Friday, April 1, 2011

Killer Kids

(Spoilers for THG through to MOCKINGJAY, and GONE.)

Harry Potter draws the line. Artemis Fowl wouldn’t dare. Even Draco Malfoy won’t go that far.

But Katniss Everdeen? She’ll shoot you straight in the heart.

(Or eye. Wherever.)

The golden rule of characterisation seems to be going out the window with your heart. Where once kids and killing were like gun-powder and soft-serve ice cream – an unsavoury and, frankly, unheard of combination – current YA sensations like THE HUNGER GAMES and Michael Grant’s GONE series have illustrated a rising trend of murderous teens in juvenile fiction. Here, kids – and not just any kids, but the protagonists themselves – the heroes – are directly and increasingly responsible for the deaths of other children.

THE HUNGER GAMES is easily the leading contender of this growing theme. Its premise necessitates slaughter, and its character’s ages – and its audience – declare the series’ determined portrayal of kids forced to kill. But other novels are following/mirroring THG’s lead with unflinching portrayals of teen violence. The GONE series is one example of this, with its LORD OF THE FLIES-meets-FRINGE-type premise a provocation to serious burns, (multiple) amputations and even unprovoked – if accidental – deaths. In a town that suddenly finds itself empty of everyone over the age of 15, the death toll by the first novel’s end stands around 20.

There are, of course, reasons given for the atrocities these teens commit: self-defence (the big one); uncontrollable powers; and faceless totalitarian governments demanding a televised teen bloodbath. For many of these killer kids, the choice is often kill-or-be-killed: assassination or survival. Like many real-life teens, adolescence ensures their worlds spin largely out of their control; in dystopic worlds, the measures these kids are forced to are not just believable but often understandable. The will to live trumps all – except, maybe, the need to save those we most care about: something Katniss Everdeen knows well.

For Katniss (at first), killing is about nothing more than self-defence and survival. Her kills in the initial Games are rarely self-initiated; most often she is returning fire to another tribute who is or has already threatened her own life. Her role in the Quarter Quell of CATCHING FIRE is even less pronounced (with only one death at her hands), though Katniss, now initiated into killing, speculates easily on which of her fellow tributes she could take when it came down to it. But by MOCKINGJAY, Katniss is ready for war, and the casualties that come with it; she demands the right to kill President Snow, but instead takes out Coin. Perhaps the most controversial moment of the series, however, comes as Katniss shoots an unnamed woman in the Capitol during the final attack; her kill is sudden and seemingly indiscriminate, born less out of self-defence than precaution and ease of motility. The kill marks a turning point for Katniss, and highlights an intriguing moral ambiguity over the blood on her hands. After all she’s been through and been forced to do, is it understandable – forgivable – for Katniss commit such an unprovoked act? Has she been ‘desensitised’ to death, and do we, as viewers of her journey, accept and understand this? Can we still be on her side after watching her kill without the shield of self-defence?

Katniss isn’t alone. Throughout THG series, almost every single character kills (or is at least responsible for the death of another). Katniss declares Gale’s role in Prim’s death – however indirect – has driven a chasm through their relationship forever. Intriguingly, though, Peeta is rarely positioned as responsible for another character’s death, even inside (either) arena: he only “finishes off” a tribute Cato has already mortally wounded, and Foxface dies accidentally, having eaten the poisoned berries that will later save both his and Katniss’ lives. Even in the Quarter Quell, Peeta only kills Brutus after seeing Brutus kill Chaff. Certainly, he has less blood on his hands than Katniss or even Gale. Does Peeta’s relative purity within the Games’ world emphasise certain unbreakable conceptions of male love interests – of heroism, of incorruptibility – that audiences continue to demand? Are these traits irreconcilable with murder – especially at the hands of a child?

For the latter question, the popularity of THE HUNGER GAMES seems to suggest otherwise. As does the growing number of books following (or mirroring) Suzanne Collin’s lead. Killer kids are no longer inconceivable, or even a deal breaker, especially in the surge of dystopia’s popularity. What we can take from THG, then, is the necessity of the discriminating kill – something performed only out of desperation, self-defence, or justified vengeance (a tricky topic). The controversial reception to Katniss’ MOCKINGJAY murder of the unnamed woman is a testimony to this.

Though Superman and Batman – and even Harry Potter – might disagree, YA lit and its readers are increasingly receptive to teens with a taste for blood. Do these protagonists, like Katniss and Peeta, redefine standards of heroism? Or does their reasoning behind the kill save their hero status to begin with?

And as a reader – do you ‘enjoy’, or are you intrigued by, this killer trend? Is its inclusion in young adult-aimed literature justified? Is it becoming ‘okay’ for kids to kill – when necessary?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Awards, Apologies and a Request...

Sorry, dear readers! It’s definitely been awhile. My life kind of exploded recently, leaving me suddenly and inexplicably with a lot less time to write, blog and re-watch Community. Life will hopefully calm down now, and I will endeavour to post with some regularity, at the very least.

In other, way more exciting news, the always-hilarious Margo at Urban Psychopomp has recently (okay, it was a month ago) gifted me with a blog award! (And in her most recent post she apologised for being a day late. Pfft!)

Check it:

This lovely gift is imparted with the intention of being passed on. But – being fairly new to the blogosphere (do people even use that term anymore?) – I am shamefully unacquainted with many of the fantastic blogs out there. So! I am requesting some recommendations. Come at me with your favourite(s), s’il vous plait! Even better if they’re your own. Tell me what makes them great, so I can get in on the blog-loving too.

Thanks for sticking with me, even when I’m stuck somewhere else – and you can expect a return to LTLB’s haphazard posting soon.

PS. Extra apologies for adverb-overload in this post. It’s been awhile.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Literary Satisfaction and THE HUNGER GAMES

(Massive spoilers for THG all the way through to MOCKINGJAY. Before viewing this post, you are strongly advised to get your read on.)

Like many, I loved THE HUNGER GAMES. Suffering a severe case of premise-envy, the first novel stuck with me for days, particularly its unabashed and uncensored depiction of the inevitable slaughter – not to mention a female protagonist who actually did something. But CATCHING FIRE felt like a weakly plotted jumble of two distinctly different stories: the first half seemed desperate to establish the world’s most boring love triangle, until midway through the novel Collins went damn, this isn’t working, and threw them back into the arena for round two. (I swear Collins must be a total pantser.)

So when MOCKINGJAY rolled around, I was hoping for some redemption for this conceptually-exceptional series. After reading, though, I was confused for days as to how I felt about it. I was glad for the promise and execution of full-scale rebellion, and appreciated the moral ambiguity of many of MOCKINGJAY’s principle characters, not least our fiery heroine. On the other hand, the pacing got even weaker, and the plot even more flagging and disjointed – a flaw exacerbated by Katniss’ perpetual catalepsy. But it was the story’s dénouement that really had me confused – there was no happy ending! No real love story resolution, no satisfying resolution to Panemic dystopia!

No, I told myself, it was a good thing – realistic, reasonable, even, after everything these sixteen(!)-year-olds had been through and been forced to do. Collins was right not to plaster happy smiles on their faces and call it catharsis. Their lives had sucked. Of course, I reasoned, they were damaged. Broken. It was understandable.


I still hated the ending.

I get what Collins was trying to do – even if it was a little preachy – and I do understand it. But I still can’t get on board. I wanted a ‘happy’ ending, I realised. I wanted catharsis – for me and for Katniss. But instead Collins gave nothing: there was no redemption for the characters who had survived a war; no satisfaction, for Katniss or the reader.

And damnit, I wanted it! I wanted her to marry Peeta – to LOVE Peeta – and to have kids and grow old and find solace outside of her teenage years of war. I wanted hope for Katniss, and for her future. My dissatisfaction with MOCKINGJAY’s ending, and subsequent lack of ‘happy’, prompted me to an uncomfortable concern…

Am I a Wimpy Reader?

Surely not, I told myself. When it comes to (fictional) blood and guts, I’ve got no problem; one of my favourite keenest memories of Katniss’ first Hunger Games was the visual of the boy tribute spitting up blood all over Katniss’ face at the Cornucopia’s bloodbath. I applauded Peeta’s torture and psychotic break (something I know a lot of readers did not care for), particularly as it gave a previously thin character some personality. I was fascinated by THE HUNGER GAMES originally precisely because of its gory and fantastically creepy premise.

But, I have to admit… I wanted an ending that offered redemption. And MOCKINGJAY denied such a thing emphatically.

Perhaps it was obvious that such catharsis would be unlikely. Katniss’ trials, particularly throughout MOCKINGJAY, seem only to make her weaker, not stronger. She shuts down under the pressures placed upon her, turning later to addiction and suicide as the war dissolves her physical and mental strength. Katniss’ near-constant concussion emphasises this: she’s perpetually waking up post-conflict, having been knocked out (chemically or forcibly) during the battle, and hence rarely deals with any real action – especially during the second half of CATCHING FIRE and in MOCKINGJAY. Like her emotional relationships with Gale and Peeta, Katniss never truly has to deal with the consequences of her physical engagements; instead, she wakes up afterwards to be told of the fall-out. Aside from making her an increasingly ineffectual heroine, Katniss’ continual lack of consciousness creates a tell-don’t-show debacle that disrupts the book’s pacing and the reader’s interest.

Not all novels exist to give the reader a literary endorphin rush, and MOCKINGJAY is a testament to this. It is clear Collins did not intend for Katniss’ journey to result in a ‘happy’ conclusion. Like 1984, and like the Hunger Games themselves, its ending is brutal and unforgiving. MOCKINGJAY may be more moral than narrative – at times glaringly so – but its conclusion is resolute indeed: war is destructive, physically and emotionally… and often, there's no going back.

So, while I can’t say I overly enjoyed MOCKINGJAY, I do know I liked it. There is a difference, and it’s an important one. It works both ways, too, and its application to THE HUNGER GAMES world is particularly significant. In a series where children routinely slaughter each other, it may have been naïve to expect or even want a ‘happy’ ending. But does that mean we shouldn’t hold out hope for satisfaction from any conclusion? Is it bad (naïve/childish/wimpy) to want a happy ending?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Well-Intentioned Stupidity

Sometimes, people do stupid things for noble reasons.

Well-Intentioned Stupidity is a staple of fiction. A common affliction, its symptoms include unnecessary risk-taking, self-sacrifice and determined martyrdom – idiocy in the name of heroism.

WIS is often born out of the hero only having half the facts (or knowing them all but failing to put the pieces together); despair-fuelled powerlessness; or some kind of severe head trauma (I mean, I’m assuming). This stupidity is multiplied by the urgent drive to save loved ones and manifests itself in acts of increasingly critical stupidity – think telepathically inspired rescue ops, feeding-frenzy-fuelling self-harm, or simply ineffectual attacks on the Big Baddie as he bears down on your love interest.

It’s understandable. Wanting to help those you love is hardly a character defect. Also, I doubt anyone really wants to read about a self-interested unsympathetic slacker. It’s just that these noble idiots go about their missions in such life-threateningly stupid ways… it’s almost offensive to read (or watch).

Speaking of… let’s examine some of the worst offenders:

 - Elena in THE VAMPIRE DIARIES has always been high on the WIS hit list, particularly because she’s a human girl in a vamp world*: she wants to fight, too, but it’s hard when everyone else has super-strength and -speed and you haven’t even got school-enforced self-defence training to fall back on. This season, though, she’s been determined to off herself to spare her family, and unwilling to even try to save herself.
 - Harry saving Sirius (and in the process, getting him killed) in ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is pretty textbook.
 - Think Bella and that stupid rock in ECLIPSE.
 - aaand pretty much everything Nora does in HUSH, HUSH.

* There’s a reason the paranormal romance genre features disproportionately heavily here (even in this very short, biased list) – something which also makes it a contentious area for gender roles. Sometimes, it’s just not humanly possible for the (typically female) human protagonist to take on the supernatural evils of the love interest’s world. Naturally sidelined, these girls often get a lot of stick for a kind of damsel-in-distress routine. But let’s be realistic – not a lot of teenage girls are capable of holding their own against a super-strong, super-evil Big Baddie. (Then again, though, this is generally the reason I’m not a fan of the genre as a whole. These girls get no chance.)

Well-Intentioned Stupidity has its place, then, and is, in many circumstances, understandable. But is it just me, or is the WIS phenomenon TOTALLY ANNOYING? Sure, these protags may be compassionate and courageous, but isn’t their propensity to run headlong into (figuratively) burning buildings an insult to their intelligence – and the reader’s?

Maybe it’s just me, but give me a hero who can turn courage into tactics – or at least try the back entrance first – any day of the week.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Battle for Longevity in Literature

Dystopia vs. fantasy

Flavour of the month (year[s]?) dystopia is continuing to kill it in all forms of fiction. We’ve gone over the reasons for its success – from the universality of its themes to the intrinsic dystopia of our own world. But will this current success translate into longevity? Is it simply the ‘right place, right time’, or does dystopia’s popularity hint at a deeper understanding of personal struggles and a collective resistance?

One of the most powerful things fiction can offer is an escape. In reading, in viewing, and especially in writing, we make a (often unconscious) choice to spend time in another person’s world. For dystopia, this means escaping to a world less desirable than our own – perhaps to reassure us of our world’s perfect imperfectability, or to commiserate with our feelings of oppression and voicelessness.

For fantasy, however, it’s about an escape to a world beyond our means – and often our imagination. These worlds may be experiencing turmoil, upheaval, and even uprising, but their laws and physics remain a testament to human desire – for power, for recognition, for mental and physical freedoms. And it’s through these basic human desires that fantasy and dystopia find common genesis. Like dystopia, fantasy speaks, at its most basic level, to the human need for voice, choice and freedom. While dystopia exacerbates our common sentiments of subjugation and coercion, fantasy erases them, offering power and abilities beyond our human capabilities with which to fight for such freedom.

Despite these commonalities, the two genres attract different audiences and different levels of interest. To date, the success of fantasy in literature, like THE LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER (now replete with film adaptations), arguably outstrips that of prominent dystopian works like 1984 and THE HUNGER GAMES. A key reason for this, I think, is the audience fantasy reaches – from children to adults – whilst dystopia is more commonly associated with teenagers and YA, and often mislabelled as sci-fi by the uninitiated (and uninterested). Fantasy is generally easier to read, also, in the sense that it emphasises ‘uplifting’ ideas of freedom and power over dystopia’s favoured themes of oppression and control.

But the major reason, I believe, fantasy continues to outstrip dystopia – and probably always will – has to be the worlds behind these genres and issues. For all its adverbs, dialogue tags and Death Eater attacks, kids (of every age) still wait for a letter from Hogwarts. It’s an escape that has captured a generation and will ensnare many more, probably for decades. We read about Harry as much for his world as the plot. Voldemort or no Voldemort, we still want to live in Harry’s magical world. Can you say the same for 1984?

While we can’t judge the success of one for all, the success of such fantastic fiction emphasises the common desire for escape. However, it’s also safe to say basic human nature will never allow our world to become utopic, and its likely fiction will follow. Dystopia’s popularity is certainly in no danger, but it’s got a long way to go to catch up with fantasy.

(And seriously, Dumbledore – I’m still waiting on that letter.)