This review will probably not be popular, but it's important to talk about these issues. It discusses the entire Hunger Games Trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.
War, persecution, abuse, suffering -- these are common themes in literature and I am not overly disturbed by them, at least in principle. Dark themes are a part of life, and even if they are difficult to face they can be invaluable for testing character, proving virtue, and drawing out what is most beautiful in human nature, as well as the worst. In teen literature, it all depends how they are dealt with.
If a story about evil, abusive powers provides a context for characters to choose how to respond and bear responsibility for that choice, it offers something invaluable. Even if characters go along with the evil, the narrative should not absolve them from the responsibility of acting in that way.
If, on the other hand, the narrative claims that the characters had no choice but were forced to act that way by circumstances, then it only helps to make readers more confused.
If in addition a novel turns violence into gratuitous entertainment, it only reinforces negative themes and desensitises an age group that should be building their emotional intelligence, not killing it.
No doubt there are worse examples of this kind of literature, but in my view the ultra-best-selling series and now movie The Hunger Games, is bad enough.
In a dystopian vision of the near future, Hunger Games is a terrifying reality TV show where twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to compete to the death. The Capitol has imposed the games on the children of the twelve districts under its control to remind them that rebellion is futile. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen steps forward to take her sister’s place, and though she sees it as a death sentence, she is determined to survive for the sake of her family.
Author Suzanne Collins conceived the idea for Hunger Games while channel surfing between reality TV shows and news coverage of an actual war zone. It is not a particularly uplifting theme, yet Collins has many readers convinced that the book’s ethics are clear: it is a critique of the violent injustice it describes. I am not convinced.
In the games, survival is the ultimate good and death the greatest evil; our heroine never questions this. She and the other characters do whatever it takes to survive, and for games contestants this means killing. Katniss is the good girl so she is subtle at first, dropping an insect nest on someone’s head so they swell up and die 'naturally', or destroying another group’s food so they will starve. Her district companion Peeta confesses that “to murder innocent people costs everything you are”, yet indirectly and later directly, both he and Katniss still do it.
The experience is like reading a first hand account of a Nazi soldier doing horrible things to others in order to stay alive. The fact is, sometimes survival is not the most important thing and it is necessary to be prepared to die rather than kill someone else.
In Collins’ books, survival only loses its appeal when suffering makes death more appealing than life, justifying the suicide and mercy killing which are rife in the series. Towards the end the rebels—including Katniss—carry a suicide bomb in case they or their friends are caught. Failure to kill a captured friend is seen as a failure of friendship, and Katniss’ reluctance to use it is a sign of her weakness. Darkness–1; Characters–0.
Desensitisation and “romance”
Next there is brutal desensitisation so the characters won’t get so hurt (it is not acknowledged that this too is a form of harm), and romance used as a tool of survival.
The games are televised and sponsors must be sought to provide the food and medicine contestants will need to survive. Body appearance is therefore important: each contestant has a stylist who must first assess them without clothes (Katniss ‘bravely’ resists the urge to cover herself), and then a full body wax makes them camera-ready. This is probably normal for reality TV, but don’t tell me it’s brave.
At first, the other contestants mock Katniss with explicit offers and gestures because she is so 'pure'. But soon she 'toughens up' and is able to laugh rather than blush at their provocative displays, and shows less of a concern to protect herself. As Katniss is 'built up' (broken down), Collins seems to enjoy describing the loss of innocence; it’s quite nauseating.
From the start, a fake relationship between Katniss and Peeta is played up to win sponsorship. 'One kiss equals one pot of broth', so Katniss maintains a star-crossed lovers’ routine with long, lingering kisses and imaginary tears, and later the pretence that they are married and that she is pregnant.
Peeta himself falls for it, but Katniss is just confused about what she feels. This doesn’t stop her from kissing, hugging and 'comfort' bed sharing with Peeta, nor prevent her kissing her old friend Gale 'to make up for all the kisses I’ve withheld, because it doesn’t matter anymore, and because I’m so desperately lonely I can’t stand it.' This petty, selfish, mockery of love is all that is served up in Hunger Games.
Not only did Katniss embrace her progressive desensitisation and confusedly false romance, but the book makes her a hero for it. Darkness–2; Characters–0.
Feelings replace right and wrong
Now to ethics per se. Actions are deemed right or wrong based on how the characters feel about them. For Katniss the pattern is repeated over and over: a catastrophic situation is followed by her passionate but often unethical reaction, then a soul-searching analysis of her feelings to deal with her guilt, followed by defiant justification that she had no choice, or, if she had a choice, that she was confused, which is the fault of those who created the catastrophe. Thus she becomes the victim-hero: none of the evil—including that which she did herself—is her fault: they made her do it.
Is there not a little duplicity in someone who curses the horrible culture that sacrifices its children to settle its differences, when she herself has played along with it the whole time? Darkness–3; Characters–0.
Some may claim that Katniss did rebel. First, her fake romance: What is rebellious or heroic about this self-serving tactic? Second, Katniss' and Peeta’s threat of double suicide to demand that they both be allowed to live: after killing so many others her effort to spare a friend rings hollow. Third, her placing of flowers on her dead friend’s body: but then she goes on to continue the games, fighting and killing…
What about the grand finale where Katniss joins the rebels to bring down the Capitol? Running on hatred, bitterness and revenge, the rebels use bombs and guns to kill hundreds of innocent citizens who get in the way. Katniss may not like the large-scale killing, but she has no problem shooting a startled citizen who blocks her path. Still, we are reassured, it’s not her fault. Darkness–4; Characters–0.
Reinforcing all the above is the seductive sensationalism of the storytelling. It is like watching a graphic news story that turns horrific events into entertainment, using excessive detail and twisting the narrative to wrench every possible emotion from the viewer, constantly driven to bigger and better shocks for impact. The screaming, the blood, the broken bodies, the instruments of torture and the damage they do -- when all this is no longer enough the emotional impact of the slow and graphic death of some poor, innocent character we’ve come to like is thrown in. I don’t know how on earth the movie will rate PG.
How can this series be a critique of using injury and death for entertainment when it does the same itself?! Thanks to the gratuitous graphic detail not only the characters, but the readers too, are damaged. Darkness–5; Characters (and readers)–0.
So, what do we do now?
Readers should question the lack of freedom and responsibility of these characters. Could they have chosen to act differently? Are they responsible for choosing to act badly? Would we be right to do the same in their situation? Are they heroes for acting as they did? If there is still confusion, ask the same questions about Nazi soldiers.
Also think about the effect of turning horrible things into entertainment. Parents may find some helpful analysis of the effect of desensitisation on our ability to love in Wendy Shalit’s shocking book A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue (1998).
It will also help to look at alternative novels. Birthmarked (2010) by Caragh M. O’Brien is a recent favourite of mine. Though it’s also dystopian and deals with dark themes in a cruel future world, the beauty of characters’ actions transforms the story completely. (update: Sadly its sequel Prized was not as good, but we're still hopeful for book 3 which will be released late in 2012).
There are so many more great novels which explore dark or difficult themes but clearly show protagonists taking responsibility for their actions. Trash by Andy Mulligan (2010), The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom (1971), The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne (2006), The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy (1903), A Rose for the ANZAC Boys by Jackie French (2008), Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford (2009), The Help by Kathryn Stockett (2009, mature readers), Anne Frank: the Diary of a Young Girl (1947), Sophie Scholl and the White Rose by Annette Dumbach (1999, mature readers), Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas (2007), Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza (2006, mature readers), St Maria Goretti: in Garments all Red by Godfrey Poage (1998), Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (1946), Life Without Limits by Nick Vujicic (2010).
Read and compare, and decide who the real heroes are.
Reviewed by Clare Cannon.
Reality TV meets Lord of the Flies. Every year, twelve boys and twelve girls are chosen to take part in the Hunger Games. Watched by the entire nation, this is action-packed reality TV at its most exciting - and most dangerous. Katniss Everdeen has grown up struggling to save the people close to her. Now she faces the biggest challenge of all - the fight for her life. Winning will make you famous. Losing means certain death.
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