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?