The Hunger Games opened this weekend. It could well be the biggest box office hit of the year, at least until The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 comes along in November. It is rated PG-13. Nearly two dozen kids aged 12 to 18 die by machete, sword, blows with a brick, a spear to the chest, arrows, having their necks snapped. All damage inflicted by each other.
As a movie critic and reader who sucked down the entirety of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy for young adults in one weekend, I can find plenty of positive things to say about director Gary Ross’s moving and provocative adaptation. The big screen Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) won me over completely. On the page, she tends to petulance. In the movie, Lawrence highlights instead Katniss’s unease with being in the limelight, turning it into a kind of humility that only makes her more likeable. She’s a bold, brave heroine.
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But there’s absolutely no compelling reason your elementary school aged child – or mine – should see The Hunger Games. None. Not one. It’s not necessary or appropriate to take your eight year-old to see a movie where teenagers kill each other as part of a punishing sporting event sponsored by a cruel, morally corrupt futuristic society. Panem, a nation that seems a lot like North America, forces 24 kids to fight to the televised death every year. The Capital chooses these “tributes” (a boy and girl from each of the 12 far flung districts) by lottery. They’re made over and feted like contestants on today’s reality shows, then dropped into a carefully cultivated wilderness arena to battle as penance for a failed rebellion long ago. Twenty-three of them must die for a victor to emerge.
Collins wrote the book as a response to our violence-crazy, reality show-watching society. She has said the trilogy is about war, for adolescents. I bet she’d tell you to leave the little ones at home. But there seems to be some debate about this. Even in my sedate New England town, parents were anguishing over whether or not to let their preteens see the movie at the first available, late night screening. Last week, TIME Ideas contributor and psychology professor Christopher Ferguson wrote about his intention to take his eight year-old to see the movie, and the research he believes supports that validity of that choice. In this case, I’ll take common sense over “some” research that could well be disproved tomorrow. Even if you’re sitting right next to little Theo or Emma telling them it’s just a movie, which Ferguson plans to do, why is he or she there? Entertainment? You wouldn’t let your second-grader watch Game of Thrones with you. Edification? Surely there is no rush to get your child up to speed on dystopia. The recession and war seem bad enough.
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The movie doesn’t feel suitable for anyone under 12, because Ross, who co-wrote the screenplay with Collins, gets the tone of his adaptation just right: somber; disorienting; and permeated with an underlying sense of mourning that doesn’t fade with victory. Your young adult can probably handle this, but where do you draw the line?
Start with Collins’s standards. Your kid shouldn’t be there if they aren’t old enough to be chosen by lottery for the annual Hunger Games (12). Better yet, take the advice of the MPAA, which restricts anyone under 13 from attending without an adult. As a parent, make the call they shouldn’t go if they haven’t read the books. Just hearing about them isn’t preparation enough for what’s on screen. If they aren’t advanced as readers enough to read them on their own, there’s no debate, just skip it altogether. Wait until they come to the novels with the skill set to tackle them. I’m certainly not reading The Hunger Games aloud to my eight year-old son. There we’d be at bedtime, dog at his feet, the boy cuddling his stuffed cheetah while I read a passage say, about Katniss listening to the agonies of a dying opponent. A pack of genetically mutated dogs has been chewing on him for hours.
Then the raw hunk of meat that used to be my enemy makes a sound, and I know where his mouth is. And I think the word he’s trying to say is please. Pity, not vengeance, sends my arrow flying into his skull.
Sweet dreams kiddo! I’ll just take the dog with me after this chapter, shall I? In Star Wars, battles are fought, but with souped-up flashlights and a Zen-influenced instructional manual delivered by a hairless green muppet. Harry Potter begins with a double murder and ends with a killing, but by magical means, not machete. In Narnia, there are hard fought battles, but they too are about good vs. evil. Even after killing a deadly wolf leaping for his jugular, the future High King of Narnia is shaken by the blood on his sword. Nothing happens for sport. In The Hunger Games, violence as sport is dictated by the government.
In terms of detail, although not of body count, the movie is less gory than the book. That opponent who spends a whole night – and four pages – being chewed by angry dogs in the book has just a few minutes under the fangs in the movie before Katniss puts him out of his misery. The worst detail about the dogs, that they have the eyes and features of the fallen tributes, is not discussed in Ross’s version. The Hunger Games Book may be more R rated than the movie.
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But even though the movie is milder, reading and watching a screen are very different ways of obtaining information, one active, one passive. Reading is perhaps the most intimate act of intellectual self-exploration. We make choices as we read; do we linger and imagine those dogs, gnawing at a human now a “raw hunk of meat” or do we race on to the next adventure? We can put the book aside and return to it when we feel ready, like my precocious nine year-old niece, a voracious reader who self-regulated by consuming Harry Potter only during daylight (and who won’t be allowed to read The Hunger Games for a few more years, even though her mother loved the books and can’t wait to see the movie).
While reading is an act of self-determination, being taken to a movie the ratings board says you aren’t allowed into on your own is ultimately someone else’s choice, no matter how hard you have begged to go. A movie, which comes at you through the one-two punch of sight and sound, leaves less room for escape. There are the hands to hide behind, the bathroom to visit, but because the film will end in a finite time not of your choosing, it is also more likely to pressure you into staying within its embrace.
I keep thinking about the bloody brick we see in a teenager’s hand in The Hunger Games, the lethalness of a machete slicing through young bodies and of the 12 year-old tribute named Rue, the heartbreak of both book and movie. Played by Amandla Stenberg, who will turn 14 this fall, she is now much more than the visage conjured by words on a page. While open to the imagination, a character made only of words remains flexible, uncertain. This Rue has a specific face. She and the spear you see land in her chest goes home with you, now vivid and tucked in your head. Yes it’s a movie, not real. But by introducing such images to a very young child within a setting devised for entertainment, you give credence to something disturbing. It’s not that the images are normal. It’s that your child thinks it’s normal to witness and observe this. I saw it with Mom or Dad. It must be okay. Unless of course, they made a mistake.
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