Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games has landed in a splash of critical acclaim and box office buzz. The first in what is planned as a series of films based on Suzanne Collins’ best-selling novels, the combination of strong performances, satirical depth and gripping action has seen it go down a storm with critics and audiences alike.
But is the film’s success somewhat disquieting? Recently, Daily Mail readers will no doubt have been alerted to two articles, detailing a series of walk-outs by parents who claim the film is too violent for youngsters. To quote one of the articles: ‘An especially brutal part of the 142-minute film depicts a bloodbath in which many of the young contestants die at the start of the games’.
It’s exactly the sort of thing that gets people into a froth, but let’s play Devil’s Advocate for a moment. For one thing, simply taken on its own terms, the above statement is nonsensical: the scene in question is not a bloodbath, as the violence is largely implied by shaky camerawork. Much of the violence in the film is conveyed in exactly the same way. And in the wider context of the story, this scene needs to shock lest the film lose its impact. However, the quality of the piece itself is largely by the by in relation to the real issue.
The Hunger Games was initially granted a 15 certificate by the BBFC (only those 15 and above can see it). However, 7 seconds was cut in order to achieve a 12A (meaning those aged 12 and above can legally see it whilst those under 12 can see it with an adult, aged at least 18 years). In principle, there’s nothing wrong with this: Collins’ books target a teenage audience and if the studio wants to reach a wider demographic, then so be it. The film is a commendably intense experience, even with these cuts, and it’s off-beam to suggest that there’s a greater risk of disruption in the cinema if adults have to watch it with teenagers. Disturbances are just as likely to be caused by adults themselves.
But the really contentious issue is the 12A certificate itself. Introduced in 2002, the 12A replaced the old 12 certification, but in the years since it’s been adopted, it’s led to a degree of confusion. The Hunger Games is a case in point. Where the old 12 certificate was concerned, people knew where they stood: only those aged 12 and over were legally allowed to watch the film in question.
The 12A on the other hand is technically open to children of all ages, providing an adult accompanies where appropriate. But just because younger children CAN legally see The Hunger Games with a paying adult, doesn’t necessarily mean that they SHOULD. The boundaries of the certificate itself do not absolve people of responsibility. Just because a movie is granted what is effectively an ‘access all’ pass, doesn’t mean that it won’t feature adult content or challenging themes.
There are bands of intensity within the certification, and The Hunger Games is demonstrably a strong, as opposed a mild, 12A. Certain 12A movies might contain moderate to middling content less troubling for younger viewers but in my view, The Hunger Games is at the upper end, bordering on the 15 it was initially classed as, and therefore best suited for children aged 12 and upwards –but only if said children are mature enough to deal with the film’s subject matter, and that’s for the accompanying adults to ascertain. Of course, some 12 year olds themselves might find the movie hard to take. To quote the Mail again, “One mother said: ‘The fact that you actually see kids killing other kids is something I would not want a 12-year-old to watch’ “.
Speaking personally, I don’t agree with this view: although the film is a disturbing experience, it’s tastefully and intelligently done, and never glamorises the violence on-screen. The film has a strong moral compass, and we’re made to feel violence as the awful thing it is. And although the images of ‘kids killing other kids’ are indeed shocking, that’s exactly what’s intended, and I don’t see a problem with a movie that introduces 12 year olds to adult themes, although as I mentioned, mature individuals are the ones likely to find it most intriguing.
The very same issue recently blighted the new Hammer remake of The Woman in Black, with many people leaving the cinema shocked at how scary it was. Interestingly, that was another movie that was cut from a 15, and again people seemed to walk in with the same thoughts: it’s a 12A, therefore there’s a uniform level of intensity and kids of all ages can enjoy it. But why would people assume that? Cast your mind back to many kids films in the 1980s: Raiders of the Lost Ark for instance featured exploding/imploding/melting heads at the climax and that was rated PG (admittedly after being threatened with the MPAA’s R rating).
Naturally, not everyone will be aware of the BBFC details behind each film. Of course they won’t, but it seems daft to walk into a film blind, especially in this day and age when a simple bit of web research would uncover whether the film is suitable for children or not. Now, one cannot place the entire blame on those who took their children to see The Hunger Games, only to walk out in shock; it would appear they were misled by the rules of the certificate itself, which begs the question: why not scrap it altogether and re-introduce the old 12 rating? After all, going by my rationale, the film is best suited for those aged 12 and older, so what’s the point of the 12A in the first place if I think that those aged 11 and under shouldn’t watch it, even with a consenting adult?
Effectively, the 12A is acting as another variation on the PG rating (‘Generally suitable for all’), and certain films are coming under fire, understandably, because the circumstances surrounding the certification are confusing. The end message seems to be clear: while we’re stuck with the vague 12A rating, don’t underestimate every film that’s landed with it.
Instead, judge each case on its own merits. Is The Hunger Games too violent for the certificate? Well, in terms of physical violence, we don’t see very much but psychologically, it’s a very violent film (Martin Scorsese described The Age of Innocence as his most brutal movie for that exact same reason). Just because the film is rated 12A, doesn’t mean it’s exempt from difficult subject matter, and it doesn’t mean that adults are entitled to bring children in blind. Ultimately, the parent/guardian needs to take complete responsibility.
As for the studio, should they have stuck to their guns and released the movie as a 15, per their original intentions? That might have resulted in less controversy but it would have denied many young viewers the chance to see it, viewers who might be familiar with the books themselves, and denting the box office in the process. Do you therefore risk the ire of a multitude of young fans, keeping them sheltered from what is an apparently violent movie, or do you release it as a 12A and put faith in the parents, trusting they understand the maturity level of their own children? The debate rages on.
One last thing: according to those familiar with the books (of which I’m not one), the film is quite drastically toned down. Is it therefore naive to criticise the movie when the novels apparently feature much more explicit material?