In my current position I have the privilege to work in all the faculties of my high school. This means at one point I can be introducing a class of year 11 English students to the themes of Love and War, and in the next time lapse I’ll be sitting in a completely different staffroom and overhear the teachers aghast that the English staff are teaching The Hunger Games now, oh my.
I shouldn’t make out that The Hunger Games is a walk in the park. Anyone who’s read it knows there are some truly horrific moments, but what I really can’t stand is people making judgements, and particularly those strong negative judgments, about books they’ve never read and fully admit to having no intention of ever reading.
For those who haven’t read The Hunger Games here is a short summary: a teenage girl, grieving the loss of a parent, fights for survival against tyrannical ruler hell-bent on her death. Woops. That’s Snow White I’m thinking of. President Snow doesn’t even want to eat Katniss’ heart, yet Disney’s Snow White is the movie we happily plonk our 5 year olds in front of (actually mine has never seen it based on the it’s-way-too-freaky-for-my-house policy.)
Perhaps it’s the kids hunting down kids that’s so disturbing, but isn’t that what happened in Lord of the Flies, a novel read by generations of year 9 students . . .
Yes it’s bad, what happens. Not just bad – incredibly and heart-wrenchingly beyond what we imagine humanity to be capable of. But so are the events in The Book Thief, which is the novel the other year 11 class studied. The Book Thief is a horrific story in ways that The Hunger Games can only dream of. A line of starving men scrambling for crumbs after they are paraded through town for being the scum of the earth. Two Papas taken away for displeasing the Nazi Party. Fiction verses fictionalised narrative, clever poetic language verses unpretentious and accessible storytelling. I’m enjoying The Book Thief, but I can see why the critics loved it. The language is so disturbingly poetic it reminds me of the scene in that Hannibal Lector film where the unfortunate dinner guest is forced to eat his own brain. Is it style over substance that makes The Book Thief a more acceptable literary legacy for our future leaders? To come back to the point about critics loving it we have to caress that old pearl (compressed coal, for those of you who’ve read The Hunger Games)- who is the target audience? The average 16-17 year old is not in love with the juxtaposition of a unique personification, or pontification. And let’s be honest some of the finer points of irony are lost on the teenage brain. This is sounding like I think The Book Thief is over rated and I am sorry to give that impression. It’s not overrated, it’s a phenomenal work of art. However what I mean to say is that the language, the narrative style, of The Hunger Games is no less purposeful and deliberate. Given that the language is equally valid and the events equally disturbing, I wonder if I will ever hear citizens aghast that the rest of year 11 are studying Marcus Zuzack’s multi-award winning description of the truly brutal nightmare that was life in Nazi Germany. Not likely.
The Hunger Games will not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is certainly not glorifying the brutality it deals with and in many ways it shows a great deal more respect for the consequences of mortal combat than many of the classics. Did Frodo stop and reflect on all those that felt Sting’s sting? I seem to remember quite a body count in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and not a lot of remorse. Perhaps, Tolkien, himself a war veteran, was not able to come to terms with the human face of his enemy in a way that we who are privileged to have seen war only through a lens may do. Many years ago, the Australian artist George Gittoes toured with his “Realism of Peace” exhibition and he spoke to my art class about the dimension of reality he was able to achieve with a paintbrush. This is a truth not always captured with a camera. And in the same way, authors such as Melana Marchetta and Suzanne Collins choose to speak their truth through fiction.
Perhaps, rather than standing by while The Hunger Games was dismissed as some gory, shallow teen novel with no greater complexity than a Kristen Stewart facial expression I should have whipped out my copy and read those teachers from a non-English teaching faculty the scene where Katniss sings for Rue or when Peeta describes the first moment he laid eyes on his beloved.
But that’s not what sells papers. That’s not the bit that makes the most interesting sound bites and perhaps that reason more than any other is why The Hunger Games does need to be analysed in school. It’s provocative. While I can see how the armchair critics could be easily aghast, there’s much food for thought in The Hunger Games.