I read young adult literature (sometimes called YA or KidLit) and see the movie versions of these books all the time, even though, according to the American Library Association, YA is for people ages twelve to eighteen -- a demographic I haven't been a part of for many years. I like YA stories -- whether in film or literature- - because they feature characters who possess that indomitable spirit of optimism that hasn't been tarnished by age. Their journeys may be fraught with the angst and loneliness that accompany adolescence, but the pain is a necessary price to pay. We hate that Harry Potter is orphaned, forced to live under a staircase, and bullied in school. But we know his trials and tribulations will be worth it in the end when he finds himself and vanquishes evil in the process.
The Hunger Games is definitely a different story.
My students have been reading The Hunger Games since its release and it's even on some our schools' syllabi, but I took a little longer to get around to it. I knew I would eventually read the book and see the movie, and I knew, given its popularity, my students' obsession with it, and its YA perspective, that I would undoubtedly love it. The problem is, I don't.
The Hunger Games tells the story of a dystopian North American future in which "The Capitol" -- a bright metropolis where appearance is everything -- subjugates twelve surrounding districts whose citizens are kept in something close to serfdom. Each year, as a reminder of the Capitol's power (and to punish the districts for the crimes of rebellion committed by their forbearers), a "Reaping" is held, and two children between twelve and eighteen from each district are randomly selected as Tributes to compete in the nationally televised reality-TV-gone-wild Hunger Games. The winner is the last Tribute standing, who will get wealth, fame, and a life of leisure as a reward ... for killing the other kids.
The book's author, Suzanne Collins, richly renders the penurious world of 16-year old protagonist Katniss Everdeen. The juxtaposition of the poverty of the districts and the wealth of the Capitol is painful. As we read, we feel the weight of Katniss's responsibility to find food for her mother and younger sister, and sigh in a resolved "what else can you do?" kind of way when she sacrifices herself and volunteers to take her sister's place in the Hunger Games. Then, just when you think that this brave new world can't get any worse, Collins takes the reader into the arena -- a massive forest in which the games occur -- where these children must kill and all but one be killed. The arena is so deadly that moving before the starting whistle (in this case a gong) will set off landmines at your feet. Within a couple hours of the games' commencement, eleven of the twenty-four Tributes (note, they're almost always referred to as Tributes instead of children or teens) have been killed, by the other children, in what was described in the book as a "bloodbath."
And this is where my problem with the book lies.
While the action kept me turning the page, I couldn't get past the fact that these are children who are not only dying, but doing the killing. Even Katniss isn't above the fray, as she kills four Tributes herself. In one particularly harrowing scene, one boy murders a twelve-year old girl by trapping her in a net and thrusting a spear into her stomach; Katniss retaliates by killing the boy with an arrow to his neck. While not every death is played out this graphically, for me the idea that these kids are killing each other eclipses any other theme that might have been present. It's just too evocative of Derrion Albert, who at Katniss's age was beaten to death by five other teenagers outside of his high school a couple years ago, or of the more than five hundred Chicago youth murdered, mostly by other children, since 2008.
I support the First Amendment and youth literacy too much to throw in with the critics who have called for The Hunger Games to be banned, and I think kids can handle the violence anyway. But I believe the book should be approached with caution -- especially since publisher Scholastic categorized the book's reading level as between 5th and 6th grades. Apparently, the filmmakers feel the same way, as the movie adaption pares down the intensity of the violence, and many of the actors playing the "kids" look as if they are old enough to drink in real life. The film version's rating is PG-13, but I think even high school students would be best served by some guidance when traversing Katniss's world.
I'm nervous that the power and opportunity created by the worldwide phenomenon of the book and film will be squandered. With The Hunger Games and its sequels topping bestseller lists, the first film's inevitable box-office bonanza, and entertainment producers looking to capitalize on the current craze, what lessons are we drawing? I worry that not everyone reading the book or seeing the movie understands that the Capitol is wrong for creating the games, the citizens are wrong for watching them, and the kids are wrong for killing in them. I fear that in the rush to embrace the "games," people will forget that that the point of the Hunger Games is for kids to kill kids.
When I shared my concerns about the book and movie with a fellow high school educator, he agreed that the Tributes seemed just as, if not more, concerned with their celebrity and ability to manipulate the audience than with the fact that they were killing each other. In fact, this complicity in the process isn't even suggested as a story line. The real offense might not be that there's violence, but that it doesn't bring about any reflection or doubt on the part of the children doing the killing. While Katniss's ultimate triumph is hailed as a victory over the establishment, the book never explores another option: to have the kids subvert the entire process by not participating at all. What would have happened if all the Tributes just refused to kill? Fighting to the death in the games is presented as a given, a necessary evil of life (or rather death), in the arena. In establishing rules like these, responsibility is lifted from the kids', and our, shoulders. If we blame the establishment, everyone is innocent. What's more, the book and film call for us to root for a winner, yet never force us to question that when we cheer for any Tribute to win the Hunger Games, we are also, therefore, cheering for the other children to die.
To celebrate the release of The Hunger Games movie, there have been library parties planned in which readers will dress up as characters from the book. Teachers' lesson plans include mock Hunger Games complete with "Reapings," Tributes, competitions, and victors. I'm guessing there won't be any murders at these parties or in these classrooms, but while these reenactments are taking place, somewhere in our country a child will undoubtedly be killed at the hands of another child. Our complicity in the violence shown on the nightly news may not be as direct as that of the citizens of the Capitol, but it's only through our inaction and misconception that there's nothing we can do about it that such violence is allowed to continue.
By focusing on action at the expense of introspection, the book and film miss an opportunity to teach a real lesson about cyclical violence, the role we all play in perpetuating it, and our responsibility to make the right decisions. The Hunger Games could have taught us that we don't have to engage in violence or kill; that even when the odds aren't ever in our favor, we can just choose to not play the game.