Kiddy War

I watched The Hunger Games (2012) recently. This completed my little narrative odyssey that, in my opinion, began by reading the novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding back in middle school. Then (in order of my own exposure) came The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the novel Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell, the film adaptation of Winter's Bone, and the film Battle Royale (2000).

Here's how I see this little kiddy war narrative playing out:

Lord of the Flies-Some kids finds themselves abandoned on an island without adult supervision and commence beating the shit out of each other as an obvious hierarchy based on strength, cunning, and violence emerges.

Battle Royale (2000)-For some damn reason, the Japanese government sends an entire class of Japanese students to an island and violently coerces them into killing each other. Lots of in-your-face teen violence with a setup very similar to The Hunger Games.

Then comes Winter's Bone, both the novel and film, which is interesting because the story here involves a teenager named Ree Dolly trying to save her younger siblings/weak mother in a perilous situation by acting older and tougher than her age. Which is exactly what Katniss is trying to do in The Hunger Games. In both stories the father figure has already abandoned the families through death. Interestingly, the same actress (Jennifer Lawrence) plays both Ree Dolly and Katniss Everdeen and one can easily imagine District 12 in The Hunger Games as an extension of the Winter's Bone universe.

Finally, we come to the film adaption of The Hunger Games. This adaption was inevitable, of course-even if the book had only been a modest commercial success, it's written like a video game/ready made screenplay already (as Stephen King noted). We get our emotions spoonfed to us in The Hunger Games and survival, murder, mild sexual tension are the main ingredients of this kiddy stew. Hack hack hack, kiss kiss kiss. Suzanne Collins manipulates her readers as adeptly (if not more so) as the adult coordinators of the Hunger Games themselves. It's interesting to note that in the Hunger Games film the kiddy violence on screen is significantly tamer than in the Japanese creation Battle Royale.

Honestly, I don't know what The Hunger Games narrative tells us that we don't already know. Yes, people will kill when they're forced to, even kids. Lord of the Flies showed us all this with a lot more grit and agony, though it wasn't as streamlined and zippy on the prose front. Yes, teenagers may nobly sacrifice themselves for younger siblings, but Winter's Bone showed us this without any glamorous obfuscating.

So what are we supposed to take away from The Hunger Games? Kids can be assholes and heroes, just like grownups? That reality TV is evil? That Woody Harrelson plays a good scoundrel? I'm pretty sure we knew all that already. Alas, I get the uneasy feeling we've all just been enjoying some soft kiddy war porn while gulping down our buttery popcorn. Which really isn't so offensive to me as just another sign of the juvenile-zation of popular adult sensibility in both this country and abroad (and I by juvenile I don't mean in a wondrous, The Little Prince sense, either-I mean it in the "har har I just kicked you in the balls!" sense).

Note: Stephen King's wonderful novella "The Long Walk" should receive an honorable mention in this post. He turns up the teen marathon survival tension with the simple act of walking...


Anonymous said...

Well, each of these approaches the causes/ reasons for the violence from different perspectives. LotF is suggesting that without a false sense of structure, society will break down--the students, left to their own devices formed factions (governmental structures, like the opposing sides in WW2) and tear each other down to establish dominance. It's no coincidence that the remaining children are saved by the Navy at the end, showing the larger context of the island's microcosm. LofF was also a YA interpretation of the theme's explored in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
The violence/ games in Hunger Games is about government retaliation and revenge against an uprising that occurred years before. By turning the slaughter of innocents into entertainment, the government is subjugating its population and retaining control. The "entertainment" is viewed differently depending on where your district falls on the caste system. It's no surprise that the districts that produce the things that the elite classes want/ need the most, not only possess so little of those items themselves, but are also hurt the most by the annual games. The book/ movie's intention is for the audience to side with the uprising against these practices.
Battle Royale is about fear and mistrust between generations and the result is the government, representing the older generations, punishing the younger generations by randomly selecting a class to kill each other in a perverse entertainment/ warning. There is no elaborate selection method (shades of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery) but rather a mass kidnapping and constant intimidation.

Of the three, Battle Royale is the most gratuitous in its violence and glorification of it and has the weakest themes. It's tangentially similar to the others, but all three are distinct in the way they present their particular stories.

Winter's Bone on the other hand is all about the repercussions and consequences of violence. Violence becomes ingrained and passed down in the families and the reason that its more shocking here than in Raylan Givens' world in Justified/ the Elmore Leonard novels, is that the protagonist is young--too young, we think to have to shoulder the responsibility of her family's mistakes, and yet she does. While LotF and Hunger Games can be viewed as dystopic parables, Winter's Bone is a noirish tragedy.

Battle Royale is certainly dystopic, though I haven't given it as much thought past how similar its story was to the Hunger Games, because it was, you know, a thing that people yelled about for a while.

David Oppegaard said...

Thanks for the great comment, Walking. I'd agree with you on all that but am still left wanting regarding The Hunger Games. Though I was engrossed by the book and found the reality TV/gladiatorial spectacle of it all more powerful in the novel (which is strange since you'd think that'd be easier to convey via film).

I guess I enjoyed the spectacle and buildup and strategy prior to the actual games more than the game itself. A part of me felt the real story ended when Katniss was put on that dais and thrust into the arena.

Anonymous said...

Well, in fairness to Hunger Games, it is only the first part in a trilogy. By Mockingjay, the story has more fully realized its themes. The gladiatorial aspects spill into the "real" world and Suzanne Collins examines how celebrity, government & propaganda are used and abused by both the "good" guys and the "bad" guys.

And you're definitely not wrong with that feeling about Katniss's story ending on the dais--that is when her story is really taken away from her. The rest of the series she is fighting to get her story back. In the end, the choice is between constantly fighting (Gale) and peace (Peeta).

Anyway, I think that the best part of all of these is that they actually engage with the reader and ask them to think about themes that are bigger than the basic plot (take THAT Twilight series).

Great post!

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