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Decades into America's dystopian future, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence of Winter's Bone) stands in her mother's worn, blue dress—waiting. Along with the other young adults ages 12-18 in her district (much like a state), she and her little sister wait to hear who will represent their home in the far-away capital for The Hunger Games. Every year, the government chooses a girl and boy tribute from each district for something akin to American Idol meets Lord of the Flies. With obvious allusions to the games of the Roman Coliseum—horse-drawn chariots, golden laurel wreaths for the victors, and a game show host named Caesar—these games are what you might expect in a similarly banal but technologically advanced culture: It's a fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses. Small wonder then that it's rated PG-13 for "violent thematic material and disturbing images."
What might surprise some based on the bare bones of the story is the strong moral center to the film, beginning with Katniss herself. When her sister's name is called from the podium as the tribute from District 12, Katniss unhesitatingly steps to the front and yells, "I volunteer!" It's a death sentence for herself, or so she thinks, yet she has essentially been mother to her sister, Primrose, for years now. To give Prim over to such a gruesome death is unthinkable. And from that point on, though she doesn't share her love interest Peeta's conscious moral high ground, she fights to save not just her own life but also the lives of the other tributes she comes to love. Perhaps the most moving scene of the film occurs midstream, when Katniss kneels with a dying tribute, singing her a lullaby as the young girl loses consciousness. The value of life, even in such horrific circumstances, is drawn with bold colors.
Author Suzanne Collins' previous work in kids' television (including Nickelodeon) is evident throughout the movie. The action moves succinctly and the plot manages depth, despite less opportunity for introspection than the book. And the movie-makers go to great lengths to dampen the more horrific moments: During violent scenes, the camera shakes or in some way obscures the carnage. Death comes quickly to the tributes, most of whom die off-screen. A few moments rise to the level of Scream or other teenage horror flicks, but this is no Silence of the Lambs. In general, fans of the books will find the movie delivers the action-packed story without losing its heart.
Still, is it good for kids? Following the sorcery of Harry Potter and the vampires of Twilight, at what point do "violent thematic material and disturbing images" become too dark? And at what point does kids' entertainment run the risk of pushing young adults into that darkness?
An interview with Suzanne Collins is instructive here. When asked why she thinks people are enticed by TV reality shows, she replied, "Well, they're often set up as games and, like sporting events, there's an interest in seeing who wins. ... Sometimes they have very talented people performing. Then there's the voyeuristic thrill—watching people being humiliated, or brought to tears, or suffering physically—which I find very disturbing. There's also the potential for desensitizing the audience, so that when they see real tragedy playing out on, say, the news, it doesn't have the impact it should."
This is a very poignant criticism of our culture, and one that deserves to be taken seriously. But for all the beauty and moral high ground this story contains, it's just as true that the world Collins has created is terribly evil. Teenagers are dispatched throughout the movie by knives, swords, and mutated dogs; adults are either too powerless or corrupt to help; and Katniss herself experiences an inward despair that will (in coming installments) lead her to attempt suicide. For some viewers at least—especially younger or more impressionable teens—The Hunger Games may produce the same deadening effect on the conscience that Collins seeks to warn us against.
This review originally appeared online on March 23.