The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

So should you let your child read The Hunger Games?  How violent is it?  What age group is it appropriate for?

Obviously whether or not a child should read this book, and at what age is a highly personal decision for each family.  Below in the content section I have outlined the violence that occurs in this book so that you can see exactly what you’re deciding about.

But what do I think?  As an educator?  Personally, I’d consider The Hunger Games as best for students in Grade 8 or 9 and above, older than that if they are in any way sensitive to violence.   I would also really, really, feel better if middle school students were reading it along with an adult, so that they could discuss the content together.

The beginning of the book, the first hundred plus pages aren’t that violent or scary.  Of course, the games haven’t begun either.  But it’s easy to see why kids are starting this and feeling okay with it.  So should you believe your children if they say they’re not scared by the violence after that point?  Aren’t they old enough to be reliable reporters?  You may want to check out my prior post with concerns from actual fourth graders about why kids their age might not be the best or most accurate judges of what is right for them.

Recently I’ve heard parents say, “I’m okay with violence; it’s sex I don’t want my kid reading about.”  This is something I’m quite curious about.  Is it because people worry that their kids will have sex but they don’t worry that their kids will be violent?  Why is violence so much more acceptable in our society than sex?  In theory, most kids will one day be old enough to have sex.  Even the most conservative of religions will condone the act within certain (albeit rigid) parameters.  Maybe I’m hoping that most kids will not one day be violent, and that as as society, while we acknowledge their are socially acceptable ways to be violent (go to war!), we’d really rather that our children did not end up in a position where they have to kill another person.  Personally, I’m not comfortable with children (teens are a different matter) reading about sex or violence, especially at the levels in this book.

The violence in this book is both graphic and frequent. But there are issues to consider beyond that.  The first issue that the violence  is generally treated lightly.  Despite how horrific the violence is, the framing of it is not intended to magnify the horror, but rather to normalize or minimize it. My second main criticism is in how little reflection is done on the part of the characters.  Collins pushes the plot forward and even the sympathetic characters don’t take much time to think about what it means that they are now essentially murderers; there is a staggering lack of remorse.  Finally, the way Collins lays out the story, when sympathetic characters are forced to kill, it is always set up in such a way as to seem excusable.  All of this means that readers have to spend very little reflecting on how becoming a killer would change someone.  They don’t need to doubt their blind trust in their heroes, it’s all been neatly justified for them. While more mature readers might have the same reaction that I did and want to discuss these issues, younger readers will miss this entirely, not having adequate comprehension and literary analysis skills to critique the writing.

For those of you who are more concerned with sex than violence, you’re technically in the clear, since the worst we get is some kissing and sleeping bag sharing.  But again, students who are not mature enough to fully understand the book will miss a lot if they take the physical relationship that occurs at face value.  The subtleties of manipulation and trust and confusion between actions and emotions will all likely be lost on readers who are not yet experienced when it comes to relationships. Since these issues have major bearing on the outcome of the book, to miss them would mean missing the point to some degree.

Does it matter whether or not a kid “gets it”? I would argue that it does.  This is a book about children killing children. If it is read solely for pleasure and entertainment with no thought to the author’s purpose or the society she has created then essentially it’s negating the whole purpose of book. If we’re supposed to reflect on and consider a society that has violence as a major form of entertainment, but the students who are reading the book can’t understand it well enough to do those things, then what are they getting out of it?  Only the entertainment value of the hunting and violence, right?  How is that any different than what we’re supposed to condemn?

What are your thoughts on The Hunger Games or allowing children to read or watch violence in general?

The vocabulary in this book is not too complex, which is part of what allows it to even be accessible to younger readers.  Harder words include: tesserae, barbarism, ironic, mutilate, arrogance, irredeemably, leniency, ludicrous, onslaught, feeble.

Want to know about the rest of the series?
Catching Fire review
Mockingjay review

Great for: Teens who are old enough to read it critically and want a real page turner.  Katniss is a strong female character, which is always a plus.

Sex, Nudity, Dating – There’s talk about men finding wives.   Effie Trinket might wish to be in a District where former winners don’t “molest you.”  Katniss has all her body hair waxed.  She is made to stand naked in front of men and women, one man examines her closely and she fights the urge to cover her chest.  One year the tributes were made to go naked.  A kiss on the cheek.  A girl wears a gown that is see-through and provocative.  Her body is described as lush and sexy.  There is a romance between two characters.  A boy tells a girl it’s okay to kiss him. A girl removes a boy’s clothes to wash him and dress his wounds, she asks him to cover himself while she washes his undershorts and he says he doesn’t mind.  There is kissing and wanting to do more kissing.  The kissing is sort of consistently throughout after a certain point. A boy and girl share a sleeping bag. There’s a sort of half-hearted love triangle.  There is embracing.  A one point the kissing continues for 10 straight minutes in public.
Profanity – “idiots,” “hell,”
Death, Violence and Gore – Katniss tried to drown a cat in a bucket.  Her father was “blown to bits in a mine explosion.” People risk execution if they poach animals.  Katniss kills animals.  People kill and eat dogs. Katniss and Gale discuss how they would rather die.  The games require that 24 “tributes”, a boy and girl from each District must fight each other until only one remains alive (of course this means the other 23 must be killed).  This is televised for the enjoyment of the people. Children as young as 12 may be selected for this.  Katniss volunteers to take her younger sister’s place.  Children who live at the community home frequently have marks on them from being hit. People starve to death with some regularity.  Peeta is hit by his mother, hard enough that it leaves a welt and a black eye.  Weapons are needed for the games.  Some people are trained to kill with knives.  One year people had maces that they had to use to bludgeon each other to death.  Katniss wants a bow.  One year all the contestants froze to death.  Katniss expects killing will be easy if she can forget they are people.  A girl’s tongue has been cut out for committing a crime.  A spear is shot through a boy and he is hauled up on a rope.  Right, so all of that occurs before the actual games begin.   What happens next is during the games section of the book, which begins around page 130. Peeta gets shards of pottery in his hands and is bleeding badly enough that he needs to be taken from dinner to be bandaged.  A prior tribute needed to be stunned with guns because he was attempting to eat the people he’d murdered, with specific reference to eating their hearts.   Landmines are set to blow off the legs of tributes that move prematurely.  A boy is stabbed in the back and coughs blood into the face of another competitor.  Gangs of tributes form in order to kill in packs.  Cameras show tributes starving, freezing, dehydrating to death. Characters you trust murder other people. Fires are set to kill people, causing smoke inhalation and burns.  A story is recounted about a miner who was given up for dead, a wound of charred flesh exposing his bone.  Special wasps sting people to death, leaving them twitching “hysterically” on the ground.  Flesh of a dead person disintegrates in Katniss’s hands.  She must touch this person’s bones to try to move the person.  In one district people are whipped publicly if they eat the crops they grow.  A child is killed for stealing a sunglasses type thing.  A tribute is badly cut and others believe that bleeding to death is imminent.  A girl who dropped her token at the start was blown up by a mine and they “literally had to scrape her bits off the ground.” Explosions cause someone to bleed from the ear.  A character’s neck is snapped by another player.  One dies a very slow death after being attacked with a spear.  One is killed with a bow and arrow, a shot to the neck that drowns him in his own blood when he removes the arrow.  A character is badly wounded; the wound is a deep gash that oozes blood and pus and smells of festering flesh.  A wound is so deep that it shows the bone.  An injury leads to fever and blood poisoning. A deer is shot with two arrows and tries to run, but stumbles and then has his throat cut. A person is shot in the arm.  Another is hit in the forehead with a knife, blood gushes down that person’s face.  A person is trapped by someone who plans on carving up that person in order to murder him or her.  The knife wielder cuts someone’s face.  There is profuse bleeding for awhile after that. Another person is flung on the ground and then has a rock smashed into the skull making a dent that will slowly kill.  Animals are killed and eaten throughout.  There are mutant wolf-like creatures that hunt humans, it’s possible parts of former humans were used to make the creatures.  It seems as though they pretty much eat someone alive. Blood splatters a person’s face.  A character is choked.  A character begs for mercy and is shot in the skull.  A character loses a leg due to injury.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – A former winner is at the “reaping” drunk.  This is mentioned repeatedly and he falls off the stage due to his inebriation.  He vomits from drinking too much.  The tributes are offered (and drink) wine.  A character drugs another character.
Frightening or Intense Things – Children whose parents cannot care for them are taken to the community home.  After her father passed away, Katniss’s mother fell into a a deep depression. There’s a period of time when Katniss is heavily medicated, restrained and hospitalized.

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3 Responses to The Hunger Games

  1. Sharon says:

    It’s interesting that you observe that the fact of having to kill, and how you see yourself after that, isn’t really examined. It felt very much like the theme of the whole book, and I thought this series overall did a very good job of showing how the Games left everyone they touched as a completely traumatized wreck. But you’re right–the killing itself is much more addressed on a societal level, and the trauma of the games is the games in general–risking your life for no reason, with people watching. The fact of having to kill, which is such a huge part of the horror, isn’t addressed as closely as you’d think.

    Really, it’s incredibly violent. I definitely forget that it’s a YA book and marketed at young people. Still kind of blows my mind.

  2. Ann says:

    Many of my high school students read The Hunger Games this year and found it disturbing. We have had two traumatic deaths (a student suicide and a teacher killed in a domestic violence incident) within our high school community just this year and it hit close to home. I definitely think the content of this book is for 8th graders at the absolute YOUNGEST. I personally found it disturbing to read and have not yet seen the movie.
    It was a book that many students were eager to read, even very reluctant readers who rarely/never read for their own enjoyment. Our library has 14 copies and there is still a waitlist to get one!

  3. jmlc says:

    I think that the next two books do a better job illustrating the impact of trauma on the characters. Nonetheless, I agree that this is a book series better saved for older kids and better read if being discussed with others.

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