Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why Are We Such Big Fans of Children Having to Kill Each Other?

Yes, I know all the Christmas lights are supposed to be down by now, but for some reason, I feel like this giant mansion done up for the holidays as a reindeer nursery/prison is appropriate for this topic.

 I finally started reading Hunger Games. For those of you who aren't 30 yr old librarians or friends with said librarians, Hunger Games is a very popular YA book which takes place in a dystopian future. The United States has been replaced with 12 Quarantined Districts and a Capitol City. Every year, the Capitol exacts a tribute from each District of one girl and one boy, who are shipped off to participate in a survivalist game where they must hunt each other in the wilderness, last one standing wins. It's a trilogy, and I've only read the first one so far, but there's lots of starvation, sickness, arrows, pus, ect. It's bloody and sad, and it's exactly the sort of book I would have loved in middle school.

 As soon as the trailer for the upcoming HG movie came out, which every single one of my librarian friends posted and reposted enthusiastically, it begged comparison to another (sort of) well known movie about kids killing each other - Battle Royale. This movie is also based off a book, but I haven't read it yet. As soon as I'm done with HG, I will. It's long overdue in fact, because I am a huge fan of Battle Royale the movie. Huge. I keep a copy of the DVD in my car so if I'm ever over a friend's house and we want to watch a movie, I can volunteer it. It is one of my favorite movies ever, if not THE favorite. The plot of BR is that in an effort to quell school uprisings, the Japanese government randomly picks a class by lottery every year, and the entire class is shipped to an evacuated abandoned island, where they are fitted with explosive collars and also told to slaughter each other mercilessly until only one is left, or they all die. They are extremely similar plots, if not precisely the same. Even the way the Games are run, with broadcast announcements of daily death counts and random backpacks full of unknown supplies, is the same (except in Hunger Games the kids don't know most of the other kids, but in Battle Royale they are all fellow students, which in my mind makes it superior). In both worlds, the rest of the populations watches gleefully and celebrates the Games. It turns out I don't care about any copying, I'm thrilled in fact by details I run across that are identical.

 I'm just going to throw in this fun fact: Two of my other favorite books are Lord of the Flies and Enders Game.

 So question that I face is this - Why am I so entertained by kids hunting each other down like prey?

There are two possibilities:

  1) I Love Kids

 There are lots of other movies that explore the Reality Death Match idea - Mad Max and Running Man for instance. But not with children. I don't connect to those movies the same way, turns out I care very little about adults having to kill each other ( they do it all the time anyway). One of the main differences is that it's harder to forgive adults. In both Games, the villains, the really bad kids who are bullies and actually good at killing, are older children. They are the larger ones physically, sure, but they are also the ones closest to being real grown ups. They have lost their innocence and are well on their way to being the enemy. Adults are always the enemy. An adult who is not the enemy is an exception to the rule. So they have to die horrible deaths because they must be punished for being old.

 In YA books, the runt is always the best one. Think Boxcar Children and 5 Little Peppers, Little Women. Smallest means sweetest, nicest, kindest, bravest. Unfortunately, it also means you are probably going to get sick or die, depends when the book was written, but whatever. When we read over and over again as kids that we the children, we the littlest, were better people than all those nasty warmongering perverted greedy uncaring adults? That was absolutely true. That doesn't change. Children are always much more flexible, curious, resourceful, and unthinkingly loving....

  2) I Hate Kids

....because they haven't had to do anything their whole lives but absorb. The minute they get any real power ,like a weapon or a conch shell, they reveal themselves to be just a petty, vicious and selfish as any adult. Worse even, because they haven't got any concept of the world besides Self , they are incapable of empathy. Children as villains and murderers just helps confirm what we suspect about all the adults around us too, that they would totally eat us before the rescue dogs got there, assholes. Children are the most simplified purest version of the human spirit, and that very essence of humanity it turns out is blood and psychopathy. Yes, all of you fuckers kill each other off please. Interestingly enough, in both of these death matches, neither of the heroines really has to kill that many of the other kids, because the rest of them are all so busy immediately massacring each other from the get go. While that's a good narrative device to keep the list of supporting characters low, it's also a very direct illustration of survival of the fittest. And the message in both Hunger Games and Battle Royale is Fittest = Most Compassionate (Because Everyone Else is a Monster).

 And then maybe also here is the real answer. Most of the literature I read as a child was full of blood, hunting and survival. Kids getting smallpox on the prairie, kids running away from evil wizards and witches, kids being locked in attics and bedrooms by old ladies, kids dying from horrible diseases, kids being trapped on other planets with giant alien brains, kids having to live in a fucking boxcar where they beg for scraps from strangers. Everything was trying to kill you, and if it wasn't actively trying to put an enchanted spear through you, it was manipulating you and starving you. I feel like that kind of visceral life or death desperation is really absent in a lot of adult fiction. Probably cause we all started having sex, and then immediately love mattered more. Also, you know, we're supposed to be smarter as adults, more thoughtful, more tolerant, and therefore "understand" the villains. When you grow up, it's not supposed to be all primal fear, it's supposed to be intellectual and civilized. Which as adults we learn pretty quickly is the ultimate farce. A shell which hides real evil and obscures real truth.

 So it's good we still write books for kids that teach them how to defend themselves when Civilized Intellectualism tries to round them all up and kill them.

Edit: So German Shepherd puppies have two "fear" stages, one when they are a couple weeks old, and one later at a couple months old. During these times, they are naturally more skittish, sensitive to sounds, cowardly basically. It's supposed to imprint them with bravery, make them chemically face up to exaggerated fear so they will be used to it when they are older. THAT's what childrens books do.


  1. I've never seen (or read) Battle Royale. Now I can't wait to! Of course, I've read the crap out of Hunger Games, and the two sequels, and I love it. Can't wait for the movie. I haven't tried to analyze why I think babies killin' babies is so awesome, but I'll have to give it some thought.

  2. I've been told the book is superior to the movie, which obviously must mean it is the Best Book Ever.

  3. No downloading both film and novel. For what it's worth I found Hunger Games enjoyable and engrossing, but also fairly obvious. Since I have yet to dip into Twilight or even Harry Potter, I assume this is the big differentiation between adult and children's books, that things are a little less subtle.

    As a sci-fi premise, I found Hunger Games pretty bad -- I have serious doubts that this kind of mechanism would be a good way to keep the people down, the political science seems shaky. But as I said it was still enjoyable and engrossing and I wouldn't mind my YA kid reading it, when my toddler is one. The subsequent two are surprisingly (perhaps I shouldn't be so easily surprised) retread of book one, so really it's just a matter of grinding it out, like the last 4 or 5 seasons of Lost. If you care by the end, you might even be disappointed.

    As for why there are so many brutal kids books, trust your trenchant analysis. A more banal explanation might be that there is little understanding of death at that age, with so little in goals or understanding of your consequence in the world, so you're not losing as much. Why adults with (theoretically) more deep understanding enjoy this as well is not explained by this lame theory.

  4. I tend to be forgiving of sci fi concepts in general if they are cool. After all, is there any science at all even a little that can justify traveling to Charles Wallace's mitochondria?

    Let me know what you think of BR.
    And I'll think we'll just write off those adults, me basically, as preferring to go back to a time when death was uncomplicated and instinctual.


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