Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Literary Persuasion--The Hunger Games

If you're reading this, then chances are you like to read. And you almost certainly like stories.
From an evolutionary viewpoint, the reason for loving stories is clear; prehistoric man could listen to his friend talking about a close encounter with a wolf in a cave and then he could use that knowledge to stay alive on his search for food. Stories were sugar coated pills of important information. They were also a way of creating beauty to bond with other humans and increase one's survival (1). Even today, it's a well-known fact that we tend to enjoy things that lengthen our lifespans--mother nature is funny that way.

Granted, the 'don't eat those red berries, because...' story is extremely different from the modern fictional sagas, but we're captivated by them just the same.
However, this still doesn't explain our love of books in particular. These days, most books have been turned into films, which require little effort or time to watch. Reading a 700-page book is an entirely different form of crazy. It requires days, and sometimes weeks, of dedicated page flipping. Why do we do this?

One simple answer could be 'the book is better than the film'. But why would we say this? What powerful force would make us struggle through not just one book, but a whole series because it's 'better' than anything on the screen?

I believe the answer is 'persuasion'. The writer is trying, and often succeeding, to convince you that those 100,000 words are worth your time. Essentially, a book is a never-ending stream of propaganda that tells you to read more propaganda.

From a writer's point of view, this is a difficult task. There are so many bits and pieces that make or break a story. The characters. The descriptions. The action or the lack thereof. The plot. It all matters because, at any point, the reader could decide the story is not worth the effort.

From the reader's point of view, it's kind of cool when you start looking for all the hidden persuasion tactics.

For example, consider The Hunger Games trilogy. I will attempt to make sense of it without spoiling the plot for those of you who haven't read it. The high caliber of the story is definitely worth experiencing for yourself.

The popularity of the The Hunger Games trilogy is impressive; in 2012, Amazon stated that sales had surpassed the record held by the Harry Potter series (2). It's fair to say that the author, Suzanne Collins, knew what she was doing. Here are several of the tricks slipped into the combined 1344 pages (A few of these tricks were apparent in the films, but, in my opinion, they weren't nearly as clear).

A gripping first paragraph: In fifty-two words we discover three characters: 'I', 'Prim', and their mother. We also learn that they must not be rich, because their mattress is 'rough canvas', and something called 'the reaping' is scary, brings bad dreams, and is today. Any sympathetic reader is already worried, and has three big questions; who is 'I', should we care about them, and what happens during the 'reaping' that warrants fear?

Throughout the three books, Suzanne Collins is careful with her words. She always gives just enough, but not too much. This has the added bonus that when Katniss, the protagonist, repeats something we immediately know it's important.

Katniss: Our main character is arguably perfect for the story. She's not your average teenager; this is not an average teenage story. Katniss cares most of all about her family, and we learn this for certain on about page 11, but we can tell she cares even from page one when she checks on her sister. Throughout the books, Katniss continually reminds us of her loyalty to her family: it's the thought of her sister that keeps her going when she's stuck in the arena ready to give up. Katniss also likes to keep her mind organized. Several times through the story she first recaps on the events that just happened, what she needs to do next, and then makes a plan. Not only does this methodical thinking flesh out Katniss's character--she's a survivor to her core--but it also assists us in remembering important details during the fast-paced novel. We also know what to expect next, so when the hoped-for event doesn't happen, we will, helpfully, start to panic even when Katniss can't because she is too busy trying not to die.

Surprise: A key factor in our, and most other animals', survival is our ability to predict future events: It's the "last time I ate expired mayonnaise, my insides tried to come out--let's not do that again." thought process (3). Stories allow us to test our future judging skills, and we feel happy when we guess the plot correctly. However, the excitement always tends to rise when something unexpected happens. There were several times when Peeta, Katniss's fellow tribute, said things that had such a profound effect (in both my and Katniss's minds) that I struggled to keep from running around and yelling "what!?" If you've read the books, you'll know what I'm talking about. Almost nothing in the world of the Hunger Games is predictable. We have to continually keep reworking our ideas for how the story will go. I think these surprises also contribute to a more subtle meaning--they indicate the vast intelligence of the other characters. This is important: clever villains are difficult to beat. And characters playing mind games is a big factor in most dystopian fiction (it's also fascinating!).

Viewpoint: This is an important factor in the success of the books. In my opinion, it's the biggest reason why the films fall short--why most films can't seem to capture our hearts like the books do. This distance seems to get worse the closer the screenplay tries to stick to the book, or when the book is written in first person*. The Hunger Games is first person--Katniss tells it: I grin and move in the direction of the bird. First person is limiting for the writer because the reader can only know things that the protagonist knows. Other people's thoughts and plans are all inaccessible. When these things are important in a novel, it's usually told in third person (he/she yelled and started to run) and sometimes with a narrator. However, first-person's claim to fame is the intimacy between us and the main character; for all purposes, we are Katniss. Not only do we know everything she thinks and feels, but we and her are joined in the word 'I'. In the books, this means that Katniss dictates our thoughts. She's worried, we're worried. She doesn't trust the creepy guy with the trident, we hope she'll steer clear of him in the future. This narrow, but detailed, viewpoint works well for the Hunger Games story where most of the tension level is caused by what we don't know.

Moral Values: There is darkness in the Hunger Games trilogy. The heart of every dystopian novel is the corrupted ethical values of its society. Arguably, Panem, is one of the most twisted: children are forced to kill each other for reality television, and people see it as entertainment. Most of the dislike that I've encountered for the Hunger Games is because this sort of violence is horrible to even think about, let alone to write a novel and then produce a film. The youngest kids in the games are twelve, the oldest are practically adults. And to top that, if things get 'boring', the game masters cheat by sending fire and setting traps to accelerate death. The question arises, "if there are people in these books who think this kind of violence is okay, how do we keep this generation from accidentally getting the wrong message?" This is another of the places that I feel the film falls short. We're only watching Katniss feel the pain caused by her society, not actually being her. I will not pretend to understand Katniss's motivation to make the decision she chooses at the end of the third book, but I will say that the horror is not romanticized. It does, however, serve a purpose: the topic is so unthinkable that it immediately incites a moral response from the reader. Suzanne Collins doesn't have to show us that it's bad in the very beginning, as soon as it's explained, we know. And we also know that the stakes will be high.

Overall, The Hunger Games Trilogy has a plethora of persuasive content that glues us to its pages and there is still plenty more that I haven't mentioned. There are also these same persuasive tactics in other books--authors like to recycle good ideas: J.K. Rowling loved sticking surprise plot twists in Harry Potter; 1984 takes corrupt ethical values to a whole new creepy level; and The Grapes of Wrath gives you strong characters to care about, whose thoughts clarify their world. The persuasion is everywhere, but we shouldn't fear it.

We crave stories for our survival, so we pick up a book. We finish it because we're convinced the words will give us that oh-so-pleasant dopamine rush--the complex kind that you can savor and just can't find anywhere else. And luckily for us, in most cases, books give us exactly that.

Now go read something.

*I've seen several cleverly done films where an entire character is invented just for the purpose of dialogue between him/her and the protagonist. This way, we know what our hero is thinking without them having to talk to themselves. The exceedingly brilliant claymation, Coraline, is one of these films.

If you're interested in reading more, check out my blog:

(1) J. Tooby and L. Cosmides (2001). Does Beauty Build Adapted Minds? Toward an Evolutionary Theory of Aesthetics, Fiction and the Arts, SubStance 30, no. 1 (2001): 6-27.
(2) J. Bosman (August 17, 2012). Amazon Crowns 'Hunger Games' as Its Top Seller, Surpassing Harry Potter Series. The New York Times.
(3) M. Gazzaniga (2008). Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique (New York: Harper Perennial).

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