"Have you seen 'The Hunger Games'?" my brother asks.
He asks it like he's about to grab my shoulders and shake me.
"Not yet —" I start to say.
"Do you know what it's about?"
"Yeah, I —"
"It's about kids hunting kids."
He's astonished, and he expects me to be, too. "They kill each other. With bows and arrows. I couldn't even watch it."
"Yeah," I finally get out. "It's terrible."
It is terrible. I sort of forgot about that.
If you read Suzanne Collins' young adult trilogy when the books came out a few years ago, you've had plenty of time to get used to their gruesome premise. But for the uninitiated, it can be shocking. It should be shocking:
In a dystopian future where the haves hold the have-nots nearly hostage, children are selected by lottery to fight to the death on reality television. The more you enter the lottery, the more food is allotted for your starving family.
It's an explicitly violent, relentlessly grim story. And it was written for kids.
I don't know whether I thought that through when I first read the series. I was so caught up in its genius story — and in finding out what happened next — that I wasn't thinking about who should or shouldn't be reading it, and whether the intended audience had enough context for what they were reading.
The only audience I cared about at that moment was me.
Now that I'm defending the series so often, and now that it's so wildly popular, I've had an avalanche of second thoughts.
There's something disturbing about the way we've embraced "The Hunger Games."
The fact that such a dark, brainy story has become so pop-and-popcorn popular. Especially with kids.
The lines outside the theaters may look the same, but "The Hunger Games" has more in common with "Brave New World" or "Brazil" than it does with "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter."
All the elements that make it feel like blockbuster entertainment — the action, the spunky heroine, the love triangle — are part of a series that skewers the very concept of blockbuster entertainment.
If you strip those crowd-pleasing elements from their context, if you love the surface of the story without appreciating its deeper meaning, you've turned the whole world of the books on its head.
Which is why I get so creeped out every time I hear "The Hunger Games" described as a great action movie.
(Though I'm sure it is.)
And every time someone calls main character Katniss a badass.
(Though she definitely is.)
And whenever I even think about the Katniss Barbie doll.
Doesn't that seem like something the Capitol would try to shove down Katniss' throat? Right before she started shooting people with arrows?
I hope that Mattel intends the Katniss Barbie for collectors. Because if you're young enough to play with Barbies, you are definitely too young to understand "The Hunger Games."
That how-young-is-too-young-line is notoriously difficult to draw, but I'm drawing it right here. Right between Barbies and the reaping.
After all of these second thoughts and trying to defend to myself my defense of "The Hunger Games," I still believe it's a fantastic story — and a fantastic story for young people.
But loving "The Hunger Games" comes with responsibility. You don't get to love it the way that you love "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter," where deeper thinking is rewarded but still optional.
If you love this horrible, violent story, you have to do it thoughtfully. You have to wrestle with it — you have to make sure you don't forget that it is horrible.
And if you're sharing it with a child — or someone in that 10- to 14-year-old gray area — you're obligated to talk to them about it, to make sure that they get that it's more than just a ripping-good yarn with a beautiful, young heroine. Because if you get lost in all "The Hunger Games" popcorn, you're completely missing the point.
Maybe you can tell from reading this column that I haven't actually seen "The Hunger Games" yet.
Which is weird. I love Jennifer Lawrence, and I've been looking forward to this movie since it was just a gleam in Lionsgate's eyes.
But now that the movie is here, I find myself reluctant to revisit Panem. I already spent so much time in that world when I was reading the books.
And it was a grim, depressing place to be. (Another way "The Hunger Games" isn't "Harry Potter": Everyone wants to get a letter from Hogwarts; nobody wants to be a tribute.)
I'm glad for the time I spent in Panem, but I'm not in any hurry to go back.
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