Tweens all over the U.S. flocked to theaters this weekend to see The Hunger Games, the movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins' bestselling young adult series set in a dystopian future. Like its YA predecessors -- Harry Potter and Twilight -- The Hunger Games found a captive audience in adults: some who accompanied their offspring to sold-out screenings this past weekend, in spite of questions that were raised about the parental wisdom of allowing your children to see the dark, violent, and potentially nightmare-inducing film.
Author and columnist Mary Elizabeth Williams was looking forward to a weekend Hunger Games date with her twelve-year-old daughter -- who loved the book series -- but did admit to some initial reservations about how the violence might translate on the big screen.
I am concerned going into it, Williams said on Friday. But I think violence done with a purpose is meaningful. I would not take my daughters to see a lot of movies because of the violence. I won't let them play a lot of games because of the violence. If it's just about, 'Isn't it fun to kill people?,' then no, I don't want my children exposed to that.
But when it's a movie like 'The Hunger Games,' or like 'Bully,' where the language or the content is to illuminate something about the human condition, then I think there's meaning there.
Williams was eager to read the books after her daughter introduced her to The Hunger Games series. I know a lot of 12-year-old girls who are in love with these books, she said. And I think that's incredibly positive. Because these are books about strength, and loyalty, and resourcefulness, and compassion... you get so involved in these characters and then bad things happen to them. It gives it weight; it gives it meaning. It gives it heft. That's important.
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While Williams was confident her older daughter would not be excessively traumatized by the violence of the movie, she would not consider bringing her eight-year-old daughter along.
It so depends on the child, and it so depends on his or her readiness, Williams said. It's just a case of gauging your child, and being sensitive to what she is ready for and what she is curious about.
Christopher J. Ferguson and Mary Pols, both parents of eight-year-old children, wrote competing opinion pieces for Time magazine last week about whether The Hunger Games was appropriate for children.
Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M University, planned to take his eight-year-old son to see “The Hunger Games” on the basis of his conviction that his son understands the difference between reality and make-believe.
“The human brain treats fictional media differently from real-life events,” Ferguson wrote. “We seem to have a kind of ‘fiction detector’ that allows us to put information from fictional sources in a different category and to ignore any behavioral messages it might be sending us…research shows that children have this capability from a very early age.”
Ferguson’s argument was more concerned with whether or not the exposure to violence would provoke a child to mimic some of the behaviors he sees in the movie than whether or not the child himself would be dangerously disturbed. But he did offer empirically-based advice to parents that children better process exposure to aggression when in the company of their parents.
“Parental input seems to help children understand the context of aggression and violence and better prepare them for how to address it in their own lives,” said Ferguson, who co-authored a study measuring the long-term effects of action games on children. “Aggression is part of the human condition, something most kids experience shortly after they age out of 'Baby Einstein.' But parents can be assured that 'The Hunger Games' is not going to harm their child.”
Pols, a Time film critic who had seen the movie before writing her column, disagreed.
“There’s absolutely no compelling reason your elementary school aged child – or mine – should see ‘The Hunger Games,’” she wrote. “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.
Pols “sucked down the entirety of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy for young adults in one weekend,” and liked the movie adaptation: It’s partly of how well done the film is that she won’t let her child see it.
“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.”
Pols argued that parents should only let their children see the movie if they’ve read the books – something that was out of the question for her eight-year-old:
“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?”
Though Pols allowed that the movie is milder than the books, she insisted that “reading and watching a screen are very different ways of obtaining information, one active, one passive…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.”
Carolyn Hammack, a mother of three, took her two older children to the midnight premiere in Albuquerque, N.M. Her 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son had read the book ahead of time, as did she. Unlike Pols, who felt that the more disturbing elements of the book might be too intense for children to consume on-screen, Hammack felt that diluting some of the book’s violence for the adaptation may have also diluted the message.
“In order to get a PG-13 rating, they had to gloss over or suggest the violence of the situation,” Hammack said. “The violence was there, but I think it was more of a confusing suggestion of the violence of the situation than it might have been had they gone full out for an R rating.” Hammack still would have taken her kids to see “The Hunger Games” if it had been an R-rated movie.
“The Hunger Games” had particular significance for the Hammack family in that it was the first book to really capture the attention of her 12-year-old son Will, who is dyslexic and struggles with reading.
“Will made huge steps as a reader with this book, and I think it is a great story for him to be inspired by,” Hammack said. “It was his step into discovering what reading for pleasure is all about.
“The book (and I suppose the film as well, but to a lesser degree) brings up many thought-provoking social issues that are becoming more and more relevant to just about everyone on this planet right now, weather they realize it or not,” she continued. “The author brings up the issues of poverty, misuse of power and authority, waste, gluttony, vanity, and then goes on to show us how an average young girl does the right thing in order to take them on and make the world a better place.
“I value Suzanne Collins for giving us the character of Katniss Everdeen as an amazing role model for my children and myself.”
Both Williams’ and Hammack’s discussions of “The Hunger Games” touched on what seems to be an important variable contributing to parents’ enthusiasm for the books and the movie: The opportunity to connect and bond with their offspring during the sensitive pre-teen and early teen years; to share an experience that both the child and adult can equally enjoy.
Williams spoke with pride about her daughter’s passion for “The Hunger Games” books, and her eagerness to share the experience with her mother. “I’m happy that we have that kind of relationship, that she can share something that’s meaningful to her.”
At one point, her daughter’s sixth grade teachers had considering organizing a class outing to see “The Hunger Games” on opening day.
“It’s funny because my daughter said to me, ‘I don’t want to go because I want to make sure I see it with you first,’” Williams said. “It was really sweet.”
Williams checked in with us after “The Hunger Games” screening and reported back that it was a positive, largely non-traumatic experience for mother and daughter.
”They handled the violence in very PG-13 way,” Williams said. “It's not very gory and the violence is not very protracted.”
“It's still a creepy story, she added. “There's a lot I hope that parents and tweens can chew on… I really hope that parents will take their children to the movie and talk to them.”
For her part, Hammack seems to agree with those parents who feel children should read the books before to seeing the movie.
“I think the important social messages that come across so well in the book are not as strong in the film,” she said.
In the big scope of the world, my family lives a relatively safe and comfortable life. But I think it is important for my children to know that the world is not always a fair, safe place for so many people, and may not always be for them.”