Genre Mashups: Peter Pan and The Hunger Games…

A while back, I sat down to re-read JM Barrie’s The Little White Bird — which is sort of a rough prequel to Peter and Wendy 1. The introduction to my edition was written by Jack Zipes, who makes an interesting observation:

“Barrie himself, as author, was trying to bring together two different strands of children’s fiction that collided with one another in his novel: the adventure story for boys and the domestic and fairy story for girls.”2

I’d like to discuss this idea. I know both of the genres that Zipes mentions pretty well. They are, by and large, escapist fluff. And there’s no question that Peter and Wendy contains a lot of the same elements as that fluff (pirates, fairies, mermaids, etc…). So why does Barrie’s book feel so much better than the works that informed it? Why is it greater than the sum of its parts?

I think it’s because Barrie — while using those genres — also problemetizes them. The ending of Peter and Wendy ruthlessly shatters the escapism of both worlds:  neither Peter’s adventuresome spirit nor Wendy’s domestic longing is strong enough to keep them together. I’m fairly convinced that it was this genre-critique that made Barrie’s book feel different from its predecessors.

With this theme in mind, I started thinking about more contemporary works that also mix genres traditionally associated with opposite sexes. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games came to mind straightaway.

**SPOILERS AHEAD**

In her books, Collins takes the dystopian-gladiator setting (masculine) and narrates it as a teen romance (feminine). But the real question is: does Collins do anything new with these genres? I would argue that she does.

Let’s look at the dystopian-gladiator bit first. Most books with characters who kill each other on live television are thinly-veiled cautionary tales about the evils of violent media. In Collins’ book, however, the “games” are more of a metaphor about command performance — being forced to jump through hoops set in place by those in power3. Is this an earth-shatteringly new theme? Not really. But it is a fresh take on a well-worn genre.

As for the teen romance part? I would point to the end of the trilogy. Like Twilight, readers have been primed for a “which cute boy will she choose?” climax. But right when we’re expecting to hear Katniss bear her heart … the narrative jumps ahead. Years ahead. Her decision is stated as simple fact, not an impassioned declaration. I think this is a pointed critique from Collins about limited scope of most YA romance novels — no matter how big things feel at seventeen, life goes on.

Is The Hunger Games as good as Peter and Wendy? Of course not. But I do think that both books successfully appropriate escapist genres to tell powerful, distinctive, literary stories.

  1. 1. The Little White Bird was a novel Barrie wrote before Peter and Wendy. Several of the chapters deal with a nascent version of his beloved Peter Pan (and are often excerpted under the title Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens)
  2. 2. Introduction, pg xxiv
  3. 3. For more on this point, I suggest reading Laura Miller’s fantastic New Yorker article, which covers the subject far better than I ever could

5 Comments Leave a Comment

  • kerry says:

    Zipes has an intro to *The Little White Bird*? Hmmm – I need to hunt for that. My copy is from the 1920s, and it’s the only edition I’ve ever read [I wrote at probably tedious length about The Little White Bird for my masters thesis; I get unaccountably jealous when anyone else even mentions it. MY book! Mine!]

    Do you think the teen romance angle is given equal weight to the “gladiator”/masculine angle? To me, the romance is second – or third, or fourth – place to everything else Collins is doing. I know my students, when I’ve taught *The Hunger Games,* got exasperated when I brought up the “Team Peeta”/”Team Gale” discourse; that really just was not as interesting OR important to them as everything else going on.

    Interesting, interesting.

  • Mary Burke Auxier says:

    “Escapist fluff”?! Boo, Auxier. Boo.

  • Kerry,
    The introduction was from a recent Penguin Classics edition titled PETER PAN: PETER AND WENDY and PETER PAN IN KENSINGTON GARDENS … so it was not officially an introduction to THE LITTLE WHITE BIRD (my bad).

    I think it’s VERY cool that you did your thesis on LWB!
    As to your students’ reactions to HUNGER GAMES love-triangle, I think that the romance plot–especially if you count the pre-game politicking and pageantry as a component (which I do)–gets a lot of airtime in the books. The fact that your students felt there were bigger issues to worry about might be a reflection of Collins’ own attitude toward the subject. She discusses the romance a lot, but it’s always in the context of how stupid it would be to care about such things in light of other events. Sort of the opposite emphasis to something like the TWILIGHT books, which makes murder and vampire wars take a backseat to Bella’s emotional life.

  • alex says:

    jonathan! i second mary; you can’t just label two major genres as “escapist fluff”! need i remind you that your beloved treasure island is one of the major examples of the boys adventure story (as is huck finn in many ways)! also, as i have read a lot of criticism on treasure island and the boys adventure story, i get really tired of the following narrative (which you suggested yourself): treasure island (and the coral island and all those other robinsonades) are merely the “simple” genre-conforming forerunners to the awesome complexity and innovative genre-bending-ness of peter pan (i’m loosely referring to all of barrie’s peter works). i’m basically skeptical of any argument that, in order to work, has to make one thing be easy and simple, and gets to make something else rich and complex by contrast. then again, i’m not saying that peter and wendy isn’t genre-bending and rich and complex…just…why does it have to be at the expense of other rich and complex works?

  • Molly says:

    Wow. I was barely able to put “Hunger Games” down for a second after the first few pages got me completely hooked. Normally it takes a week to read a book, but now I read this in 24 hours. Suzanne Collins here has an immediacy to it that, when combined with the very dramatic life-or-death plot, is incredibly compelling. It’s entertaining, and incredibly disturbing all at once. They say great art leaves you changed after you experience it… and this book definitely did that. Suzanne Collins has, with one amazing work, propelled herself onto my top shelf.

    Have a nice day,
    Molly





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