Room for Improving The Hunger Games Point of View

by Mr. Sheehy

One thing epic storytellers knew when they began their stories was that there is no point in restricting your point of view. Right from the opening, they gave themselves the broadest and most authoritative narrator they could, appealing to the muse and taking her perspective of things they as simple humans could never know without divine informants.

Thus, The Iliad can tell us not only how Hector feels, but how his enemy Achilles feels; that same narrator can then present sympathetic pictures of Zeus one moment and judgmental ones the next, depending on the need of the narrative.

All this thought on point of view arises out of my reading of (well, listening to) Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. I know I’m late to the games (the first book came out in 2008!), but I wanted to catch the show since everyone around me seems to have experienced it already.

In fact, just about everyone I know enjoyed the book, which is one reason I’m a tad embarrassed to admit I’m not overly excited about it. I can see why people have read it nonstop in one weekend, and I can see that the world Collins creates makes it particularly intriguing (being similar to our world in many ways, but not quite—a clear potential extension of our world, but ultimately only a conjecture); yet I found that I am not ultimately convinced by the world Collins creates, and having thought it through, the biggest factor blocking my conviction is the point of view.

The first problem that developed for me is something I noticed early on: the present tense used in the book. I find it distracting and tend to think that a bit of reflective perspective would help me overcome some of my resistance to Katniss’s character—she tells us what she is thinking, but the words make up more of a play by play of her inner dialogue rather than a perspective-giving insight into her thoughts. It’s reporting rather than interpretation, statement rather than wisdom. Yet, despite my reservations with it, I see the present tense as a potentially interesting way to portray the live update-reality TV-social media aspect of the story. This insight is one I gained from Paul D. Miller:

More interesting is this: amidst the action and chaos, Katniss rarely stops to reflect on her situation. Like Homer’s epic, The Hunger Games is full of passages that detail violent deaths accomplished in the spirit of competition. But The Hunger Games is the Iliad as told through Achilles’ Tweets, if he were a teenage girl. Katniss certainly thinks and shares her thoughts via inner monologue with the reader—but her thoughts are focused on survival techniques, not on the nature of war, struggle, life, death, society, or anything else. The author has given us a thrilling tale about a strangely unreflective protagonist.

And that is perhaps the point: Katniss is a cipher for what we become when we are saturated in social media, unable to escape the eyes of digital observers.

So the present tense seems to assist this technique. It also prevents us as readers from knowing whether Katniss will survive: a past-tense first person narrative is always a give-away that the narrator survives to the end, somehow. A present-tense first person narrative could die, even though the wrap up to the story might seem a little quick. So, ultimately, that present tense is weird, but I can begrudgingly accept it as a means to a worthwhile end.

I can also see why Collins would want the first person point of view. Katniss is the heroine, the point of the book. Her feelings and her reactions, both private and public and the contrast between those two, are what make the book what it is. We need to know what Katniss feels and be able to contrast that with what she chooses to project to the Hunger Games audience. We need to hear her ask how a particular action will play with the crowd at home, how it will make her family feel, and whether it will make Gale, her friend, laugh. These considerations should be eerily familiar to anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account—how often do I guess who will comment on a particular tweet, and how many people will “like” a picture. And within the book, the first person perspective gives us an immediate perspective of Katniss’s presentation and the thoughts behind them.

Yet the perspective limits what Collins can make me believe about Katniss. Katniss is supposed to be humble and fairly clueless about how talented she is with a bow and how winsome she is with people. The trouble is that Collins also wants us as readers to know how talented Katniss is, and with the point of view of the book, the only person who can tell us is Katniss. Out of necessity, then, comments crop up that don’t fit with the humble character, comments about her skill with a bow or the admiring way someone reacts to something she’s done. It’s like listening to a person whose humility is a false front—someone who projects themselves as humble but finds a way to mention all their amazing feats. I don’t think Katniss is supposed to possess a false humility, but since as the narrator she is responsible for telling us about her great feats even as she is supposed to be unaware of how great they are, it can come across as unbelievable. I think particularly about the private session with the game makers, where she shows them her skill with the bow and arrow. Slightly before this incident Peeta praises her skill with a bow because she’s unaware of its extent, but in the game room she’s suddenly a confident Robin Hood, easily cutting through ropes at great distances and revealing no doubt about her ability to hit whatever she aims at.

This trouble of a narrator not knowing the very thing she’s reporting is most obvious with Katniss’s relationship with Peeta. Collins obviously wants the readers to know that Peeta genuinely loves Katniss, since from the first moment there is no irony in his behavior toward her. The trouble is, Collins also needs Katniss to be unsure about the love. The result is a difficult challenge for a writer: a narrator who is supposed to be particularly sharp in understanding people (she can communicate with Haymitch without his being there) has to be completely clueless about something that her entire reading audience understands. And the reading audience’s understanding has to arise from the information that she herself feeds to it. Thus, particularly as it concerns Peeta, Collins basically needs her entire audience to be a better judge than Katniss, a situation that undercuts what she wants us to believe about her heroine.

I might be missing the angle, of course. Perhaps Collins wants us to see Katniss as a jaded product of Panem, viewing everyone with skepticism; but Katniss correctly judges Rue to be without irony, as well as Gale, Thresh, Cinna, and even, to an extent, Effie Trinket. So how can she be so clueless about Peeta even though we know she sees everything she needs to see to know that truth?

My troubles are ultimately troubles of conviction. I am not convinced by the narrator’s reality, and that lack pulls me out of the world of Panem. I wonder, however, if this first person point of view is really as necessary as it appears? Could Collins have achieved the results she wanted without using the first person narrator?

I am truly intrigued by what results Collins is pursuing. I like the idea of a character sunk in a social reality TV and social media-like world, where extreme violence done to others for entertainment is accepted and celebrated. I like the exploration of what happens to interpersonal relationships when an outside audience is a constant factor. I like how the extreme settings in which Collins asks these questions pushes us to wonder about the moral consequences of our media-saturated culture.

Yet I tend to think the simple choice of a character’s point of view has handcuffed Collins’s ability to pursue these ideas. While Homer made sure to use the muse so he as narrator couldn’t be restricted, giving himself ultimate omniscience, I can see why Collins would reject the omniscient narrator, since she is not interested in everyone’s perspective, but only in Katniss’s; but a third-person limited narrator strikes me as an adequate tool for this novel. With such a narrator, she could communicate what is inside Katniss’s head but also the reality of what is going on around her. Such a point of view would allow Katniss to be humble and skilled, to be a shrewd judge of people and to misjudge one particular person, all in a credible manner.

At least, that’s my point of view on the matter.

Thanks for reading.