I am very ambivalent.
A short while ago, I got a little bit shirty with certain columnists who preened about the intellectual merits of the literature they were reading and who looked down on grown-ups who read inappropriately juvenile fiction like “The Hunger Games.” Turns out, one of my partners had just lent me the trilogy, and I had started reading them myself. Needless to say, I’m not a great fan of being told by Joel Stein that I must be a moron if I’m reading books that are too young for me. I’ll get started on “The Pale King” soon enough, thanks.
Anyhow, I would have finished them a while ago if various family members hadn’t kept stealing them to read first. They are not difficult books to read, by any stretch. Well… not difficult in the sense that Faulkner is difficult. But maybe difficult in a different way.
Before I continue, I should insert the obligatory spoiler alert. While I don’t plan to discuss any specific plot points, I will be referring to events that happen throughout the trilogy. If you’ve not read them yet and wish to do so without foreknowledge, stop now.
I am not ambivalent because I think the books are not well-written. While nobody should wonder why they didn’t get Pulitzer buzz, and the prose is on the utilitarian side, the writing is pretty good. They’re certainly captivating and fast-paced. After a while, they get a little bit predictable in that when you see that you’re on the last two pages of a chapter you can bet there will be some catastrophic reversal in the next few paragraphs. But Suzanne Collins manages to keep the reversals interesting and surprising.
And as far as young adult fiction is concerned, I think there is much to recommend “The Hunger Games.” It has themes that I think are unusual within the genre, and can help readers develop a more mature sense of the world. The main character is both manipulative and manipulated. Revolutionary overthrow of an evil and oppressive government does not magically make the world better. Violence is not glamorized, and is treated with gravity, sorrow and remorse. Katniss Everdeen is a realistic character in a very unrealistic setting.
But good Lord, those are some incredibly violent books. From a strictly literary point of view, it does get a bit de trop at times. (In particular, I think Collins goes a little overboard with the genetically modified “mutt” creatures at the end of the first and third books. Rapacious, hissing lizard men may be a smidge on the baroque side?) Putting those criticisms to the side, these are easily the most graphically violent books I have read in a long time. People are beaten to death, cut into pieces, have their legs blown off, are publicly executed, have their tongues cut out, get their flesh melted off… et cetera. And the tone of the books is unremittingly, inexorably bleak.
And here’s where I get ambivalent. I am not entirely sure I think the books are appropriate for children. High schoolers? OK. But my impression is that plenty of middle school-aged kids read them, too. I know they’ve been out for a while, so it’s quite possible that there was more debate about who should be reading them and I just missed it. But I really don’t think I’d let my son read them until he’s out of junior high.
On the other hand, that reaction may be informed largely by my own upbringing. My parents were quite strict about what I was allowed to watch. I didn’t see any R-rated movies until I turned 17, and even then I had to get specific permission each time. (Given my temperament as a child, I wouldn’t have wanted to watch violent movies anyhow.) When I ponder what ill outcome I’d be trying to prevent by keeping my kid from reading them too young, I’m not entirely sure. It seems to conflict with some vague sense of innocence, which I’d want to preserve. I’m not worried that it would transform him into a sociopath. But I have qualms.
In any case, these are books that parents should read before giving them to their kids. Full stop. (That’s reason enough, Mr. Stein.) Whether or not you think any given seventh grader can handle gruesome depictions of terrorism and murder, parents should know what their seventh grader is reading. That’s the advice I give as a blanket statement anyway, but if your kid is a voracious reader then it can be hard to vet everything before they get their hands on it, at least if you do want to read grown-up type literature, too. (I really am looking forward to “The Pale King” now, which seems as anti-“Hunger Games” as a book can get.) But for a book as famously violent as these, parents have an obligation to know what’s in them before turning them over to their kids.
Now that I’ve said my piece, I am very interested in what others have to say. If you’ve read the books, what do you think the appropriate age is for a young reader to start them? Is it legitimate to worry about their effects on any child, if said child doesn’t seem disturbed by the content?