Three Good Reasons to Read Suzanne Collins’ Five Underland Chronicles: Gregor the Overlander Meets Harry and Katniss

by John on May 11, 2011

Since a reader here suggested long ago that I read Suzanne Collins’ first series of books, the five Gregor the Overlander novels, The Underland Chronicles, for a better idea of what she is up to as a writer in Hunger Games, this has been on my to-do list. I finished the fifth book, Gregor and the Code of the Claw, last night and offer these three good reasons for you to purchase the five books today and begin reading them.

(1) The series is never, ever going to be made into movies. It’s books or nothing, folks.

(2)  The Chronicles open up the core meaning of Hunger Games and the evolution of Collins’ artistry.

(3) They are page-turning, heart-engaging, “O, brave New World!” adventure yarns you will love.

In other words, “If you love Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, then….” For what are pretty much spoiler-free explanations of the three reasons, jump the jump.

(1) It’s never, ever going to be made into a movie.

I like movies as much as the next guy, if I struggle to take them seriously as art. I am very grateful, of course, for the Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games movie franchises because they bring in millions of readers who pick up the novels after seeing the film version, even if that adaptation is a far, far cry from the original story.

But Gregor the Overlander isn’t coming to theatres near you ever. If Hunger Games is bigger than Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, and all seven, um, eight  Harry Potter films combined, the biggest adaptation you’re going to see of these stories is a BBC radio production. And that’s a stretch. Why am I so confident this is a ‘page only’ story experience?

  • It’s the only book to break the lovable cockroach, rodent, and bat barrier.

It’s as if the vermin of Brian Jacques Redwall books take over the storytelling — Cluny the Bard. Really, if you cringe at the thought of a really big bug and rats and bats are the stuff of your nightmares, this is going to be a wild stretch for you even to read — and just imagine it on the big screen! Rats as large as human beings, bugs like buses that adore, surround, and insist on playing with human kiddies, and bats as your best friends, also all as big as human beings. Willard wouldn’t make it as a coming of age film. Gregor ain’t making it as a film.

  • It takes place in the dark.

Not much to add here. The story setting, besides the story frames in a NYC apartment building, is “miles beneath the city,” where human beings and Land of the Dinosaurs versions of rats, mice, moles, bats, cockroaches, snakes, lizards, and human beings live (the people are normal sized because they only moved into the Underland four centuries ago). It’s pitch black except where the human beings live and most of the stories take place in the other parts of Underland, which is to say, the “dark side.”

I don’t care how adventurous a film-maker is, a movie that is lit mainly by torches and experienced in the end by echolocation is not going to get the money for CGI it needs. Imagine for a moment sitting in a dark theatre for two hours watching a dark screen about vast dark spaces you can only imagine.

  • The Story features a 3 year old Heroine.

‘Boots’ is a winning character and a really important part of the show. There is no way, shy of a fully animated film, you’re going to find an actress that can play the part convincingly. Collins captures the cute spontaneity, naivete, unconditional love, and maddening selfishness of a precocious infant better than any story teller I can remember. This success, however, makes a movie adaptation of the books in which Boots is central that much more unlikely.

  • The figurative darkness is as profound as the literal black-out.

Because you’re a Hunger Games reader, you know that Suzanne Collins isn’t bashful about interjecting a little violence into her stories. Y’know, children thinking of creative ways to kill other children so adults can watch the murders on teevee? That sort of thing. Well, as hard as the dystopian stories will be to bring to the movies without a NR-17 rating or worse, Gregor trumps that. Human beings fighting with much-larger-than-life rats, a feature of each novel, and graphic death handed out by 12 year olds wrapped up in a story that explores in not very subtle allegories the Holocaust, the destruction of Native American civilization, and the Israel-Palestinian divide is not a Hollywood hot property.

It won’t make it as a film, then, which is really unfortunate. Because these books make great reading. No joke.

(2) It opens up the core meaning of Hunger Games and the evolution of Collins’ core artistry.

The Underland Chronicles merit the critical attention we gave Mockingjay but I don’t have the time and the books don’t have the audience to justify that full treatment. Let me just summarize, then, for new readers familiar with Harry Potter and Hunger Games will get in these stories that they’ll recognize and enjoy. First, the Harry Potter echoes:

  • A World Just Around the Corner You’d Never Know Was There

Are the Underland Chronicles just Potter knock-offs? Hardly, but, as they were published by Scholastic in 2003 at the height of Harry Hysteria (to be distinguished from the earlier age of the mania, the witchcraft focused Potter Panic) by a first time novelist, you’d have to be blind not to catch the common ground shared by Gregor and Harry. They’re not twins or mirror reflections but the family resemblance is more than striking.

Each is in his twelfth year. Both have difficult home lives and sleep in very tight spaces. The boys discover a world within the surface world that they accepted as the only reality — and, mirabile dictu, they discover that in this world they have remarkable powers neither had in his mundane life and that they have messianic or world-saving destinies that people are very much aware of in their other world.

  • Hero’s Journey, Narrative Voice, Sacrificial love…

Gregor goes back and forth between the Over and Underlands between adventures. He is drawn back into his other life repeatedly and has a hero journey, complete with an acquired-at-near-loss-of-life lesson won in combat with self and scary foe. The story is told from right over this guy’s shoulder, that’s right, 3rd person limited omniscient. You’ll recognize the perspective, I’m sure.

  • A Prophecy! It’s About Choice! Down with the Metanarrative!

Four of the five stories feature an ancient Prophecy featuring Gregor as “the Warrior” and the struggle in each of these adventures is to figure out what the obscure prophecy really means. This resembles the Harry Potter prophecy in its working out eventually into a celebration of personal choice over fated destiny as per core postmodern beliefs.

Collins works it at a different angle, though, in ultimately, I think, turning it into a picture of the reader’s experience and understanding of the text each of us has entered. just as Gregor has to work out his right relationship with the poetic destiny that is shy on specifics by making the heroic, sacrificial choice (Hey, does this boy have a “saving people thing”? You betcha). Especially in the series finale, the author tips her hand via the smart character, Ripred the Rat, and his confessing what he thinks of the prophecies and how to live with them.

Hint: It’s a metanarrative thing, maybe even an attack on religious belief, though it seems more like “conventional thinking.” Postmodernism 101: Don’t believe what you think, Self-Actualize though Choice, and, always, Speak Truth to Power.

Which brings us to The Hunger Games notes and anticipatory echoes in the Underland Chronicles from the later series:

  • Story Structure

All five books are three parts, nine chapters per part, twenty seven chapters total. It’s the Collins’ three cubed three act signature.

  • Literary Alchemy and Rings

This requires a more careful reading than I gave the books on my first pass, obviously, but the shocking nigredo revelation typically was followed by floods or sea journey, with a climax of fire in the later books. It bears a close look with the alchemical glasses on.

  • The Pearl

Boots’ real name is ‘Margaret,’ which means ‘Pearl’ and she is the love of the book, what keeps the hero on the straight and selfless narrow. The big bad rat, too, is all white and, though called “the Bane,” has the real name of Pearlpelt. Collins didn’t start her pearl fascination with Peeta, Katniss, and company.

The inner light symbolism, too, is concurrent with this imagery. Life to the Underlanders is called “light” and the Queen to be in the boks and Gregor’s love interest is named ‘Luxa.” Not especially subtle, Margaret and Luxa, but the light shining in the darkness and Dantesque story structure deliver the Cave Allegory meaning much like Hunger Games.

  • The Violence, unabridged

The books are bloody and unsparing in their depiction of the cost of battle. Four of the twelve adventurers in the first book die, as predicted in the relevant Prophecy and you get an up close experience of each with suitable grief and shock on the other battlers’ part.

  • War and Peace

Which brings us to the big message of the Gregor Saga: wars are horrible horrible things in which everyone loses profoundly by necessity, no one is fully justified, and the folks calling the shots are crooked, nasty folks.

And yet, wars must be fought because thee is evil in the world that must be confronted and relative and absolute goods that must be protected.

And yet, the consequences of war are inevitably shattered lives and persons who are never quite right afterwards.

Sound familiar? Gregor ends on a more upbeat note than Games does in Mockingjay’s Meadow but the anti-war, “war is hell,” and pro-soldier and pro-Principle anthems, the multi-faceted and anything but simple depictions of life in war time that Collins presents in her first five books is only different in delivery and impact in Panem. It’s the same pitch. Western Union couldn’t deliver the message the way Collins does.

(3) They are page-turning, heart-engaging, “O, brave New World!” adventure yarns you will love.

I cannot recommend these stories highly enough. My biggest question after flying through them was “Why weren’t these books as popular as Hunger Games?” I came up with four answers beyond the four above about why Hollywood didn’t pick the series up:

  • Bad Timing

They came out during Potter Mania, 2003-2008, and we were busy reading other big books from Scholastic.

  • Lousy Covers, no illustrations

Really, their covers are not professional, Warmbloods being an exception, and there aren’t any chapter illustrations. If you want Potter popularity, it wouldn’t hurt to throw in some pictures. Then again, pictures of bats, rats, and cockroaches? Maybe just work on the covers.

  • The Not Quite Credible SubCreation

I loved the Underland but all the supersized creatures know the way out to the Overland — and none of them ever takes it. Given the mayhem and species cleansing there by germ warfare, intentional famine, and systematic attack and extermination, that fails the believability test. We’re just not given sufficient reason to buy into this world way beneath our world never bleeding into our world.

I hope someday Collins will write that story as a sequel, namely, what happens if a group of Ripred rats come to NYC to help their smaller friends there (we learn in Warmbloods there is Over-Underland contact betwixt vermin). Giant bats with human bonded warrior-pilots, cockroaches, and rats fighting in Central Park — that would be a fun spin…

And you could make a movie out of that, if Boots has aged a few years!

  • No Soul Triptych

A big part of Harry and Katniss’ ‘wow’ effect on readers is their being the heart or soul of a three character triptych representing the body-mind-spirit aspects of the human person, Ron-Hermione-Harry, Gale-Katniss-Peeta. We don’t get this soul projection-board in the lead figures of the Underland Chronicles and there just isn’t the same depth of engagement, identification really, in these books.

We have a great love story with Gregor and Luxa and you could rate Ripred as the body or the mind, but if we call this body-will-spirit, it has the feel of forcing the pieces. There’s no Jacob-Bella-Edward tension here, no Quarreling Couple per se that leaps out at you. Collins discovery of the power of the Lead Trio and Soul Triptych is the biggest step up in her story telling in Games.

Other than that, it’s as good as Hunger Games in many places — laugh out loud funny, crazy gory, and there are plenty of opportunities to cry cathartically for the good deed done and death endured for the right. I recommend the Chronicles highly, especially to Hunger Games true believers. I was able to buy used hard covers for a penny and postage via fetchbooks.info and it was a delightful ride start to finish. [Actually, I found the finish of Code of the Claw disappointing but spilling why here would really be a spoiler, so I’ll restrain myself.]

Your comments and corrections, please! Please put a Spoiler Alert over your two bits if you want to comment or ask a question about a specific book or the series plot point non-readers won’t know.


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