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Is The Hunger Games Trilogy Suitable for Children? A Parent’s Perspective

Updated on August 13, 2013

Hunger Games merchandise free with a newspaper

Hunger Games merchandise is commanding high prices on E-bay, but some newspapers are giving it away free.
Hunger Games merchandise is commanding high prices on E-bay, but some newspapers are giving it away free. | Source

Could Violent Books Be Bad For Children?

Someone gave my 12-year-old daughter a copy of the novel: “The Hunger Games” for her last birthday. She read only a few chapters before abandoning it. My older daughter, then aged 13, took up the book, started reading and was hooked. Within a few weeks she’d read the entire Hunger Games trilogy. She also passed the books on to a few friends, and soon a small gaggle of them were raving about the Hunger Games.

I’d read enough on the back covers of the books to agree with my younger daughter that they sounded horrible. The novels are set at an unspecified time in the future, when North America is now called Panem and after a period of unrest, the country has been kept in order for over 70 years by a violent regime. Panem is divided into 13 districts, but district 13 is desolate, obliterated by the Capitol after a rebellion. As a warning to all of what would happen if they were to try another uprising, every year the Capitol holds the Hunger Games. In these games 2 children from each district, aged between 12 and 18, must go as contestants (known as “tributes”) to fight in an arena. The Hunger Games are televised for the enjoyment of Capitol citizens, but in the Districts watching them is mandatory.

This is no ordinary televised game show and it is no ordinary arena – the fight is to the death, and the arena a wide area of open countryside that has been rigged with television cameras and booby traps should the contestants not put on a good enough show while fighting each other. The winner is the only child to come out of the arena alive. In the opening chapters the main character, 16 year-old Katniss, volunteers as “tribute,” in place of her sister whose name has been randomly drawn.

All in all, I wondered what on earth my older daughter, normally a sensitive child, could see in these novels. When she went through a spate of anxiety earlier this year I thought of the many reports in the press on the effects of violent video games on children and I wondered if the books could be responsible for how she felt. I wondered if I should have stopped her from reading them, although by then of course it was too late.

My daughter’s interest in all things Hunger Games included the music from the film of the first book, released on March 23rd. It was hearing this beautiful, haunting track by the Secret Sisters that partly made me decide I should read the books myself before writing them off.

The beautiful song from The Hunger Games by the Secret Sisters

Or Are Violent Stories Good For Children?

Besides, don’t some “experts” say that fairy tales with their cruelty and violence are a way for small children to work through their own feelings of anger and fear? The monsters in fairy tales are seen to represent the kids’ own inner monsters.

I never really bought that theory when my kids were little, largely because as at four years old, my elder daughter was so utterly scared of Snow White’s wicked stepmother and various other villains that I couldn’t see how it did her any good at all. At six, she was terrified by a film, shown at school, of the Good Samaritan – or more accurately of the wounded man being ignored by passers by. Yet this same daughter was eight when she read the first four Harry Potter books. When the fourth one gave her nightmares I refused to buy her the fifth. She borrowed it from the school library.

So is there something in this theory? Do children use literature as a way to understand and cope with feelings and maybe even with the violence in the world in general? Even if children aren’t physically mistreated at home, each of us is sometimes aroused to anger. Do these violent feelings, when channelled into literature, come to resolution?

Some researchers also say that when children make up their own stories they contain aggression and violence. In truth, my own experience backs this up. A friend recently told me of some films she’d seen, all made by teenagers, all containing main characters under attack and violently fighting back. My children and their friends (girls as well as boys) all have “Nerf guns” and play shooting games. I also have experience of running creative writing workshops for 10 – 12 year-olds. Some of the stories the kids produced were gentle, passive, or introspective. And many were violent.

The Official Hunger Games Movie Trailer on YouTube

A Hunger Games Doubter

Yet still, as I read the first chapters of The Hunger Games, knowing that the heroine (and first person narrator) was destined for an arena where she would kill other children, I felt a deep sense of revulsion and foreboding. Not just because the story seemed so gruesome, but there was something else that I couldn’t put my finger on.

Eventually, halfway through the third book I realised what it was. In those fairy tales, and even in Harry Potter or Doctor Who (which my children also love) the characters that die are generally the “baddies.” When innocent people do die, the characters doing the killing are not the heroes or narrators. It was clear from the book jacket that Katniss, the heroine of the Hunger Games, would survive. Therefore, it seemed to me that the suspense in the novel must come from how she survived, in what the Hunger Games did to her. I found myself hoping that perhaps all the other kids killed each other and Katniss’s innocence remained intact.

But the message in this book is more realistic than that. Way back in the summer of 1971, Stanford University ran an experiment in which they simulated a prison, recruiting local students to act as “guards” and “prisoners.” The researchers were interested to see how people react when put into positions of either power or powerlessness. The experiment was planned to run for two weeks, but was suspended after six days because by then several prisoners had become depressed, the guards were behaving sadistically and the professor in charge of the experiment had become so involved that he no longer felt confident of his own ability to act rationally. I don’t know if Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, has read about the Stanford Prison Experiment but she certainly got the sense of a brutal situation brutalizing people spot on.

My daughter’s Hunger Games gym bag.


Highlighting Effects of Violence and Emotional Confusion

The Hunger Games does not glorify violence, but instead shows its longterm effects. Right from the start it’s clear that Katniss and the other inhabitants of District Twelve believe themselves powerless to oppose, that opposition would mean death not just to themselves, but to those they love. This is how the Nazis came to power in Germany, how dictators come to power anywhere. Fear and a sense of powerlessness pervade the novels, but also a determination in some characters not to have their humanity destroyed by the Games.

Is particular, this is the wish of Peeta, the other contestant or “tribute” from District Twelve. As the games go on, Katniss has flashbacks after violent acts and both she and Peeta have nightmares throughout the trilogy. Even other characters that seem to be less affected later reveal the full extent of the trauma they experience. For example, Haymitch, who is a past victor at the Hunger games, mentors Katniss and Peeta – when he is sober enough to do so. It’s only towards the end of the trilogy that we get to know both how he won his games, and the repercussions of this.

Similarly, I like the way Suzanne Collins deals with what some reviewers refer to as the romance element to the novels. A more accurate description of this would be the relationship element. There is little romance, but a lot of honest soul searching from Katniss. Because she already feels indebted to Peeta she is at first horrified when he is called as her fellow tribute, but they become friendly and are then encouraged to present themselves a star-crossed lovers in the hope of earning more sponsorship from rich Capitol dwellers. The sponsorship can buy much needed medicine or food for the arena. After playing up to the cameras Katniss becomes totally confused about what she feels for Peeta and for Gale, her hunting partner and friend from District Twelve.

I like this aspect of the novels, and think it is a useful portrayal for teenagers who are just beginning to think about stepping into the world of relationships, even if as yet most may only dream about this rather than act on it. Young people (and some not so young) do often feel confusion in relationships and showing this is likely to give teenagers a far better idea of what to expect than I got from some of the novels I read at the same age.

Mockingjay pins available on Amazon

A Hunger Games Convert?

So am I now a Hunger Games convert? Do I now think violence in teen fiction is just the thing? It probably won’t surprise you that my answer is: it depends.

I’d like to return to that kids’ creative writing class I used to run, and explain a little more about what happened as a result of all those violent stories the kids wrote. At first I simply allowed the kids to vent, thinking it would help them release pent-up anger from the day, but what happened was that the writing grew more directly insulting of other kids or school staff and aggression spilled over into comments made in the workshop. I found it necessary to introduce a set of rules to ensure respect for the group members and others.

I am glad I read The Hunger Games. Although I regularly talk with my kids about emotions and about issues in life, reading the books have given me another way to approach this. There are many aspects of The Hunger Games that open doors for discussion on our society and how it works, from the obsession with reality television to the effect committing violence has on a person. Children, as I discovered in those writing workshops, often feel at sea about emotions and relationships and need guidance on how to effectively channel or release those emotions.

I have read of children as young as nine reading The Hunger Games. I do not think I would have wanted my children to read it at that age, but each child is different as my two have demonstrated. With pre-teens and young teenagers who want to read the books, I would encourage parents to read them first, and to then use the opportunity it provides for you and your teenager to discuss the issues raised.

©Melovy. This article may not be copied in full or in part without prior permission from the author.

References and Further Reading

© 2012 Yvonne Spence


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