Look! It Moves! #103 by Adi Tantimedh: Killer Kids and Hunger Games

Blimey, killer kids are all over the place now. It’s like waiting for the 24 bus on Charing Cross Road – it takes ages and then three or four show up at once.

There was a point in the 90s when Kinji Fukasaku’s BATALE ROYALE was the hot cult movie in the US, Europe and Asia, but light of the Columbine Massacre, no US studio would pick up the distribution or remake rights. To this day, the movie is still unavailable officially in the US, though it enjoys a robust life in oft-pirated form. Americans who only buy legitimate products would only know BATALE ROYALE from the English translations of the original novel published by Viz and the manga adaptation from Tokyopop. In Europe, the movie has been re-released God knows how many times now on special edition DVDs, anniversary DVDs, director’s cuts and Blu-Ray.

In the last two years, we’ve suddenly had a small flood of killer kids in pop culture. As usual, the meme bubbled up from the bottom tier, namely comic books. In KICK-ASS, Mark Millar created Hit Girl for shock and giggles. KICK ASS got a movie adaptation last year with Hit Girl gleefully slaughtering gangsters in a crime-ridden New York City that now only exists in the minds of comics writers and movie writers (yet looks suspiciously like Canada). At one point, she gets pummeled in the face and head for so long that in real life, an adult would have suffered brain damage and his face would have ended up looking like hamburger, never mind how a 10 year-old girl can still get up from it and keeping killing people. Hit Girl was really a fantasy dreamed up by grown men for adult readers. The movie was rated R in the US for its violence, so kids were not meant to see it. Even the British tabloids’ attempt to drum up moral outrage failed to gather any real steam.

That might have been the end of it had it not been for HANNA opening earlier this year. This British-Euro co=production tried to cross the BOURNE-style spy chase with an allegorical coming-of-age fairytale. Hanna, the teenage heroine, was trained from infancy to be the perfect assassin for the day rogue CIA agent and Evil Queen/Stepmother manqué Cate Blanchett came gunning for her. It’s really a wannabe-feminist Snow White re-imagined as a Young Adult spy thriller as scripted by Guardian readers, with audiences being asked to suspend their disbelief and buy that a tiny, skinny girl can successfully punch grown men a good twenty or thirty pounds heavier than her. I don’t know any women who liked this movie. They thought it was not only pretentious but also morally dodgy for its depiction of a teenage killer committing acts of violence throughout the movie.

KICK-ASS and HANNA feel like steps in the progression toward the movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ HUNGER GAMES trilogy. Collins’ Young Adult novels have sold millions and got a hold on the zeitgeist the way the other two movies barely managed to hitch a ride with. The GAMES have a fan following among teens as intense and passionate as the TWILIGHT books did. They’re often the same fans too, moving on from TWILIGHT’S submissive, masochistic romantic fantasy to a harder-edged one of aggression and killing to protect one’s own and surviving.

THE HUNGER GAMES is set in a fascist future where America has collapsed into economic ruin and kids from every urban and rural district are chosen by lottery to hunt and kill each other in a live televised event, with viewers voting on the most popular fighters and the final, lone survivor is rewarded with fame and privileges. The premise, like BATTLE ROYALE’s, is reminiscent of Stephen King’s THE RUNNING MAN, albeit given an American teen twist.

We should refer back to BATTLE ROYALE, since like HUNGER GAMES, it’s an allegory, if a denser one, about what young Japanese face in terms of trust, abuse and betrayals in their social relationships, and finding the power to fight against a fascist government. THE HUNGER GAMES novels are every bit as intense and brutally violent as BATTLE ROYALE, which is surprisingly even for the increasingly dark and violent Young Adult novel field these days.

The sixteen year-old protagonist of THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss Everdeen, competes in the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister, who was the one chosen in the lottery. Along the way, Katniss finds friends and allies among the other contestants she tries to protect and loses, and also her ability to survive and win turns her into a celebrity that inspires an uprising against the government.

The big question is why THE HUNGER GAMES has struck such a chord with kids. The announcement that the movies were in the works and who would star in it have been subjects of feverish discussions amongst the fans, and numerous fan-made short films of scenes from the books are littered all over Youtube. What’s interesting is that it’s often one specific scene that the fans like to see and film over and over again: Rue’s death. It’s a scene of pathos to the point of mawkishness but fans keep coming back to it for its loss and mourning.

Rue’s death scene, best version:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z_jw3z68TW0[/youtube]

Worst version:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNgtRzg6XJA[/youtube]

In these shorts, you run the gamut from a high-value amateur production with professional actors to an utterly amateurish fan video with a chubby 12-year-old boy playing Katniss in what looks like a backyard. I wonder if fans like that scene and its horrible song so much because it’s a kind of emotional pornography, a chance to let them indulge safely in the catharsis of death and loss and mourning by proxy.

But the bigger question is, why is the Killer Kid thriller is suddenly so big right now after the politically-correct 1990s where mainstream entertainment wouldn’t go near the subject matter with condoms on (violent, murderous kids in real life are a big hot-button issue in both the US and UK)? I suspect this is entirely down to how the world has been since 9/11. Suzanne Collins has said she wrote the novels explicitly to convey the sense of living in a state of war, with the constant fear, anxiety and air of impending death all around. That seems to be what’s resonating with the readers, a conduit for safely exploring and coming to terms with poverty, powerlessness, war, and then finding empowerment through determination and skill, and dealing with the notion of losing friends and family to violent death while also living in a world dominated by celebrity-worship and reality TV.

I can only assume that the heroes of these stories are women because for one thing, girls are considered more emotional, so they become conduits for the reader to feel the characters’ emotions, and second, this is also a reversal of the trend of women and girls as victims of male brutality. Where THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO fulfills a cultural need in adult female audiences to have an empowerment and revenge fantasy against the victimization of women, THE HUNGER GAMES complements it by having at its centre a heroine who’s a warrior forced to kill to survive and protect her family and survive rather than out of anger or murderousness. What’s really notable about THE HUNGER GAMES for me is its unflinching portrayal of a future dystopian America that every America fears will happen, but Hollywood studios have avoided tackling because they felt the subject was too depressing to be commercial, yet now they’re going to portray that very future in a movie franchise series that’s aimed at teenagers, that has already been embraced by teenagers and, unless they completely mess it up and alienate the pre-sold audience, will not fail to make loads of money at the box office.

UPDATE: Oh wait, it turns out you can finally buy a DVD of BATTLE ROYALE in the US, now that the heat is off.

Too old to be a killer kid (except at heart) at lookitmoves@gmail.com

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About Rich Johnston

Chief writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. Father of two. Comic book clairvoyant. Political cartoonist.