Essay first published in Newsday.
‘Kids killing kids.” That’s how the trilogy “The Hunger Games” is summed up by critics of the forthcoming film, premiering March 23. And it’s not an untrue or inaccurate description. That arrow absolutely hits its mark.
As much as I’m a values-enforcing mother of two teenage girls, I have to admit, I love “The Hunger Games.” I’ve read 21/2 of the three books, partly in an effort to have conversations with my 14-year-old. But it may be easier to accept the violent story line on the page than it will be to see it come to life on the big screen.
In an age when Columbine is still much more than a Colorado high school and, just three weeks ago, a student emptied his handgun in a school in Ohio, killing three students, should we ever be sanguine about kids killing kids? The idea makes you want to pop in an escapist Disney DVD – you know, the one with the happy ending. Oh, right, that’s every Disney film.
In fact, we’ve spent generations feeding kids happy endings. Fairy tale characters may face grim obstacles, but they almost always prevail in the end. More recently, our culture has been walking up to darker themes. Voldemort tried to kill the hero in the “Harry Potter” series. The birth scene toward the end of “Twilight” was gruesome.
Are kids ready for all this?
The “Hunger Games” series is set in a post-apocalyptic future, in which the country of Panem is divided into 12 fenced-in manufacturing or agricultural districts, ruled by a hyper-powerful Capitol. Capitol residents obsess about their attractive bright pink hair or sequined skin, while district dwellers are often desperate for medical care or enough to eat.
Each year, two district representatives – a teenage boy and girl – are chosen by lottery to fight in the Hunger Games, a futuristic “American Idol” in which the 24 “tributes” fight to the death. Kids killing kids. Capitol and district residents alike watch the Hunger Games televised. It is their chief entertainment – like the brutal Roman games of history.
The series is imaginative and well-written, and the protagonist is a cunning and brave teenage girl, Katniss Everdeen. Clearly adults everywhere are impressed by the books: The series is assigned reading in eighth grade in my school district.
Katniss wrestles with all the moral questions the plot implies. Why is there an exempt class of Capitol residents who are never required to compete in the games? How can tributes be allies and friends, and then be required to turn on one another? Katniss’ love triangle raises further questions of loyalty.
Loyalty is an overarching issue for middle-schoolers, who are often breaking old elementary school bonds and discovering new packs. So it’s easy to see why the books were chosen for an eighth-grade audience. If the film portrays these issues well, it will be worth watching.
But morality is harder to convey on screen than gore. If filmmakers go the blood-and-guts route, emphasizing the considerable violence, “Hunger Games” will have failed its fans. Movies with PG-13 ratings, like this one, often push up against the envelope of R – and no ratings system seems adequate to prevent plain bad taste. Will Ferrell has convinced me of that.
At some point we have to trust our kids to understand the difference between reality and dystopian fantasy, and I believe most of them can. In some parts of the world, in the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, for example, leader Joseph Kony forces children to murder – a real-life “kids killing kids.”
It’s not as though this idea has never entered the human imagination.