Here's the big question circulating on the net: Can my kids see "The Hunger Games"? One parent asked: Can I take my mature 10-year-old? Isn't it going to be too violent? Isn't it about kids killing kids and adults watching and doing nothing?
The more important question is: Have the kids read the book?
If so, then they will know that the central storyline of Suzanne Collins' young-adult bestseller, very faithfully replicated in the movie, [Mild Spoiler] is that 24 children, from ages 12 to 18, are drafted by the "Capitol" to participate in an annual battle to the death. Twenty-three will die. One will survive — and throughout the book and movie, we are rooting for Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence), a 16-year-old firebrand of few words, strong loyalties, and deadly aim with a bow and arrow.
If the kids have read the book, they'll know that there's a lot more to "The Hunger Games" than a gladiator-style violent battle. Assuming the worse and reacting against it is like saying that "Romeo and Juliet" is about teen suicide. Yes, it is, but mostly it isn't. We forget that many elements in children's literature — the Wicked Witch setting fire to the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," the Red Queen's threats to decapitate Alice in Wonderland — and the films they inspired are fundamentally horrifying.
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So, back to "The Hunger Games." If your kids read the book, didn't freak out, and want to go to the first show, that's a sure sign that they are ready for the movie. And, if they can read the book on their own, they are probably at least 10 or 11. I doubt children younger than that should be opening up this particular box of nightmares — although odds are that a child's nightmare is a lot scarier than "Hunger Games." And, certainly, the birth scene in "Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part 1" is more horrifying than anything you'll see here.
Last night, I got some new insights while I was standing in line at Manhattan's Lincoln Square Theater before a sneak preview talking to MK, a Brooklyn middle school teacher. She thought the question was old news. Her seventh-graders were reading the novel in the school-sponsored book club — and no one was traumatized. What they were doing was discussing the difficult choices Katniss confronts to preserve her family, her friends, and her own skin. And they were reading with interest and relating it to their own lives, which is in itself a very good thing.
As a mother of a 12-year-old girl who went with me, I asked my daughter while we were waiting for the movie to start what was the scariest thing she'd ever watched. It turns out that she saw a chunk of "Hostel 2" at a slumber party. OK, so that's not a standard to hold other kids to, but there's a difference between torture porn or exploitative shockers like "Piranha 3D," and a movie that, like "1984," shows a harsh world where totalitarianism limits basic human freedoms — like whether you can live or die.
Is "The Hunger Games" violent? Yes. There are spear throwers, sword wielders, genetically engineered wasps, gigantic dogs, raging wildfires, and even a neck twist or two. But the gore tends to be swift, and the camera never lingers on the slaughter because the bloodshed isn't the story's reason for being. The point is the choices an individual teenager must make under the pressure of millions of people watching her, not all of them strangers. When Katniss ultimately raises her bow and targets another human, it's an extension of a promise that she made to protect the weak and to push herself as far as she can to survive and return home to the sister that depends on her. Katniss' actions define who she is, including why she kills and when. The takeaway? We are what we do. There is not a moment that is cheesy, exploitative, or unrealistic.
For those who still have concerns, the best way for your child to see the movie is with you — so that if there's a scary part, you can hide under a sweater together. And, afterwards, you can talk it out. Maybe you'll learn something new about your child from experiencing this movie together. I know I did, because from the very start, it was my daughter who brought the school library book to me and said, "Here, Mom, read this."
See the trailer for 'The Hunger Games':