Back in the fall of 2008, when I was still a new librarian, I'd get a little bit anxious about recommending books to the collection developers. I didn't quite understand the process of how they found or chose the books for the library shelves, and I didn't want to seem pushy or step on anyone's toes. But when I read Janssen's review of this new book called The Hunger Games, I knew immediately: my library needed this book because I needed to read it and because of my gut's insistence that this one would be huge. So I stepped out of my comfort zone and told the collection developer (who has since become a favorite work friend) about the book.
Then I bought my own copy because I didn't want to wait to read the library's, and because I knew Haley and Jake would want to read it, too. I gulped down the story in two days, handed the book to Haley who did the same, and then started recommending it to friends. "I know it sounds crazy-violent," I'd always start my recommendation with, "because it's a story about teenagers trying to survive being killed by other teenagers. But it is so good, and the violence isn't even the point, and it isn't described in detail, either."
That I always wanted to preface my recommendation with a warning perhaps speaks to my reticence at recommending books I love in the first place (having been criticized quite often for my reading tastes). But there is also this knowledge: parents of teenagers are still protective. We don't want our teens being exposed to too much, be it violence or sex or video gaming or swearing or strange ideas that might make them think for themselves. We have this fear because we simultaneously know that the amount of time we have to influence them is dwindling and we aren't 100% certain we've influenced them enough. We want them to have good stuff in their lives. We want them not to experience the extreme harshness of the world. We also know that is unavoidable.
Despite the violence, however, I still found The Hunger Games recommendable. I knew that teenagers would love it for its fiesty, strong main character, for its adventure and its story ingeniuty and even for its love triangle (a plot device I confess to absolutely hating because really: even in future dystopias how many teens actually get caught between two love interests? or maybe it was just me who could hardly handle her one love interest?) And I hoped that maybe they would see the eventual point of the story, which to me seems so obvious I can't believe I'm writing the next sentence: violence only begets more violence.
When the movie came out last month, I was, strangely enough, not excited to go. I didn't entertain the idea of a midnight showing; in fact, we didn't see it until Saturday morning. (I'm cheap like that: I try to go to the first matinee showing of movies, since the tickets cost a buck less.) I kept thinking wait a second! I was an early Hunger Games adapter. Why am I not excited? and Haley finally put it into words for me: because so many people were hopping on the bandwagon so late. Some of them, as proved by the outrage over Rue being a black girl, hadn't even read the book. And since I tend to not like to do what the trends say I should...my enthusiasm for the movie wasn't extreme.
I still enjoyed it, once I finally made it there. I think they did a decent job of including important points, with a few notable exceptions: the actual desperate hunger that most of the people of Panem experience (if you hadn't read the book would you know why Gale's name was in the reaping 42 times?) and the threatening menace of The Capitol. Katniss's affection for the stew. Her father's illustrated book of edible plants. What about the story behind the Avoxes? I think they should have developed the story of Peeta and Katniss in the cave much better, and included the still-warm bread that District 11 sends to Katniss when Rue dies. Plus, in the book Prim's cat Buttercup is orange, but it's black and white in the movie. Is there a shortage of orange cats in the movie world?
When I left the theater, in addition to thinking about what I liked and what I was disappointed by, I had a certainty: the violence in the story was going to be an issue. Especially since, in the movie, you cannot enter the characters' minds like you do in the book so you don't understand as well their motivations. Why is Peeta hanging out with the Careers? How does he end up wounded and in the river? What happened to the girl who built the fire? Why was Katniss so devastated when Rue was killed? None of that translated in the movie. But we also can't see as clearly the fact that Katniss was doing her best to avoid the violence. You can sort of see it, a little. She doesn't actually kill anyone who didn't threaten her first. But you are only outside of her head, watching.
When I got home, I checked in on Facebook, and one of the updates I read was my niece's husband's:
"Human beings are better than that. Decency and morality are much more prevalent in kids than the movie gives credit for and parents wouldn't simply stand by and watch their children get taken."
While allowing Jeff (would he be my nephew-in-law? I suppose so!) (whom, by the way, I am not ridiculing but simply using to make my point) his opinion, I had to personally disagree. The districts in the society created in The Hunger Games are controlled by the violence of the games. Like any dystopia worth its weight, The Hunger Games is ruled by a tyrannical government. The people in the Capitol might disagree, but the rest of the society wouldn't. The parents stand by and allow their children to be taken because they are being ruled by tyranny. They don't have a choice. Just as, say, the Native Americans didn't have much choice when they were relocated or murdered or murdered while being relocated. Or the Japanese people in the 1940's didn't have any say over being moved from their homes to internment camps. (And this by a non-tyrannical government!) Katniss's small rebellions are a start of parents being able to stand up for their children—but only a start. And the problem isn't the decency and morality in the teenagers (who are forced to compete; perhaps the lack of menace from the Capitol means this doesn't translate in the movie) but the lack of decency and morality in the government and the privileged few who live in the Capitol and wealthier districts.
Another friend insisted to me that The Hunger Games is likely to create a rash of school shootings because it promotes children killing children. (Just as Star Wars caused us all to take up killing each other with light sabers and channeling the Force.) To my mind, this friend is missing the point of the storyline, which really isn't much more simple than the ancient "man's inhumanity to man." Look down through history: has there ever been a time when people weren't brutal to each other? I'm not a historian but I don't think there have been many. Aside from the Careers, the kids in the arena are doing what they've been forced to do, which is fight for their lives. (And really, in a sense the Careers choose, either, considering that they've been trained to see it as an honor; they're just better prepared.) They don't have a choice, unlike the people involved in school shootings.
Still, I keep questioning myself: why doesn't the violence in this story dissuade me from being affected by it? I would like to say it is that the entire story arc provides the counterbalance for the violence: the Capitol uses violence as a weapon until the people rise up and roust out the government. But that isn't entirely the truth because I've been recommending the books since they first one was just a blip on the popularity scale and I didn't know the entire story arc. Perhaps it is because the story doesn't glorify violence; violent things happen but they aren't made glamorous or intriguing. (THIS article gives a good summary of all the violent points.) This lack of glamorizing violence in a violent story allows for the point to shift elsewhere: how much tyranny will one person accept before pushing back? Or one entire society? How does a person put into a violent situation maintain control of her humanity? How do small kindnesses translate into a greater good? What does it mean to be brave?
Or maybe it's because really: none of this is new. You've read all about the Reaping if you've read Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." You've read about publicly-viewed execution games if you've read (or watched) The Running Man. Or even Survivor. There is something of the Roman colosseum in the story, isn't there? And The Lord of the Flies, of course. The Olympics, even, in a round-about way. It's a different face to the same story of a sharply-pitched contrast between wealthy and poor, or the story of a government doing deplorable things, or the one about people rising above, despite.
But ultimately I am not dissuaded by the story's violence because of my reading philosophy. (Which I wrote about HERE.) "I believe that there is a morality to be found in good novels that cannot be undone by their inclusion of questionables," I wrote then. "Bad books encourage the practice of evil; good ones describe the practice of evil, the implications of it, the way it spreads, the way it is everywhere. But they also offer up some small little spark of hope—a piece, even if only the tiniest, of the light of truth that is scattered everywhere."
I'm not offended by the inclusion of violence because, ultimately, the violence isn't the story's truth. It is one of the ways it tells its truth, yes. But it isn't the point. And I stand by my original response: this qualifies as a good, recommendable series, even though it is the crazy-violent story of teenagers killing teenagers.
Tell me: what is your opinion on the violence in The Hunger Games?