Friday, 6 April 2012

Why I didn’t write The Hunger Games - Katherine Roberts


This might seem a strange thing for a grown up History Girl to say, but I’m a huge fan of the Hunger Games. I think I’d have loved them as a teenager too, though back in those days (we’re talking history here remember!) they would most likely have been published with a Gollancz yellow spine on the adult genre shelf as science fiction/fantasy… my first choice of reading after escaping the children’s library, because as far as I was concerned that’s where all the best stories were.

I've seen some wary reviews of the film, claiming it glorifies violence and (to quote the Sunday Times last week) “children killing children”. This is misleading. There’s certainly killing, yes, but first of all let's stop calling the Hunger Games and other stories like it a children’s book. No matter what the age of its youngest characters, it is young adult - a genre that did not exist when I was a teenager, although the books with their equally challenging stories were there if you looked in the right place (those yellow spines were a good place to start). Secondly, it's not really about the killing. Although a girl as young as 12 can - and does - die in the Hunger Games arena, these books are fiction of the dystopian tradition that digs through the veneer of our society to show us where we are headed if we are not careful, in much the same way that looking back at history and seeing where we have been can help us see what to avoid in the future. In fact, take away the hair and makeup and some rather sugary teenage smooching, and the Hunger Games is to my mind an adult sf read, equally as disturbing as Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” - another book I would recommend to HG fans.

In case you've had your head buried in the sand for the past few months, Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen is a feisty girl picked (or "reaped" - note the Biblical reference) to take part in a vicious reality TV gameshow where teenagers must kill or be killed. She is forced into an impossible situation by her futuristic society, so she plays the game to help her family - and although reluctant to get involved in the bloodbath that follows the celebrity high jinks, eventually she kills too.

Katniss Everdeen - kill or be killed

The film has a 12A rating here in the UK, which worries me slightly because as a children’s author I am very aware of my responsibilities when writing for this impressionable age group. Which brings me back to the History Girls. Left to my own devices, I write fairly gruesome fiction. I've done my own bloody version of gladiators in the arena (published by a small press magazine back in the 90's), and I’d defy anyone to find a children’s book with a higher body count than my “I am the Great Horse”. But I got away with that one because it was about Alexander the Great’s atrocities, which are history and therefore strangely acceptable on the 9-12 shelf, in the way a dystopia like the Hunger Games would not be - or maybe writing from the POV of a horse helped pull the wool over people's eyes!

Yet fighting obviously appeals to children. So when it came to inventing my own feisty heroine for a younger market, I dived back into history/legend with the idea of making her more palatable for the age group and came up with King Arthur's daughter, Rhianna Pendragon. Being younger than Katniss, and inhabiting a children’s book rather than a young adult book, I knew from the start that Rhianna couldn't be the kind of heroine who goes around beheading people on every page, at least not if she is to remain a child's heroine for very long. That's why I set her story in Dark Age Britain, where swordplay is much more acceptable, and added magic from the Arthurian legend to sweeten the gore. Rhianna carries a sword, yes, but she cannot blood it if she is to complete her quest. This gives her an added moral dilemma, neatly sidestepping her needing to kill to be strong.

Rhianna Pendragon cannot blood her sword.
I believe both history and fantasy/SF can be used to address violence and other challenging subjects in a safe arena, whether you're writing for children, teenagers or adults - which might explain why my own writing appears to range across two disparate genres. It was touch and go whether I plunged back in time or forwards for "Sword of Light", since I also have a science fiction series in development... which makes me wonder how many fans of historical fiction out there are also fans of fantasy and SF, besides me?

Rhianna Pendragon stars in Sword of Light: Book 1 of the Pendragon Legacy (Templar hardcover £9-99)
Paperback and ebook coming in September 2012.

If you'd like to try my historical fiction for young readers, for 5 days only you can read The Great Pyramid Robbery (US readers click here) ebook free on your Kindle - offer ends midnight 9th April... pass the word!

More details of all my books can be found on my website http://www.katherineroberts.co.uk/ and blog http://www.reclusivemuse.co.uk/  

17 comments:

catdownunder said...

The Hunger Games has been put in the "teen" section of our local library. I do not think that is appropriate because younger borrowers usually stop using that area at around fourteen years of age and they may start as young as nine or ten. There have been a few complaints about the book going to readers who are simply too young to handle the material but this has been a decision made centrally and the library is abiding by it. I was asked to read it. I did. I did not enjoy it. The subject matter simply did not appeal to me.
(I would much rather Rhianna than Katniss.) Interestingly, although most of the young readers I know claim to have enjoyed it, several have also disliked it intensely.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I was nodding my head as I read your post, agreeing with you at every turn, and then realized who you are! I love your books! Telling Alexander's story via his horse was brilliant. Your new series sounds wonderful as well.

Rebecca Herman said...

I love to read historical fiction as well as sci fi and fantasy. Yet I read very few books with a modern setting. I think it's because I like a book to take me away to another world, another place or time. So the past or the future or a made-up world all fit that criteria.

maryom said...

I took my 14 yr old to see the film this week. Now neither of us have read the book but we both came away disappointed by the film and feeling that, as regarded the story-telling aspect NOT the gore, it seemed aimed at a much younger audience. A sort of Running Man/Tron/Truman Show mash up for kids.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I agree with everything you say here, Katherine, and like you and Rebecca above, also favour historical plus fantasy, sci fi. I find the critique of contemporary society is often thrown into far better prespective through these genres. I think The Hunger Games is a brilliant take on society's current obsession with reality TV. And, yes, the Handmaid's Tale was one of my favourites - shame the film was so poor.

Juliette said...

I think historical fiction and SFF often go together, I love both - like Rebecca, I like going to different worlds.

I think the talk about violence is interesting. Neither book nor film glorify violence, they depict it as horrific. The tension and awfulness of it is more of a problem than the violence, it seems. I read Prince Caspian at age 6, in which the lead (13 yr old) character chops off a man's head after cutting off his legs. No one ever seems to notice!

Nicky said...

Yeah I think SFF and History go together - lots of writers write across those genres myself included. I do think HG rather ducked the moral issues involved in violence though:the author attempted to have her cake and eat it by keeping Katniss' hands clean of actual murder. I'm afraid my main characters have all got their hands dirty and had to deal with the consequences.

adele said...

How lovely to see Vicky here! Hi Vicky! But on the subject of the post: I have neither seen nor read the Hunger Games and to be honest, I don't fancy either the books or the movie. But I LOVED The Great Horse. It's not the violence per se that I'm put off by...as you say, Kath, a huge body count in your book....so much as the fact that it's kids killing kids for sport. I'm not very keen on anything gladiatorial,though I am okay reading about Theseus and the Minotaur and those sacrifices....I dunno. I'm not being consistent but there is just something that makes me uneasy about the premise of the HG. I am getting old, I guess!

Stroppy Author said...

But Nicky, Katniss does kill. At least in the book - I've not seen the film yet.

I write historical and sort of sci-fi but not in the fantasy category: a world where things are a bit different for scientific reasons. It is to do with taking a slightly sidelong look at current concerns. It's easier to see them if the context is different, And yes, I quite liked Hunger Games although I didn't expect to.

Katherine Roberts said...

This is so interesting - I was starting to think I might be the only History Girl who is a fan of both historical fiction and SF/Fantasy, but now I find there are a lot of you! Phew... and thank you for the nice comments.

Re the Hunger Games, I've read the book and seen the film now, and I think the real power of the story is in the actual writing with its effective use of the first person present tense. That's certainly how I came to the story, after reading the sample chpaters on my Kindle one night and getting hooked before I even realised there was a mass of hype about the series. Maybe the film would have moved me a bit more if I hadn't known the plot in advance, but there's no way a film can get across writing of that power. So if you haven't read these books, then don't judge them by the film!

Catdownunder, I'm interested in your comments about the reading age for the Hunger Games. I don't think most younger readers would appreciate what the story is really about, even if they could cope with the mechanics of reading the actual text. But the teen section is probably the right place for this book, since it was at about 13 or 14 that I started enjoying this kind of fiction. The problem seems to be with children reading out of their age group - in my teeange years, you had to use an adult library ticket to take out those sort of books, so my mum would have got the blame!

Your comment on violence is interesting, Juliette. If handled in a humorous way or as part of a fantasy adventure as in my children's books, then I don't think it hits nearly as hard. When Katniss kills in the Hunger Games, her action is always to help someone else, but you still feel her pain. It's a different kind of writing - I won't say more adult, because a lot of adult fiction doesn't really hit very hard. Perhaps it's just fearless writing?

Katherine Roberts said...

Adele and Stroppy's comments appeared while I was writing the above essay... Adele, the film and publicity might portray the HG as sport, but I think the underlying text is deeper and more sinister than that... think fall of the Roman Empire?

And yes Stroppy, Katniss kills in the film, too.

Sue Purkiss said...

I read lots of SF when I was a teenager - yes, all those yellow Gollancz books. But I haven't read much since then - I'm not sure why. I'll venture out of the closet and admit I don't like dystopian fantasy on the whole: I've read for review just too many dreary tales about packs of feral kids doing savage things in savage cities. Though I like Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines books very much, and when I finally brought myself to read Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I was wowed by it. I haven't read The Hunger Games.

Mefinx said...

Sally Nicholls has just written a brilliant book about a young teenager living through the Black Death - "All Fall Down." I mention it here because it shows that a history novel can carry many of the themes of a dystopian one - coming of age, moral dilemmas, having to take responsibility and living through social change.

One of the things I liked most about the book was that it was honest about the fact that, regardless of the horror, the Black Death did have some positive social outcomes - for example, the shortage of manpower after the epidemic undermined the feudal system and gave new freedoms to ordinary people. Nicholls confronts this and gives an insightful portrait of the conflicted emotions of the survivor of catastrophe. And her young heroine, Isobel, stands as the equal of Katniss in courage and resourcefulness.

Pauline Chandler said...

At last! Someone else who sees the link between historical fiction, sf and fantasy. Thought I was the only one! During my childhood and teens, I devoured the yellow Gollancz sf and a lot of fantasy, then and since: Iain M Banks's Foundation series, Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenanter and Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders spring to mind. My niece sent me The Hunger Games for Christmas and I loved it. How could I not, when Katniss is a girl warrior,like those in my own books!

Linda B-A said...

What a fascinating post and equally fascinating comments! Good to read this historical fiction-SF-fantasy thread. It seems to me that setting fiction in the past or the future often seems to allow writers' imagination to soar - and clearly also attracts hosts of contemporary readers - which is great. I am a fan of realism, too, whilst acknowledging it can, potentially, be a straitjacket in terms of theme. As a writer I am drawn to the prose of (mostly) realist authors, but the stuff that really affected and excited me when I was a young, and the stuff that I continue to appreciate and rediscover as an adult are the worlds of GORMENGHAST, LOTR, EARTHSEA, and the science fiction of John Wyndham and Ray Bradbury and H G Wells. It's lovely to witness this current flourishing of dystopian gothic.

Katherine Roberts said...

Sue, I tend to agree with you - the dystopian area of sf is actually my least favourite part of the genre (I prefer epic fantasy and space opera and something more cheerful as a rule), but if it's done well then I make an exception because it rises above all the rest. There are a lot of "bandwagon" dystopian books out at the moment, most of them to be avoided like the plague...

And speaking of plague, yes mefinx, I've noticed Sally's new book. Not read it yet, but agree historical writing can be just as powerful as SF and the Black Death is a very challenging subject.

And many of my own favourites mentioned here, too... Mortal Engines, Anne MacCaffrey, Iain Banks, Ursula le Guin and (of course) Lord of the Rings...
hmm, maybe we should rename this site the "History/SF/Fantasy Girls"?

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