As media coverage of The Hunger Games has made clear, the violence in Suzanne Collins's young-adult book series is integral to its appeal.
The first novel, which is being released as a film on March 22, is set in a post-apocalyptic police state called Panem and focuses on a dastardly reality show in which adolescent contestants must kill or be killed.
The Hunger Games trilogy is undeniably gory, but when it comes to sheer cruelty, these contemporary works can't beat the classics.
First released in 2008, Collins's dystopian series has ignited intense discussion. In a hotly debated essay published in the Wall Street Journal last June, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote that "kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18."
The YA sections in bookstores have become noticeably darker, and publishers have capitalized on Collins's success with a spate of imitators, from Veronica Roth's Divergent series to Lauren Oliver's Delirium. Yet as threatening as these books may seem, they're missing that truly sinister touch.
Books explore social Darwinism
Book critics have cited a number of precedents for The Hunger Games, including the Japanese novel Battle Royale (1999) and Stephen King's The Running Man (published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1982). The most interesting comparison, however, may be Lord of the Flies.
Like The Hunger Games, William Golding's 1954 novel is about social Darwinism. Lord of the Flies doesn't feature nearly as much violence as The Hunger Games, but it's made of much stronger stuff.
The murder in Collins's book is graphic, but we understand from the outset that it is a condition of the Hunger Games — it's harsh, but not necessarily cruel. Golding's book is darker because over the course of the story, the rules of the game change.
Lord of the Flies begins as a tale of co-operation and hope. Marooned on a desert island, Ralph, Jack, Piggy and the gang start out working towards the common goal of getting rescued (by maintaining a smoke signal). But as a result of laziness, rivalry and loose talk of an island-dwelling "beast," the boys splinter into factions. Greed, paranoia and social dominance soon corrupt the group entirely, leading to intimidation, torture and, finally, murder. The Hunger Games may be a comment on our collective bloodlust, but Golding goes further, revealing the tenuousness of human civilization.
Lord of the Flies is one of the most referenced books in literature, but Golding was reportedly influenced by Richard Hughes's 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica. In Hughes's book, a group of children hijacked by pirates turn the tables on their captors in shocking ways, showing that in extreme circumstances, even the most innocent-seeming kids have a capacity for horrifying brutality.
Dahl's nasty streak
The undisputed king of literary cruelty, however, is the late Roald Dahl, who took a notoriously unsentimental view of childhood. In terms of bloodshed, the Welshman's stories are also quite mild, but they display an undeniable nasty streak.
In The Swan, a short story published in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More (1977), two boys terrorize a classmate, first by thrashing him, then coercing him to shoot a live swan and lastly cutting off the bird's wings, affixing them to the lad's body, chasing him up a tree and commanding him to fly.
In the equally chilling Pig, from Kiss Kiss (1960), a young orphan raised by his vegetarian aunt grows up to become an avid carnivore, only to perish during his first visit to an abattoir. Like most of his stories, Pig expresses Dahl's belief that adults can't — and moreover, shouldn't — shield their children from life's horrors (in this case, meat production). It also shows his hostility to happy endings.
There's no denying that bookstore shelves are full of authors straining to produce the next Hunger Games. But it will take a gutsy writer indeed to write the next Lord of the Flies.