Horace McCoy: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) or The Hunger Games of the Great Depression?

The whole of last week I was looking for something to read that would grab me. I’ve read a few very good but very similar novels lately and was longing for something different. When I read Guy’s review of McCoy’s novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? I thought, that’s it, that’s what I want to read. Thanks to the kindle I could start right away. I’ve watched the movie when I was a teenager and although I was very impressed, I never read the book. Now that I have, I wonder why I didn’t read it any earlier. It’s great. It reminded me of another depression era book which has also been made into a movie, James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is as powerful as I was expecting it to be. It’s written in the form of a testimony. A man is accused of murder. He doesn’t deny it but he wouldn’t exactly call it murder. He thinks he did the person he shot a favour. The court asks him to justify what he did and that’s why he tells his story.

Why he shot someone and why he thinks it was a favour is told in flash backs. Robert and Gloria are both luckless actors who can’t make it in Hollywood. Not even as extras, no matter how hard they try. One from Texas, the other from Arkansas, they both were hoping that Hollywood would make their dreams come true. They are very poor and hardly have enough money to buy food. When Gloria tells Robert about a dance marathon, he is first reluctant but then joins her and they sign up. These marathons were really held in those times. It’s hard to imagine nowadays but people signed up to dance for 900 and more hours straight. They were allowed to rest for fifteen minutes after one and half hours but that was all the rest they got. After a while they didn’t really dance but they had to keep moving all the time. The marathon was over when only one last couple was left.

Many  couples sign up together with Robert and Gloria, 50% already don’t make it through week one. Because the public is easily bored the organizers have to spice up things a bit and come up with additional ideas, like the derbies. Every evening the couples have to speed around the dance floor. The last couple is disqualified.

The drama during the marathon is intense. Fights break out, people collapse, the exhaustion is hard to picture, still many go on dancing after 800 hours.

There is a lot to like in this novel. The dialogue is spot on and highly effective. It captures the different colorful characters very well. What really impressed me are the two main characters Robert and Gloria. Especially Gloria. Robert and Gloria are such opposites despite the fact that they are in a very similar situation when they meet. Their mental state is so different. While Robert is hopeful, Gloria is one of the darkest characters one could imagine.

“Sometimes I’m sorry I ever met you, ” I said. “I don’t like to say a thing like that, but it’s the truth. Before I met you I didn’t know what it was to be around gloomy people.”

We crowded behind the starting lines with the other couples.

“I’m tired of living and I’m afraid of dying.” Gloria said.

Gloria is one of those people who are too far gone. I’ve met people like that in my life. You just knew, they had passed the point of no return, they were too self-destructive, no influence was going to save them. And, as one character says to Robert in the novel, it is dangerous to be in their company. They are like a maelstrom, the moment you’re in it they swallow you and drag you down.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is an unflinching account of how far people are driven by poverty. And how others are willing to exploit this poverty for fun and entertainment. Only one couple can win the 1000$, the others hardly get anything. But nobody is really interested in the winners, people want to see the other couples fail. The more spectacular the failure, the better.

While it wasn’t surprising that this reminded me of another depression era book I was in no way expecting to find anything that would remind me of The Hunger Games. The writing cannot be compared, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They is excellent but there are still a lot of striking similarities that made me think. I was wondering whether Suzanne Collins was consciously using it or if it was just a coincidence. After finishing the book I googled the titles together and saw that I’m not the first to spot the similarities. Amy from My Friend Amy has also written about it as you can see here and so have others.

In both books, poor people are exploited for fun. While the role of the respective government is different, the outcome is similar. In The Hunger Games the people are forced to participate, while they sign up in McCoys novel. In both instances to see others fail, watch them struggle, makes the success of the show. In both books couples or people who are liked will get sponsors who will pay for things that will help them. Food and medicine in The Hunger Games, clothes in McCoy’s books.  In both novels food plays a prominent role. In They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? they are fed during the breaks and eat more than usual. In The Hunger Games the dinners and lunches in the Capitol are described in great detail. Ultimately hunge, is a key theme in both books. In both books there are fake marriages/romances. Couples agree to get married or to pretend to be in love in order to make the games more interesting. And in both books the show doesn’t end as expected, in both something goes wrong. Last but not least, killing and murder is another key theme in both novels.

What is completely different is the psychological dimension. The Hunger Games isn’t very psychological but They Shoot Horses, Dont They? is. The charcaters, even the secondary ones, are captivating and feel realistic.

It would be interesting to analyze these books in more depth and to compare some of the depression era books with the wave of dystopian novels we have and what it means in terms of the perception of economic crisis.

Have you read this or other books from the Depression era? What do you know about the similarities with The Hunger Games. Is it a pure coincidence?

I wasn’t aware but I’ve downloaded an Open Road Media title. They have just released this and Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye as you can see here.

Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games (2008)

I bought The Hunger Games long before even part II and III were out but never read it. Too much hype. Not that there is less of it now but I’d like to watch the movie and figured, I should read the book before. I finished it in barely two sittings and even spent one night dreaming of it.

I went through a few different phases while reading it and finally I had to admit that a lot of the problems I had with the book were entirely mine and resulted in some misconceptions. Sometimes we expect something from a book or a movie that isn’t there. I’m not the only one, I saw this reflected in a few of the reviews I’ve read so far. This isn’t a poetical fantasy story, nor a subtle YA coming-of-age novel. The Hunger Games is a dystopian adventure/action story. Following the logic of adventure and action movies and books, there isn’t a lot of introspection. Switching from Virginia Woolf’s world of characters with a rich inner life, I felt a bit lost at first but once I saw the book like a new take on an old theme, namely gladiators in a dystopian setting, I started to enjoy the ride.

A modern-day gladiator novel is pretty much what The Hunger Games is. When you’ve learned Latin in school you are familiar with the expression “Panem et Circenses” meaning “Bread and Games/Circuses”. The story plays in a distant future, in America, in the country of Panem. There are a lot of other elements taken from roman history: the Capitol, some of the names like Octavia, …

The 24 tributes of the 12 districts of Panem, 12 boys and 12 girls are sent into an arena where they fight against each other until there is only one survivor left. The games are not only shown on TV but they must be watched. The questions the book could have asked but only brushes is “Would you kill to survive?” and “How does it affect you to be forced to witness killing on a regular basis?” or “Are these killings murder?”.  The book can lead to this type of discussion but it doesn’t really look into those questions at all.

Katniss, the main character, volunteers in order to save her sister. She prays that her best friend Gale isn’t going to be sent in with her. Since there can only be one survivor it would mean she might have to kill her best friend. The boy chosen instead, Peeta, isn’t a much better choice as he saved her life once. She can only hope that either she or Peeta will be killed by someone else before the last fight.

The arena is a vast landscape with forests and lakes, bushes and caves. The game masters can change the weather, they can send wild animals, ice and storm, fire and frost. This adds to the difficulties. Only those who are skilled in all sorts of survival techniques, those who know how to hunt and hide will make it.

It is a quick read and I was captivated, not so much because I wanted to find out who will survive, no, there was no suspense in that department. It’s pretty clear from the start but it isn’t clear how they will survive. And I was interested to see whether Katniss would have to kill someone as well. And if and how it would affect her.

The Hunger Games is a page-turner, exploiting and re-inventing the gladiator theme, with some surprising ideas thrown in but I still have a few reservations.

Did there have to be a love story and did it have to play such an important role? I’m not going into details as that would be a major spoiler.

And the writing? That was a problem. I’m not a native English speaker and can be more tolerant occasionally but nothing could make me miss the fact that it’s not very well written. There is a constant use of present tense, hardly any subordinate clauses, a very limited vocabulary and a lot of repetition. I’d like to emphasize here that this isn’t typical for YA novels or dystopian novels. I’ve read several that were very well written.

As I haven’t read Battle Royale, I can’t compare but the violence in The Hunger Games is minor. Nothing very shocking. It’s more the thought that they are so easily ready to kill each other that is shocking.

I think, if you know what to expect, you will enjoy this novel as it is fast-paced, captivating and I personally liked the main characters. Just don’t expect anything poetical or introspective. The emphasis is on action not on ideas or feelings.

Will I read the next one? I have already started.

If you would like to read other reviews here is the link to Iris’ very interesting post. She has included a huge number of other reviews.