'The Hunger Games': popular, violent ... and rated PG-13?
The next young adult book series to take the leap from page to screen, in the hallowed footsteps of the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" franchises, comes with an avid fan base and one thing more: a blood-soaked plot that hinges on teens forced to fight each other to the death for the amusement of their conquerors.
"The Hunger Games" is scheduled to hit theaters a year from now, and while other recent franchises that made it to the big screen have included the deaths of beloved characters, none can match Suzanne Collins' books for graphic, gruesome violence visited on youngsters.
If fans of the Harry Potter series have wondered how it has managed to stave off an R rating (under 17 not admitted without an adult) from the Motion Picture Association of America despite the stories' escalating violence, fans of "The Hunger Games" have been debating if it's possible, or even appropriate, to aim for a cautionary PG-13 rating.
Producer Nina Jacobson told a fan forum that the movie will be made for the core audience of 12- to 18-year-olds, and director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit") has said he will aim for a PG-13 rating. "I don't need to have a huge prosthetic budget or make this movie incredibly bloody in order for it to be just as compelling, just as scary and just as riveting," he told MTV.
That's a relief, say several local teens who weighed in on the subject.
"I can handle the book better than the visual," said Alex McDonough, 13, who attends Mellon Middle School in Mt. Lebanon School District. "But most of the time movies do a good job at making it not as disturbing as it sounds but still getting to the point. I would also be really angry if the movie was rated R. First, because that will give the wrong impression of 'The Hunger Games' series, and two, most likely my parents wouldn't allow me to see the film."
Tim Livingston, 16, a student at Central Catholic High School and a member of the Teen Advisory Council at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, agreed it was a good idea to keep extremes out of the movie equation.
"I think this is harder to be passed off as a PG-13 movie than Harry Potter was because the whole concept of Harry Potter was it's magical, and there's nothing visceral about people suffering or dying. When people die, they go cold," Tim said. "But this is a spear through the heart, it's an arrow, it's definitely a bloody affair. It would have to be cleaned up for a film, but I don't think it's impossible."
A quick glimpse at the first book: A dystopian America now called Panem is divided into districts that are controlled by the Capitol, which through an unseen conflict controls the country's wealth and power. The people of the districts supply food, energy and other necessities while barely surviving. As a reminder of who's boss, a boy and girl "tribute," ages 12 to 18, from each district is picked through a lottery to participate in the annual Hunger Games -- a fight to the death played out as a reality TV show. Katniss Everdeen, 16, a skilled hunter, volunteers to take the place of her beloved little sister in the games, setting off a string of events ... well, we'll try not to include too many spoilers here.
Suffice to say, young people and others die in the most horrific ways.
In literary terms, "young adult" means ages 12 to 18. "The Hunger Games" books are recommended by the American Library Association's Young Adult Library Association, which has a comprehensive discussion guide on its website, and are on Pittsburgh Public Schools Summer Reading List for Young Adults.
Despite the target age, it's obvious older readers are contributing to these books' best-seller status, as was the case with the Harry Potter and Twilight series.
As editorial director of Scholastic Press, David Levithan was among the first people to read "The Hunger Games" before it was published in 2008.
"I was blown away. Completely. But it wasn't until other people read it in-house that I realized how huge it could be, and how it was appealing to adults as well as to teens," he said in an email.
Tal Kroser, 17, who attends Pittsburgh CAPA, suggested the books to his 20-year-old sister, who joined him as a fan.
"I loved the adventure, and it always kept you on your toes," Tal said of the series. "I think Suzanne Collins more than a lot of other writers will throw in a twist such as a certain death that you might not be expecting at all, while in a book like Harry Potter, it's somewhat predictable."
Ms. Collins followed up "The Hunger Games" with "Catching Fire" a year later and "Mockingjay" in August of last year. The first book was on the New York Times best-seller list for more than 93 consecutive weeks. There are more than 2.3 million copies of the first two books in print in the U.S. and Canada. "Mockingjay" sold more than 450,000 copies (hardcover and eBook) in its first week on sale in the U.S., debuting at No. 1 on both the USA Today and Times best-seller lists. There are now 1.6 million copies in print in the U.S.
From the first, Mr. Levithan was unfazed by the graphic violence in "The Hunger Games," saying it's not gratuitous when the story is about war.
"Suzanne knows how to show it unflinchingly without ever using it to be sensationalistic. This is ... violence with consequence, and the novels are about the consequence."
The books are not all gruesome death scenes, of course. The complex, conflicted Katniss and her relationships with the two young men who love her are big reasons for their popularity.
Alex McDonough picked up the book "because everyone was talking about it at my school and I saw all these posters about it in almost all the bookstores. I was instantly hooked. I think it was Katniss's attitude and the pace of the book that kept me interested. I love how Katniss is so rebellious and tough."
Kendall Jennings, another eighth-grader at Mellon, said Katniss is "a lot more strong-willed than some, and stubborn. She also has an insane sense of defensiveness -- she protects the people she loves literally with her life. Also I think she's not quite the typical hero; she's not the nicest person in the world. It's different, so it's more interesting."
The competition for the role of Katniss was intense from the moment the trilogy was snapped up by Lionsgate. Dozens of YouTube videos began popping up under the search "Katniss auditions." One hopeful, Sophia Gilberto, created a Web page with a videotaped monologue and pointed out her archery and shooting skills. Entertainment sites ran polls of every actress between the ages of 14 ("True Grit's" Hailee Steinfeld) and well into their 20s, asking readers who should play the role.
After weeks of speculation, Jennifer Lawrence was announced as Katniss. The fan debate turned to whether a blond 20-year-old was right for the raven-haired, olive-skinned teenager, while others found it hard to argue with the choice of an Oscar nominee (last year's "Winter's Bone").
Ms. Lawrence has been endorsed by the author, who is "heavily involved" in the casting and wrote the first draft of the screenplay, Mr. Levithan said. Ms. Collins' participation is why he has no qualms about how scenes such as the spearing death of an adored tribute will be portrayed.
"I am sure the movie version will treat the violence with the same consequence and consideration as the books," Mr. Levithan said.
Thirteen-year-old Kendall hopes that means filmmakers tone down the more gruesome scenes.
"It's one thing for a middle-school reader to picture things in their heads the way they choose too," she said. "I mean, showing a person's head chopped off is not exactly family-friendly."
In Hollywood, recent films that seem to be aimed at the age group between the industry's cautionary PG-13 and restrictive NC-17 ratings have been crossing the R-rated line. The latter mostly is the domain of raunchy guy comedies such as "Superbad," "The Hangover" and "Get Him to the Greek" and gory horror films such as "Jennifer's Body" and "Sorority Row."
Language plays a big factor in the R ratings of those films, and for some recent films, it has been the only factor. Just last week, it was confirmed that the winner of the best picture Oscar, "The King's Speech," would be re-released as a PG-13 film, presumably by reducing repeated use of the f-word.
Even before a movie is released, filmmakers who want a PG-13 rating often will go back to the drawing board and make cuts when the ratings board delivers a judgment on offending words or scenes.
Readers of the "The Hunger Games" have no worries when it comes to language, drug use or explicit sex, but depicting the violence, particularly where the tweens and teens are concerned, will be tricky.
"I think no matter what you do, a lot of fans won't be happy because a lot of it is inner monologues, Katniss contemplating everything. There's definitely going to be some changes that won't make diehard fans happy, but that's always the case," Tim said.
First Published March 27, 2011 12:00 am