The Oslo massacre puts The Hunger Games into perspective

My friend and fellow PhD student Erin is currently reading the Hunger Games trilogy, and she’s reading it compulsively, as required by the book itself.

When we first heard about the terrible Oslo massacre of July 22nd, she sent me the following email:

it is watching things like this on the news that make me never want to think about how i ‘enjoyed’ the hunger games!

It is a controversial thing to say, but I was immediately struck by how true it sounded. I hadn’t even thought of making such an association, but now that she’d made it, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Of course there is absolutely no direct link between the Hunger Games and the shooting perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik. But watching the news and listening to the horrifying testimonies of the teenagers and young adults present on Utoya island during the seemingly neverending shooting, I cannot help but think, just like Erin did – This is what a cold, organised, mass killing of a country’s young people really looks like, and really feels like.

This is the kind of circumstances when you realise that the enjoyment of fiction can powerfully anaesthetise us to the real equivalent of what it portrays. The Hunger Games plays on both modern and ancient fears to force us to watch a horrible, but oh-so-compulsively-watchable, theatre of child and adolescent sacrifice (Susan could say much more on that than I can). It is an artificial construction, of course – no less than a chimera to be enjoyed and feared at the same time. The teenagers in The Hunger Games are unnaturally equipped to deal with thoughts of death. They face it, they give it, they fight against it. Our fear and delight in reading about their endeavour is safely enclosed within the dystopian universe of the books.

And as Susan pointed out recently during a conversation, the hype surrounding the upcoming Hunger Games film is giving rise to a strangely morbid display of young actors and actresses whose roles are just numbers, on the model of ‘Laura Smith, n.3 – runs into trouble at the Cornucopia’. Understand: this pouty Californian blonde dies within the first ten minutes of the movie. But look at her! It’s her first big Hollywood part! She doesn’t die, of course – only her character, so that’s ok.

And suddenly we are interrupted in our desensitised reading of adolescent death by the occurrence of the unimaginable: scores of real, tangible, material adolescent deaths. Deaths that will entirely rewrite the history of the country, that will forever prevent hundreds of friends and relatives from living a normal life.

Of course there is nothing wrong with reading The Hunger Games. Of course we need catharsis, and we need fiction to meddle with our vision of reality and deal with its excesses.

But when faced with such a brutal reality check, I am uncomfortable and uncertain. I will draw no conclusions other than ‘This is what the mass killing of a country’s young people really looks like.’

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9 comments

  1. One of the first things that I thought, after hearing about what happened on Utøya, was how exciting The Hunger Games was, and here these kids suddenly experienced it in real life. I think it will be a while before I read books like that again. It was my favourite genre, but no it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

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  2. It would be disturbing if you viewed the Hunger Games books or movie as presenting violence for entertainment. But shouldn't you as contributors to this blog consider that by pointing out connections with real-life violence, you are helping other readers understand that fiction can help us think more deeply about disturbing problems in our world? I've written about connections between these novels and real-life Appalachia, since District 12 is identified as a coal mining area that used to be the Appalachian region. Many of the problems of District 12 are similar to hardships and injustice in Appalachian coal towns in the early and mid-20th century, but some details in the novels hit home as problems that still occur today: coal miners still die in Appalachia and elsewhere (5 died in Wales on the day I finished my essay on the trilogy) and families are still torn apart by health problems and conflicts caused by mining. Even if you don't think much about connections with real life while reading the novels, there is a positive aspect to thinking about them later when events in the news make the fictional events seem more real or meaningful.

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  3. Thank you for your comment – what you say is true, and a critical outlook on the texts can help understand this essential function of fiction. The problem being – I do think that the Hunger Games present violence for entertainment, and I also wonder how many of the millions of readers do think about the connections to real life.

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  4. Yes, Clementine, the whole time I was writing my response, I was asking myself, “What about those people who do enjoy violent stories or movies as entertainment?” I worry about that. I've told my brother's very conservative, Christian family that I'll disown them if I hear one more child say during a movie or TV show that he wants to see more shooting, and their father is right in there with the same attitude, playing games in which shooting is fun. However, Suzanne Collins says she wanted to write about war for adolescents and of course readers will differ in whether they view violent stories as entertaining, or think the novelist fails or succeeds in critiquing violence, or recognize that her depiction of violence being exploited as entertainment in Panem exposes the horrors of our violent world. A New York Times Magazine article says this: “An overt critique of violence, the series makes warfare deeply personal, forcing readers to contemplate their own roles as desensitized voyeurs” (from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/10/magazine/mag-10collins-t.html?_r=2&hpw).

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  5. I agree The Hunger Games (and the soon to be movie) do provide a level of violence for entertainment. Though the one thing I really appreciated about the books was they made me think of all the actions going on in the world that seem to swept aside after 30 seconds of media viewing.

    Reading the books brought chills through my body, and made me question what I know of current events happening across the world. The violence as entertainment had a duel representation. It trapped me to continue reading, and yet it also made me disgusted. And then Collins would present such humane scenes with her characters, and the violence became a slap in my own face.

    My only fear of the movie is that Hollywood will make it all about action, and not the thoughts, connections, and questions The Hunger Games trilogy presents to readers.

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  6. Thank you for both your comments, I think this is a fascinating debate in which both sides are equally arguable, which actually makes it slightly worrying, I think! 🙂

    Once again the bigger question is whether readers can and do take the time and energy to distance themselves from the immediate appeal of the book. And if not, how problematic this truly is.

    And I completely agree with you Denver – Hollywood might very well make this distance even more difficult to achieve.

    The fact that we're asking these questions shows that these are very interesting books to discuss, and actually the Children's Book Group at Cambridge is on The Hunger Games, so we'll probably be posting something else on the subject very soon.

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  7. In a society where reality programming reigns supreme readers should feel somewhat comfortable with the main premise of this novel. The tributes are but twenty-four tiny fish swimming in a barbarically dark bowl where morality is pitted against the basic instinct for survival. Readers are simply one of the outsiders looking in completely enthralled by the complexity of character and plot.
    This book is spectacular in a myraid of ways not the least of which was the vivid imagery.

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