Book Review: 'The Hunger Games'
How Much Violence Should Kids Be Exposed To?
“The Hunger Games” Trilogy by Suzanne Collins is currently in production with the first film set for release on March 23, 2012. Collins is co-writing the screenplay and Jennifer Lawrence stars. Guest blogger Miguel Rodriguez has this review of the books.
Although very late to the game, I have decided to become yet another adult to entrench myself in the dystopian world of Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy. Oddly enough, this wasn’t because of the extremely hyped film adaptation currently being developed by Lionsgate. No, I discovered this title from a number of comments-section rants on Amazon.com, some of which were put off by the inherent darkness and violence of the books:
“But why use all that talent to write a book that leaves you so disturbed?”
So of course I knew they were for me. It wasn’t until until several pages in that I realized that they were young adult novels published by Scholastic (I’m still getting used to my e-reader, which makes such distinctions hard to identify). They are very well-paced and exciting, but clearly written at about a fourth-or-fifth grade reading level.
Still, I was surprised to discover they were young adult because all I had read about them was their basic premise. The story is set in a future version of North America, now called Panem, which is organized into stratified districts with a wealthy capitol. In order to keep the working-class districts under control, the capitol ensures that they are impoverished to the brink of starvation. Oh yeah, and this is the part that frankly got me to read the books, they also stage an annually-televised sporting event in which 12 to 18-year-old district children are forced to fight to the death in a booby-trapped arena.
If you think that sounds familiar, perhaps you are thinking of the 1999 Japanese novel or 2000 Japanese film adaptation called “Battle Royale” in which—you guessed it—school children are forced to fight to the death in a government-sponsored game. “Battle Royale,” however, was intended for adults from the start, which is part of why I find Suzanne Collins’s trilogy—consisting of “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” and “Mockingjay”—so interesting. According to Scholastic, “young adult” refers to the 12 to 18-year-old range, so Collins’s intended audience is the same age group as those selected for almost certain death in the Hunger Games.
In interviews, the author has said she wants to depict the horrific effects that war can have on children. She has cited her father’s experiences in Vietnam as inspiration. In this mission she pulls no punches. The characters in "The Hunger Games" are well-crafted and relatable—and they endure veritably every form of torture imaginable before the trilogy comes to an end. The entire story is told from the first-person point of view of Katniss Everdeen (to be played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film adaptation), a teenage girl who volunteers to enter the games in the place of her little sister, who is “drafted” in a public lottery. The skills she acquired through illicit hunting are put to good use in the ultra-violent games.
And they are violent.
In the first book alone, children are stabbed, impaled, poisoned, stung to death by mutant bees, and more. The violence only gets more intense in the second and third books. What strikes me, however, is that the violence in these books is never used for sensationalistic purposes—it is the result of warlike situations and, more importantly, it has consequences. As the novels progress, Katniss is constantly placed in horrific situations beyond her control or her years and exhibits many symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (detachment, constant intense nightmares, hostility). The extreme violence is a necessary part of communicating the theme of how damaging such violence can be.
Which brings me back to the upcoming series of film adaptations in development at Lionsgate. Gary Ross ("Pleasantville," "Seabiscuit") is the director in charge and has already had to defend the films’ announced PG-13 rating. According to his interview in the latest issue of “Entertainment Weekly,” he gives a pretty solid defense: "It’s not going to be an R-rated movie because I want the 12- and 13- and 14-year-old-fans to be able to go see it. This book means too much to too many teenagers for it not to be PG-13."
Though, it’s hard to picture Ross on this project, considering his prior work, it’s also hard to argue with that logic--but it does raise some interesting thoughts. First of all, the MPAA is far more sensitive to sex and harsh language than violence—and the novels have almost none of either (aside from non-sexual nudity that will probably left out of Suzanne Collins’s script). Personally, I’ve always been fascinated by people’s tendency to deem gruesome violence less harmful than sexual content.
Second, how much can the violence be toned down before the entire theme is lost? I can see Ross’s point about wanting the films to be accessible to fans, but he also said that the films didn’t have to be “needlessly violent.” Okay, but for the stories to work there is a certain amount of “needful violence” that has to happen. The violence in the books is not only necessary to the theme, but it drives the story and gives a rationale for the characters’ later actions. It is also interesting to me that anyone would think movie special effects are more intense than a reader’s imagination.
Even more disturbing is the casting criteria for Katniss Everdeen. According to a Wall Street Journal article, casting director Debra Zane included “should be Caucasian” in those criteria. It would be one thing if the actress they found simply embodied the character of Katniss—her somewhat ambiguous character description of straight black hair and olive skin sounds like someone who could look Mediterranean or Latina—but to automatically discount anyone not Caucasian is pretty offensive, especially in light of other Hollywood “whitewashing” like “The Last Airbender,” or the planned live-action “Akira” film. This detail alone leaves enough of a bad taste in my mouth to be reluctant to buy a movie ticket.
Anyway, all of this—the PG-13 rating and the possible whitewashing—are just so typical of Hollywood that I can’t say I’m too surprised. I am willing to give them a pass on the PG-13 considering the source material is aimed at a younger audience. Lionsgate really needs this project to go franchise. Even if the films are total garbage, I learned long ago that however derailed an adaptation can become, the source work will always exist to be enjoyed—and I did enjoy “The Hunger Games.” If nothing else, this trilogy did get me thinking about not only violence’s effect on people, but also about how much violence we think we can let our kids get exposed to in the media, literature, or movies. As always, that is often at a parents’ discretion. These books are worth talking about with your kids.
And now, I’ll leave you with a fan-made film, faithfully depicting a scene from “The Hunger Games;"
--Miguel Rodriguez is the director of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, a San Diego festival dedicated to the horror genre. He also hosts Monster Island Resort Podcast, and has yet to participate in a televised battle to the death.