With all the hype surrounding the opening of “The Hunger Games,” it wouldn’t be surprising if your 7-year-old was as psyched to see the dystopian sci-fi drama as your mother-in-law.
But the “games” of the title here spotlight kid-on-kid homicide, so choosing this PG-13-rated film as a date with your youngster might not be the best parenting move.
If your child is approaching puberty though, Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of books centered on the futuristic world of Panem, might have already been assigned as required reading by his or her middle-school English teacher.
The first novel — and subsequent film — introduces readers to an autocratic, futuristic world built from the ashes of North America where a small, and lucky, percent of the population is housed within the sleek confines of the Capitol, and their garish and superficial lifestyles make the Kardashian sisters look introspective.
In contrast, the rest of the nation lives in impoverished outlying districts, subsisting to one degree or another on meager food rations.
As an annual reminder of a past failed rebellion, the totalitarian government forces each of the 12 districts to put forward two children, a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete to the death in the televised Hunger Games.
The film touches on many themes relevant to today’s culture, including the Occupy movement and the national obsession with reality television.
Here, we offer a brief guide to what age the film is appropriate for and what conversations and concepts it might spark for parent-child discussions.
• Who should see “The Hunger Games”?
Scholastic, the publisher of Collins’ trilogy of books, recommends the series for children 12 and older. The violence may not be any gorier than what has been seen with the “Harry Potter” movies, but some educational experts suggest that since “Hunger Games” has a more sophisticated take on the delineation between good and evil than “Harry Potter,” children who can’t yet understand those nuances should probably not attend.
“Even if you think about the film as a tale teaching people about good and evil and the reality of death, it’s a little too dark for kids under 12,” said Greg Garrett, an English professor at Baylor University.
• Use “The Hunger Games” as an opportunity to discuss America’s obsession with reality television.
The potential extremes of reality television are on display in “The Hunger Games.” Yes, we are rooting for Katniss Everdeen to succeed without sacrificing her soul, but it’s apparent that many of the observers, especially those residing within the Capitol, take pure pleasure in watching children gut each other in an arena.
Director Gary Ross takes the lesson one step further than Collins did in her novel by showing the control room and the adults who are manipulating the arena to make good television. It’s easy to imagine the producers of “The Bachelor” or “Survivor” sitting in a similar room maneuvering their contests — but not to a fatal degree — thus making it the perfect opportunity to discuss with children who may look up to the likes of Snooki and the Situation, how that exploitation is carefully disguised as entertainment.
“When you look at the emotional bloodshed that takes place on these shows and the vicarious enjoyment we take from that — one of Suzanne Collins’s points and I think it comes across very clearly in the movie — there is something demeaning that takes place when we feed off the emotions and the lives of the people we are watching,” Garrett said. “If I spend 10 minutes watching ‘Jersey Shore,’ I don’t only feel like a stupider person but a worse person.”
• “The Hunger Games” can be used as a tool to discuss modern government and individual protest as a catalyst for change, drawing on the recent Occupy movement in the States and the protests for freedom that rocked the Middle East last year.
Kids are obsessed with the issue of fairness and it’s abundantly clear in the film that things are not fair in Panem. Between the opulent excesses of the Capitol and the impoverished conditions of the citizens, the distinction between the haves and have-nots couldn’t be clearer.
Garrett suggests asking children how they feel about a society that punishes its members by forcing its children into such a debased contest.
“It’s an allegory for dog-eat-dog capitalism,” said Garrett. “If you’re smart enough, fast enough and mean enough, you’ll make it. It’s an extreme way to look at it. We are not literally cutting each other’s throats yet, but there is a very clear sense of desperation here. We all know people who have lost their jobs and houses and it’s a very scary thing.”
For Ross, the idea of personal ethics as a catalyst for revolutionary change was a theme that he found irresistible when he first signed on to the film.
“Katniss’ act of self-sacrifice (volunteering to take her sister’s place in the games) is a trigger for an entire revolution. She draws an ethical line that she won’t cross over and it serves as such a beautiful example for people,” Ross said. “That assertion of her own individual ethics ultimately triggers a revolution just as it was one Tunisian flower vendor that led to the revolt that rifled through the Middle East last year. Or Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus. It usually comes down to an act of individual ethics that can trigger something like that.”
The Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit organization that has mobilized young readers to get involved in social action as an offshoot of their love of J.K. Rowling’s stories, is trying to inspire fans of Collins’ novels in a similar way.
The new movement, called “Hunger Is Not a Game,” is a partnership with Oxfam’s GROW campaign, which aims to build a better international food system and help feed the hungry. The effort will concentrate on growing awareness for Oxfam’s program as well as setting up food donation centers in local communities.
The Harry Potter Alliance has been successful in areas of literacy, equality and human rights issues and hopes the same response can be achieved with fans of Katniss Everdeen.
For more information on the program, go to thehpalliance.org/imagine-better/hunger-is-not-a-game/