Success of 'Hunger Games' shows kids drawn in by dark themes
This weekend, the most popular film at the box office will be the one depicting a future world where children from subsistence-level "districts" are picked by lottery to fight each other to the brutal, bloody death. These bloody games are all televised, no less, for the lavish entertainment of a rich, privileged "Capitol."
With its big-budget effects and PG-13 rating, the sci-fi thriller "The Hunger Games" is being marketed with laserlike precision to "tweens" and teens out for movie-theater thrills.
Utah readers have proved ravenous fans of Suzanne Collins' dystopian fictions, with a series heroine, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who despairs of living a life stable enough to raise a family. The books depict a society where doctors are so expensive people resort to herbal cures, food is won by bow-and-arrow, and state media cameras stare from rooftops "like buzzards."
Last week, Amazon announced sales data ranking Salt Lake City No. 2 and Provo No. 8 for online sales of all formats of Collins' trilogy, which includes 2008's The Hunger Games, as well as Catching Fire and Mockingjay.
The more smashing the books' success becomes, though, the more some parents raise concerns. Does the story tap into the angst youth feel toward an unstable, cutthroat world? Or does it just harness literature's timeless themes of violent struggle and high-stakes consequences.?
"Dark themes, even in children's literature, have always been with us," said Margaret Neville, a children's book buyer for Salt Lake City's The King's English Bookshop. "They're just at the forefront now, thanks to these books. We love them. But I doubt they're books even a 12-year-old should read."
Best-selling Utah author Richard Paul Evans wrote his first young-adult novel, Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25, in part as a response to The Hunger Games, he said in a Tribune interview last year. "The young-adult fiction market right now is very dark. It's very dysfunctional," he said. "With Michael Vey, I wanted a young-adult title different than those that were succeeding. As a parent, I knew what parents would like and what would work."
Some readers who have posted book reviews of The Hunger Games at Amazon.com appear to agree with Evans. "Whether intentionally [sic] or not, to my mind, the series glorifies the torture of children," a reviewer named Pam posted last December. "These books are not the way we want our children's imaginations to be stirred."
Balderdash, say a pair of Utah's most successful young-adult novelists. Dan and Robison Wells, brothers and authors of their own dystopian thrillers in the vein of Collins, agree that dark themes in young-adult literature are not new.
"Teenagers have always felt out of sync with the world. That's no shocking revelation," said Robison Wells. "They're people in the midst of becoming more intelligent and physically mature, even as they're being told what to do. That fits the dystopian world of oppressive governments watching over us quite well, and it also reflects the high-school experience."
Dan Wells, whose latest book Partials plots a struggle against engineered humans in a world where babies die soon after being born, said The Hunger Games' critics fail to see children's literature for what it is.
"Even Peter Rabbit is a cutely illustrated story about a preteen boy from a broken home who runs away, breaks into an old man's place and then has to escape before the old man murders him and eats him," Dan Wells said via email. "The only difference is that we're packaging it as cool instead of cute, which is arguably more honest."
Ally Condie, the best-selling Provo author of the Matched series, agreed that violence in stories is nothing new. The more interesting question is whether the current crop of dark young-adult novels envision elements of a world still worth saving, Condie wrote in a statement through her publicist.
"Whether or not our characters or we can succeed in this is a struggle that feels compelling because it is real, and always has been," Condie wrote.