The Hunger Games: Of Tenses Past & Present

The_Hunger_Games_poster-0001Firstly, this is NOT a review of the book or movie. I did a bit of reading yesterday, and ended up going through the first few chapters of The Hunger Games: Book One. I caught the movie in May last year, liked the premises of the story a lot, and ended up devouring the entire trilogy within a month of watching the movie. For those of you who have not read it, do yourself a favour and grab the book or for the more visually-inclined ones, just grab the DVD.

A brief overview of my impressions of the books. Generally, the story is pretty good, except the plodding pace in the last book tested my patience somewhat. I felt the the setting and the world created around the story is pretty well constructed, considering the author is using material usually associated with B-grade horror and Japanese Manga. All in all, it is one of the rare book-to-movie translations where both versions are actually quite good.

Yesterday however, I was reading it through the eyes of a wannabe writer, trying to pick up a a few tricks. From this angle, you sense something very wrong from the get go. The entire book is written in the present tense! (cue catchy whistling sound from the movie)

While this would usually not be a problem for shorter stories, once you started noticing it, it never goes away. It felt as if Katniss was narrating the story for us, but as she is going through each step of the story, instead of a retelling at the end of it. It felt weird, it felt like Bear Grylls is telling us “I jump into the air!” while he is jumping off another plane or “I’m eating this weird bug” as he puts another crazy thing into his mouth.

I can feel its imposing presence throughout the book. From the choice of using ‘says’ instead of ‘said’ or she “cry” when the fireball hits instead of “cried”. From what was originally a pleasant easy read, I found it extremely irritating now, as if my mind was constantly trying to rephrase each sentence into the past.

Intrigued, I tried to find another book of equal length work written in the same manner. Perhaps it was my limited library, but I could not find another one. A search on the web revealed a few short stores, monologues etc, but I could not find another equally ground-breaking work written in the present tense.

So this got me thinking. I have a few random write-ups and introductory passages written in first-person, past-tense. So I tried to rewrite some of them in present-tense.

Needless to say, it was a jarring attempt. I do know how else to describe it. My mind simply cannot wrap itself around reading in the present. At least at first, it gets more natural after a while. It felt like I was introducing someone else into the story. Rather than me reading the story, it became more like me, listening to someone reading the story. It felt weird, unnatural, but still very much doable. Just with the added imagery of a storyteller.

So to end this post, I would like to ask for opinions on which form you prefer to use.  I have my own opinions, examples and online guides which I would add in a second and third post later in the day. But I would like to solicited some opinions first, from veteran writers and readers alike, to see if what I am saying is even justified.

Regardless of your thoughts and comments, let me wish you first, “May the odds be ever in your favor!”

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17 thoughts on “The Hunger Games: Of Tenses Past & Present

  1. The only lengthy work I’ve read that was in first person present tense (that I can remember) is 50 Shades of Grey. Do yourself a favour and DO NOT buy it. Borrow it if you feel you have to check it out. I read the entire trilogy just to discover what NOT to do when I write. Anyway.

    I agree with you. The writer should be as far back from a novel as possible. The second I see the writer in the story I’m jarred. I have the first Hunger Games book but I haven’t started reading it. Thanks for the heads-up.

    • The Hunger Games book actually reads like a screenplay, so it didn’t hurt that bad. Too late on the 50 shades thing, fiancee already has the entire set!

      • Warning: read only if you’re comfortable with having the heel of your hand glued to your forehead in amazement. Seriously, that book has caused me to question the entire future of the publishing industry.

      • I’m not surprised actually. If you removed the filth and think about it objectively, it’s actually a cry of liberation. Women, including my fiancee’s friends, feel a sense of thrill just telling other people that they’ve read it and how they can’t wait to see the movie.

        This could be our generation’s Deep Throat if it rides along this wave of collective dissent against the stigma for such material.

        But then again, we live in a much faster moving world now, I doubt it can sustain that kind of frenzy.

      • Considering the number of books that have popped up with the same theme since it’s bound to peter out. How much can be written and consumed on the same subject after all?

        But actually what astounds me about 50 Shades is how badly it’s written. E.L. James continuously breaks every literary rule on almost every single page in the book.

        Okay, I’ll stop hijacking your subject now. 🙂

      • Haha, don’t worry, not like I get any comments.

        This answer is going to sound very crude. But if you are doubting the popularity of the subject matter of 50 Shades, the amount of porn on the web should give you a very good indicator of how much of it people consume.

      • True. It’s not like sex is going anywhere. And it certainly does sell, if 50 Shades of Illiteracy is any indication.

      • I’m sure you already know this, but just in case you don’t, 50 Shades originated as a bit of Twilight fan fiction… with the protaganist being named Bella, the love interest being called Edward, and the whole thing being about Vampire S&M….

        It got a bit of a following, and so was picked up by a publishing company and transformed into what it is…

        Now, some fan fic is very well done, but to be honest this does explain a lot of the poor writing.

        One wonders what the sequels: 50 shades of fill in the blank here, are like.

        I will never know. I was asked to review the audio book of 50 Shades of Grey, but couldn’t imagine listening to BDSM.

        i

  2. Collins chose the first person present tense in order to both provide tension through the tale. Because Katnis is describing the action as it happens, we never know if she is actually going to die, and our knowledge is locked into what she knows and thinks. I would say that as you didn’t notice this until you began to analyze the book Collins pulls it off quite well (I didn’t notice it either), but pulling it off is really really hard, so I for one won’t be trying it. Besides, it’s just not my voice.

    For books with similarly interesting use of POV and tense check out Complicity by Iain Banks (which alternates between first and second person present tense – talk about hard to pull off). And The Boat (aka Das Boot- the WWII sub book translated from German) which is slightly m

  3. Collins chose the first person present tense in order to both provide tension through the tale. Because Katnis is describing the action as it happens, we never know if she is actually going to die, and our knowledge is locked into what she knows and thinks. I would say that as you didn’t notice this until you began to analyze the book Collins pulls it off quite well (I didn’t notice it either), but pulling it off is really really hard, so I for one won’t be trying it. Besides, it’s just not my voice.

    For books with similarly interesting use of POV and tense check out Complicity by Iain Banks (which alternates between first and second person present tense – talk about hard to pull off). And The Boat (aka Das Boot- the WWII sub book translated from German) which is slightly more jarring, but is also translated from German).

    Ps. Thanks for the link!

    • Thanks, I wasn’t complaining about it, I was just curious. It’s like one of those negative space drawings, once you see it, you can’t get it out of your mind. I’ll try to check out some of the books you mentioned, I haven’t heard of them.

      Personally I didn’t think the present tense did anything for her book, since Hunger was a pretty straight forward fiction which follows most of the typical genre expectations. Now if she had randomly killed off main characters or did something WTF, then it might have been more interesting.

      Still good story, I personally liked the plot of Book 3 just that it went very slow so I got a bit impatient.

      Brilliant movie, can’t wait for part two. Thanks for commenting.

      • I haven’t read the third one yet, but have heard it wasn’t as good as the other two.

      • Hmmm, how do I put it without spoiling the plot….

        Let’s just say its quite unlike the first two books and the tone goes a fair bit darker, not unlike Harry Potter’s transition in Book 7. It’s also a fair bit longer, which is too long for it’s own good.

        If you read book 1 and 2 expecting the same in 3, then yea, I can see where the complains are coming from.

        Oh well, but the 2nd book is great. Cast expanded a lot. Can’t wait for Catching Fire.

      • Actually, while I enjoyed book 2, which I just finished yesterday, I thought it was a bit too much of the same. Indeed, I wondered if Collins did a good job of depicting a 17 year old girl in Katniss’ situation, or if indeed she came off as a bit dim. How could she not figure out, or at least suspect some of what was going on?

        Still, perhaps I was expecting too much, and so I will enjoy book 3 more because I’ve heard so many complaints.

      • Lol, then maybe you might enjoy book 3. I’ll wait for just before the movie to relive book 1 again, then read book 2 again after watching the movie. I prefer to watch first then read, reading gives so much more detail that fleshes things out.

        Enjoy book 3!

  4. If that’s the case, see if you can find the full length version of Das Boot. The 1.5 hour version won an Oscar, but if you can find the original mini series version, it is the best sub movie ever made. Ever, ever, ever.

    Then pick up the book and read it for the analysis of the writing. I liked the book, but I love submarines so big surprise. The writing style, however, took some time to get involved with.

    Complicity is the opposite. Very well written despite is strange use of first and second tense present voice. The movie, however, is a total suckfest

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