Personal response: The Hunger Games

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I wasn’t happy before reading this. My friend had informed me, “It wasn’t as violent as the film was.” A student told me, “It wasn’t as violent as I thought it would be.” Such descriptions of what defined the novel weren’t encouraging, and I definitely wasn’t happy after reading.

Only two particular instances of violence in the novel really disturbed me: the image of the first kill at the Cornucopia, and the act by which the inept booby-trapper is brutally slain. Gross. Yet such are par for the course: in any teenagers’ Matthew Ridley novel elite soldiers and extraordinary creatures regularly engage in a terrible blood-bath, and such I can stomach. The Hunger Games, however, is immediately shocking and unwholesome in its broadcast spectacle of a game to the death for the murderous characters pitted against each other are all children. Maybe I’m getting too old – I think not – but depicting children in games of violence makes me very unhappy.

What Suzanne Collins has composed is not truly something new in society or literature, but it may well have unhealthy effects on the imagination of her young audience, and there may well be some unfortunate consequences. She describes her concept as born when she was flicking through channels, and the result of matching reality television games with scenes of war. Death and reality broadcasting have been matched before by several authors, including Stephen King (as Richard Bachman) in The Running Man, Ben Elton in Dead Famous, Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, and Shirley Jackson in the truly evil short story “The Lottery”. Another cut-and-dried gladiatorial spectacle is that of Matthew Ridley’s Contest. I’d be happy in many cases for teenagers to read these novels though, and not The Hunger Games, simply because unlike the Romans at the Coliseum I don’t believe that children should be part of the performance. Violence is not approprite material for tweens. What is clear to me is that even if I am getting too old, it seems wrong and inadvisable to execute such young characters; perhaps the authors already mentioned, unlike Suzanne Collins, would recognise that hers are characters that too young to hunt, brutalize, slay and murder each other. Why? Because young audiences identify better with and reflect the narratives of characters that easily match their own age, so whilst I doubt you’ll find The Running Man in a primary school playground I think there is a greater risk now of children engaging in The Hunger Games. Do you think my fears to be baseless? Read The Running Man and you’ll find in literature of 1982 the first known example of a “revolutionary” piloting an aircraft into a skyscraper – fictional ideas can form history.

Further, to present it all as a game in which “Strategy is everything” is to forget morality. Clearly Suzanne Collins’ main character is amoral. When first I saw the trailer I was pleased to identify in Katniss a female hero of the narrative. Unfortunately the context has produced a character for whom getting ahead in society most likely involves decapitation! Perhaps it is only in the first novel where the plot devices and purposes of the protagonist so closely match the needs and evil designs of the Gameskeepers and their captive audience both inside and outside of the arena. Both the plot and the heroine are driven by barbaric game-related surprises, such as the rules for selection through the lottery, or alliances formed and broken within the arena, or challenges posed by mutant creatures. Perhaps the subsequent novels will illustrate a heroine who develops a stronger and more resilient moral code to achieve a non-totalitarian society, and the plot may pursue a path that similarly defies the culture of a decadent and divided Pan-Am. In this first novel though, Katniss is cold, unlikable, fearsome and inhumane in thought and strategy, much like her enemies. Even her most divine action over the body of a fragile fallen friend serves to realise advantage within the awful game, rather than resistance to suffering and inflicted violence.

Perhaps later novels in the trilogy will realise a stronger sense of morality, but this first novel strikes me as an unethical practice in literature, much like that executed by the author Robert Muchamore. Like him, Suzanne Collins has not produced something new, but has simply reproduced an existing narrative or genre and shifted the contents to target a younger audience. This is analogous to the harmful practice of pushing drugs: consumers who develop into pushers discover that the new markets they seek are easily found by selling their wares to younger age groups that are both unfamiliar and inexperienced in the trade, and thus are susceptible to exploitation. This cycle continues, and so the exploited groups become increasingly younger. I think the teenagers of our society have proved their addiction to this kind of treatment, and only hope the later books cure them of their taste for cold mercy and violence.

Yep, not happy 🙁 I won’t be recommending this novel until I see how the trilogy actually develops, but am almost ready instead to place it in a black-listed category (that includes Robert Muchamore and The Celestine Prophecy) of “popular propaganda spawned for an unwary consumership”.

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