Doug Wright's take: Familiarity with 'Hunger Games' pays off
"Nervousness seeps into terror as I anticipate what is to come. I could be dead, flat-out dead, in an hour."
Katniss Everdeen, heroine of the beloved young adult trilogy "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins, is about to begin a literal fight to the death with 23 other teenagers.
Katniss' battle is leaving the page for the screen this week, as the "Hunger Games" movie is released in theaters nationwide. "The Hunger Games" looks like a blockbuster, with a waiting fan base, attractive young stars and iPod-ready soundtrack. But its themes are darker and thornier than any "Transformers" juggernaut. The phenomenon that is "The Hunger Games" has raised anew, for parents and kids, the issue of children's media and violence.
Concern about children's exposure to violence through movies and television dates to the 1950s. Research shows real and disturbing links between childhood media consumption of violence and aggressive behavior, desensitization and trauma. And "The Hunger Games" in its book form is both, unquestionably, brutally violent and deliberately intended for young adult audiences — kids age 12 to 18.
So worry certainly hovers over how such a dark book could pull off a PG-13 rating once adapted for the screen. Critics are chewing over the issue of the difference between readers and viewers — that is, between imagining a violent death and seeing it on a giant screen. But one interesting twist in the "Hunger Games" conversation is often left out: The trilogy is an open critique of violence — and specifically of using violence as entertainment.
Whether this same message can be delivered in a movie, by definition a vehicle for entertainment, is a question for teenage viewers and their parents to mull over. A movie about a book about a televised event about children killing each other is a tangled knot of conflicting messages and methods, one that introduces a unique opportunity to discuss the way violence and its presentation infiltrate our consciousness.
Page to screen concern
"The Hunger Games" filmmakers have asserted to a number of major media outlets that the film's depiction of gruesome events from the book will live up to its PG-13 rating but not step over the line.
"You don't need to be gratuitous in order to be honest and capture the intensity of the book," director Gary Ross told Entertainment Weekly. "Is it violent? Yes. Do we back off from what it is? No, we don't. But I'm not interested in violence for violence's sake. This is a character's story."
The movie's stars professed similar views at the movie's U.K. premiere, according to the Associated Press. The movie reportedly received a "12A" rating after seven seconds of bloody footage were cut from the original version.
"The whole idea was to make this movie and stay true to the book without alienating audiences," said Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta Mellark, Katniss' fellow competitor. "So Gary Ross did it in a way where he didn't glorify it (the violence) at all. It's not overly gruesome or brutal but it is part of the story in some way."
Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss, had a slightly different take, saying the violence was a way to demonstrate how the system of the Games would eventually — spoiler alert — incite the main characters to revolution.
But the story's bloody events, even infused with a message condemning them, raise questions about the prevalence of violence, and its consequences, in the wider world of children's media.
A hefty body of research has linked childhood exposure to media violence with a host of negative consequences.
A longitudinal study of 400 children published in the journal Aggressive Behavior last year found that those who consumed more violent media behaved more aggressively while in school. Another study, this time of 700 elementary school students, found when the children viewed aggression, both live and on television, they were more likely to think violence was "normal" behavior.
Other recent experimental studies have linked watching violent movies with desensitization and slowed impulses to help victims of live fighting.
"We always want to be conscious of violence exposure," said Jared Warren, associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. Warren is a child psychologist, researching mental health treatment outcomes and working with kids age 3 to 18. Children, said Warren, are shown "literally thousands of murders" through television and movies over the course of their lives.
"There's always a concern about being desensitized to it," he said.
Warren said the hundreds of studies on the subject bear out the link between consuming violent media and increased aggression.
"It would be silly to ignore that evidence," he said.
But he was careful to point out that not every child will have the same aggressive reaction. Children who become more aggressive after watching violence, Warren said, are often biologically predisposed to aggression. There are also plenty of children on the opposite end of the spectrum, whose reaction to viewing violence will be to internalize it.
For example, in 2003, a number of Canadian students were surveyed about the week following the attacks on the World Trade Center. Students who already had a tendency toward anxiety who watched coverage of the event showed symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.
"There are so many things that go into this — dozens of other important variables," said Warren. Not just a child's disposition, but his or her environment, circumstances and friends also matter.
Warren also noted that research shows "not all media violence is created equal." The antics of Wile E Coyote's and the serial killings of Dexter cannot necessarily be painted with the same brush.
Characters in "The Hunger Games," three-dimensional and teenaged, take a lot more than an anvil to the head. But the anti-violence message that the events are wrapped in, Warren said, is not to be underestimated.
After viewing the film, Warren said he thought the story's condemnation of violence was evident, especially for teenagers — the film's target audience.
"From a developmental perspective, teens are in that phase where they very much get the sense of injustice," he said. The cruelty and thoughtless voyeurism of the ruling Capitol and its privileged residents — watching with screams of delight as those chosen to compete in the Games, called "tributes," pounce on each other — will not be hard for adolescents to pick up on.
Scenes of the children in the savage environment of the Games arena are intercut with adults working methodically in a clean white room, blankly or sometimes gleefully creating the perils that captivate the viewers and terrorize the Tributes. Two garishly dressed men are shown keeping a running dialogue on the proceedings, eerily echoing sports commentators as they dissect the bloodshed.
For the under-13 set, Warren said whether or not "The Hunger Games" is acceptable viewing would depend on individual parents and kids. "Parents need to decide on their own (whether or not to bring kids to 'The Hunger Games')," he said, based on their specific child's temperament. He mentioned that he wouldn't take his 10-year-old to this particular film, because he tends to be sensitive to anxiety.
For most viewers, adolescent and otherwise, "The context that (the violence) is presented in matters," said Warren. Violence on screen really gets problematic, he said, when killing is performed without apparent consequence. "It happens in a matter of seconds, and the plot moves on." The characters doing the killing are often rewarded for their strength.
In real life, death doesn't occur in a vacuum. "A lot of people are impacted … you never see that part of the story (in movies). That's the problem," Warren said. "Most media violence kids see is not presented with context and consequences — they start assuming that the world is more violent and aggressive than it actually is."
The strength of "The Hunger Games," for Warren, lies in the context. The death of one character in particular is painful and intimate for the film's heroine, who is both empathetic and strong. Her experiences — and, through her, the audience's — show just how wrong the pageantry of the Games is.
A film like "The Hunger Games," said Warren, with its empathy-inducing characters and wrenching plot, might even help to re-sensitize viewers to the gravity of violent media. There are not a lot of films, after all, where children are both victims and perpetrators of brutality.
"Putting (the violence) with that consequence is a lot more true to life," said Warren. Viewers see a bigger picture as the film progresses — deaths in the arena affecting families, communities and stirring up political turmoil.
Talking out the issues
The themes of "The Hunger Games" are ripe for conversation between parent and child. Warren said parents should make it a regular practice to watch material with their children. The chance to evaluate how they react is an important opening for discussion.
Warren said he would certainly take the opportunity to discuss the movie with his own "Hunger Games" fan club — his daughter, approaching 15, and his 12-year-old son. He said he would ask them how they would feel in Katniss' shoes. Or how they would feel watching the Games, at home in a District. If he noticed any physical reactions in the theater — a covered face, a shiver — he would ask if they were bothered.
"Try to think about how your child understands the meaning behind what's going on," Warren advised.
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