“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, definitely stretches the mind. The author describes herself as continuing to "explore the effects of war and violence on those coming of age," and The Hunger Games fits that bill. Here are my thoughts on whether children should be exploring these effects along with Ms. Collins. Expect large and small **** spoilers **** to follow.
When it became wildly popular a couple years ago, I was approached by several people who thought I'd probably enjoy it. They were right, and yet I decided not to read it. I'd enjoyed Steven King's The Running Man (the book was wildly different and better than the movie, clear down to what the running game actually was.) I was thrilled by Rambo: First Blood (movie only) and Loius L'Amour's Last of the Breed (a fantastic tale of a lone, hunted man trekking across Siberia and living by his wits and skills.) I like this kind of story a lot. I even enjoyed The Lottery, which exposed the evil of utopias built on unjust sacrifice.
I knew I should like this book, but I couldn't get past its backstory. A society enthralled with watching children brutally murder each other was not an imaginary world in which I wished to live. I took a pass. I didn't read the book until last week, when circumstances motivated me to overcome my aversion. Now that I have, I'd like to share the challenges I find in Suzanne Collins' work. I'll save you some suspense and let you know I don't recommend it.
The author surely serves up an edge-of-your-seat thrill-fest. And it's more richly imagined than I'd been led to believe. The book is not merely a rejection of a culture obsessed with reality TV. In Collins' world, 90% of the populace watches the hunger games solely because it's mandatory viewing. The bourgeios of the capitol, Panem, are rolling in the wealth stolen from its 12 outlying districts and they gleefully savor the drama of watching inferior children slaughter each other. The twelve districts, though, have a much more awkward relationship to the TV show. The government created the hunger games to palpably remind the districts Panem will kill and relish doing so should the districts attempt to repeat an earlier insurrection. Most of the people in the districts hate the hunger games the same way any sane person would hate watching their own children killed for propaganda.
The book is really about one child's formation and probably about revolutionary politics (I've not read the second and third books, but if the series doesn't end with an attempt to overthrow Panem I'd be mystified). Katniss is formed by a youth of extreme poverty -- the near-death-by-starvation and constant-weakness-through-unrelenting-scarcity breed of poverty. Katniss must grow up suddenly at age eleven when she becomes her family's breadwinner. Panem's theft of all her district's wealth leaves her in that awful position, and she deeply resents Panem. Her childhood as a whole shapes Katniss into a person who cannot form relationships easily.
The meat of the book takes place after she's thown into the life or death struggle which is the hunger games. One boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts are dropped into the wild and required to kill one another until only one victorious survivor remains. I don't think it's much of a spoiler to tell you Katniss survives. I knew that when I started the book, and it proved true. There are other spoilers I'd be happy to divulge if there are any parents out there who want a cheat sheet to understand what their children are reading.
The hunger games themselves change Katniss in two ways. Throughout the days of training and publicity leading up to the actual battle, through the weeks of conflict, and even during the closing ceremonies, Katniss is discovering she's loved by Peeta, the boy selected from her district. From the moment they're introduced to each other, Katniss can't make heads or tails of the his kindness. Nor can she understand her own emotional and chemical responses to his love. The struggle unbalances her, but in a milieu of the constant threat of death she has no time to work it out. Peeta honestly loves Katniss, but she is deeply disabled by her childhood. She's incapable of believing and rejoicing that she's loved. Instead, she interprets all his honest care and concern as some carefully devised survival strategy. Katniss is unable to receive Peeta's honest love.
The violence of the games also deeply wounds Katniss. She spends several weeks in the woods with death behind every shrub. Any of us who watch the evening news knows of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and the author returns Katniss to civilization with a mondo case of it. Katniss's first trauma happens within seconds of the games' start. A boy coughs up blood on her because he was hit in the back with a thrown knife. It's a gruesome picture, and it's only the beginning. Before the hunger games are over she's killed a handful of children herself, and watched helplessly as another handful die. Death coming so suddenly charges every second, waking or sleeping, with rational, valid, deadly fear, and she's in the arena for weeks. Gathering food, for example, becomes doubly dangerous; a lack of food will kill her, but so might an ambush while gathering it. Every action or inaction might be the thing that kills you.
The author successfully holds us on the edge of our seats while Katniss faces real danger. The author also successfully portrays the scars Katniss will bear for life after her experiences. Katniss suffers survivor guilt when children she respects and enjoys die instead of her, but is surprised at her lack of joy over the deaths of her enemies. Katniss remembers some of the victory celebrations of previous victors, but finds no such elation in her own heart. Her enemies are just more dead children to Katniss, children who never should have been in the arena at all.
All this is consistent with Ms. Collin's stated goal, to explore the effect of war and violence on those coming of age.
I understand the story and follow its execution accurately. I'm not intrisically turned off by action or violence. I grasp the themes and the concepts the author invites us to digest. And with all this explanation up front, I recommend children not read this book.
Oliver Wendell Holmes' quote at the top of this post weighs heavily on my mind. Suzanne Collins evidently has decided children will profit from having their minds stretched by this brutal introduction to death. I disagree.
We introduce our children to sex. When children introduce themselves to sex, things are difficult for them at best and can easily turn unhealthy. Responsible parents manage this introduction with a degree of care, balancing the flow of information to match the maturity of their children. Handing a child The Hunger Games teaches violence and death to children on the same level as sending them off with a softcore pornographic novel to teach them sex.
Why do we withhold pornography from our children? Because it offers up what I'll call hyper-reality. It paints imaginable situations with imaginable outcomes that speak to our most elemental fears and lusts. Low quality pornography paints barely imaginable situations while the higher quality stuff approaches the believable, but whatever its quality the addictive power of pornography is in its hyper-reality. It condenses and distills the joy of sex into a thrilling ride. It invites the reader to believe for a few pages.
The Hunger Games is hyper-reality. Harry Potter is fantasy. The cruciatus curse, which causes an agonizing death by excessive pain, is simply not real. Les Miserables fits as reality. Gavroche is killed when he bravely runs out in the street to retrieve ammunition. Harry Potter portrays larger-than-life dangers that could never happen, while Les Miserables might really come to any of us some day but its dangers are life-sized. The Hunger Games portrays larger-than-life violence in a believable way. It's highly thrilling, but hyper-reality always is.
Reading The Hunger Games raised a lot of questions in my mind. Despair sells. Violence and chaos are now primary marketing devices. Relatively speaking, The Hunger Games is decent and upstanding in its handling of violence. The late Heath Ledger's character, the Joker in The Dark Knight, sets a hideous standard for the degree of random violence people will pay good money to ingest. Compared against The Dark Knight, Suzanne Collins' book is a nunnery of restraint in its depiction of each death, but then again The Dark Knight doesn't portray children killing children for as children's fare.
Stretching your hamstrings is a good thing, but done wrong it can lead to injury. Stretching the mind is what growing up is all about, but dangerous stretching can leave our children with injured lives. The Hunger Games sets twenty-four very human, very young peers to the task of brutally killing each other, and vividly shows us how they go about it. There's no way to spin that as constructive, or as a healthy way to introduce children to the realities of war and violence. There's no way this book can fail to stretch the young minds of its readers, and no way it can do so safely.
Perhaps, it's just darkest before the dawn. Perhaps, in the third book Katniss shows us the way to overcome the scars of war. Perhaps, Ms. Collins will show our children what Victor Frankl learned in Nazi death camps, that life is always worth living once its meaning has been grasped. If so, then maybe I can make room for her having gone so far over the line. The subject is and should be horrifying, so I doubt I could reconcile to it. Even so, I see no glimmer of Man's Search for Meaning peeking through from The Hunger Games. I'd have to see it to believe it, and I'd need someone to promise me it's there in the third book before I'd have any intrinsic desire to see it for myself, but the Internet is all about people telling me I'm wrong ... and ya'll are right pretty often.
Until that time, at age forty-seven I'm left with the image of the boy from District 9's blood splattered on my face and the orange backpack over which we fought. The image won't ruin my life, but I'm surely no richer for it.
Will our children profit more?