On The Hunger Games, violence and reality TV

I’ve been thinking about The Hunger Games today (and not just because I’m dying to get my hands on Mockingjay).

The thought train started with a press release from G4 announcing their new reality show, Bomb Patrol: Afghanistan. A real-life Hurt Locker, the show will follow the Navy’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit on duty in Afghanistan.

Here’s what Rachel Maddow had to say about the idea:

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Then James Hibberd weighed in on Maddow’s opinion:

In the video…Rachel Maddow bashes the series. But she’s actually bashing human nature. “What you’re really watching for is things going horribly awry,” she says. “Certainly the prospect of those human casualties is what they think will make people tune in.” Can’t you say that about any TV show in which people put their lives on the line? You can say that about any televised car race — which are often promoted by networks using crash footage. Or shows like “Deadliest Catch,” or Shark Week. At least in the G4 program, people put their lives on the line for something greater than teasing fish or winning a race.

People dying for entertainment – reminds you a little of The Hunger Games, doesn’t it?

Now, as someone who has worked in reality TV myself, albeit briefly, I understand the knee jerk defensive reaction from media people to these type of criticisms. We’re constantly getting blamed for the end of civilization. Politically speaking, Hollywood is one of the most convenient scapegoats around – they’re destroying the minds of our children! TV is brainwashing our kids! They’re all going to grow up to be serial killers! They’re unraveling the moral fabric of our society! Write us a check and we’ll save your children!

It’s a time-honored selling point.

To which the media has developed a standard reply: Fine, then don’t watch it. No one is making you watch it, and frankly with our business model we can only make things that people watch, so someone likes it. You go right on ahead and your turn off your TV and play with your kids outside.

Now, this G4 series does raise the specter of broadcasting someone dying on television. That is exploitive, no question. Not that millions of people didn’t run to YouTube to watch The Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin’s last swim, but still.

So is it purely making money by selling death? Or is it a way to honor the men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis defusing IEDs? Well, it’s both. But here’s the thing – the exploitation is VOLUNTARY. For someone to be on a reality TV show, they have to agree to it and sign a whole load of legal documents to that effect. These are not unwilling participants – and the military is fully backing the concept, no doubt hoping for good PR, so the exploitation is at least well rounded.

So what does this say about human nature? Would The Hunger Games garner huge ratings? Are we going in that direction? Is killing entertainment?

Well, the Romans certainly thought so. The Collesium wasn’t built for musical theater.

Today we just rubber-neck at traffic accidents and watch grown men and women beat the crap out of each other in MMA matches and boxing rings.

Yes, human nature isn’t always pretty. That’s why I think The Hunger Games is such a great book – it not only skewers reality television and just how fake and exploitive it is, it also examines the fascination with death as entertainment while considering the human ability to commit murder in order to survive.

We’re all completely hooked on a book telling us how bad it is to kill for entertainment – while killing characters left and right for entertainment. Brilliant irony, no?

So is there a reality show like The Hunger Games in our future? There could be. If there were contestants willing to sign up for it, there absolutely could be.  But that doesn’t mean there will be.

Then today, a bookseller wrote in to Shelf Awareness, concerned about the violence in the Hunger Games:

Why, I wonder, is no one (that I am aware of) talking about how violent these books are? It seems to me they go beyond the usual mayhem (that we’ve come to expect and accept in these kinds of thrillers as it were.) Now we have not only children killing children, we have electrocution, drowning, burning, stabbing, being injected by virulent venom and more torture than I can recall in any young adult novels I’ve ever read. There’s collateral damage of innocent people (yes that happens in war) except some of it is by the righteous “good guys”–there’s decapitation, and even sexual abuse that thank god is at least not described but what finally brought me down was the psychological abuse some characters sustain from which they never recover (mostly created by extreme sadistic torture). I read mysteries all the time and there’s a kind of dissociation we do with “shoot-em-ups” or the modern day equivalent to watch our heroes vanquish evil and all that where we put up with violence. I would even make a case that there’s a healthy aspect to relieving violent urges through fiction. But with the Hunger Games, I felt it went so far into “acceptable” or condoned levels of violence and torture that I wonder if I had children how I’d feel about them reading these and at what age.

Which circles us back to: They’re destroying the minds of our children! Books are brainwashing our kids! They’re all going to grow up to be serial killers! They’re unraveling the moral fabric of our society!

Granted, this letter was written by a very nice bookseller who wants to make sure these books are read by age-appropriate readers. But here’s the thing – life can be worse than anything in these books. Humans have the capacity to do these awful things and The Hunger Games talks about them in an intelligent way.

The bookseller seems to think kids should be kept ignorant of these things.

I think kids should be prepared for this stuff – it exists in real life, and it’s certainly not going away. Ignorance doesn’t help them face it. And this is a book. There is no safer place than a book. It can’t hurt you. Shouldn’t we give our kids a place to comprehend these things in a safe way?

I  wonder if the above bookseller would have a problem with her kids watching Deadliest Catch

At the end of the day, here’s what I know – my Dad read us kids all sorts of twisted Grimm fairy tales when we were children, and we haven’t killed anyone yet. I think between the three of us there’s barely a couple of speeding tickets.

I’m really not worried about all the kids reading The Hunger Games.

And even as a Hunger Games fan, I have no desire to watch that G4 reality show. The Hurt Locker was hard enough to watch.

See, there’s hope for the world.