One of my new hobbies as I get older is corrupting the young. I did so again the other day with a superbright, very nicely brought-up 11-year-old called Tilly. Her mother was trying to persuade her to read Swallows And Amazons. ‘No, wait, I’ve something much more fun, leedle girl,’ I said. ‘Try this!’
The book I was recommending to her was The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (shortly to be released as this year’s must-see kiddie flick). It’s not exactly literature. In fact it’s not literature at all. But you only realise this when you’ve reached the increasingly feeble second and third books in the trilogy. With the first one you’re too gripped by the storyline to care.
And so it was with Tilly. (And so it had already proved with Girl, with Boy, and cousin Freya and no doubt hundreds of thousands of other kids around the world.) The Hunger Games is the kiddie-lit equivalent of crack cocaine: whoof, one taste, and that’s it — your next 24 hours are wiped out in a frenzy of page-turning.
What’s so amazing about it? Well the gore, I’m sure, is part of the appeal. The Hunger Games are a gladiatorial contest in which 24 children must fight to the death over a period of weeks in a super-gigantic arena of forests, lakes, etc. When you start the book you say to yourself, ‘Nah. It’s never going to happen. No way in a children’s book is the author going to allow 23 kids between 12 and 17 die in myriad horrid ways….’ But then, one by one, they do.
It’s a pleasing premise. But not, it has been noted on the net, an original one. Certainly, it does seem to have rather a lot in common with the plot of Battle Royale, the cultish Japanese sci-fi novel and movie. And also, I’m told, with a story Stephen King wrote under the pseudonym Richard Bachman called ‘The Long Walk’. Collins, however, says she’s never read or seen any of this stuff and that she based it on the Theseus and the Minotaur legend, TV game shows, the Iraq war and her father’s service in Vietnam.
Not that it really matters. Collins has clearly given an awful lot of thought to the mechanics of the games and some of her touches are inspired. My favourite is the Cornucopia, a zone close to where the contestants arrive in the arena (via a kind of elevator pod) containing all manner of bounty from weapons to food to medical supplies to camping equipment. Naturally the temptation is to nip in there straight away and grab what you can. Problem is, all the most brutal and confident contestants will be doing the same and when they catch you they’ll kill you. That’s why, in each contest, so many of the deaths take place right at the beginning. If you don’t care to risk that, your other option is to take to the woods as quickly as you can, and defeat the opposition by guile and superior survival skills. This is what the book’s heroine Katniss Everdeen plans to do (though it doesn’t half help that she happens to be a complete whizz with a bow and arrow).
In the end — plot spoiler alert — pretty much everyone dies horribly. Just like in real life. That’s why I think it’s such a good book for children to read. I know there’s a theory in some quarters that kids should have their innocence preserved, that childhood should be a magic garden free from worldly care, and so on. But I say: teach them from the off that life is going to be pure hardship and misery with death the only release and you’ve given them a vital head start over the competition.
The other reason I think kids really should read it is because of its immensely sound libertarian subtext. Possibly the author isn’t aware that the book is an apologia for small government, free markets and personal freedom, but it is. It’s set in a dystopian near-future where the US (‘Panem’) has been split into 12 administrative districts, in which the citizenry work as virtual slaves to furnish the needs of the greedy, sybaritic, out-of-touch political class which lives in the Capitol. In the districts they worry about whether there’ll be enough to eat; in the Capitol they worry about whether or not it was a total disaster to stage a party in which the dress-up theme was feathers.
Many years ago, we are given to understand, there was a mass revolt by the districts which the Capitol only narrowly defeated. The Hunger Games are a punishment: every year from each sector a male and a female child are drawn by lottery to participate in the Games, as a reminder of the terrible price which must be paid for trying to thwart their rulers.
No doubt even now our masters in Brussels are plotting something similar, probably with a special clause stitched up between Merkel and Sarkozy whereby Britain has to contribute half a dozen contestants instead of the usual pair. Still, I suppose it will make it that little bit more likely that the eventual winner is one of ours. Plus, of course, the abysmally low standards plumbed by our many sink schools these last few decades may suddenly turn out to have been a massive boon: seriously I doubt that any country in the world will be able to produce children more feral, dead-eyed or better at eviscerating one another with flick knives, machetes and so on.
Maybe someone should have a word with Michael Gove and get him to cancel his free schools programme before it’s too late. We don’t want to lose our competitive advantage, do we?
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 11, 2012