måndag 25 maj 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins - From Hunger Games to Philosophy

Most novelists who begin their work with a quotation are content to stick to one. Suzanne Collins dreams bigger. The prefatory page to The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes reads like the syllabus to an undergraduate philosophy course: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mary Shelley and Wordsworth all appear, beneath their thoughts on the virtues of natural law.

It is not the most promising opening for the much-anticipated prequel to The Hunger Games, Collins’s best-selling Young Adult trilogy about a dystopian, autocratic America (Panem) in which children are made to fight to the death in the annual “Hunger Games”, a nightmarish reality TV format dreamt up by an autocratic city (the “Capitol”) to frighten the impoverished provinces (the “Districts”) into obedience.

The Hunger Games books are an excellent, haunting trio; they were made into four Hollywood films, and they touch on primal fears about chaos and violence. But heavyweight philosophy they are not. Nor should they be: we are talking about fiction for teenagers. The title page is the first warning sign that this spin-off novel may not live up to readers’ appetites.

The best thing about the Hunger Games trilogy is its teenage protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Brave, resourceful and dry, Katniss’s internal monologue (the books are told, loosely, from her point of view), provides a witty, humane counterpoint to the darkness of the plots; someone to root for amidst all the horror. But in her choice of protagonist for the new book, Collins sets herself a much trickier task.

Coriolanus Snow is a teenager in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, but fans will remember him as the character who later becomes Panem’s psychopathic president. Collins must show his descent from innocence to evil, while also engaging our sympathies, since he replaces Katniss as the story’s primary focal point.

The book begins 10 years after the Districts’ failed rebellion against the Capitol, for which the Hunger Games became the punishment, and 64 before the first instalment of the trilogy. Coriolanus is a high-born child of the Capitol, but thanks to the war, his family has fallen on hard times. When the chance to become a “mentor” to one of the competitors at the 10th Hunger Games comes his way, he does not hesitate.

The story that follows is engaging: the formula of the Games themselves provides an engine for creative detail, plot twist and peril. But Coriolanus and his mentee, Lucy Gray, are both pale imitations of Katniss, and the premise on which Collins builds their relationship – their mutual investment in her victory in the Games – is laughable. If they lose, one won’t get free university tuition; the other one will die. Collins is breaking the unbreakable sci-fi rule: however bizarre the world, its characters must behave like real people.

The “ballad” of the title, which denotes a song passed down the generations, is a clue to what Collins is attempting here: an origin myth. Coriolanus himself adds many features to the Games that are familiar from the sequels. The central question the book asks is: what kind of society could come up with something as barbaric as the Hunger Games? Or what kind of person?

But it lacks the answers. Collins is a good writer, but not good enough for the kind of dialogue in which human beings become monsters. In one memorably ludicrous scene, set in a kind of Hogwarts-for-the-evil, we see Coriolanus and his classmates debating the “ethics” of the Hunger Games, presided over by their villainous teacher. “I know it’s to punish the districts, but haven’t we punished them enough?” reads one typical comment. As though the subject of discussion were extra detention for badly behaved students, not mass murder.

Another problem is that the Hunger Games already have an origin story. Collins herself has cited both the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which several dozen Athenian youths were sacrificed annually to a monster as punishment for their city’s crimes, and the Roman gladiatorial games, in which slaves and criminals fought to the death for public entertainment.

These echoes from history and fable are precisely what makes the Hunger Games such a disturbing creation. It is fictional, yes, but there is just enough truth to it to send a nasty shiver under the comfort blanket that fiction provides against reality. The more Collins mucks around with that formula, the less convincing her creation becomes.

What I think Collins intended her readers to take from The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is what the trauma of war can do to a person: how it can strip them of their essential humanity. What I took away was that she should stick to plucky heroes and dazzling plot-twists. When it comes to writing the murkiest backwaters of the human psyche, Collins is fathoms out of her depth.

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