Drawing on Literary Traditions: THE HUNGER GAMES and THE MAZE RUNNER as Case Studies

A graduate student in writing, someone I am mentoring, asked me a question some time back about what she should do if she came up with an idea for a story that she really wanted to write, but that had been written about previously by other writers.  My answer to her was basically this:

“First of all, if you find yourself coming up with an idea for a story that has NEVER been touched upon by another writer, that is ENTIRELY original, you deserve an award.  The fact is that much of what is published does draw upon some aspect of an idea or set of ideas that other writers have touched on.  There have been too many books written, and there are too many writers working today for this not to be the case.  The thing to remember is that books and stories are more than conceptual, they are more than collections of characters, they turn on more than a plot idea or a concept for a magic system.  Books and stories are also about character development, about tone and voice, about narrative progressions that are inherently unique to every writer.  You might start in the exact same place as another writer, but your creative vision will take the story elements with which you begin in one direction, and another writer’s vision will take it in another.  Relax, and write your book.  It is destined to be unique.”

As if to prove my points, two new series of YA books have captured the reading public’s imagination in the past year or so and have become enormously popular.  And while both of them offer innovative visions, both of them are also clearly derivative of well-known older works of fiction.  I am speaking of Suzanne Collins Hunger Games series and James Dashner’s Maze Runner books.

Let me state right off that I thoroughly enjoyed both series.  I was turned on to them by my teenage daughters, who LOVED them, and found both set of books to be some of the best fiction I have read in recent years.  The books are imaginative, readable, and thought-provoking.  But the basic concepts for both series owe something to other literary classics.

In the case of The Hunger Games, the first book especially seems to begin with an homage to Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, “The Lottery.”  I don’t believe I am giving away too much of the story, or providing too dramatic a spoiler when I reveal that the book begins with the main characters gathering for a ceremony in the central town of their District for the choosing of two Tributes for the dreaded Hunger Games taking place in the Capitol.  The Hunger Games are a battle-to-the-death tournament that only a single contestant is supposed to survive, so for at least one of the Tributes, selection for the Games is a death sentence.  I won’t say more; I don’t really need to.  If any of you have read Jackson’s story, you will immediately see the similarities and understand the literary connections.  Jackson’s piece is far shorter of course, and much of the reason for her deadly lottery goes unexplained.  But the tension of her story, and the drama in the opening scenes of The Hunger Games are rooted in something so similar that I find it difficult to believe Collins didn’t intend the reference.

The literary roots of Dashner’s The Maze Runner are a bit harder to describe, but they are, in their own way, far more pervasive.  Dashner, like Collins, has created a dystopian vision of our future.  In this case, we have a group of boys living in a place called the Glade.  None of them remembers how they have come to be there; all they know is that the key to their escape lies in figuring out the puzzle of the vast Maze that lies beyond the Glade.  But the Maze is always changing, its walls shifting, and it is patrolled by the Grievers, dangerous, canny creatures that are the stuff of nightmare.

For the purposes of this post, though, the fascinating thing about the story is that the boys of the Glade, while given supplies by their unseen jailers, are almost entirely on their own.  They have had to carve out a life for themselves, govern themselves, divide up the necessary labor among themselves.  This is a new take on William Golding’s classic book Lord of the Flies, in which a group of English boys, marooned in a primitive wilderness, revert to a primitivism of their own, becoming unruly, chaotic, and eventually violent.  Golding’s book offers a disturbing Hobbesian vision of the nature of adolescence and humanity in general.  Denied the moorings of society, his boys have created a world in which life is, indeed, nasty, brutish, and short.

Dashner’s book, on the other hand, takes a somewhat similar situation and turns it on its head, taking a more modern view of youth.  Rather than a Hobbesian nightmare, his is a more Lockean view.  Far from reverting to savagery, Dashner’s boys have imposed order on their ordeal, and so have given themselves a fighting chance to survive.  They have chosen to police themselves, though with rules that are at times brutal, and have developed a hierarchy that is strict and unforgiving, but also logical and effective.

The point is, though, that Dashner’s books draw on a strong literary tradition of which Golding’s book is the most famous example.

Let me state again that I loved these books — what I’ve written here is not intended as a criticism.  Rather it is meant to point out what may be obvious, but what is also worth saying to aspiring writers:  All books, even the most successful books on the shelves of bookstores right now, draw on themes and ideas explored in other works of literature.  Your book might not start from a place that is entirely unique, but it will become utterly yours as you write it and apply your creative process to the concepts with which you begin.  I could have talked about other books in this way:  The Sword of Shannara, the first volume in Terry Brooks’s highly successful Shannara franchise, draws a good deal from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Neil Gaiman’s American Gods owes something to Charles De Lint’s Newford books.  The more we look, the more we find that these connections among books are fairly common.

What other books can you think of that draw upon other works of fiction as the basis for something that eventually grew into a unique and enjoyable reading experience?  Let’s compare notes.

David B. Coe
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com

 

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There are 5 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Joe Iriarte

    Funny you should mention Hunger Games. I was reluctant to read it at first, because it sounded like a YA rehash of Richard Bachman/Stephen King’s The Running Man.

    I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a premise quite like Jodi Meadows’s for Incarnate.

    I’m currently noodling around with a premise that’s pretty darn similar to stuff I’ve seen done. I hope that when I finally do pull all the ideas in my head together into a story, I’m able to do so without it coming across as excessively derivative. The risk isn’t going to stop me, though, because there are story elements here I really want to play with.

    Good post!

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    @Mr. Coe, I agree whole heartedly with you. Even Stan Lee, (if you give him sole credit for the Marvel pantheon) owes much ground breaking scifi writen in the late ’50s/early 60′s.

    @Joe, if the idea itches, you gotta scratch. Perseverance.

  3. 3. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment, Joe. I’ll have to check out Jodi’s book; I’ve not read it. I have a couple of projects in the works that some might see as derivative, but like you I find myself drawn to them anyway. I have to trust that eventually my own vision will come through and overmaster those more familiar elements.

    Elias, thanks. That’s a great point about Stan Lee. And your advice to Joe is spot on.

  4. 4. Wolf Lahti

    The notion that every idea has already been done can be discouraging to beginning writers (and some experienced ones), but how you perceive an idea depends largely on how broad or narrow a focus you use when you look at it.

    It’s like those books Writers Digest puts out that list The Seven (or Twelve or Thirty) Plots Used in Fiction. They are all wrong, because there is only one plot: characters are introduced, conflict happens, it is/is not resolved. Ta-dah! (Don’t thank me, just send money.)

    Of course, this all changes as soon as you start noticing the details. Ideas, plots, characters… They are pretty much all unique when you look close.

  5. 5. David B. Coe

    Wolf, I think you’re right. At some level ALL stories are similar. The deeper you go, the more details you bring in to character, setting, plot, etc., the more the originality of your vision shines through. Thanks for the comment.

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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