When Can I Watch 'The Hunger Games' With My Kids?
Turns out there’s a little movie reaching theaters that your kids might be interested in. It’s called The Hunger Games. Have you heard of it?
If you are a parent of pre-teens (or any aged kids, for that matter), chances hover right around 100% that you’ve heard of Hunger Games, Gary Ross’ adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novel. Maybe your kids read the book (and its subsequent sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay). Maybe Lionsgate’s all-encompassing marketing campaign penetrated their subconscious, and they are asking you to see it.
Then you read a plot synopsis: “In a not-so-distant future, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fight in a televised fight to the death against rival teenagers as she …”
Wait, what? Did you just say “fight to the death?”
I understand your concern. So does Ross and his Hunger Games cast, including Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: First Class), Josh Hutcherson (Journey 2) and Liam Hemsworth (The Last Song). Recently, I was able to sit down with the ensemble for another celebrity edition of the When Can I Watch column, asking them when they thought it was appropriate to screen Ross’ adaptation with your young ones.
So, let’s place three fingers in the air and figure out when you can watch The Hunger Games with your kids.
Red Flags: Um, it’s kids killing kids as televised sport …
Collins’ Hunger Games plot is a Red Flag in itself. For those who haven’t read the books, The Capitol rules over a post-World War future, and stages the annual Games as a way of suppressing the poverty-stricken people of the Districts. It comes off as one part The Truman Show, one part The Running Man, and two parts Battle Royale, except tailored to a teenage audience. Yet Ross’ story – or, at least, the way that it’s told – never panders to its audience. Instead, it demands that we rise to its level, which will challenge your older kids in the best ways possible.
There are issues, of course. It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that several key characters die on screen. With that in mind, Lawrence told me that she estimates parents should wait until their children are around 12 or 13 so they can better comprehend why these kids are giving their lives in the Hunger Games.
“The violence is not egregious, but it is there, just not in your face,” the actress explains.
Hutcherson acknowledges that seeing the action “visualized” might be “a little more intense, even for younger audiences who have read the book.”
And his co-star, Liam Hemsworth, chips in, “The film’s not about the gory parts. It’s not meant to be a gory film. It’s not meant to be glorified in any way. It’s about these kids who have been put into a horrible situation, and it’s about this one girl who provides hope and courage to all of these people.”
It can be argued that, in this case, the predominantly off-screen violence is necessary so that Ross’ adaptation could properly serve Collins’ story. “We knew that we had to make a PG-13 movie, but it was important for us that none of the violence and brutality be watered down,” Lawrence told me. “It is the entire heart of the movie. It’s what sparks the entire revolution and the uprising. We knew we could turn it down so it wasn’t gratuitous, but it had to be there.”
Woody Harrelson, who plays Katniss’ drunken mentor, Haymitch, in the film, adds that kids these days “are seeing a lot of stuff [in other films and video games] and this is marginal violence compared to a lot of things.”
Co-star Elizabeth Banks, who plays grotesque Capitol spokesperson Effie Trinket, chimed in, “I think there’s so much senseless, gratuitous violence in so many movies. At least our death count, it’s meaningful. It’s really about the stakes of this world for this girl, and you really want to sense that.”
Violence with a message? That’s a point worth making, and one I’ll let the great Donald Sutherland address in the Green Lights section.
Green Lights: May the odds be ever in your favor
Full disclosure: Sutherland’s hardly in The Hunger Games. His character, President Snow, factors into later chapters of the story, but he had to be teased here so that audiences would understand where he fits into Catching Fire and Mockingjay when they eventually hit theaters.
So basically, the legendary character actor was getting many of the same questions from rotating journalists during the Hunger Games press day. And he lit up when I asked him his opinion on when parents should show the film to their children, if only because it was something different … and something, it turns out, he was passionate about.
“I would think they probably shouldn’t see it before the age of 2,” Sutherland said with a straight face. I laughed, but he wasn’t joking. Not really, anyway.
“I have to tell you, you underestimate the intelligence and the wit of children,” he explained. “The problem is we’ve kept them all down. We’ve closeted them and fed them crap on television. They would relish the opportunity to put three fingers up in the air. They need it. It’s theirs, and we should not stand in their way.
“It’s so much better than going into a high school and shooting somebody. It’s so much better than filming somebody because you don’t like your gay roommate,” he continued. “No, this is something that is really important for young people to see. And it’s really important for young people to see with their parents, because they can then have a dinner-table conversation that will maybe be contentious, but always energetic.”
We’ve always trumpeted open discussion in this column, encouraging parents to take the time before, during and after a screening to talk to kids about the underlying messages of important films. The Hunger Games should be no different. As you go through, you’ll see that there are important messages of self-sacrifice, as when Katniss accepts a role in the Games to save her younger sister, Prim. Your kids will learn about perseverance, and standing up for yourself in the face of adversity. Hutcherson’s character, Peeta, has a brave speech about maintaining his dignity over the course of the Games, and not allowing the Capitol to exploit his weaknesses. These are all outstanding discussion points for parents to consider with their kids.
Sutherland goes so far as to say that this film, unlike other movies that react to modern headlines, has the ability to be at the front of the line calling for real, dramatic social change.
“This film has an opportunity to represent something for young people that quite possibly could mobilize them,” he said. “This one takes the allegory of our time and maybe gives them reason to push forward, to stand up, to maybe recognize that they are part of the 99 percent and [say], ‘Enough already.’”
I think Sutherland was serious when he suggested that 2 was an appropriate age for The Hunger Games. I also think he was way off. Lawrence was closer to my belief. I’m going to say 13 is an accurate age, though lenient parents might be willing to go a little bit younger if they have an advanced reader who already has absorbed Collins’ book.
As in the novel, Ross manages to keep most of the violence of the Games off screen. There are a few obvious deaths – splatters of blood, a neck snap, a spear through a key competitor’s chest – and a fierce battle between Katniss and a female competitor late in the game is presented with a surprising amount of brutality.
But older kids will better understand the underlying political and social messages of Ross’ film, and The Hunger Games should trigger several interesting discussions between parents and children about Katniss’ actions, the Capitol’s practices, and what they think might happen when the story continues in Catching Fire.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.
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Sean O'ConnellFandango Bloggers
Sean is a film reviewer for The Washington Post and daily contributor to Fandango.