There's a dark, dystopian universe coming to movie houses this weekend, and there's a good chance your child is going to want in. The Hunger Games, the film based on the hugely popular book series by Suzanne Collins, opens today. And though the books are billed as "young adult," the series has attracted many younger, pre-teen fans who will be begging to check out the screen version, which is rated PG or 14A, depending on the province.
The Hunger Games is based in a future North America, renamed Panem, where each district is compelled to produce two "tributes" – teenaged warriors as young as 12 – to compete. They are forced to enter an arena and fight each other with an array of weapons until one is left standing. The bloody action is televised for the masses.
The Globe and Mail talked to experts and parents about whether or not to let their kids see the buzz movie of the moment, and how they would handle five of the story's darker themes.
Erica Ehm, the Toronto-based founder of parenting blog Yummy Mummy Club, is one parent who will be lining up with her child. She says her 11-year-old son, Josh, loved the series, and she's not worried about the graphic imagery.
"Reading something can be more graphic, in a sense, because you're imagining the horror of it in your head," she says. "So I have no concerns."
Ms. Ehm says that she and Josh have had conversations about the book, and she feels that because it's sci-fi, it softens the horror of what's happening, making it more fantasy than reality.
Josh is excited to see the film. As for the violence, he says, "In The Hunger Games they show violence as a negative thing, and if people see that, then maybe they'll see that violence is not a good thing."
Bret Dawson is a Toronto dad, and his 10-year-old daughter Clare is going to start reading the series this weekend. "Most of the kids in my class have read it and they say it's really good," she says. Mr. Dawson is fine with Clare watching the film after she's read the books.
"She's a better judge of what's scary than I am," says Mr. Dawson. "I also think it's a little precious for parents to think that kids won't get access [to scary movies] When I was not much older than her, 11 or 12, at sleepovers we'd watch Friday the 13th movies, which if you want to talk about violence for pure sport, that's way more icky than some dystopian, sci-fi thing."
Killing as entertainment
The premise of a televised spectacle in which murder is entertainment is something that Nathalie Warmerdam of Eganville, Ont., thinks might be too much for some children.
Ms. Warmerdam and her nearly 15-year-old daughter Valerie have read the series and will be going to the movie, but she says she's not sure a younger child would be able to handle that kind of content.
"The problem is there's such a varying level of maturity in the tweens and teens," she says. "I would want parents to know, if they have a younger, more sensitive teen, that they need to be aware that this is really dark stuff. It's almost like a Roman arena, where you're all forced in and only one's going to walk out."
Wendy Saulesleja of Kitchener, Ont., is allowing her 11-year-old daughter to see the film with her, but not her nine-year-old daughter. Ms. Saulesleja read the books herself and says she tried to talk to her older daughter about the harsh content.
"But she kept shrugging it off, saying, 'Well mom, it's just fantasy, it's not real, it's imagination, it's never going to actually happen,' says Ms. Saulesleja. "So she's able to understand quite clearly that it's fictional."
Ms. Saulesleja says she doesn't think her younger daughter is ready to make that distinction, however.
"I think there's definite maturity that happens between grade four and grade six, and I don't even know that my nine-year-old will, at grade six, be able to read them. We'll have to see if I think she's ready," she says.
The government of Panem is a totalitarian regime in The Hunger Games. The unbending and malicious President Coriolanus Snow exerts absolute control over his people through manipulation and force, based on vengeance for an uprising (the background to the series).
The series' protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, becomes a symbol of civil disobedience and rebellion to the nation's oppressed citizens.
It's a theme that Toronto-based writer Chris Shulgan thinks is valuable for kids, and he would consider reading the books to his five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter.
"I think it's a powerful story," he says. "In The Hunger Games, the ethics – the morals of the story – are so right. It's about living in a society where the dominant ideology is wrong, and questioning that ideology and trying to do something about it. It's about making tough choices."
Though he will see the film himself first to makes sure it's not too graphic, Mr. Shulgan says he would consider letting his kids watch the film with him as well, once they've completed the books.
He says he considers the moral universe of The Hunger Games much less problematic than that of a children's film like Beauty and The Beast, which he sees as a depiction of a protagonist in an abusive relationship with a suitor who has an anger management problem.
"I'm not going to show them Rambo or Saw, but I think The Hunger Games, while violent, is one of those stories that does have a positive moral universe," he says.
Poverty and stealing
Katniss comes from District 12, one of the most impoverished areas in the country. She and her friend Gale are forced to poach to feed their families – hunting food in a forbidden forest, selling it illegally; meanwhile, the wealthy inhabitants of the Capitol live in extravagant decadence.
While breaking the law is wrong, are there times when it might be right? If the government is unjust, cruel and punishing? If you saw people starving? Or if you just needed to survive?
Judy Arnall, a Calgary-based parenting writer, says she thinks this theme contains great material for discussions between parents and kids. "There are many grey areas and ethical questions that kids need to develop, they need to find out, 'Well, where do I stand on this? Do I think it's okay to steal or kill in certain circumstances, or do I not think it's okay?' And parents can be the facilitators to bring out their thoughts on that," she says.
Winning tributes are advantaged in that they gain extra food for their families. Wonderful on the face of it, but it's another sly manipulation on the part of the Panem power group, in that winners will be set apart from their starving neighbours. "This is also a good time for parents to state their values, like, 'I don't think it's fair that poor kids are disadvantaged, or that people should have to fight for food,'" Ms. Arnall says.
And as Ms. Ehm points out: "Because it happens through the eyes of a sensitive girl, who understands ... what she's seen, kids who are reading it identify with the protagonist or protagonists, all who are very good, kind people."
Although she will place her life in jeopardy, competing against many seasoned and older rivals, Katniss volunteers to be a tribute in place of her younger sister, Prim, in the annual lottery. And she often helps others she bonds with during the games, particularly a young tribute named Rue, who draws out her filial feelings. Katniss's driving motivation throughout the series is her love for her family and her community.
"She's so nice to her sister, and has amazing love for her family," says Ms. Arnall. "Those are good scenes to talk about."
The embroiled, mysterious tangle of Katniss and Peeta, one of her love interests, is a model of self-sacrifice during the games, almost to the point of silliness, taking turns tricking each other out of action, so that they might be the one to die first.
"The relationship between Katniss and Peeta [the other District 12 tribute] the things he does for her – this would be great for social studies in high school, because there are so many good themes in it," Ms. Arnall says. She will be seeing The Hunger Games this weekend with four of her children. She says deciding whether the film is appropriate is more about temperament than age.
"Look at [your child's]past history, how do they take other movies that have violent content? If they are plagued by nightmares for weeks, then definitely say no," she says. "My 10-year-old, I think he can handle it."
However, Karyn Gordon, Toronto-based parenting expert and author, says she wouldn't recommend parents let their kids see it, regardless of age, because the movie is based on a violent premise. "When the entire movie … is built around that, I don't think I'd recommend parents to show their kids at all."
Special to The Globe and Mail