First-Person Present Tense: Strengths and Weaknesses in the Hunger Games Trilogy

I recently finished reading Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy of books. I will admit that when they first came out, I avoided them, thinking they were going to be another Twilight-esque set of stories. It is a little unfair for me to criticize Twilight because I never read any of the books, but I did suffer through the first movie and that was enough for me.

On a whim, I decided to try The Hunger Games because I needed an audio book to pass the time while doing chores at home. In the end, I am very glad that I did. I found all three books to be the audio equivalent of page-turners, in particular the first two.

The most striking aspect of the books was their mostly effective use of first-person present tense through the eyes and mind of the central character, Katniss Everdeen. First-person present seems to be the current rage in fiction, especially in young adult fiction (though I would question the appropriateness of the Hunger Games for early teens). I also recently finished James Patterson’s Witch & Wizard, which also used first-person present, though to lesser success.

Spolier Alert! I am going to cite some specific examples from the Hunger Games trilogy in the following paragraphs, so be forewarned. As I said before, I do suggest you read the Hunger Games trilogy if you have not had a chance, and you may want to stop here if you want to be surprised (though given its proliferation, that will probably be difficult now). I will try not to give away too many plot details.

When first hearing about The Hunger Games, the concept behind the book of teenagers being picked lottery fashion to battle to the death put me off, thus I avoided it. Yet, once I gave it a chance, I was instantly drawn in by Collins’ excellent skill of describing the struggles of daily life in district 12, the seeming hopelessness of the oppression by the Capitol, and the range of emotions both expressed and internalized by the complex central character, Katniss.

In both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, witnessing the grim realities and interpretation of the events inside the arena through Katniss’ eyes was the strength of both novels. In The Hunger Games, third-person tense could not have as effectively captured her devastation at the selection of Prim in the games, the death of Rue, and her mixed feelings toward Peeta (and inability to commit to him) after the games were over.

With Catching Fire, Collins managed to take Katniss’ complexity and depth of emotion to the next level. I was at first put off by the fact that she was going to be returning to the arena again, thinking that Collins was effectively writing the same book as the first. But, she managed to not only pull it off, but have it shine because of the growth of Katniss, who had become a wizened veteran of the arena. The reader saw her emotional transformation through being selected again as a ploy by the Capitol to kill her off, through President Snow’s mind games, and her being unaware of the rebel plot to free her from the arena. This created a dynamic and epic conclusion as seen through the eyes of someone who was legitimately unsuspecting.

Unfortunately, for as effective as first-person present was in the first two books, it backfired in Mockingjay. I still enjoyed the book, but it was the weakest of the three. Much of the book was mired in Katniss’ damaged emotional state based on the events from the first two books, including the rebels’ failure to rescue Peeta. Obviously, she would have been distraught over such events, but Collins seemed to be unable to move past the recurring themes of nightmares, Katniss’ dislike for almost everyone, and emotional turmoil from the now stale love triangle with Peeta and Gale.

Meanwhile, critical events in the war against the Capitol were ongoing, but they were only given brief references since Katniss was not an active participant in most of them. This was where the first-person tense showed its weakness. Katniss had been degraded to a lesser character than in the first two books, yet we were still forced to experience the war through the eyes of someone that wasn’t actively involved except on rare occasion.

Collins had a chance to redeem herself in Mockingjay with squad 451’s assault on the Capitol and Katniss’ selfish determination to reach President Snow’s mansion to kill him herself. Collins manages to get the squad to the mansion, but then seems as if she doesn’t know what to do with them once they are there. Katniss (and the book) continues to be trapped in her misery and regret, forcing the reader to continue to experience a rehashing of her nightmares and loosening grip on her sanity. I agree there was a place for some of this given the atrocities of war and what Katniss had experienced, but Collins continued to cover it over and over again.

In addition, Peeta (in his own, though more compelling, mental distress) goes out alone, which offered a great chance for a confrontation between Katniss and Peeta or something directly involving President Snow. Yet, neither occurs, and since we are trapped in first-person with Katniss, we never really know what happened with Peeta as he approached the mansion alone.

Since this is technically not a review of the books, but a discussion of the effectiveness of first-person present tense in them, I will hold off on an extended discussion of the conclusion, except to say that Collins copped-out on her resolution of the love triangle and just had Katniss end up with the one who actually came back to see her (Peeta), thus not forcing Katniss to choose. This is apropos to the discussion because Katniss’ viewpoint does not give the reader any insight into Gale’s feelings and why he chose not to return.

Reading these books made me consider if first-person tense would have have worked in the book I am actively writing. While I do have a central character, there are several other characters that are active while not in the presence of my central character. So, much like I felt about the weaknesses of first-person in Mockingjay, it would be unfair to the reader to leave out so many crucial story elements (other than to reference them after the fact) just because my central character was not present for them.

What are your thoughts on first-person tense in fiction? And since we are discussing, what did you think about the Hunger Games? What similar books would you suggest?

Until next time – Chris

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6 thoughts on “First-Person Present Tense: Strengths and Weaknesses in the Hunger Games Trilogy

  1. I always recommend Howey though his writing is not like Hunger Games. Divergent is coming out as a movie & is a dystopian. Maze Runner, the overly mushy Matched.

    I loved the concept of HG. I loved that while it HINTED at romance, it wasn’t the typical sappy love triangle. My fav is the first book.

    First person usually doesn’t bother me. Each POV has drawbacks and benefits.

    • I’m interested in divergent also, but my library doesn’t carry the audio version. I’ll just check out the actual book at some point.

      I agree with your comment about the love triangle not being sappy and I felt like the first book ended in the only way it could. It’s just too bad Mockingjay had as many problems as it did. It had the potential to be the best of the three.

      • Jason Chaney says:

        If you want the Divergent books, Andrew has them I believe. He also started Witch and Wizard, but didn’t like the books. I have been reading the Sookie Stackhouse books because I like stupid books that are easy to read while waiting for George Martin to finish his latest. I also plan to re read the Harry Potter series and eventually Hunger Games. I didn’t read this whole post because it said spoiler lol. I hope I’m on topic.

      • Good call on stopping at the spoiler alert. I ended up divulging enough that it would take some of the fun out of reading the books for the first time. I do want to read Divergent. My hope is still to get it in audio format, but if not, I’ll let you know. I’m with him on Witch & Wizard. I stuck it out through the first one, but the dialog was way too stereotypical teenager as composed through the eyes of a middle-aged man. I heard they get better after the first book, but I’m not sure if I’ll bother or not.

  2. I was disappointed in Mockingjay as well because Katniss lost most of her autonomy – her active role is diminished, and she becomes a victim of circumstances. It’s really disappointing with how strong and vibrant a character she is in the first two books. The abrupt and disastrous end to her journey through the Capitol was really disappointing. Maybe another perspective would have made that scene better – like having just a moment to look at things through Prim’s eyes. The ending lost its potential build-up and fell a bit flat. I’m hoping the movie version is willing to change things.

    • I agree on all points. Collins simply took the war trauma mindset too far. I understand it; it’s horrific what it has been shown to do to people in real life, but it was very damaging and marginalizing to a strong, fictional persona in this case.

      I actually just watched Catching Fire (film version) the other night. It was excellent – better than the first, and very true to the book, which does not bode well for Mockingjay parts I and II. I am hoping they take more creative liberties with Mockingjay part II, but I wouldn’t count on it.

      Thanks for the like and follow!

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