Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games” and the Manipulation of the Reader
One of the clever aspects of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is how the hero, Katniss Everdeen, is constantly manipulating the fictional audiences to increase her chance of victory. She models every smile, grimace, word and kiss for a watching world. Using this device through the first person narrative of Katniss serves several purposes including adding a strong satiric bite and increasing the tension about the nature of her relationship with Peeta Mellark. But Collins isn’t only adept at manipulating the characters in the fictional world she is also an expert at manipulating her readers. It is this button pushing talent that has elevated this YA novel onto the tops of the bestseller lists.
Amazing advances in neuroscience over the last decade have made the brain a more and more predictable place. Collins has set up shop in the most mercurial place of all – the teenage brain. Any parent can rattle off the stages of emotions that a kid goes through as they age and in a world where the cultural touchstones are becoming more universal it is becoming easier for writers to wrangle control over nature and nurture to create a uniform emotional experience. From Christina Aguilera telling your daughter “you are beautiful no matter what they say” to Miley Cyrus is portraying the kid who is special but no one knows it to just about everything about High School Musical popular art producers today are selling a programmed emotional experience.
Collins has created characters and situations that almost always go for predictable emotional responses. Even the internal struggles Katniss battles is done in a way to emotionally engage the reader to levels of fear, frustration and joy as she increasingly understands herself. I first realized how potently Collins’ was playing with my emotions when I had teared up for the third time in what I had derisively considered a YA novel.
The character set-up is perfect for playing on the insecurities and dreams of a young reader. Katniss is a unappreciated talent who has to struggle against the seemingly uncaring world. While not a genius in the classroom she is ever so clever in ways that are hard for the outside world to see. She has a crusty cover that obscures the swan within. When she is eventually thrown into a monstrous situation she unexpectedly triumphs as the world celebrates. And most importantly, she is glorified in the end. I just described about every kid’s fantasy.
It would seem that the kids must kill kids set-up would force the hero into situations where she would lose the sympathy of the readers. But Collins protects her protagonist from her murderous actions by justifying them to the reader. Not only is Katniss not responsible for the situation she is in (unless you blame her for heroically taking her young sister’s place) when she eventually must kill the kills are oh so acceptable. She kills in an act of self-defense, as retribution for the death of a beloved character and finally in mercy. And when her ally/love interest Peeta kills it is an accident. The reader can safely snuggle into the fantasy without any pesky doubts about moral ambiguity.
Of course, anyone who has been around teens for say five minutes knows that hormones are working their magic. In The Hunger Games, Katniss has not one but two suitors that are honorable and attractive. She also discovers that while she thought she was unnoticed by the other boys at home they had been secretly longing for her. This is teen heaven.
While the full arc of the story is predictable, the individual moments are clever and often surprising. This is a smart choice. Studies in music show that much of what we like is based in the anticipation of the next note. Despite the efforts of critics everywhere the popularity of sentimentality has proven resilient. We like the predictable.
But all of this only scratches the surface of how Collins uses the expected emotional response of her readers to drive her story. The examples I use often appear in YA books. But Collins seemingly has audience reaction in mind in every sentence she writes. While I love emotionally muddled messes in my arts, not everything has to be The Sopranos or The Tropic of Cancer. There are many times that I am in the mood to be manipulated me but you better do it well. And that Collins does.