Hunger Games vs. The Stand: Do dystopian and doomsday stories need backstories?
Tasha: So Keith. A lot of virtual ink has been virtually spilled over whether there’s enough depth to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series to make it a believable setting. The argument focuses on the series’ lack of background, the way it quickly hand-waves over a bunch of history and skips to a possibly improbable present where underpopulated outlying districts somehow financially support an overpopulated central district—or alternately, where an indolent minority somehow controls an active, skilled, physically distant majority so thoroughly that it can steal and kill their children every year without fear of reprisal. Collins doesn’t tell us much about her world’s history, except through the propaganda the state shows its people to explain how the Hunger Games came about. A lot of readers and viewers have indicated they want more if they’re going to buy into the story.
But that’s typical for any compelling tale—the audience is always going to want more. The question is, is more really necessary? While Collins doesn’t much address how her society works, or how it came about in the first place, that’s her prerogative; that isn’t the story she’s telling. She’s much more interested in the present version of her society, and how it affects her protagonists. And she isn’t claiming to be a political theorist, or writing an alternate history.
That said, I’d argue that she’s missing an opportunity. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction often tends to skip the backstory to get to the “good stuff,” whether that’s external action—like Collins sending Katniss off to fight to the death in the Hunger Games—or internal emotion, like Cormac McCarthy following his unnamed father-and-son travelers on their wearying journey in The Road. Like Collins, McCarthy vaguely touches on what happened in the past in The Road, but doesn’t lay out any detail; he even implies the apocalypse that changed the world could have been any number of things. Justin Timberlake literally begins the dystopian movie In Time by saying he doesn’t have time to explain how his world came to be. Will Smith in I Am Legend gets a news-report setup for his post-apocalypse world, and a brief flashback that shows what happened to his family. 28 Days Later gives us an inciting incident, then puts the initial protagonist to sleep so he misses all the backstory. All of these are purposeful choices, and some of them are effective, even artful. But all of them launch us into a world with no tangible past except the ones we make up for ourselves.
And that that’s a shame, given how effective it can be when a creator fills in those blanks, and makes an effort to connect a future world with our present. Here’s an extreme example: Stephen King’s novel The Stand, which closely follows the steps along the way from our familiar world to a future where the majority of humanity is dead, and good and evil forces are squaring off with supernatural powers. The story goes to some hard-to-buy places by the end, but King uses his backstory to ground the characters in reality, to give us a sense of where they and their polarized, weird world came from, and who they were before things went sour. Along the line, he channels some major, entirely realistic concerns about the potential catastrophes involved in biological weapons and bio-weapon research, and makes a few trenchant suggestions about the kind of illicit, immoral things our government gets up to, and what kind of people we might all become in a really severe crisis. The Stand is a much more effective story because of the way it connects our world to its characters’ world.
Not everybody can be Stephen King, and not every book should be as long or as detail-driven as The Stand. Plenty of dystopian stories give their worlds some real-world weight with much more concise backstories. But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, Keith, what’s your take on The Hunger Games’ fictive reality, or lack thereof? And what do you think about histories, backgrounds, and realism in future-fiction? Necessary or not?
Keith: Can I answer the second question first, then answer the first question in a way that loops back into talking about the second question? Okay? Good. Answer: not necessary.
I really enjoyed reading the Hunger Games series, but my enjoyment was tempered by some frustration. As gripping as I found the struggles of Katniss and her friends, the mechanics of that struggle sometimes didn’t seem all that deeply considered, especially in the third book, Mockingjay. There—and I’ll try to be as non-spoiler-y as possible—the rebels’ progress against the government forces seems to proceed at a pace determined by how the story needs it to progress, rather than because Collins believably set up the opposition as powerful enough to stand up to its oppressors. (Is that vague enough?) It was clear, in other words, that I was reading the work of someone whose interest in writing plausible military science fiction was much overwhelmed by her interest in her characters’ journeys. And that’s fine by me, honestly. I was more interested in reading about the characters’ journeys, too, but I did feel a little nerdish tug whenever the battles took turns that didn’t previously seem possible.
I bring this up mostly to point out that I’m not totally opposed to world-making, and internal consistence, and all those things fantasy and science-fiction fans tend to laud writers for emphasizing. And, in fact, I think Collins is pretty good at this, up to a point. I believed in the Hunger Games and the role they serve in the world of the books. And I believed that an overpopulated central district could be supported by underpopulated outlying territories, to paraphrase what you wrote above, because of Rome, for starters. Collins didn’t fill out every detail of her world with tremendous specificity, but she did enough that, apart from some business at the end, I believed in the world itself.
That makes her different from, say, J.K. Rowling, whom I believe understands how every spell and every magic item in the Harry Potterverse works. I respect that, and I love when creators are that heavily invested in their fictional worlds. But sometimes enough is enough. And I think that’s especially true of dystopias. I don’t really need to know how Panem happened. The way it reflects the world we’re living in right now—particularly the way economic disparity grew as privacy and the expectation of personal freedom eroded over the last decade or so—is enough for me to believe it could happen.
But I don’t necessarily even need that. All I really need to find a dystopian society compelling is for it to double as a dark mirror of the world I know. The way Stephen King makes the world fall apart in The Stand is admirable—and, agreed, one of the strengths of that book. But I don’t need every dystopia to fall at the end of a roadmap that showed me how it happened. If, to paraphrase you, that’s the story you’re telling, great. If you’re telling a different sort of story, don’t worry about that. It might just slow you down.
To be honest, this isn’t a question I’ve ever thought about before, because I’ve never thought I was missing anything. In fact, books like 1984 and The Road seem more powerful without that information, don’t they?
Tasha: They do—but both are very much predicated on the main characters’ lack of knowledge. Winston Smith and his peers are deliberately kept in the dark by a regime that alters recorded history at will; helping them do that is his job. History and the past don’t mean anything in his world; their mutability is part of the horror of his society. And in The Road, part of the point is that our unnamed father-and-son protagonists don’t know what happened to the world, and it wouldn’t matter—they’re far more concerned with the present, and surviving it from minute to minute. In both cases, losing the past is just one more part of their victimhood. I’m certainly not saying it’s impossible to have a dystopian story with no past; again, it’s all about the specific story you’re choosing to tell.
But there’s a big difference between making the lack of history part of your story, and leaving it out because of laziness, or a rush to get to the action, or a feeling that readers don’t care why there are zombies, they just want to see people fight some damn zombies.
Here’s a potentially more interesting point of comparison between 1984 and The Road: Both are highly metaphorical stories. The former is George Orwell’s illustration of the horrors of totalitarianism; the latter is McCarthy’s attempt to process his fears about his own son’s life and future in the world. Both are detail-driven and character-driven, but more intended to illustrate an emotional condition and a state of being than they’re intended to create a plausible, specific world. So the past isn’t as key for them as it might be for other stories.
Maybe all dystopian stories are metaphorical to some degree; maybe they’re all meant to warn us about possible futures, or what kind of people we are, or could be, under the right circumstances. I’m having a hard time thinking of a single dystopian or post-apocalyptic book or film, no matter how schlocky or action-driven, that doesn’t have at least some resonance with the present. Without that resonance, you have a pure fantasy that’s likely to be irrelevant to your readers. I get what you’re saying about finding that resonance in a story to be enough for you in terms of a past, but some really excellent stories can, and do, go so much further, and are stronger for it.
Consider Margaret Atwood’s book The Handmaid’s Tale. The movie cuts out the history to get to the action—that’s a theme in the films I’ve listed, I see—but the book gives readers a very important taste of the past. Atwood’s story takes place in a country where most women are infertile, and fertile women are granted to rich families and systematically, ceremonially raped to produce children for those families. There’s a whole culture built around these “handmaids,” which includes letting them execute people with their bare hands in frenzied rituals, among other things. It all seems pretty far-fetched and fantastical. But Atwood grounds the metaphor in a specific scene from how it all started, the day the government cut off women’s credit cards and required them to make any purchases through a male sponsor or husband.
That one scene, and the details she brings out as she addresses the scenario, grounds the story. It identifies it as something that takes place not in a far-distant future or on another planet—someplace deniable—but in a society not far removed from our own. It’s hard to see how people would permit such a terrible, oppressive, sadistic system to come about. It’s much easier when starting with a simple, single change, and showing the frustration and helplessness that resulted, and showing how men and women alike dealt with the issue. Suddenly, the world she’s creating in that book seems entirely plausible, and specifically resonant with, say, the current political struggles over women’s access to health insurance, birth control, and abortions.
And this is the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say dystopias need pasts too. I will acknowledge a third time that it all depends on the story you want to tell, but within those parameters, having a history, having a plausible background or a roadmap that leads from our present to some place full of monsters or oppression, makes a world feel less metaphorical, and more real—and when you’re specifically writing a story that warns people about an actual aspect of society, an actual potential threat to their lives or liberty or peace of mind, that’s significant.
And there are other important uses of history and backstory. Look at how Joss Whedon uses the flashbacks to the civil war in his TV series Firefly to explain both the bonds between the characters—particularly the close-but-not-romantic connection between Mal and Zoe—and their battered-but-defiant attitude toward their reigning government. Look how Mira Grant uses the detailed science and history of zombies in her Newsflesh books (Feed and Deadline) to explain present politics, which essentially creates her presidential-candidate-in-a-post-apocalypse-world plotline and her vision of post-apocalyptic, tech-driven journalism. Look at Justin Cronin’s The Passage, which lays out the history of the vampire-creatures that take over the world in Stand-like detail, and uses that backstory to familiarize readers with what the vampires are, and what they can do. His characters don’t have that information for most of the book, and the tension between reader knowledge and character knowledge is key. Look at World War Z, a huge hit that’s basically all history. Even Priest, stupid and mindless as that movie is, bothered to take the time to briefly set up an alternate history where humanity and vampires have been battling since the beginning of time, with important watersheds for both sides, leading up to a situation that’s about to change—which again drives the plot.
Basically, what it comes down to for me is that dystopian stories that take place entirely in the present have to work harder for their metaphorical connection to our world—or they often fall back on being glib, meaningless kinetic action. Can you think of any counterexamples? Any stories that entirely skip the past, but are still powerful and effective for you?
Keith: Can I just say The Hunger Games and be done with it? Actually, I’m not even sure we’re arguing opposite points anymore. You listed a lot of instances of books and movies that succeeded in part because they filled in the details of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds in which they were set. I’ll co-sign that if you agree that Metropolis wouldn’t be any more powerful if Fritz Lang provided a detailed history of how the class divisions of his film’s world widened. Or that Blade Runner wouldn’t work better if we were given more information about the off-world colonies, or we knew what those C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate were, or who revived Pan Am and put up all those neon signs. Or that Sleeper would be funnier if we had a better sense of what happened in the 200 years Woody Allen spent in hibernation. Deal?
Tasha: Deal… ish. I’ll give you most of those. But remember the sequence in the Futurama pilot where we see Fry in hibernation for a thousand years, and out the window behind him, we get a pocket history of what happened to the world, with civilizations rising and falling, and aliens repeatedly coming through and flattening everything? That was damn funny. And I certainly wouldn’t have minded seeing Woody Allen’s equivalent of the same thing. His version of how Sleeper-world came about isn’t necessary to the story, but I’m betting it would have been enjoyable to watch.