The Importance of Mature Themes in Young Adult Literature

Our media is a moral battlefield. Throughout history people have taken all forms of media and altered/ adapted them to suit their means. The issue always at the forefront is: “What is acceptable for children?”, and throughout the last few centuries what is acceptable has excluded most of the human experience. Fairy tales have been censored, and young adult literature is altered in order to suit an always changing ideal of ‘age appropriateness’. This paper will focus on that process of adaptation and alteration, examining the evolution of Red Riding Hood and The Hunger Games. Specifically the historical context of censorship, the removal of key themes and ideas, and how doing so makes great works disposable. Over time Red Riding Hood became a cartoon, and the film adaptation of The Hunger Games was a pale imitation of the novel. Youth (children, adolescences) loved these works for a reason, and ironically this reason was lost on adults who feared they were too complex. Red Riding Hood and The Hunger Games’ challenging themes and emotional impact were stifled by efforts to make them ‘more suitable for children’, despite children’s capacity to understand and appreciate the source material.

Note- This article became the basis of my more focused analysis of ‘The Hunger Games’ adaptations and was written in May, 2014 , as part of my university degree.

An adaptation will always make changes to the source material, but often these changes are morally motivated and not in service to the original work. Since at least the 1600’s fairy tales have been subject to (what is now called) ‘Bowdlerization’. A term named after Thomas Bowdler, who attempted to censor the works of Shakespeare in 1818 in order to make them ‘more suitable for women and children’ (Goldstein 374). This involved the elimination of sex, violence, challenging themes, and any taboo topics (essentially the entirety of Shakespeare’s work). His efforts also focused on fairy tales but he was not the first to do so. Charles Perrault (1600’s) altered fairy tales to appeal to upper-class sensibilities while the Brothers Grimm (1800’s) altered them further to appeal to mainstream society (Hallett and Karasek 28).

In doing so, each writer has contributed to removing the theme that was at the heart of many works. Red Riding Hood is the best example, a cautionary tale that tried to make sense of difficult times, transformed into a cartoon caricature of itself. The earliest known version of Red Riding Hood is Paul Delarue’s “The Story of Grandmother”, which originated around the 15th or 16th century when “Little children were attacked and killed by animals and grown-ups in the woods and fields. Hunger often drove people to commit atrocious acts… violence was difficult to explain on rational grounds.” (27). The story posits the wolf as an attempted rapist and murderer of a young girl (henceforth referred to as ‘Red’), who manipulates her into eating the remains of her grandmother.

The story warned people to be vigilant, and contextualized irrational sexualized and cannibalistic violence as an evil to be weary of. Perrault’s 1697 “Little Red Riding Hood”, featured a wolf which metaphorically attempted (and this time succeeded) in raping Red- and most importantly to Perrault- taking her virginity. The story was still a cautionary tale, but now with a moral specifically aimed at young women, urging them to be weary of men. Cannibalism was less of a concern in 1697 and was removed, while the theme of sexual assault (arguably Red Riding Hood’s most predominant one) remained. The Brothers Grimm’s “Little Red Cap” in 1812 is when bowdlerization truly took its toll. Their version contained none of the original themes, and featured a “paternalistic” hunter who saves the day through physical violence (29). The Brothers Grimm were writing explicitly for children and while the story contains violence, it is of another kind. Red Riding Hood’s original moral was removed, in favour of making the story more palpable and (supposedly) entertaining for a larger audience. It is worth studying the bowdlerization of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ because the kind of material which is removed has wide-reaching implications.

When works are adapted for a mainstream audience, physical violence is allowed, but sexualized and other taboo violence is not. As Red Riding Hood was adapted the sexual assault was dropped, in favour of a hunter filling a wolf’s belly with rocks. In modern times the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system has clear guidelines for what is and is not allowed, and its values result in modern-day bowdlerizing of many works. The MPAA’s PG-13 rating (aimed at young adults) allows for physical violence, some language (one uncensored usage of the word ‘fuck’), and mild substance abuse (Belden and Potts 278). It does not allow any explicit depiction of sexual assault/ rape or graphic violence against children. Implied is allowed, but anything further would require an R rating, or in the case of graphic sexual assault an NC-17 (Leone 949). The MPAA allows violence, but only a certain kind of violence. While it has been criticized for its censorship of sexuality, its view on what is acceptable reflects mainstream society’s (950). This should not be a concern for filmmakers as R and NC-17 rated films are allowed for release, however studies show that box office returns are greatly affected by a film’s rating (Derrick, Williams, and Scott 185). While an R rating might entice young adults to see a film, the fact is that one rated PG-13 is more acceptable to the paying public (Leone 949-950).

When a large studio invests over seventy-million dollars into a film (as is the case with The Hunger Games), a PG-13 rating is preferred in order to minimize the risk that a higher rating poses, and thus ‘offensive’ content is removed. This is no different than the Brothers Grimm deciding to remove sexualized violence from “Little Red Cap” while keeping physical violence; the latter being acceptable in mainstream society. The theme of vigilance in the face of (very real) predators that was at the heart of Red Riding Hood was removed due to bowdlerization, just as The Hunger Games’ film adaptation suffers a similar fate due to the MPAA.

The Hunger Games’ central conceit is that everything and everyone may be used and disposed of by those in power. The Capitol is violent, and children are forced to kill each other in graphic ways, but more than that there is persistent thread of violation through the entire novel; a thread removed from the film. If rape is forcibly taking control of and violating another’s body to suit your means, then the violence in The Hunger Games is highly sexualized and psychological. Examples range from (relatively) benign instances of Katniss being stripped naked and groomed (Collins 61), and the parade where she and other tributes’ value is appraised (71). These instances are present in the film, but missing is the reason why Haymitch is an alcoholic (56) along with the Avox. The Capitol turns people, children even, into objects. The Games at the centre of the novel emphasize the Capitol’s sadism. The reaping stands as a sign that the Capitol owns its subjects, that it may take not only the resources they produce but their lives as well (Tan 60). The Hunger Games is about appropriation, taking another’s work or being and twisting it into something of your design.

Removing these elements in the film mutes the novel’s vital theme of appropriation. The best example is the Avox: vital characters in the novel relegated to unacknowledged set dressing in the film. The Avox are political prisoners who are turned into servants/ slaves within the Capitol. Both body and mind are destroyed in the process: their tongues are cut out, and their will broke. They lose personhood and exist as a slave class, likened to objects with a taboo regarding acknowledging their presence (unless giving a command) (Collins 78). Even without being one Katniss likens herself to the Avox, knowing that they are both tools of the Capitol. They are the most salient example of how the Capitol does not kill, not unless it has to, preferring to destroy everything that you are and use the husk. Haymitch drinks because he won the 50th Hunger Games by a fluke (unacceptable to the Capitol) and Snow had his family killed, knowing (as District 12’s only living victor) Haymitch would spend every subsequent year forced to mentor children certain to die in the arena. Katniss’ survival in the games depends on a ‘star-crossed lovers’ narrative, using it to gain sympathy from the public. In response Snow alters the rules so that Katniss and Peeta would be forced to kill one another in order to escape: first by allowing two tributes of the same District to win, and then revoking it when Katniss and Peeta stand alone.

The Capitol does not tolerate others using their tools against them, instead taking every opportunity to remind its denizens that they must all bend to its will. The Mockingjay adorns every cover of The Hunger Games and every film poster, yet only the novel explains what they are: a symbol of defiance, a narrative which the Capitol could not control (much like Katniss herself). Meanwhile Lionsgate appears content with likening them to a phoenix (a powerful symbol, but inapplicable to the work’s theme). The novel is about appropriation, the film is about action in a post-apocalyptic scenario. It is ironic then that Lionsgate appropriates the Mockingjay symbol for its marketing while never caring for its original context.

The violence at the heart of Red Riding Hood and The Hunger Games is not for spectacle, but integral in the way young adults engage with the material. Oppression takes millions of forms, and murder is only one. The Capitol would rather not kill, and this makes it a far more terrifying entity than one which simply executes twenty-three children a year. Abuses of power are far more relevant to the lives of young adults than outright violence (especially from the government), and by ‘defanging’ both the Capitol and the wolf in Red Riding Hood you make their themes irrelevant. Red Riding Hood and The Hunger Games are fiction, but parallel real violence/ oppression that youth face. By studying these works, youth are able to “deconstruct dominant narratives and content with oppressive practices in hopes of achieving a more egalitarian and inclusive society.” (Simmons 24).

Using fictional narratives, youth are able to articulate their own reality. Educators view The Hunger Games novel as a useful tool when teaching social justice; it is a relevant text which serves as a catalyst for talking about our own world (26). Hunger within the Districts contrasted with overindulgence in the Capitol mirrors our first and third-world divide (27). The District’s sequestered denizens are essentially slaves to the Capitol, mirroring today’s invisible slave trade (28). The last novel of the trilogy (Mockingjay) reveals that the victors are sold into prostitution, another real but often ignored concern within our society (30). How many children face being swallowed whole by a wolf and being rescued by a hunter? How many children face sexual assault by people they thought they could trust? Narratives matter, as we have used them throughout our entire existence to articulate abstract and complex ideas, even violent ones. Neither earlier versions of Red Riding Hood or The Hunger Games novel sensationalize violence, but posit it as a relevant aspect of our lives.

The changes in The Hunger Games film were not made because of the medium, they were made to ensure a PG-13 rating. Change is inevitable in adaptation, either because of creative vision or the limitations/ strengths of the medium, however that is not the case here. Chad Stahelski, a stunt coordinator for the film, stated in an interview that the production team constantly had to work around the limitations imposed by the MPAA. “How do you manage to make a big fight scene, a big brawl at the cornucopia entrance, still create a realistic kind of violence on a PG-13 rating- with children?” (Ross, The Hunger Games). Despite training the actors playing the tributes to fight, the film cuts away from ever showing a tribute kill another. No deathblows are explicitly shown, and when a tribute does kill another the scene is fleeting and tame compared to how the novel depicts it. Collins describes Glimmer’s corpse as: “Her features eradicated, her limbs three times their normal size. The stinger lumps have begun to explode, spewing putrid green liquid around her. I have to break several of what used to be fingers with a stone to free the bow.” (192). The film replaces this with a brief shot of Glimmer’s swollen face. Marvel’s death is treated similarly. Collins does not shy away from depicting violence in the novel, because violence is the novel.

Katniss’ experience with the physical, sexual, and psychological horrors are what Collins takes time to describe, because that is what is important. If violence, appropriation, rape were not important, they would have been glossed over and the Mockingjay would not be on the cover of the novels. While the psychological horror elements of the novel were removed, even the physical violence which remained was censored and bloodless. Film is in no way limited from depicting blood and gore, the change was not in response to the medium and instead to the MPAA’s rating and mainstream sensibilities.

The imagery in the novel is explicit, and while some would argue that the film had to tone down the violence, it makes little sense that youth who read The Hunger Games are unable to handle seeing its content on screen. A reader is arguably subject to more intense violence than a viewer, what our minds conjure is tenfold more terrifying than anything that could be displayed on screen. Horror filmmakers often try to obscure violent imagery enough to let our imaginations do the rest (Edmundson 157). Horror plays on our imagination and personal fears more than our sight.

Furthermore, children murdering children is something Westerners have difficulty relating to, making the threat less real. “Horror is evoked by encounters with objects and actions that are not so much threatening as taboo: what is least avowable in oneself, what is symbolically least palatable or recognizable, may be the most horrible. Horror appears when fear comes a little too close to home.” (Wisker 5). Compared to our familiarity with violation of the self, abuses of authority, forced prostitution, trauma and PTSD (with alcoholism as a common coping mechanism), we do not react the same way to something outside of our realm of experience. The physical violence the film hesitated to depict is easier to process than the psychological and sexual violence of the novel.

We have become so desensitized seeing physical violence on screen that it hardly bothers us at all. McCord praised The Hunger Games for its depiction of violence. “Growing up with the violent media you mention, I was definitely desensitized to violence; it’s everywhere, and it’s commercialized and white-washed. But I think The Hunger Games deals with this in very humanizing ways, as opposed to capitalizing on it, which I really like.” (Skinner and McCord 107). There two are parents who had trepidations about the violence in The Hunger Games, but decided that it was important in order to help their children understand real-world violence (108). The MPAA and bowdlerization as a whole not only does disservice to great works, but actively harms children’s ability to engage with the world in the name of protecting it.

Despite the efforts of censors, there is hope. Red Riding Hood’s history does more than expose bowdlerization, it reflects a history of resistance. Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves” (published 1979) was a response to the bowdlerization of Red Riding Hood. The wolf’s threat is again real, Carter does not shy away from likening Red’s dress to menstruation, but Red takes charge of a terrifying situation before using the wolf for her own pleasure. Laughing off its threats before bedding the animal, spending the night on her terms. It has a feminist moral about female autonomy, rather than disempowering Red and having a man save her. In fact, you could argue that Red’s actions in the story is a metaphor for reclamation as a whole, having been surrounded by wolves/ past versions she refuses to give into the trope of being eaten and tames the beast.

James Thurber’s “The Girl and the Wolf” is a brief story where Red remembers she lives in the 1930’s and shoots the wolf dead. These works reinterpret the source material, and most importantly contribute to it. Carter and Thurber added their own angle, instead of removing pieces of the story wholesale. Mills’ “Ye True Hystorie of Little Red Riding Hood or The Lamb in Wolf’s Clothing” is a version with a different perspective. While Thurber and Mills’ version does not feature sexual assault, they do play with the tropes we have come to accept and reflect how a story’s context may change over time. These stories are often printed side-by-side with earlier versions, including bowdlerized works, and together they show that a work is ever evolving. One of the benefits of writing down fairy tales is that the early versions are as accessible as the modern ones. While The Hunger Games film is a disservice to the novel, the novel is readily available and the film might motivate people to read it.

Children and adolescents have a greater capacity to appreciate and process difficult themes than we give them credit for. The process of bowdlerization and the MPAA’s view of what is suitable for them is arbitrary, belittling, and irrelevant. The early versions of Red Riding Hood had value, or else they never would have survived for so long. The Hunger Games explores violent issues in detail because that is its beating heart. These works were written for children and adolescents, and proved popular among them because of the themes they contain. These works hold something relevant and important to their lives and/ or the world around them. If there is a positive side of censorship it is that the original may never be destroyed, and that a work is always evolving. These works should stand to be judged individually, there is no need for a central authority to dictate what is moral and/ or ‘age appropriate’. Free to make decisions for themselves, what is suitable for children should be decided by children and their parents who know them best.

Works Cited

Belden, Angela, and Potts, Richard. “Parental Guidance: A Content Analysis of MPAA Motion Picture Rating Justifications 1993-2005.” Current Psychology 28.1 (2009): 266-83. Print.

Carter, Angela. ‘The Company of Wolves.’ Hallett and Karasek 47-55. Print.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Print.

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010. Print.

Delarue, Paul. ‘The Story of Grandmother.’ Hallett and Karasek 32-33. Print.

Derrick, Frederick, Nancy Williams, and Charles Scott. A Two-Stage Proxy Variable to Estimating Box Office Receipts. Baltimore: Loyola University, 2011. Print.

Edmundson, Mark. “Imagination: Powers and Perils.” Raritan 32.2 (2012): 144-158. Print.

Goldstein, Kenneth. “Bowdlerization and Expurgation: Academic and Folk.” The Journal of American Folklore 80.318 (1967): 374-86. Print.

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. ‘Little Red Cap.’ Hallett and Karasek 35-38. Print.

Hallett, Martin, and Barbara Karasek, eds. Folk & Fairy Tales. 4th ed. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2009. Print.

Leone, Ron. “Contemplating Ratings: An Examination of What the MPAA Considers “Too Far for R” and Why.” Journal of Communication 52.4 (2002): 938-54. Print.

Mills, Alfred. “Ye True Hystorie of Little Red Riding Hood or The Lamb in Wolf’s Clothing.” CENG 222 Course Documents. Ryerson University, 16 Jul. 2014. Web. 16 Jul. 2014.

Perrault, Charles. ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ Hallett and Karasek 33-35. Print.

Ross, Gary, dir. The Hunger Games. Lionsgate, 2012. Blu-ray.

Tan, Susan. “Burn with Us: Sacrificing Childhood in The Hunger Games.” The Lion and the Unicorn 37.1 (2013): 54-73. Print.

Thurber, James. ‘The Girl and the Wolf.’ CENG 222 Course Documents. Ryerson University, 16 Jul. 2014. Web. 16 Jul. 2014.

Simmons, Amber. “Class on Fire: Using the Hunger Games Trilogy to Encourage Social Action.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 56.1 (2012): 22-34. Print.

Skinner, Margaret. McCord Kailyn. “The Hunger Games: A Conversation.” Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche 6.4 (2012): 106-28. Print.

Wisker, Gina. “Women’s Horror as Erotic Transgression.” Femspec 12 (2001): 1-27. Proquest. Web. 16 July 2014.

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