“The Hunger Games” is fresh off a $155 million opening weekend, fueled in large part by the preteens who have helped turn the dystopian young adult series by Suzanne Collins into a publishing juggernaut — 12 million books sold, and counting.
Perhaps one of the books’ ardent fans lives in your own home and you’re wondering: Should you allow your child to see the movie adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence as one of two dozen teenagers forced by a totalitarian government to brutally fight to the death on live television?
The short answer: It depends on the kid. But experts say there is indeed a difference in the way children process what they read versus what they see in on screen.
“In actual fact they’re very different,” according to Michael Rich, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
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Individually and as a series, “The Hunger Games” is idea-driven. And like the best speculative fiction, it poses complex questions about how one might live in frightening circumstances. Necessarily, the book contains numerous episodes of violence and death, although Collins doesn’t go into specific detail, instead offering quick brush strokes.
“The brain is very good at protecting itself,” Rich said. “When you read, you’re constantly accessing your memories and your frame of reference: your experience.” In other words, what a child is able to envision is limited to the boundaries of his or her imagination.
“But when you put an image or an idea into a movie, someone else has translated that.” And quite suddenly, the picture a child has created in their mind is augmented by the more vivid and sophisticated imaginations of savvy Hollywood filmmakers.
In “The Hunger Games,” the story’s protagonist, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, is set loose in the “arena” where she must fight (and perhaps kill) 23 other teenagers in the hopes that she will be the last person standing. As the games begin, she struggles for a backpack of supplies, which has also been grabbed by a rival. In the book, the scene unfolds as follows: “Then he coughs, splattering my face with blood. I stagger back, repulsed by the warm, sticky spray. Then the boy slips to the ground. That’s when I see the knife in his back.” Without pause, Katniss is off and running for her life.
The movie follows the book’s lead in how it depicts this scene and others. The footage, shot by handheld camera, conveys a frantic sense of panic but does not dwell on any moment for long.
Ultimately it comes down to knowing your child, said Rich, who spent 12 years as a Hollywood script doctor before changing careers. In addition to his affiliation with Harvard, he is currently the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston. “It’s probably more important how your kid has responded to other movies, than having read the book. The (mental) process is that different.”
The book is told from Katniss’ point of view, and the reader is privy to her inner thoughts and fears. The movie, however, uses no voiceover narration, so one can only guess what Katniss is thinking at any given moment.
“In the book you’re in a character’s head in a way that you can’t be in the film,” said Gloria DeGaetano, the founder and chief executive of The Parent Coaching Institute and a media violence expert. “If your child hasn’t read the book, they’re not going to understand what Katniss is going through, and might feel distanced a bit from her feelings and emotions about the violence going around her. And that will be harder to process.”
The film’s director Gary Ross, naturally, was concerned with staying true to the story’s core. “Is it violent? Yes,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “Do we back off from what it is? No, we don’t. I’m not interested in violence for violence’s sake.” As such, the movie earned a PG-13 rating, and when put in context with other recent films, that doesn’t seem out of line. Last summer’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” for example, also earned a PG-13, albeit with a far more wholesale approach to violence, both grandiose and fist-pumping in its depiction.
And yet one should be circumspect when considering whether or not these films are having an impact on a child’s psychological development, said Rich. “What the research shows is not that kids see something in the movies and go out and imitate it. The problem is they see things over and over again that become increasingly normal, and they stop being in touch with their natural fear of and revulsion to these things. It shifts their frame for what is acceptable and what is desirable for the way we get along.”