The Hunger Games, Movie and Book. Is this for kids?

categories: Cocktail Hour / Movies / Reading Under the Influence



It’s been a long time since I read a book and saw the movie in the same day.  Last time was “To Have and Have Not,” the Hemingway potboiler, not bad page for page, and I read it in an afternoon.  The movie happened to be on TV that night, and I remember watching in my parents’ basement (I would have been home from college), really surprised: aside from the title and the names of the characters, it had nothing to do with the book.  Turned out that William Faulkner (“Out of work and broke”) had re-written the screenplay under contract with Warner Bros, putting together what amounted to a parody of his rival’s work.  Starring Bogart and Bacall.


My daughter is eleven and read The Hunger Games before either her mother or I had heard of it.  Of course, the kid loved it, and downplayed the violence we’d begun hearing about.  To me it sounded like an allegory for life in high school, which is in turn an allegory for corporate life, if not life itself: there are winners and losers.  And I’m a proponent of the Bruno Bettelheim “Uses of Enchantment” idea that kids need fairy tales in all their grimness or Grimmness, witches, dead children, and all: the imaginative use of pretend horror to help deal with the real vicissitudes of life.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss

So Saturday night I sat down to read The Hunger Games, which if you don’t know is by Suzanne Collins, formerly a television writer, primarily for Nickelodeon, and aimed at the young adult market.  By bedtime I was halfway through.  It’s not a long book and has fewer words per page than books for grownups.  More than that, though, it’s a massive page-turner—a plot that comes at you full speed, skating over a very simple, filmic structure.  And the narrator, Katniss Everdeen, is very appealing, a strong voice, compassion, kindness, power, knowledge of the forbidden world outside the fences that surround her district, which is a mining district.  She’s a great hero for all of us, but certainly for young women and girls.  It’s told so briskly as to be schematic, but you still come to love and admire the heroine.

The basic story is that each district in a post-American, post-disaster country must hold a lottery and send two kids—one of each gender—to the hunger games, the ultimate reality show and release for an oppressed nation.  24 kids are chosen, put in an arena that looks like life—forests, ponds, rivers, etc.—and told that only one can come out alive.  (I’ve been reading about a Japanese book and subsequent movie that share a similar plotline, Battle Royale, in which high school kids from the same school fight to the death.)

Anyway, I finished the book Sunday afternoon just moments before the sitter arrived, fun for Elysia, who loves to hang with college women.  And I shot into town to meet Juliet.  We’d planned a walk but it was raining and so to the movies, and The Hunger Games, which we’d been meaning to see.  The question being: should Elysia be allowed to see it, as so many of her friends (quite a few of them older, but not a few younger) had already done?

And honestly, it’s a terrific movie.  Jennifer Lawrence is perfectly cast as Katniss (though she’s 21 and looks it, not 16).  For one thing, she’s unbelievably gorgeous, a shifting, unsettling beauty powered by her clear intelligence.   But she can act, too, and the part requires a lot of subtlety.  Woody Harrelsen’s in there,too, and does a great job.  Most surprising is Lenny Kravitz, playing a stylist.  He’s as beautiful as Jennifer Lawrence.  Stanley Tucci plays the host of the games and he’s brilliant—cynical, sadistic, charming, the perfect dandified simulacrum of his character’s society and a good reason to cast great actors in small parts.

And the kids go at it.  Most die.  It’s no slasher pic, but it’s very intense and quite bloody at times.  There’s a modicum of sex: chaste kisses.  Let graphic leg wounds serve as representations of genitalia, since violence in our own so-called culture is fine where bonking is not.  And let the mutual application of super-balms serve as sex.  (The child of a friend of mine thought PG-13 stood for Pretty Gross: 13)

Thirteen, okay, maybe.  But this is certainly no movie for an eleven year old.  And though she’s campaigned hard for the right to see it as her peers have, she no longer wants to.  Because we told her about the wounds.  She doesn’t even like it when Daddy gets a cut.  We told her about how sad, little Rue and the flowers.  And we told how loud and how fast-paced and how really terrifying at times.

There’s nothing in the movie that isn’t in the book.  But the movie is a step toward the real, whereas a kid’s imagination as she reads is a place of learning and safety.  A kid reading can stop and think while she reads.  She can process the imagery–which her own mind has produced from prose cues–for a minute or an hour or a day or a week.  And then she can step back in.

And finally, there’s something about the movie that’s a little like the games it condemns: people will pay to see children take each other out.   Katniss, though, she shows us that love wins, that cooperation beats competition, and that grrl power rocks.

Maybe Elysia will be old enough to see it when the third and final movie comes out.  Thirteen does sound about right, now that I consider it.  I mean, think what I was doing at that age.

No, don’t.

  1. Maddie writes:

    I think kids should watch The Hunger Games. I don’t think we should be over protective. It is the one of the BEST trilogy EVER!!! The books say it all and they are so good. The movie is AWESOME too!! it is so well played. Jennifer Lawrence is a big star for my child. I think that any age above 10 is able to read it. i have absolutely loved it and so has my daughter. we have both seen the first movie and we are waiting for the second to come out in november next year.

    • Bill writes:

      I loved the first book. Just started the second. My daughter loves them. I loved the movie, too. Jennifer Lawrence is a big star for me. But bad dreams are bad dreams, and all kids are different. What do you see as the difference between age nine and ten? I mean, where’s the cut off for you, and why? And what ever happened to Winnie the Pooh?

  2. Dori writes:

    Thanks for spending time on this, Bill – I enjoyed what you had to say about the HG phenomena and found it helpful. I recently posted the question on Facebook asking whether a 10 year old (a.k.a. my 10 year old who is begging to read the HG books) should be allowed to read the series. I was worried about the violence and the kids-killing-kids thing. We’ve never before had occasion to consider the question of censoring what she reads. She is our first and only, and her enthusiasm for reading books with more complex themes is relatively new. Anyway, the post saw quite a bit of activity (with the discussion even spilling over into other friends’ posts). Opinions were thoughtful and mixed. One friend said no, period – 10 is too young. Another said she never gets in the way of anything her son (also 10) is reading (on principle, I think – doesn’t want to discourage reading). Most folks, however, said sure, let her – she won’t understand it all – but the smart, strong female lead character was reason enough to let her read it if she wants to (and the kids-killing-kids thing isn’t done in super-gruesome detail). Someone also mentioned that the HG books are no more dark than those in the Harry Potter series (and she has read all of them). A few friends suggested I read the HG books first, or along with her – so we could talk about it. Reading the HG books first seemed like the responsible thing to do. So I downloaded the first of the series to our Nook library. Still, I was having trouble getting to the reading of it – partly because I was already busy with a few great books, but mainly, I think I just don’t want to read these books. Six or seven years ago, a friend recommended The Lovely Bones (it is another book with a plot that involves a child being brutally assaulted and killed). I couldn’t put it down. Cried in several places. It was a great book. However, to this day I am haunted by that book – and wish I had not read it. I had a similar reaction to A Map of the World, another story in which a child’s death is key. I suppose some of us just have topics/ideas that that keep us from reading even well written books. I now realize that kids-and-death stories, and also most stories in the horror genre seem to fall into that class for me (didn’t have enough exposure to Grimm as a kid, maybe!). Felt I shouldn’t let my bias keep her from reading something that she really wants to read – especially because that something is, by most accounts from folks who have read the series, probably just fine for her. So when I told her she could read it, her Nook was on in seconds flat. And, as we sat together the other night reading our respective books, she told me at least half a dozen times “Mommy, this book is SO good – I really think you would LOVE it”. Seems like it was the right decision. Still, we’ll put a little extra money in the therapy fund, just in case.

  3. Christina writes:

    Great review! Did the audience clap every time someone was killed? They did at my theater — found it disturbing beyond words. I don’t think that I blame the book for sparking this kind of response to on-screen death among young people, but it certainly makes me wonder about the impact this book is having. I definitely agree with the PG-13 rating though. The concept itself is rated R in my opinion, but the movie and book made it work for young teens.

    • Bill writes:

      The audience didn’t clap. That is disturbing. And you Katniss wouldn’t like it. More proof that the movie exploits our basest instincts. The book is much more careful to limn its heroine’s distaste for killing, her unwillingness, really, except when Rue is in danger, and her clear vision–they’re all in the same boat. Sometimes I forget that a lot of people aren’t metaphorical thinkers.

  4. Shelley Burbank writes:

    OMG, finally someone who “gets it!” I have been saying high and low, everywhere and anywhere that the reason the kids are so drawn to this movie is because it is an allegory of school, where some have obvious socioeconomic advantages, where everyone has his or her “weapons” of choice (the ability to gouge a verbal dig when least expected, athleticism that earns you respect in a football town, a pretty face, a tough attitude, whatever), and you are all in there courtesy of the adults to slash it out, compete, winner take all. And even when you “win” one day, your enemies are back the next, morphed into even more dangerous forms. I have been saying this and people look at me like I’m from another planet. So thank you. Even if you didn’t mean “all this.” Not sure if Collins meant to do this or not. We read our own meanings into literature all the time, but this is how I took it when I read Hunger Games. Haven’t read the other two. My fourteen year old finished it late at night, woke my husband and I up, and ranted for fifteen minutes straight about how “it sucked” and admonished me to “just read the first two books, Mom, and make up your own ending.” LOL. Definitely better for a teen than a pre-teen.

    • Bill writes:

      I loved the portrait of the people in the capitol–all these fops and dandies, like Marie Antoinette’s court mixed with Weimar Germany. But I worried that Fox News types would decide that was Obama’s world and that the pure, weapon-loving people of the hinterlands needed only more weapons to take care of the problem.

      • Shelley Burbank writes:

        I never would have thought of it that way…but, yes, I can see your point about Fox News types. Probably better to take the books and the movies at face value and enjoy them for what they are. Entertainment. And, yes, some darn good costuming!

        • Bill writes:

          Did you notice that among the credits there were at least fifty hairdressers! I liked the kind of homemade-y dust-bowl looking clothes of the kids from district 12. But Katniss’s hunting outfit in the first scenes was kind of silly–like $1200 J. Crew leather jacket and Ferragamo knee-high lace-up boots. And nice to see that lip collagen was available!

  5. Laura writes:

    I started reading this when I was thirsty for complex sentences, and so I stopped. I mean to start again. My 11-year-old wasn’t fazed by the movie at all–he’s read the trilogy and a lot of other sci-fi/fantasy. I’ve come to rely on his ability to discern the difference between the real and the imaginary. It’s hard to fence in his imaginative territory in books, but I am careful about movies.

    • Bill writes:

      I think kids are smarter than anyone gives them credit for. But I also remember various confusions of my own in books and movies. And that my parents wouldn’t let me see James Bond movies!