Thursday, 12 April 2012

The Hunger Games - reflections

Well, where to start...

Clearly from all your comments, here on the blog and on Facebook, this book generates strong feelings across the generations. While it may have been written initially for the young adult market, it is being read by people from at least twelve upwards, and there are varying editions now available to cater for that mix - Sixteen says my paperback edition, bought from the adult shelves in Oscar's is way cooler than the one he read, with the original teen-oriented cover design.

This cross generational phenomenon isn't new. The Harry Potter books and movies generated the same broad spectrum of patronage. I eventually succumbed to Harry Potter because Twenty was having it read in class by his teacher when he was six, so I thought I'd better read it. I took him to the first movie six months later. I bring it up because in our discussions about The Hunger Games, this came up, including his memories of being absolutely terrified by the scenes with the chess match. He also made the valid point that there are children as young as he was then being taken to the final installments of the Harry Potter movies, which are far from being gentle entertainment for small children.

This raises one of the issues that emerged over various discussions I've had during the last twenty-four hours with an increasingly large group of people, which is the age appropriateness of some of this genre - or not so much that, because I think that Collins was definitely targeting kids of the lead character's, Katniss, age (16) - rather the availability to younger kids in terms of both accessibility and changing trends in what they should and shouldn't be allowed to access. Much younger kids than that are reading it - check out Mel's comments on the previous post. She teaches twelve and thirteen year olds...and they're reading it and going to the movie. Again, this is not unusual these days. However, as Mel says in her comments, these kids are just out of primary school - they're not the target audience.

On this theme, referring to another earlier experience of Twenty's... When he was nine, in year five at school, his teacher proposed that for the next class reading project, they'd tackle John Marsden's Tomorrow When the War Began. I'd read this book, because Twenty-six did had done it at school not long before and struggled with it - at fifteen...the age for which the book and its sequels were intended. It deals with a small group of country kids who spend a weekend in the bush camping and come back home to find that, in their absence, the country has been invaded and their parents have been taken prisoner along with the entire local population. They choose to fight and the series follows them through learning to be guerrilla soldiers, dealing with developing sexuality and relationship issues, death, authority issues - all in the context of a war. I was gobsmacked when Twenty said that's what their next book was going to be and headed into the school to question the teacher. On questioning, it turned out he hadn't actually read it - but he'd followed the hype, read about Marsden and his writing for young people, and thought they'd be great. I spelled out to him exactly why they were totally inappropriate for nine year olds, and told him I'd be making an enormous fuss if he went ahead. He read the book and pulled it. Twenty, at the time, was half admiring and half peeved and pestered me to read them, as we had them all at home. I refused, on exactly the same grounds, was backed up by Twenty-six, and he didn't read them until he was in his mid teens - and understood then why I'd taken my stance.

There seem to be hugely blurry lines between what our kids should and shouldn't read/watch/hear these days. And that, I suspect, is at the bottom of a lot of the contention about The Hunger Games. In an interview at Scholastic Books, Collins was asked about the inspiration for the story, she cites the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. OK, fair enough. Then - and this is where the contemporary culture element raises its head - she says she was tired, channel surfing on TV, flicked between channels showing, alternatively, war coverage and a reality show with kids competing - and 'the lines began to blur'. So what we have is a totalitarian regime, ruled from one region, the Capitol, which is supplied with all its needs by the work of the population in the other twelve oppressed regions. Every year, a girl and a boy between twelve and eighteen are chosen by lot to represent their districts in the ultimate, gladiatorial reality version of Survivor where, to win and return home to their family, the victor has to kill or be killed. They are groomed and presented at the beginning of the contest in a way that is calculated to make them appeal to the populous and attract sponsorship - the more sponsors, the greater chance they have of gifts that could mean the difference between life and death. Then they are thrown into the arena, equipped with tracking devices so that their movements can be monitored at all times, where there are embedded cameras that broadcast the 'game' to the whole population.

In searching for commentary, I came across a number of different critical pieces that have been written about this genre of young adult dystopian fiction. Laura Miller in her essay for The New Yorker, 'Fresh Hell', makes comparisons between the adult and young adult versions of the genre, saying that the YA version offers a stream of hope that is not usually a feature in the adult form, citing as examples Brave New World and 1984. She also acknowledges that the YA version has been around for years, listing titles like Robert C. O'Brien's Z for Zacharia and John Christopher's The White Mountains Trilogy - both of which I have in my bookcase from my original teen collection... She's right. And I read them. Z for Zacharia still spooks me to this day, the Christopher books not so much. The thing is, while the essence of the struggles for survival in both books are marked by the powerlessness of kids against adult authority - in the same way as The Hunger Games - they are nowhere near as graphic, but none the less powerful for the lack of gore.

I think that part of my cringe reaction to The Hunger Games comes from the same place that prompts me to avoid most current reality television, gratuitously violent movies and violent TV series. With a lot of reality television there is, for me, a subversive sense of glamourisation of the levels that people will stoop to in order to take others down in an artificially created environment in order to win a large sum of money. To take the premise behind many of these shows and use it as the basis for a story for kids where the prize at the end of the game is your life, because everyone else has been killed and you're the last one standing - and you've had to take part in the killing as well... - is a frightening extension of what has become, via programs like Survivor, Big Brother, even My Biggest Loser, a societal condoning of behaviour that we wouldn't normally accept in the normal course of functional relationships.

Sixteen loved this book. He said it was really cool. He told me that he didn't think it was really my kind of reading - to which I responded that I'll read nearly anything if it's between two covers, which made him laugh. But, my point about Sixteen and this generation and loving this book, is that this is the generation who grew up with games on screens, played with a mouse or a joystick, where to win, you have to splatter characters across the screen in great floods of messy, gory graphics. For them, the evening news has been one war after another. I remember the first Gulf War and the coverage with night vision of the missiles being fired - it looked just like one of the emerging computer games... If it isn't the news, it's a program where the whole basis is a competition. Just look at what's on offer and ask yourself where the quality programs, adaptations from good literature, documentaries, clever comedies have all gone. If it isn't a reality show, it's probably a crime series - more killing... It has become so normal to watch death, and to make a game of it.

And this book is about a game of death. A game. Sure, there are other issues that can be taken from it, and probably discussed very usefully with the kids. But at what point do we stop and consider that one basic fact - that this is a book where death is a game and it is children killing children, being watched and manipulated to do so by adults, for entertainment?


  1. It's interesting the parallels between video games, the Hunger Games and the desensitisation of individuals to issues such as violence.

    Certainly there are correlations - all you have to do is look at what the best sellers on game shops are at the moment - Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3 - both contemporary first person shooters - the Assassins Creed series, and recently Mass Effect. All of those 4 games are slightly different genres - first person shooters, third person shooter RPG or third person action adventure. And all at different points in human history - Mass Effect is in the mid 2200's, Assassins Creed is in the future, the Crusades and Renaissance Italy and Modern Warfare and Battlefield 3 are in the contemporary era we find ourselves.

    These games result in people becoming desensitised to violence in one way shape or form. Whether it is staring down the scope of a sniper rifle or hiding in a hay stack waiting to double shiv someone with hidden blades. Yet, they aren't actually aimed at the primary audience that plays them.

    Mass Effect is a very deep game any the majority of people don't see the depth of it - they only see the scantily clad female aliens in the night clubs, or the ever growing arsenal of weapons which you can wield. Assassins Creed's concept challenges the very fibre of instinct and perception of reality. Modern Warfare and Battlefield look (at least initially) at the cost of war and it's effect on individuals - Mordern Warfare in particular. (*spoiler alert*) Near the end of Modern Warfare 3 I was sad at the loss of one of the primary characters in the story; 'Soap' was your initial player character and later as you transitioned to another player character, he became your mentor.

    The themes explored in games such as these are not designed for 12 year olds; but unfortunately they are marketed towards them. And here-in lies the problem. A great deal of the issues discussed in Kaz's blog posts re the Hunger Games are part of a deeper societal issue around media. Up close and intimate details of the wars and revolutions in the Middle East, conflicts in Africa, riots in Europe, potential catastrophic ramifications around North Korea - these are all on the television from 4.30PM onwards on various commercial news networks. People sit down with their dinner to the news, or unwind with a drink after work.

    The fact that war and survival in the context of the Hunger Games could be considered to be entertainment - not through simulation with pixels and processors, but with real people, let alone children is not something that should be glamourised. Certainly not to the extent that the glitz has gone to with the movie (I'm using 'movie' in preference to 'film' for a reason).

    A 12 year old should not be shown that a killing sport forced on children for adult entertainment is acceptable in any sense. And reading more and more about this book, the more I remember the arguments from those who wish to ban violent video games citing that they give birth to the next generation of mass murderers and serial rapists. Books like this, movies like this, exposure of concepts like this to those who aren't emotionally ready to handle the concepts objectively is what creates problems in the future, not the media form of transmission.

  2. Ok, I've just gotten to the end of a day dominated by theological discussion and debate(a subject to which I am quite new)so please forgive me if anything I write seems a little incoherent...

    Took the opportunity to ask a few teachers that I work with and who attended the course I wasat today their thoughts on the books and film. All adults, but of verying generations - every single one of them loved the books and the film. Several of them commented that either the book and/or film did leave them with some disturbing dreams...

    I've decided I'm probably going to have to see the film as I cannot keep criticising it based on what others have said to me. However one of the ladies I chatted to did say that the the violent scenes were very cleverly done so that most of the goriest parts were left to the audience's imagination. Hence the PG rating that surprised me at first.

    I agree that perhaps what we should be focusing on is the accessability of the novel and movie to children for whom they are not intended. Yes the movie is PG so most of my students can get in with or without parents. However, as I questioned in one of my earlier comments, are the parents actually aware of what their kids are reading and/or viewing? I certainly had no knowledge of this trilogy until I came across one of my Year 8s reading it when she was supposed to be doing other work, which lead her to launch into a lengthy monologue about the story and how good it was and how she just couldn't put it down. Only then did I even take notice of the trailers for the movie that were beginning to make appearances. Made a mental note then to have a read during the holidays. Since I only picked it up because it was the 'latest craze' in my class and I hated not knowing what they were talking about, I highly doubt many of the parents have opened it themselves.

    I certainly relate to Phoenix's comparison to contemporary video games. Yet another school based analogy: last year saw the release of Modern Warfare 3. I also had a Year 8 class then, and lo and behold, there were several of my students whose parents gave them the day off of school to sit and play the violent video game. It is also the norm for these kids to sit up to all hours of the night playing video games in their room - one student commented on camp, when told that bedtime was at 10 o'clock, "Oh but I never go to bed until midnight because I play my vdeo games." Needless to say, it's students like him who cannot function at school the next day. And the parent's responsibility in all of this? This is exactly the responsibility that adults should also take for what their kids are reading - including books such as The Hunger Games.

    Right, I can feel myself ranting so I'm going to finish now and come back to this tomorrow when I'm fresh and making sense to myself. If you need any clarifcation as to my gibberish - just ask.