Why Immortal Longings Isn't Like The Hunger Games

Click here for the audio version of this essay.

When perusing other reviews of Immortal Longings by Chloe Gong, I've seen many comparisons to The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This comparison is both slightly true and mostly unhelpful as a generalization, as what they have in common are either superficial genre features or not unique to The Hunger Games. I understand why the comparison occurs to people so I'd like to take it seriously. Nicole and I have covered The Hunger Games on our podcast, and I recently reviewed Immortal Longings.  I'll also make some reference to an earlier book with many of the same elements as later appeared in The Hunger Games: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. You can find both parts of our podcast discussion on that book here (Part 1, Part 2), as well as my written review of Battle Royale. While I think it does make sense to compare and contrast them, these books are not interchangeable. 

Genre - Something to mention right from the start is that The Hunger Games is a dystopian YA story, and Immortal Longings is an adult fantasy retelling. This doesn't have to stop them from having features in common, but it is a notable point of dissimilarity when comparing them.

Deadly Competition - The big similarity, and the reason that comparing Immortal Longings and The Hunger Games makes sense at all, is that both books feature people in a deadly competition where there can only be one winner. To me, that's where similarities almost entirely cease.

Romance - I must make brief mention of the fact that The Hunger Games, Immortal Longings, and Battle Royal all feature m/f romances/relationships. To me, this falls under the category of a superficial feature (as far as a comparison goes). So many books feature romantic pairings of some kind that this didn't even occur to me at first as a meaningful similarity. Even in this respect, The Hunger Games derives a substantial amount of narrative tension from a love triangle. Immortal Longings, despite having one female main character and two male ones, doesn't pretend at a romance between Calla and August, though they share many scenes. Technically, one could argue for a triangle between Anton, Calla, and a secondary character named Otta, but Otta is a currently comatose childhood sweetheart of Anton and sister to August who doesn't actively participate in any relationships during this volume. Even if this counts as a romance triangle, that's such a common narrative feature that it doesn't make Immortal Longings more similar to The Hunger Games than to, say, Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan. Saying they're similar because they both have love triangles is technically true, but doesn't give any guidance as to whether someone would like or dislike either book. 

Resource scarcity - This is a huge deal in The Hunger Games on a very visceral level, with enough detail that it was triggering for me due to my own past food insecurity. Part of the reason to even participate in the lottery for the games is in trade for rations to avoid starvation. Immortal Longings has poverty as an issue, but there's no concrete focus on needs like food and water. Instead there's a more general discussion of royal policies making poverty worse. Additionally, while other competitors may be driven by poverty, when Calla needs food she goes home to eat - whether she can find food isn't a plot point or a driving concern.

Location - The Hunger Games takes the competitors far away from their homes, making them learn new terrain while trying to stay alive. As that series continues and Katniss ends up competing again, this displacement and need to learn a new space remains a feature of the series as the titular games have a new location every time. Immortal Longings takes place in the twin capital cities of San-Er. While many people come to San-Er from elsewhere in Talin specifically for the annual games, the games aren't trying to make people leave home to participate. They could be in San-Er for any length of time before signing up for the games. Part of why this is important is that Calla has lived in San-Er for years. She thinks about the history of the twin cities as she moves around them. Her perspective on the cities and their people is a wonderful part of the worldbuilding. Anton has always lived in San-Er, it's important to his backstory that he used to be friends with August (the prince). Neither of them is having to learn the place and the games at the same time, they get to already be familiar with both, presumably having been spectators to previous games and already residing in San-Er. While someone could travel in from outside to participate, it's not a feature of the competition itself. 

Area restriction - The Hunger Games has much more in common with Battle Royale (another excellent book which predates it) than Immortal Longings has with either of them. Both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games derived a lot of drama and strategy from slowly restricting the field of play using areas the competitors had to keep track of but couldn't have perfect knowledge of. This is such a quintessential feature of Battle Royale that an entire genre of games is named for this book. Anxiety over the possibility of accidentally entering a restricted/instantly deadly zone (Battle Royale) or an artificially dangerous area (The Hunger Games) is integral to those competitions. The competitors in Immortal Longings have access to the whole city continually, except when they're down to two people - at that point the final two are summoned to the arena for a showdown. Area restriction isn't a meaningful feature of Immortal Longings in any way, to the point that I wouldn't bring it up at all if it weren't such a huge deal in The Hunger Games.

Classism - The Hunger Games has a very stratified class structure, with Katniss specifically coming from a mining community. Some districts were wealthier than others, but all of them were competing for advantages from the Capitol through their tributes. The gap between where Katniss starts and how people live at the Capitol is immense, causing anxiety at various times as Katniss tries to adjust to the improvement in living (and access to food) that just being a competitor brings. Immortal Longings has class commentary, but it takes a very different angle. Part of this is because it's specifically a retelling of the relationship between Mark Antony and Cleopatra, two people not widely known for being lower class. I like what Immortal Longings does with class, but it's not trying to have the same commentary as The Hunger Games. 

Quitting - In both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, it's impossible to quit the games once they begin. In Battle Royale, the competitors are kidnapped and taken to the island, with no voluntary signup process involved at all. In The Hunger Games, each district must send two tributes, who traditionally are chosen from a drawing of names. Voluntary enrollment is possible, one of the most famous lines in the book is from when Katniss volunteers to go in her sister's place. No matter whether they volunteered or their names were drawn, once the competition starts the tributes are unable to quit or leave. At that point of no return, their options vanish, except to kill and try not to starve. This is very different from Immortal Longings. There, the competition is completely voluntary. Life is harsh enough in Talin/San-Er that a large pool of competitors find it worthwhile to trade a high likelihood of death for a chance at a life-changing amount of money. However, it's brought up many times that it's possible for competitors to voluntarily leave at any point. There's a specific competitor whom Calla tries to convince to drop out. This is so different from The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, as it is a meaningful level of choice and agency that simply isn't present in those other stories. The story where life in the city is so bad that people will voluntarily sign up for a deadly competition (knowing from the start that it's deadly) rather than live their ordinary lives... that's very different from either being kidnapped or unable to decline participation. None of them are good for the characters' well-being, but they make entirely different points, exerting different narrative pressures and constraints. 

The Hunger Games and Immortal Longings each have a deadly competition and a relationship which is core to their narratives, but on most other points they diverge. From their handling of resource scarcity, location, area restriction, classism, and whether contestants/tributes can quit voluntarily, these stories take very different approaches to the themes or elements they happen to share. While it's possible to like either, neither, or both, someone's enjoyment or dislike of one story would give very little indication of whether they might appreciate the other one. The only thing that seems certain to me is that anyone who reads Immortal Longings after being promised a new version of The Hunger Games will likely be frustrated by not getting what they anticipated. This is not a fault in either book, but a recognition that they're telling different stories.


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