From the Mailbag: Harry Potter and the Hunger Games

Posted: August 23, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

I got an email from friend of the site Blake Hihara the other day. It read:

My good sir Ian!
First off, I like the Gorillaz lyrics subtitle for your blog.
Second, what’s your opinion on the Harry Potter series and Hunger Games series?
Hope you’re doing well in SC.

Blake Hihara

First of all, good eye, Blake! Gorillaz is one of my all-time favorite bands. I love the way that Damon Albarn plays with the issues of identity and fame that come from being a rockstar in a tongue-in-cheek way, and besides that, their music is really damn good. It’s perhaps the most seamless blend of alternative rap, ’90s Britpop anthems, 1970s progressive rock, and modern-day electronic music that has ever existed.


But the reason you sent this mail probably wasn’t to listen to the seminal oughties hip hop classic Feel Good, Inc, Blake. Why you sent me this email was because you wanted to hear my opinions about two of the three biggest YA sensations in recent memory (the third, Twilight, shall not be discussed here). So here we go.

First of all, Harry Potter. It may surprise you to know that, even though I was one of the biggest readers imaginable as a kid, I never really got into Harry Potter. Part of it was the fact that I hadn’t really gotten into fantasy yet (that came when my dad read me The Hobbit when I was eight). Part of it was Mary GrandPré’s godawful cover art (for all those who aspire to be illustrators, bear this in mind: a bad cover can kill interest in a book far more than a good cover can inspire it).

But even so, I’ve read all the Harry Potter books. And, my judgement is:


That being said, I like the first three books far more than the last four. The first three books are pretty damn charming, I have to admit. I enjoy the fusion of the traditional British boarding school story with the portal fantasy elements. Plus, if you look at the first three books, they’re all mysteries, which is pretty cool: there weren’t very many fantasy mysteries out there when Harry Potter was published. It’s only with the explosion of Urban Fantasy (triggered in part, I think, by the twin punches of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Dresden Files, which both contain mystery elements) that fantastic mysteries became a subgenre all their own.

Of course, I think JK Rowling is a victim of her own success. Once we reach Book Four of the Potter Saga, the storytelling gets more bloated, the books get heavier and heavier, and the series loses its charm. By Book Five, the Harry Potter series isn’t a school story anymore, just a standard good-versus-evil fantasy that happens to be set in a magic school. And by Book Seven, there isn’t even that academic setting to hold on to. It’s just another immature gallivanting-around-the-country epic fantasy story with magic and villains and a cast of thousands. The only similarities between Book One and Book Seven just happen to be the Harry Potter branding on the cover.

Plus, there’s a lot of reasons why I have problems with Harry Potter that have to do with the storytelling itself. I hated the ending. “And they all got married and lived in the suburbs” is a bullshit ending, let me tell you. The whole “happily ever after” ending is maybe the most boring and clichéd ending imaginable (second only to the “and she woke up and IT WAS ALL A DREAM” ending). In addition, I hated the fact that anyone without magic got swept under the rug as useless. If I’d been writing the Harry Potter series, it would have ended with the magical world being exposed and Muggles and wizards joining worlds. The Muggles would have also joined in the final battle against Voldemort (I don’t care how much magic he has; there’s got to be a way that a special forces team with AK-47s could have helped somehow in killing You-Know-Who). I hated the fact that the Magical MacGuffins that Harry needs to become Master of Death are only introduced in the last book, seemingly tacked on. And I don’t like Ron, or any other Weasleys. I mean… really. Not one bit.

But that’s not the most egregious problem I have with the Harry Potter series. The biggest one is… time travel. Or rather, the fact that it is never used.

I mean, come on: the Time Turners were introduced in Book Three, and were never used again. Not once. You’d think that a Time Turner would have come in handy in the war against Voldemort. They could have easily saved Dumbledore with time travel. Instead, it gets completely ignored.

That’s the thing about time travel. Unless your whole series is about time travel (witness: Doctor Who), the very existence of time travel in your fictional universe is story-destroying. No problem can’t be solved without time travel! There’s a space probe that will destroy the earth unless it hears the sound of humpback whale song, but humpback whales are extinct in the future? No problem! We’ll just fly around the sun and pop back to the 1980s and steal us some whales! Simple! Never mind that a technique like that could have been used to save Spock’s life two movies ago. Time travel is just a narrative device, to be swept under the rug whenever it would interfere with the plot, right? Not something that, oh, I don’t know, DESTROYS THE LINEAR CAUSE-AND-EFFECT PROGRESSION OF EVENTS THAT IS ESSENTIAL TO GOOD STORYTELLING?

Yes, yes, I know. Rowling handwaves the whole time travel issue by saying “Terrible things happen to wizards who mess with time!” But, really, come on. You can’t use time travel to defeat a world-devouring dark wizard, but it’s perfectly acceptable to use it to help a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl get to her classes on time?

Seriously. The use of the Time Turner in Book Three has got to be the most frivolous use of time travel in the history of storytelling. EVER.

Blech. That got ranty fast. Anyway, I’ll turn to your next question, Blake: what about the Hunger Games?

Again. Meh. It’s more of a positive meh than a negative meh (which isn’t the case for Harry Potter), but I don’t feel strongly about the books. I like the fact that Katniss is a female character in a young adult novel who has a life apart from her various love interests, and the fact that she is actually competent, much less badass, is a refreshing change from Bella Swann and her ilk.

But I will say this: I have only read the first two Hunger Games books. And the reason for that is simple. I think the prose style is boring.

I don’t think that Suzanne Collins has a very strong narrative voice. And that’s one reason why I got bored easily with the series. Now, you can get away with this when you’re writing in third person, as writers like Isaac Asimov have proven. But when you’re writing in first person, like in the Hunger Games trilogy? You need to have a strong voice. This isn’t a recommendation. It’s a necessity. When you’re inhabiting a character’s head, you need to be able to identify with that character, and one way to do that is to make the character’s inner thoughts and narration interesting. You can’t afford to make it boring.

When I was reading Katniss’s narration, I was reminded of nothing more than Samus Aran’s bland robotic monologues from Metroid: Other M. And believe me when I say this as a gamer: anything that reminds gamers of Other M is a Bad Thing.

So, anyway, Blake. Hope that answers your questions. And to close off this post, I thought I’d bookend it with another Gorillaz song.

Have a happy Thursday,

~ Ian

  1. Blake says:

    Thanks for the response, fella.

    • Ian Johnson says:

      No problem. It gave me the opportunity to talk about things that interest me (namely, storytelling) and also I got to learn how to embed YouTube videos into blog posts.

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