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.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.
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)
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.