Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Ban the Hunger Games! (and everything else)

Welcome to my first post, ladies and gentlemen - let's hope it's not my last.

You see, I'm weighing in on what seems to be a controversial topic at the moment. Basically, that books such as The Hunger Games (and their films), which depict graphic violence by and against children, are at best desensitising our tender young ones to carnage, and at worst, probably causing school shootings, the current bullying epidemic, and everything short of Srebrenica. Child psychotherapists have called for violent teen fiction to be banned. Even New Zealand children's author Sherryl Jordan has vowed not to watch the movie, saying "Young people today are being desensitised to human pain and desperation, and adults are allowing it, if not actively encouraging it."

Stop reading now if you're over the whole thing already. But I know where I stand: and that's with the authors. (Well, Suzanne Collins, of course. Not Sherryl Jordan.)

To me, it's as silly as blaming Harry Potter for encouraging children to practise witchcraft, or - true story - banning James and the Giant Peach for encouraging drug and alcohol abuse, because of references to snuff, tobacco, whisky and magical crocodiles' tongues. Let's not go into the extraordinary level of violence you find in the average Roald Dahl book. You might as well ban Alice in Wonderland  because Alice drinks a mysterious potion she happens to find down a rabbit hole. Let alone following a rabbit she hasn't been introduced to. Stranger danger anyone? And these books were aimed at a younger audience than The Hunger Games or Tomorrow When the War Began or Alex Rider or Cherub or so many fantastic teen series featuring children in violent situations.

At Auckland Libraries, our policy is never to censor. That's up to the Office of Film and Literature Classification. It's also up to parents to decide what they will and won't allow their children to read. That's partly why parents or guardians are responsible for their children's library memberships. We believe that no one should be forbidden access to whatever they want to read, be it right-wing, left-wing, or just a bit dodgy. Let's take the idea of banning violence in children's books to its logical extreme. That would mean teens could not study The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, because it involves death and gangs (with children fighting children). That's from my third-form English class. Fourth form was that gentle comedy, Lord of the Flies. In fifth-form, it was a book featuring a preteen child discovering violent racism, rape and extreme social ostracism. That was, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird. Romeo and Juliet kill themselves - after Romeo kills another teen. (Sixth-form English). The form system might have disappeared, but the classics remain. What they show are universal truths. And unfortunately, violence against and by children is one of those.

I was bullied dreadfully as a teenager. But I believe children should be able to read about bullying, not protected from it, so that they understand they're not alone. How can we understand something that is never discussed? Maybe bullies themselves will learn from being able to put themselves in someone else's shoes. (Maybe.) I don't believe that because the bullying and repression are by the state in The Hunger Games, or by an invading army in Tomorrow When the War Began, that it makes any difference. Or is bloodless violence easier to tolerate? Personally, I found The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which got so much praise, rather difficult to swallow. Surely no boy over the age of three would ever think of Auschwitz as a holiday camp - but that version of Nazi history was highly sanitised, right up until the nasty end.

The accusation has been levelled at Katniss Everdeen that she is helping to glorify violence as entertainment, because she appears in a reality show, and because the book is itself entertainment and we are made to "participate". One might make the same accusation about those who watch the news, or read the newspapers. In today's world, violence is inextricably linked with ratings, sales and entertainment, whether you like it or not. The new programmes never merely "inform", but consider very carefully the best pictures and the best soundbites because they are what get your attention. I believe it is courageous and extremely timely of Suzanne Collins to have made that point. I don't expect a book that highlights the horrors of war and repression - which The Hunger Games certainly does - to be dull and uninspiring simply because of its content. Or what would be the point? We learn best when we are entertained.

Finally, the comment one columnist made that Katniss Everdeen would have only been a true "heroine" if she had simply allowed herself, her mother and sister to be killed instead of participating in a war game is frankly ridiculous. Who would make such a choice? If it meant your own child being killed, or killing someone else, I don't know many who would not at least do what they could. And those people are missing the point. Throughout the Hunger Games series, the violence is never glorified. Katniss is continually disgusted and horrified at the things happening to her and those around her, and feels every death as a burden on her shoulders, even those she did not cause. She participates with great reluctance and self-sacrifice, wanting nothing more than to escape. Indeed, she is traumatised by it. It is a deeply human response, and does not at all encourage others to indulge in violent behaviour. Instead of being desensitised to it, the reader is made to feel everything keenly, and analyse what they themselves would do.

Forgive this long posting, but I am angry. I am angry that others are telling me what I can and cannot write, and for whom. I am angry that the darker side of reality should, according to some, have no place in literature. I never read Watership Down - but that was my choice. I am sad for those children who never get to choose some of the best, most touching, most human writing available. And I am sad for those who will never understand that.
If you are a Hunger Games fan, and want more fantastic stories or films with tough choices and strong characters, I recommend:

V for Vendetta
The Dark is Rising
Twilight Robbery
The False Prince

Happy reading!


Anonymous said...

Is there really an Auckland Libraries policy against censorship? Who doesn't it apply to the public-access internet?

tosca said...

Kia ora! Thank you for commenting :) About books? Yes, we definitely do. Seeing as your query is related to our public computers rather than this post, would you like me to forward it on to our Digital Services team and ask them to comment? If you'd like an email instead, please feel free to send me a contact email address: tosca.waerea@aucklandcouncil.govt.nz

- tosca

WritersBlockNZ said...

THE HUNGER GAMES doesn't glorify violence any more than ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT glorifies war!

If anything, it shows the truth behind the glorification.

Anonymous said...

Great post - I do hope it's not your last.

lentilbrain said...

I haven't read "The Hunger Games" (yet!) but I've been following all the controversy with interest. I completely agree with you - banning books, whatever their content, is a slippery slope and should set all sorts of alarm bells ringing. How can a book that gets people to read, and then to think, promoting some sort of dialogue, be a bad thing?
Great blog post, I really enjoyed reading it, thanks!

Gailgameshy said...

We can ban violence against children in books when we stop violence against children in real life.

Darryl Murphy said...

The very attempt to ban The Hunger Games demonstrates a failure to understand what the book is about!