I finished reading The Hunger Games this morning. I’m not sure how I feel about it, though I was certainly hooked. The book was structured well and the writing was good enough not to distract me from the suspense-filled plot. But it’s the suspense-filled plot that’s disturbing and violent, and I’m not sure that I should want to see what happens in books two and three of the series.
My biggest problem isn’t that the story’s disturbing and violent, it’s that the books are written for young adult readers; the main character in The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, is 16 in the first book. I know only old people are supposed to reflect on the past as if life was better back then (“When I was younger, all children obeyed their parents”, etc.), but when I was younger, my favourite books followed the adventures of a feisty redhead named Anne, and the drama in these stories revolved around the main character accidentally dying her hair green or breaking her writing slate over the head of a boy who teases her in class (aaaah, Gilbert! Good times!). These days it seems the drama in popular fiction for young people revolves around finding and killing things: The evil dark wizard, bloodthirsty vampires, other children in a gruesome competition.
There’s always justification for the actions of the main character, as if the murder of what is bad has to happen for good to prevail, but innocent people get killed along the way and there’s not too much reflection on the part of the protagonists about the ethics of what’s going on. There’s no pause in which they grapple with what it means to take a life, no apparent psychological malaise about what they’ve done or are about to do. I shouldn’t speak for Harry Potter, having read only two of the books, and Twilight seems slightly different because there’ll always be a fantasy element to stories about vampires and werewolves, no matter how well-disguised they are and how much they interact with ordinary people. The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is disturbing mostly because it describes humans destroying other humans to win a competition, with only brief and shallow considerations of how wrong it all is.
I get that the Suzanne Collins may be saying some profound things about the nature of reality television and the extent to which people will go for entertainment, or to keep hold of their power; it’s a message that adds an interesting layer of meaning to the book. But none of the characters are opposed enough to what’s going on to teach the reader any valuable lessons about these issues. Katniss appears to possess little integrity, shows no remorse about her behaviour, and is really not a character worthy of teenage idolisation, though she’ll probably be worshipped because she’s portrayed as being so strong and capable (the opposite of Twilight’s Bella). It’s also possible she starts her more serious reflecting in the second book.
I think my main worry is that the books we feed young people seem to send a message that killing is okay, whether it’s to rid the world of evil (until the next book), or to protect oneself (or one’s family, or one’s country, or one’s planet) from harm. I’m not sure whether it’s the pacifist in me or the parent that freaks out more. Maybe it’s the Christian? Maybe it’s the grumpy old lady. Whichever it is, I plan to irritate my kids by forcing them to think through what they’re reading, rather than allowing them to suck it all in without consideration. I don’t care how much they whinge, we’re totally having those discussions about whether murdering something is the way to solve a problem, about Harry’s disobedience and Bella’s neediness and Katniss’ manipulative ways, about what the author might be saying about life, and whether or not they say it well.
I think it’s what Anne would do.