I did it. I took my eight-year-old son to see The Hunger Games movie. I hadn't even read the book, nor had he.
And no, I'm not clueless:
I knew the story was about a group of children selected to fight to the death, leaving one winner.
I knew it was rated PG-13.
I knew several families who kept their eight-year-olds (and older) away.
So why did I do it?
First of all, my two older kids (14 and 12) had seen it and liked it. I asked about details...descriptions of scenes...and opinions about what they saw. When I asked both of them how they thought their younger brother (who was dying to see it) would react, here's what they said:
14-year-old son said: "You know, he's seen a lot worse playing videogames. There wasn't anything in there inappropriate for him...though he'll definitely get pretty sad at a couple of parts."
12-year-old daughter said: "You're thinking of taking him?! Oh. My. God. He hasn't even read the book! He needs to read the book! You should NOT take him. It's soooooooooooo scary. He'll be FREAKED out. There's a scene where a girl dies getting bitten by bees...it's awful!" Then she asked to go see it for a second time.
Based on those two conversations, I knew we'd be just fine...
On the way to the movie, I said to my eight-year-old, "Now, I know you'll say you already know this, but I want you to remember that what we're about to see is only a..."
"...movie, Mom. I know. It's make believe."
"Okay," I said. "And so you know that some of the fight scenes you'll see are just..."
"...made up. They're actors. Yes. I get it."
"Did you know it's supposed to take place in the future?" I asked.
"In the future?" he asks.
"Yup. It's a made-up story in the future."
"Mom. I know it's made up," he said, rolling his eyes.
"Okay," I said. "You want to know the coolest thing is about The Hunger Games?"
"What?" he said, letting go of my hand as we crossed the street; that's for babies.
"One woman, Suzanne Collins, made the whole story up in her head," I said.
"She did?" he said, more enthusiastically than I'd expected.
"Yes," I said."She made up the whole story, and she wrote it all down."
"Like you and your book," my son said, taking my hand again.
"Exactly," I said. "She sent her manuscript to lots of people and..."
"...someone turned it into a book?"
"Yup," I said. We entered the lobby of the theater, abuzz with eager fans waiting for popcorn and pretend fighting.
"Can I get candy?" my son asked.
"Yes," I said. "Or popcorn...but not both."
"Awwww," he said. "Fine. Popcorn."
Before he could sulk, I said, "You know, when someone read Suzanne Collins' manuscript, they liked it enough to turn it into a movie."
"So that's how it happens?" he asked.
"Sometimes," I said.
"That's so cool," he said. "Maybe your book will get made into a movie."
The Hunger Games was, hands down, one of the best movies I've seen in years.
The story is incredibly well-developed, and you certainly don't need to read the book to understand what's going on.
Jennifer Lawrence is perfectly cast as Katniss, the heroine. Words can't describe how beautiful that girl is, but I'll use a few -- genuine, bold, human, caring, strong. She carries the weight of the world on her shoulders and shows that stress in her eyes (though not on her gorgeous skin...don't I sound like such an old lady?). Her naturally hoarse voice adds another perfect layer to communicate her family's impossible circumstances.
I'd been told by several people that the gore and violence of kids killing kids wasn't as graphic as it could have been, and they were correct. Much of the fighting was of the wrestling-type, grunting and scuffling, with a flashes of an arrow or a neck snap. Yes, I know. A neck snap.
My reply to anyone who asks how I'd even consider exposing my child to this movie is this:
I know my children well. I see what they watch on television, what they take an interest in, and what many of their friends are talking about. The Hunger Games trilogy has been in our house for the last several years. It will eventually be read by all of us. In many ways, it's already been discussed and dissected. Further, I can't protect my child with bubble wrap. They see violent commercials whether I'm with them or not. They hear about violence in the local schools. The challenge as a parent is dealing with the realities of what kids are exposed to in our culture by discussing them. There's a misguided belief that if we show children too much violence at a young age, they'll turn into violent people: For instance, in Lionel Shiver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, the main character's son goes on a Columbine-style killing spree; however, one could argue that a contributing factor in his behavior was the lack of parental bonding in the first place...
So, what's better? Limit our children's exposure to potentially upsetting issues in life -- or offer supervised exposure with plenty of opportunities for questions and discussion?
The U.S. was attacked on 9/11 and our family talks about that. People are starving in places all over the world, fighting for their lives; we also talk about that. Someone recently forwarded an email warning to be on the lookout for plastic water bottles left on lawns filled with Drano and a piece of aluminum foil (if shaken, the gas buildup has the potential to blow off a finger); we recently talked about that. A depressed young man put a pipe bomb in his mouth several months ago and blew his head off in our local park; the cancellation of school and news helicopters guaranteed we talked about that.
Though I wish I could, I cannot shield my children from every piece of disturbing news in the world.
So why, some may ask, expose him to even more?
My eight-year-old son is not a voracious reader. Prior to seeing the movie, the only scary thing about The Hunger Games was the size of the book itself. He's never been a confident reader, but after seeing the movie, we've been reading The Hunger Games together. We discuss things like how the characters differ from what we saw in the movie and share our opinions about how the book compares to the screen version. It may not be the traditional approach to reading, but a fire's been lit under my reluctant reader. Prior to seeing The Hunger Games, he was most comfortable reading comic-style books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate; now he's proudly reading a novel. The Harry Potter series still feels too large to tackle, though I'm certain it'll be next on our list.
After seeing The Hunger Games, we talked about how the movie evolved from someone's imagination. How the main character, Katniss, was treated unfairly, and how she, like so many others in the movie, knew that killing anyone is not right.
My eight-year-old was motivated to see the movie: In my opinion, he was interested, prepared, and mature enough to see it. Had we not seen it together, he surely would have heard details about the movie from his older siblings or from other children at school, and their descriptions may have been even worse than the Hollywood scenes themselves. During the "fight" scenes, I'd lean over and say, "Do you think they're using real swords or rubber?" "Do you think it's hard for her to lie still like that, pretending she's dead?" We both cried at certain moments. We both jumped at unexpected characters popping into the frame. We both felt the anxiety that came from watching a child put into an impossible scenario in which no escape is obvious.
After the movie, we walked home.
"So, which part did you like the best?" I asked.
"When the kids were training to fight. The swords were really cool." It's always about the swords.
"Were there any parts that you didn't like?" I wondered.
"Just one," he said.
"Which one was it?" I asked, stepping off the curb and into the crosswalk.
"When that guy snapped the other guy's neck," he said, walking through the intersection quickly.
"Oh," I said, momentarily wondering if I'd scarred him for life by exposing him to the violence. "What didn't you like it, Buddy?"
"Mom," he said, already calling me from the sidewalk across the intersection, "you could tell it was totally fake."