Plain-language blockbuster

The Hunger Games: a feast for readers

Cover of Hunger Games
The cover of the first Hunger Games book: "Impossible not to fall in love with."

In case you have been on another planet, The Hunger Games is the first book of a science-fiction trilogy written for young adults by Connecticut writer Suzanne Collins.

When it was published in 2008, critics described it as "addictive," "gripping, poignant, and powerful," "must-read literature," "brilliantly plotted and perfectly paced," "a perfect adventure story," "impossible not to fall in love with," "an important work of science fiction that everyone should read," and endowed with "Impressive world-building, breathtaking action, and clear philosophical concerns."

In 2012, The Hunger Games movie had a weekend boxoffice opening of US$155 million. By then, there were more than 50 million copies of in circulation in the U.S. alone, not to mention versions in 26 other languages published in 55 other countries. Amazon announced that Collins is the best-selling Kindle author of all time.

Scholars have swarmed all over The Hunger Games trying to dissect its meaning and force. What can it teach us about language?

The answer is 1. the story relates to the lives and experiences of its readers and 2. it uses a transparent style that does not attract attention to itself.

Picture Suzanne Collins
Champion storyteller
Suzanne Collins.

Relevant content

As in her previous works, author Collins explores the effects of war and violence on the lives of those coming of age.

This story is set in a violent and dystopian world of the future, after our unsustainable economy was no longer sustainable and all the wars that followed.

The Hunger Games are an annual event in which one boy and one girl aged 12Ė18 from each of the twelve districts of Penan (the former North America) are selected by lottery to compete in a battle to the death. Everyone is required to watch on TV.

While this sounds like very grim reality TV, something much more significant is going on. Stories of a dystopian future are currently very popular with young-adult readers. Why?

Laura Miller in The New Yorker writes that if you consider Hunger Games as a "fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience...it becomes perfectly intelligble." She explains:

"Adults dump teen-agers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life itís supposed to be. The rules are arbitrary, unfathomable, and subject to sudden change. A brutal social hierarchy prevails, with the rich, the good-looking, and the athletic lording their advantages over everyone else.

"To survive you have to be totally fake. Adults donít seem to understand how high the stakes are; your whole life could be over, and they act like itís just some ďphaseĒ! Everyoneís always watching you, scrutinizing your clothes or your friends and obsessing over whether youíre having sex or taking drugs or getting good enough grades, but no one cares who you really are or how you really feel about anything."
Picture Hunger Games movie poster
The Hunger Games movie:
a massive weekend opening of US$155 million.

Transparent style

The book's readability has a Fog score of the 6th grade This is the perfect level for high school students, large numbers of whom graduate with an eighth-grade reading level.

John Green, in the New York Times, writes:

"Nor is there anything spectacular about the writing ó the words describe the action and little else. But the considerable strength of the novel comes in Collinsís convincingly detailed world-building and her memorably complex and fascinating heroine.

In fact, by not calling attention to itself, the text disappears in the way a good font does: nothing stands between Katniss and the reader, between Panem and America.

"This makes for an exhilarating narrative and a future we can fear and believe in, but it also allows us to see the similarities between Katnissís world and ours."

Look at rhe first chapter, in which the narrator/heroine carefully describes how the "reaping" (the lottery) works:

We walk toward the Seam in silence. I donít like that Gale took a dig at Madge, but heís right, of course. The reaping system is unfair, with the poor getting the worst of it. You become eligible for the reaping the day you turn twelve. That year, your name is entered once. At thirteen, twice. And so on and so on until you reach the age of eighteen, the final year of eligibility, when your name goes into the pool seven times. Thatís true for every citizen in all twelve districts in the entire country of Panem.

But hereís the catch. Say you are poor and starving as we were. You can opt to add your name more times in exchange for tesserae. Each tessera is worth a meager yearís supply of grain and oil for one person. You may do this for each of your family members as well.

So, at the age of twelve, I had my name entered four times. Once, because I had to, and three times for tesserae for grain and oil for myself, Prim, and my mother. In fact, every year I have needed to do this. And the entries are cumulative. So now, at the age of sixteen, my name will be in the reaping twenty times. Gale, who is eighteen and has been either helping or single-handedly feeding a family of five for seven years, will have his name in forty-two times.

Such personal, direct, and familiar language is difficult to write and rare.

In 2011, the Globe and Mail carried a story about a highly respected Toronto judge who had begun writing his decisions like a paperback novelist. Not a bad idea for all writers, since novelists know the most about writing for very large audiences.

The judge could do no better than to study the storytelling skills of Suzanne Collins. She is a champion in that game.

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