Heading into Friday's opening, "The Hunger Games" is on track to take in more than $100 million its first weekend, fueled in large part by the preteens who have helped turn the dystopian young adult series by Suzanne Collins into a publishing juggernaut — 12 million books sold, and counting.
Perhaps one of the books' ardent fans lives in your own home and you're wondering: Should you allow your child to see the movie adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence as one of two dozen teenagers forced by a totalitarian government to brutally fight to the death on live television?
The short answer: It depends on the kid. But experts say there is indeed a difference in the way children process what they read versus what they see in on screen. "In actual fact they're very different," according Dr. Michael Rich, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
Individually and as a series, "The Hunger Games" is idea-driven. And like the best speculative fiction, it poses complex questions about how one might live in frightening circumstances. Necessarily, the book contains numerous episodes of violence and death, although Collins doesn't go into specific detail, instead offering quick brush strokes.
"The brain is very good at protecting itself," said Rich. "When you read, you're constantly accessing your memories and your frame of reference: your experience." In other words, what a child is able to envision is limited to the boundaries of his or her imagination. "But when you put an image or an idea into a movie, someone else has translated that." And quite suddenly, the picture a child has created in their mind is augmented by the more vivid and sophisticated imaginations of savvy Hollywood filmmakers.
In "The Hunger Games," the story's protagonist, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, is set loose in the "arena" where she must fight (and perhaps kill) 23 other teenagers in the hopes that she will be the last person standing. As the games begin she struggles for a backpack of supplies, which has also been grabbed by a rival. In the book, the scene unfolds as follows: "Then he coughs, splattering my face with blood. I stagger back, repulsed by the warm, sticky spray. Then the boy slips to the ground. That's when I see the knife in his back." Without pause, Katniss is off and running for her life.
The movie follows the book's lead in how it depicts this scene and others. The footage, shot by handheld camera, conveys a frantic sense of panic but does not dwell on any moment for long.
In fact, one could argue that recent photos of a bloodied Justin Bieber for Complex magazine — staged fights that show a fist making contact with Bieber's mouth as he spits out faux blood — are more graphic than the violence depicted in "The Hunger Games."
"I have not read the book, but do know enough about it and the movie to have reservations," said Laurie Jaffe, who lives on Chicago's North Shore and has a 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. Her son read the book last year in school and liked it, "although he felt it was pretty dark and depressing at times "… (and) said that he wouldn't recommend it for his sister at this time. She is very sensitive and he felt it would be troubling and hard for her to understand the book let alone the movie. Good judgment on big brother's part.
"As you imagine," she added, "I do get flack from my kids, especially since other parents have no problem allowing their children to see movies that mine aren't allowed to see."
Clearly, opinions vary. Earlier this week, Christopher Ferguson, an associate professor of psychology and criminal justice at Texas A&M International University, wrote a piece for Time.com explaining why he's taking his 8-year old to see the movie.
Ultimately it comes down to knowing your child, said Rich, who spent 12 years as a Hollywood script doctor before changing careers. In addition to his affiliation with Harvard, he is currently the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston. "It's probably more important how your kid has responded to other movies, than having read the book. The (mental) process is that different."
The book is told from Katniss' point of view, and the reader is privy to her inner thoughts and fears. The movie, however, uses no voiceover narration, so one can only guess what Katniss is thinking at any given moment. "In the book you're in a character's head in a way that you can't be in the film," said Gloria DeGaetano, the founder and CEO of The Parent Coaching Institute and a media violence expert. "If your child hasn't read the book, they're not going to understand what Katniss is going through, and might feel distanced a bit from her feelings and emotions about the violence going around her. And that will be harder to process."
Even if a preteen is comfortable pondering the book's themes, parents would be smart to have a post-screening discussion with their child.
"Talk about it afterwards," said DeGaetano. "What is your child experiencing? What are they feeling? Even though Katniss finds some personal power at the end, and there are tiny moments of personal agency, it's not that much. The adults aren't protecting the kids in this story. In fact, they're making them do this, by law. So you want to help your kid dissect and think through how they feel about this, and give them room to talk. Find a way to sit with your child and provide meaning (to the story), because otherwise I think it could really leave them with a sense of existential feeling of nothingness, because it's just bleak."
And don't assume your 12-year-old will immediately grasp the meta aspect of this endeavor — that moviegoers are, in some real and uncomfortable ways, no different than the callous voyeurs in the story who are entertained by this game of kill-or-be-killed.
In the film version of "The Hunger Games," the camera doesn't watch the violence unfold so much as catch it on the fly, turning to pick up a splatter of blood amid the chaos, then whipping back to see a dead boy on the ground. There is no question that children are being killed, but it happens quickly and glancingly, with one exception, when Katniss pauses to mourn for a friend.
Not that quicker is better.
"If that death is something you move past onto the next thing, you're totally missing the point that this was a human life that was just extinguished," said Rich. "That person had relationships and potential and thoughts and dreams. And if you don't have to really look at it, then it doesn't matter. In fact, what some of the research shows is that it is not the graphic violence being dwelt on that is the biggest problem, but it's violence that doesn't show the suffering after. Violence has been a staple of human drama probably since people started acting out the hunt in front of a fire in their cave. But there is a difference between 'Macbeth' and 'I Know What You Did Last Summer.' And the difference is that you see the suffering (in the former), not just of the victims, but of the perpetrators as well."
The film's director Gary Ross, naturally, was concerned with staying true to the story's core. "Is it violent? Yes," he told Entertainment Weekly. "Do we back off from what it is? No, we don't. I'm not interested in violence for violence's sake." As such, the movie earned a PG-13 rating, and when put in context with other recent films, that doesn't seem out of line. Last summer's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," for example, also earned a PG-13, albeit with a far more wholesale approach to violence, both grandiose and fist-pumping in its depiction.
And yet one should be circumspect when considering whether or not these films are having an impact on a child's psychological development, said Rich. "What the research shows is not that kids see something in the movies and go out and imitate it. The problem is they see things over and over again that become increasingly normal, and they stop being in touch with their natural fear of and revulsion to these things. It shifts their frame for what is acceptable and what is desirable for the way we get along."
That even happens to adults. "I can speak from my own experience," said Rich. "When I worked in the film industry, I would go see the latest 'Friday the 13th' movie or other horror films and it didn't bother me that much. But once I became a physician and did a few shifts in the emergency department and saw what a real bullet hole in a 15-year-old bleeding to death looks like, I actually get no pleasure whatsoever from those movies. I've reset my frame. And it's not that I'm disdainful of these movies or above them, but it just isn't fun anymore."