Too Horrible to Look Away: Violence in the Hunger Games

This post is take two of my attempt to write just one post about Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games. Here’s the first take: Don’t Be Afraid of Dystopia.

I’m getting closer to discussing the actual book, I swear. But first, since this is a defense of the series and not just a rumination, let’s skip the plot and go straight for the blood and gore. The violence has repulsed a lot of people and persuaded plenty of parents that these books aren’t for their kids. Actually, I went almost a year between reading the first and second book because of how nauseated I was after the 74th Games (tracker jackers, anyone?). Now that I’ve seen the series to its even bloodier conclusion, I’m still repulsed… but now, I think that’s the point.

For starters, let’s draw a distinction between two common portrayals of violence. Let’s brand the first one “horror movie” – not the suspenseful monster-just-outside-the-frame Paranormal movie, but the gory, gruesome, Bloody Valentine horror movie. It’s the kills-for-thrills genre, where the violence is its own end and the whole spectacle. The second type could be called “war movie,” but it’s more narrow than that. It’s the Saving Private Ryan opening scene, or even better, the short World War I poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” (if you haven’t read this 3 stanza poem before, go read it now. Yes, now. It’s amazing.). It’s the horror of a plunging man drowning in poison gas, and the abrupt recognition of war made imminent.

The difference between these two portrayals goes deeper than a simple dichotomy of entertainment vs. education. It’s easy to justify the war movie portrayal with a simple, “Now children, this really happened, this is your history.” That’s true, but that’s not wholly why we allow these portrayals. We could just as easily educate through textbook description, but we’d miss the visceral identification that comes with violent imagery. The violence visited on individual stories leads to the horrified dawning that life is ending. With that realization comes a weightiness that overshadows any sadistic fascination. It’s the heaviness of realizing this is not a gimmick, but a fact that some people die because of another’s pride and sins. It’s more than education – it’s identification with mortality, a spiritual realization as well as a mental one.

Like I said last week, the presence of evil shouldn’t make us condemn the books prima facie. The violence is one more part of the dystopia, and another critical part of what makes the stories ring true. Katniss experiences the horror of the Games with shocking clarity and perspective, forcing us to see the evil she sees. But does our engagement with her encourage us to revel in it? For me, that’s a tough sell.

So sure, The Hunger Games are violent, no question about it. But every step of the way, Katniss reminds us that these games – the circus put on for the Capital – are a dreadful, dreadful result of humanity gone wrong.

[And now, an alert for SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t finished the first book in the series. To give you time to look away, here’s a picture from the upcoming movie of Katniss volunteering for Prim with Effie Trinket.

Still reading? Okay, you’ve been warned, and don’t say I didn’t give you time to look away.]

If you’ve read the books, I’m sure you can think of dozens of examples, but the most obvious and clearest (and most heartbreaking) is the scene in which Rue dies. Collins spends enough time developing the little girl’s character and Katniss’s connection with her that we’re panicked too when Katniss hears the screams. Rue isn’t just a stock character dispatched by the bloody careers – she’s a life cut short. She’s a family member lost. She’s Katniss’s little sister if Prim didn’t have an older sister willing to take her place.

Her death is the emotional fulcrum for the first book, as Katniss finally realizes what Peeta meant about showing the Capital he’s “more than just a piece in their Games.” How do you dignify someone’s death in the face of such cruelty? How do you maintain your own humanity when placed in such an awful situation? But Katniss somehow does just that as she holds Rue’s hand and then rings the little body with flowers. And we, the readers listening to her thoughts, think with all our might, This is not right. This is NOT RIGHT. Rue should not die. But she does. Rue’s life ends because the Capital wills that children should fight to the death for its own entertainment.

Horror movies cannot be tragic.Hunger Games, on the other hand, is a tragic story from beginning to end. Each death pushes Katniss to figure out how she can escape the power plays at work in Panem until she finally does the unthinkable in the third book,Mockingjay. Don’t know what the unthinkable is yet? I won’t spoil it, because it’s worth the read.

Katniss and Peeta escape the first book with their integrity, despite what their ordeal. The violence certainly touches them, but it doesn’t own them. They manage to be in the Games without becoming part of the Games. They aren’t celebrating the violence, and neither do we when we’re finished.

Let’s remember that The Hunger Games series is not children’s literature – it’s labelled Young Adult with good reason. Reader discretion is necessary to see the difference between the violence and the characters who survive the violence. Katniss, Peeta, and Gale go through the fires more than once and will struggle to maintain an untainted identity as they do so. Their development, not the violence, is what moves the story forward.

So does the series’ violence outweigh its merits? Well, to each his own. Maybe you even have a defense of horror movies and are okay with the books on those grounds (did you pick up the hint that I don’t like them?). All I can say is, Dante would sure be in trouble if all graphic depictions were declared anathema. For now, The Hunger Games is happily sitting on my shelf.


5 thoughts on “Too Horrible to Look Away: Violence in the Hunger Games

  1. I’ve enjoyed reading these. I haven’t read the books (and don’t really plan to do so) but my students have had some animated discussions about them so it is good to have a little background.

  2. We’re having a “Pigfest” on Wednesday to discuss the first book (only), and will do the Trilogy next year (not all students have read all three, not enough time to do so well.

    My problem is not at all the violence, I’d have to toss the Word out if that was so.

    My problem is the fact that we have a group of people who are no longer willing, as were there ancestors, to lay down their lives to overthrow a horrible dictator–in fact they are more than willing to send in their children to fight to the death that they themselves might EAT.

    Where’s all the lives, fortunes, sacred honor stuff? My students keep saying, “But if you rebel against the Capitol, you might DIE.”


  3. Oh brother—it’s late and I’m tired:

    1. missing ” ) ”
    2. “There” equals, of course, “their.”
    3. Please forgive all other grammatical errors.

  4. Pingback: Searching for Identity, Finding Love: The Center of The Hunger Games | Who are the Brittons

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