Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Total effect and The Hunger Games

To begin with, I should explain that this isn't really a post about The Hunger Games. I haven't read the trilogy, and don't have a huge amount of interest in doing so, because the story line doesn't appeal all that much to me. Dystopian fiction has its place, and has an honorable literary pedigree; but if you read/watch too much dystopian fiction I think you run the risk either of becoming desensitized to the violence and suffering envisioned or of finding what is supposed to be shocking and thought-provoking merely melodramatic and trite. At present, my dystopian fiction slot is being filled by The Walking Dead (though we'll see how the next season progresses), and I doubt it would be wise to mix a dystopian world in which zombies are destroying everything while the main characters struggle to survive and hope eventually to overcome the evil without and within with a dystopian world in which teenagers must kill each other in gladiatorial combat before overthrowing the evil people and saving the world; if nothing else, the risk of nightmares in which zombies and teenagers fight each other in the Roman Coliseum against a backdrop of mocking TV broadcasts hosted by Bill Maher or somebody is too great a risk to run.

But given the huge popularity of The Hunger Games and the new movie based on the first book, some parents are again facing the tough questions: do I allow my teen to read these books/see this movie? Is there a different answer for a thirteen-year-old than a fifteen-year-old, or is the child's sensitivity level and maturity and type of imagination more important than physical age? If my child is suddenly interested in this series, how do I know if he or she is merely being caught up in the movie hype or being influenced by peer pressure instead of truly being ready to read/watch a story with a certain level of graphic and violent elements? Is there, in fact, anything particularly redeeming about these novels (and/or the movie) that would make a journey of exploration and discussion with both a parent and the child participating worthwhile, or are these books ultimately more exploitative than redeeming?

These are questions that can only be answered by individual parents and individual children. When my oldest girl became interested in The Hunger Games recently, I shared my concerns about this type of fiction generally, and offered to get a copy of the first book, read it myself, and then let her read it if she was interested. She did a little research online, read some plot summaries and some reviews, and decided that in fact she really wasn't interested enough to read the books. The movie had looked intriguing, but after she read what the books were about she decided on her own that given her lifelong dislike of stories featuring war, violence, gore, and so on, these books were probably not a good fit for her, at least not right now.

How did she know that? I'll answer by referring once again to one of my favorite essays by Flannery O'Connor, titled Total Effect and the Eighth Grade. In this essay, O'Connor is arguing against the practice of rushing to present modern or contemporary fiction to young adults, not because of anything inherently wrong about that fiction as a class of fiction, but because young adults may not yet be prepared for it. I've quoted this passage before, but it's worth repeating:
I would like to put forward the proposition, repugnant to most English teachers, that fiction, if it is going to be taught in the high schools, should be taught as a subject and as a subject with a history. The total effect of a novel depends not only on its innate impact, but upon the experience, literary and otherwise, with which it is approached. No child needs to be assigned Hersey or Steinbeck until he is familiar with a certain amount of the best work of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, the early James, and Crane, and he does not need to be assigned these until he has been introduced to some of the better English novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The fact that these works do not present him with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time, and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them. Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped backward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable. (Flannery O'Connor, Total Effect and the Eighth Grade)

My oldest daughter decided not to read The Hunger Games at this time because she's still reading the literature of the past, and because thus far the more violent or gory books or plays (such as Macbeth) have been more difficult for her to get through than, say, Barchester Towers, which she recently raced through. Knowing her own relatively small capacity for literature with dark, angsty, violent themes and plots helped her make a smart decision about whether her interest in all the movie hype was enough to make the books worth reading, or whether their scenes and themes of gladiatorial combat and teens killing other teens was going to detract from any good lessons or values in the stories.

Again, these questions can't be answered except by individual parents and individual teens; there's not, as far as I've heard, some overwhelming reason for Catholic parents to be wary of The Hunger Games as there was with, say, Philip Pullman's works, which means that these books will be liked and appreciated by some but rejected by others. Which is, of course, absolutely fine. But I think the best way for a parent to know whether The Hunger Games is something their own teenager should read and/or see is for the parent to know their child, and especially to know what other books the child has read and enjoyed. It would seem that this would be a fairly easy question to answer, and yet I realize that some parents have little knowledge of what books, plays, and poems among the treasures of the literary past have so far been presented to their children--or, worse, that parents are simply assuming that their children are being exposed to a wide selection of classic works of fiction when the reality is that their children have been reading a lot of books published in the last ten or twenty years, and not much from before that. English teachers as a group may have changed a great deal from Flannery O'Connor's day--but are they thus more likely or less likely to assign works from what some educators refer to rather dismissively as "dead white males?" A teen can easily read The Hunger Games if he or she has read works like A Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, Macbeth (or King Lear or Othello or even Romeo and Juliet), Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime and Punishment, and much earlier works like The Iliad or The Odyssey, or Beowulf, or The Aeneid, Oedipus Rex or Antigone, The Divine Comedy--I could be writing this list all night, but I'll stop here.

The point is that if a teen chooses to read The Hunger Games against the backdrop of some of the best fiction of Western Christendom he or she will easily be able to asses its value or worth, discuss its plot and themes, and even offer informed and intelligent criticism of the series. But if the teen reads little or nothing other than a handful of wildly popular (and sometimes pandering or exploitative) works of teen fiction, his or her ability to experience what O'Connor calls the total effect of the novel may be lacking. He or she would be in roughly the same position as an adult who watches something like The Walking Dead without having first read works like The Castle of Otranto and Frankenstein, or at the very least, Dracula or Northanger Abbey.


Kirt Higdon said...

Erin, I think you should read the books first. The Hunger Games series is the most inspiring and interesting trilogy I have ever read with the possible exception of C.S. Lewis's space trilogy, the last volume of which probably qualifies as distopian. If my kids were still teenagers, I'd be urging them to read the Hunger Games series. As it is, my adult kids are reading the books with enthusiasm and Catholic parents I know who have teenage kids are getting them to read the books. When I went to the movie, I saw many parents there with their high school and junior high children. BTW, Mark Shea has on his blog a favorable video review of the movie from Fr. Barron. Fr. Barron has not yet read the books.

Yes, the books are violent, but the movie has relatively little graphic violence. I've seen worse on network TV and in many other PG-13 movies. The movie producers obviously wanted to be well on the safe side with a PG-13 rating. And the books are considerably less violent than say "Quo Vadis" which I regard as the greatest Catholic novel ever written and which, like The Hunger Games, deals with a repressive and perverted government slaughtering people in the arena. In brief, I can't recommend the books or the movie enough. Maybe not for little kids, but junior high on up.

Anonymous said...

Erin, No, I am not going to see The Hunger Games, simply because I think I would find it too depressing. (And I am depressed enough!!!)

My boss' niece is Elizabeth Banks who plays Effie Trinket in the movie. She's delightful, and I have enjoyed her as Laura Bush in "W" and "Definately, Maybe".


c matt said...

I am generally a fan of dystopias, but not so much of the post apocalyptic variety. I prefer the Brave New World type mostly because they seem more likely to happen, and recognize the road to dystopia is far more subtle.

scotch meg said...

I have to admit I'm glad I don't have much more of this sort of discernment to do. Four of my five are at ages beyond worrying about what they read - of course, that means more worrying about what they DO and far less control over it! I like your description of the process, which I was trying to describe to a young mother friend last week. She had asked me to read "Landscape with Dragons" - a book I'd been avoiding - and comment on the process of choosing children's books. I find O'Brien's categorical approach too constricted; thanks for your contribution, Erin.

eulogos said...

I enjoyed the books, although I don't think they are hugely significant.
My parents didn't tell me what to read and not read, although when I tried at age 11 to tell my mother how much 1984 upset me, she said, "Well stop reading it then!," when what I wanted her to say was, "Yes it is upsetting. It is supposed to be upsetting. The author is suggesting that if certain trends continue such things might happen. " Or, something like that. I finished it anyway. I am not sure if it harmed me. It left me with a great fear of torture and a fear that I would be a coward under it. I don't suppose that has ever left me. I doubt if *reading* Hunger games as a teenager would have bothered me as much as reading 1984. On the other hand *seeing* the violence in it displayed graphicly might have bothered me, as I was very naive to visual representation, having not had a TV for large parts of my childhood, and having seen only 2 or 3 movies before I was 18. On a rainy day during a vacation when I was 10 my parents took me to see "The Guns of Navarone" and I stood up and yelled at the people in the theatre for laughing when bombs exploded knocking trucks full of soldiers over a hillside. I had little emotional distance from books, and none from moving visual representations.

Frankly, I think it is not bad to preserve one's sensitivity to some extent. I don't think this applies just to children, either. Adults also can be harmed by seeing too much violence, too many horror movies. That is what I think, anyway.

The books which bothered me most as a teen, though, were fantasies. They seemed to scramble my brain. I had no distance from them, and it was as if such illogical things were really happening, and I couldn't handle them. I could understand the hypotheticals behind Sciene Fiction, but something like Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions was just more than I could handle. I avoided them when I avoided little else, because of the mental discomfort they induced.

I like the idea that schools should have young people reading classic English literature, not modern stuff. The modern stuff they will eventually read on their own, if they are so inclined. If they arent't, better for them to encounter a few classic works than modern stuff, if that is all they are ever going to read.

Susan Peterson

ElizabethK said...

The books are worth reading--one of the interesting aspects is that you sort of have Huxley meeting Orwell, with The Capitol as a Brave New World for which the main characters must serve as entertainment. I think the interesting moral discussion in the book is what to do when these are the times in which one lives--to simply survive, to flee, to try to keep oneself morally intact even if it means death.

ElizabethK said...

Also, I meant to add--you're absolt about absolutely right about "total effect"--in this case, the books are much better if you've read both Huxley and Orwell, and have a reasonable grasp of the late Roman empire as well as the myth of Diana and Actaoen (sp?).

Kirt Higdon said...

It may be that you will appreciate The Hunger Games more if you've read Orwell and Huxley first, but The Hunger Games are aimed at teens. 1984 and Brave New World are much darker and more adult works. I'd rather have young kids (middle school and high school) start out with something like The Hunger Games and then move on to 1984 and BNW. They might also get the desire to explore Roman history.

L. said...

I enjoyed the books, and I didn't expect to -- I read mostly non-fiction these days.

I bought them for my daughter, who has yet to get through the first one. She simply doesn't enjoy reading, which greatly saddens me -- but at least I don't have to worry about her reading "Twilight."