because we can't trust Katniss? No. In fact, I don't think I would trust her anyway. But I am bemoaning the fact that Katniss doesn't have any more insight into the Hunger Games than we do. We have as much credibility as Katniss in the Hunger Games. We are experiencing it at the same time. Everything is more effective in the past tense - worldbuilding, characterization, exposition, stream of consciousness - everything. The only backstory and setting details we are able to glean about the world of Panem are through what Katniss is thinking about right now.

All that said, if we are speaking strictly in terms of entertainment, then absolutely yes - I was entertained by "The Hunger Games." If that was the point, then mission accomplished. It is Y.A. fiction, after all, maybe I am being too harsh.

Thoughts?

6 comments:

  1. I think the whole point of the present tense is to keep the reader truly questioning whether or not Katniss lives or dies in the end.If the story was told in the past tense, we know she survived the games and consequently, probably won. This way, it keeps the entire plot a mystery. Haha that was my take on it buddy. :P

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  2. I replied and then I realized that I've got to find a way to respond that doesn't give anything away, haha. I did say "No Spoilers" at the top! Gotta go to work, so let me think on it!

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  3. Okay, here we go - spoiler-free comment. In order to preserve the mystery of whether Catniss lives or dies, the author could simply have written in the third person, but there are also stories out there that are written largely in the first person and in the past tense, and I still don't know if the character will live or die in the end. There is a way to do it.

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  4. (Mild Spoiler) As a mom of two eleven year olds, I'll chime in. First as worldwide phenoms go, we've blessedly missed the last two. My kids were too young when Harry Potter began and the darkness of the last movie actually turned them off to the books and the movies. Twilight was absolutely inappropriate. I listened to the first book in that series myself, and I have to bring up that both series are in first person. As to that style of prose, I'll take being in Katniss's head over Bella's anytime.

    Katniss is the anti-Bella and I like that. In fact, I liked it enough to let my girls read the Hunger Games a year earlier than I had originally planned. I want them to be part of the discussion when the movie comes out. While the books are violent and, I'll give you, not literary classics, they bring to the public arena of fanatical fans an actual hero who has to decide at some point what freedom is and what it is worth. I'm not saying it's War and Peace, but it is a better discussion than who's hotter Edward or Jacob, though I'm sure Peeta and Gale will get a lot of attention.

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    1. Thanks for chiming in! I could not agree with you more - I much prefer Katniss to Bella. Bella just kind of exists, whereas Katniss takes action, she makes sacrifices, she's brave, and she regards dating and romantic love as pointless, since she says she is not going to get married or reproduce. Now, that's pretty cool and uncommon for a young adult novel with a female protagonist! Katniss as the anti-Bella - as you so aptly put it - is one aspect I very much liked about the book for young adult readers, especially girls, and it would have been more fair to the author for me to mention that.

      I wonder if there are any "Hunger Games" discussion questions out there for young readers? I really would like to be a fly on the wall while a bunch of 11- to 14-year-olds discuss the book. They probably wouldn't be as annoyed as me by the use of present tense and therefore probably gleaned more from the book.

      Another thing to add: I was talking to my work friend - who has also read the book - about "The Hunger Games," and he made the point that now that the books are so popular and everyone raves about them, I couldn't help but go into the experience expecting a lot. There has indeed been a lot of hype over this trilogy, and it is hard for any piece of art to stand up to its hype in everyone's mind.

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  5. P.S. My condolences about Comic Con. :-(

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