I know, not exactly a light topic for my second post, but now is probably the time to post it (considering the great debut for the recently-released Hunger Games movie).One of the reactions to the movie and the book series that I find peculiar is the idea that kids fighting each other to the death is shockingly awful and not something you want to expose to teens and even tweens.
My first response to that (as a writing student and long-time lover of YA and adult science fiction) – it’s not exactly new, folks. I understand that this is the first “mainstream” introduction of the topic in this decade, but kids killing and kids dying has been a theme of young adult science fiction for a long time. One of my favorite YA novels to tackle this is Shade’s Children, by Garth Nix. Premise: aliens come to Earth, disappear everyone over the age of 15, and collect the children. When those children turn 15, they are taken and engineered into semi-human creatures that are used by the aliens in war games against one another. There is prodigious killing of and killing by children/young adults (plus a dash of X-Men), and it’s a creepy but great read.
Of course, there are others. Some of John Christopher’s stories come to mind, and certainly Ender’s Game has related elements. (One of the reasons I’m pleased with the success of The Hunger Games is it paves the way for the Ender’s Game movie in 2013.) Suzanne Collins’s trilogy is not uncharted territory.
Why? Because kids like to read about life-and-death stakes for people their age, the same way adults like thrillers or mysteries or military fiction. The problem is, in modern-day American culture there is no room for that sort of scenario. Violence among young people is discouraged by society. There is no valid reason for kids to be fighting to the death, and the authorities do their best to stop it. So kid-on-kid violence has been relegated to the realm of speculative fiction, particularly science fiction. Something has to happen to throw the authorities and general society out-of-whack enough that children are permitted to kill and to die. An apocalyptic event (Fire-us series); aliens (Shade’s Children); or some other device has to basically transplant the children of today into life-or-death stakes.
This makes the particular genre of gladiator children small and interrelated. I know there’s been a lot of fuss about the Hunger Games series resembling Battle Royale, where children fighting to the death with one sole survivor also appears. Here’s the thing: the narrowness of the genre makes similarities inevitable. Instead of being protected by authority figures, children are allowed to fight. The authorities must either be dead, indifferent, or condone this action. If they condone this action, it’s either because there is some greater need (Ender’s Game) or because the killing represents some form of entertainment or contest. The field is limited.
One of the reasons I didn’t want to read The Hunger Games when it came out (2008) was because I was writing something eerily similar to it already, started in 2003. The working title was “The Bloodsands.” Premise: in a future post-apocalyptic USA (the Tri-Union of America), corporations collect and sponsor orphaned teens/tweens. These kids are trained and then set to kill each other for entertainment purposes. You can imagine my dismay at watching something so similar not only become a successful book trilogy, but the next YA book-to-movie phenomenon. Something that I thought was my own invention (I was a naive teenaged writer) had been patented, marketed, and was flying off the shelves.
So, to all those saying The Hunger Games is a ripoff of this book or that movie: There is nothing new under the sun. There were wizard schools before Harry Potter, supernatural romances before Twilight, and kid death-matches before The Hunger Games. It just so happens that those particular remixes spoke to young adults, debuted during a high point in YA sci-fi/fantasy, and became really, really popular.
If a 13 year-old (me, circa 2003) connected to the premise enough to not only read stories where kids kill and die, but write them, I’m certain other kids feel the same way. It may be new and fresh to the American public at large, but to young people there will always be a hunger for the same high stakes adults are afforded.