CHICAGO — Heading into Friday’s opening, “The Hunger Games” is predicted to take in more than $100 million its first weekend, fueled in large part by the preteens who have helped turn the dystopian young-adult series by Suzanne Collins into a publishing juggernaut — 12 million books sold, and counting.
Perhaps an ardent fan lives in your own home and you’re wondering: Should you allow your child to see the movie, starring Jennifer Lawrence as one of 24 teens forced by a totalitarian government to fight to the death on live TV?
The short answer: It depends on the kid. But experts say there is a difference in the way children process what they read versus what they see on screen. “They’re very different,” according Dr. Michael Rich, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
Individually and as a three-book series, “The Hunger Games” is idea-driven. And like the best speculative fiction, it poses complex questions about how one might live in frightening circumstances. Necessarily, the book contains numerous episodes of violence and death, although Collins doesn’t go into specific detail, instead offering quick brush strokes.
“The brain is very good at protecting itself,” Rich said. “When you read, you’re constantly accessing your memories and your frame of reference: your experience.” In other words, what a child is able to envision is limited to the boundaries of his or her imagination. “But when you put an image or an idea into a movie, someone else has translated that.” And quite suddenly, the picture a child has created in their mind is augmented by the more vivid and sophisticated imaginations of savvy Hollywood filmmakers.
In “The Hunger Games,” the story’s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, 16, is set loose in the “arena” where she must fight (and perhaps kill) 23 other teenagers in the hopes that she will be the last person standing. As the games begin, she struggles for a backpack of supplies, which has also been grabbed by a rival. In the book, the scene unfolds as follows: “Then he coughs, splattering my face with blood. I stagger back, repulsed by the warm, sticky spray. Then the boy slips to the ground. That’s when I see the knife in his back.” Without pause, Katniss is off and running.
The movie follows the book’s lead in how it depicts this scene and others. The footage, shot by handheld camera, conveys a sense of panic but does not dwell on any moment for long.
In fact, one could argue that recent photos of Justin Bieber for Complex magazine — staged fights that show a fist making contact with Bieber’s mouth as he spits out faux blood — are more graphic than the violence depicted in “The Hunger Games.”
“I have not read the book but do know enough about it and the movie to have reservations,” said Laurie Jaffe, who has a 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. Her son read the book last year in school and liked it, “although he felt it was pretty dark and depressing at times (and) said that he wouldn’t recommend it for his sister at this time. She is very sensitive and he felt it would be troubling and hard for her to understand the book, let alone the movie. Good judgment on big brother’s part.
“As you imagine,” she added, “I do get flak from my kids, especially since other parents have no problem allowing their children to see movies that mine aren’t allowed to see.”
John Kennedy is the father of 13-year-old twin girls who read the book about three years ago and have been eagerly awaiting the movie. Kennedy is letting them see it, but he hasn’t been as comfortable with other films geared to preteens. “We didn’t let them go to the ‘Twilight” movies,” he said, “because the sexual content of that series is a little more intense and a concern for us than the violence of ‘The Hunger Games.’ (But) we let them go to ‘Contagion,’ and one of my girls called and had to come home; she couldn’t take it. It was too real.”
Ultimately it comes down to knowing your child, said Rich, who spent 12 years as a Hollywood script doctor before changing careers. In addition to his affiliation with Harvard, he is the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston. “It’s probably more important how your kid has responded to other movies, than having read the book. The (mental) process is that different.”
The book is told from Katniss’ point of view, and the reader is privy to her inner thoughts and fears. The movie, however, uses no voice-over narration, so one can only guess what Katniss is thinking at any given moment.
“In the book you’re in a character’s head in a way that you can’t be in the film,” said Gloria DeGaetano, founder of The Parent Coaching Institute and a media violence expert. “If your child hasn’t read the book, they’re not going to understand what Katniss is going through, and might feel distanced a bit from her feelings and emotions about the violence going on around her.”
Even if a preteen is comfortable pondering the book’s themes, parents would be smart to have a post-screening discussion with their child.
“Talk about it afterward,” said DeGaetano. “What is your child experiencing? What are they feeling? Even though Katniss finds some personal power at the end, and there are tiny moments of personal agency, it’s not that much. The adults aren’t protecting the kids in this story. In fact, they’re making them do this, by law. So you want to help your kid dissect and think through how they feel about this, and give them room to talk.”
In the film version of “The Hunger Games,” the camera doesn’t watch the violence unfold so much as catch it on the fly, turning to pick up a splatter of blood amid the chaos, then whipping back to see a dead boy on the ground. There is no question that children are being killed, but it happens quickly and glancingly, with one exception, when Katniss pauses to mourn for a friend. (In the United Kingdom, 7 seconds of footage, including blood splatter, was excised to get a rating that allows viewers as young as 12 to see it.)
Not that quicker is better.
“If that death is something you move past onto the next thing, you’re totally missing the point that this was a human life that was just extinguished,” Rich said. “That person had relationships and potential and thoughts and dreams. And if you don’t have to really look at it, then it doesn’t matter. In fact, what some of the research shows is that it is not the graphic violence being dwelled on that is the biggest problem, but it’s violence that doesn’t show the suffering after.”
The film’s director, Gary Ross, naturally was concerned with staying true to the story’s core. “Is it violent? Yes,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “Do we back off from what it is? No, we don’t.” As such, the movie earned a PG-13 rating. And when put in context with other recent films, that doesn’t seem out of line. Last summer’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” for example, also earned a PG-13, albeit with a far more wholesale approach to violence, grandiose and fist-pumping in its depiction.
And yet one should be circumspect when considering whether these films are having an impact on a child’s psychological development, Rich said. “What the research shows is not that kids see something in the movies and go out and imitate it. The problem is they see things over and over again that become increasingly normal, and they stop being in touch with their natural fear of and revulsion to these things. It shifts their frame for what is acceptable and what is desirable for the way we get along.”
That even happens to adults. “I can speak from my own experience,” said Rich. “When I worked in the film industry, I would go see the latest ‘Friday the 13th’ movie and it didn’t bother me that much. But once I became a physician and did a few shifts in the emergency department and saw what a real bullet hole in a 15-year-old bleeding to death looks like, I actually get no pleasure whatsoever from those movies. ... And it’s not that I’m disdainful of these movies or above them, but it just isn’t fun anymore.”