Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: “The Hunger Games”: Some Suggestions For Parents

The new film, “The Hunger Games,” based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, has outstripped Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax as the top grossing film this year. Perhaps because it is based on a young adult novel written in the voice of a 16-year-old heroine with many young fans, it earned a MPAA rating of PG-13 despite considerable violence. As such, there has been concern about its impact on the millions of teens who will be viewing it.

Research studies have demonstrated both an increase in aggression and desensitization to violence by children and teens viewing many hours of violence in TV shows, interactive games and films. Longitudinal, cross-sectional, and experimental studies have all confirmed this correlation.

In “ The Hunger Games” what is of particular concern is that the violence is lethal violence of children against children, an activity portrayed as “games.”

The Role of Parents

As parents you can best mediate the impact of what your children have seen or are viewing if you are “media literate” i.e. – you know what your children and teens are exposed to. Accordingly, if your teens have seen or are going to see “The Hunger Games,” it makes sense for you to see it. If necessary, see it separately.

Having recently viewed the film with an audience that was largely late teens and young adults, it was interesting that the “out-loud” verbal comments were more about the encouraged “love story” than the violence. There is no doubt that this is a riveting story that captures the young viewers interest and activates selective attention on many levels. I did wonder, however, about the hushed “silence” during the more violent scenes.

Seeing the film puts you in an important position to actually share the experience or have some credibility for discussion. It makes it possible for you to listen, respond to questions, discuss the best parts, bear witness to scenes that are “frightening,” and, if needed, underscore the fact that this film is fictional – not real.

Parents Consideration of the Themes

In addition to the overt violence, I think parents may want to consider the less obvious but possibly disturbing themes portrayed in this movie. While one need not call attention to these concerns or impose adult interpretations upon your children, understanding what is being subtly conveyed puts you in a position to notice and understand what may be anxiety producing or confusing to a teen as well as what is worth underscoring in a positive way.

The Brutal Suppression of Rights

The backdrop for the film is a controlling governing power “ The Capitol,” that punishes needy working districts for an earlier uprising by killing their children in a yearly event termed ” The Hunger Games.”  In these games one boy and one girl from each district is chosen by lottery to compete in a televised battle in which only one person can survive. There is hardly a more brutal reminder of the consequence of assertion than the killing of your child.

An Incomprehensible World

  • Discrepant with this horror is the fact that those adults in the Capitol are surreal, clown-like, and almost more absurd than frightening.  In some ways this may serve to dilute the sadistic excitement of the adults in the “Capitol” by offering a bit of comic relief for younger viewers.
  • On a more subtle level, however, it underscores a frightening reality – there are no viable adults in the world of this film.
  • Haymitch (Woody Harrison) who is the only advocate for the two children from District 12 is depicted as an alcoholic.  The President of the Capitol (Donald Sutherland) is a dark and confusing figure who has no empathy, no problem with lethal punishment and yet has an awareness of the power of hope.

No Parental Protection

  • We know that the first line of physical and psychological safety for children in the face of danger is the family network of support – parents.
  • There are no viable parents here, no one to provide safety and protection.
  • As the film scans the images of the parents, they seem shadowlike, weak, unhappy – psychologically lost.
  • Seemingly numbed by relentless grief and traumatic loss, they have for years been forced to watch in a powerless way as their starving children are chosen and forced to kill or be killed by other children.
  • It is the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, with whom many teen viewers will identify, who is portrayed as the true protector of her little sister and a possible winner.
  •  It is significant that her greatest worry on taking her sister’s place in the lottery is leaving her sister in the care of a dysfunctional and bereaved mother.

If your teen is interested and intent on seeing this film, your interest and involvement in viewing, listening, clarifying or just being there offers the protective parental presence missing in the world of the film.

 The Impact of Fear

Nothing is more frightening than a frightened person. The viewers, be they children, teens or adults, never stop viewing fear on the part of these children. That said, the traumatic impact of a frightening scene or image on a viewer is most determined by the viewer’s age, sensitivity, and history as well as the personal meaning of that scene or image to the viewer.

Parental Suggestions

  • If a teen or youngster gives you the impression of being disturbed by or unable to “ shake” an image or scene in a movie, consider these suggestions:
  • Normalize the fear and the reality that we all seem to “remember” images that are frightening and out-of-the ordinary for us.  Suggest that it takes a while for some frightening images to fade because we registered them when we were anxiously watching.
  • Suggest that you can “talk” the scene into a better place.
  • Talk about the scene, making sense of it in the context of the movie (things that we can’t understand are more frightening).
  • Remind a youngster that it is fiction and that there are different ways that scenes and images are created to make us feel that they are real. Talk about techniques in movie making or google for more information about such techniques. Information lessens fear.
  • With respect to frightening themes,  consider not only talking about the scene but also pointing out other scenes that counter the image or send a different message. For example:

We view the banding together of some of the children led by a bully and the scapegoating of the heroine as she tries to flee from them. A redeeming aspect of this movie is that we also see other children banding together to care for each other and save each other’s lives. We see betrayal and we see loyalty.

 The Danger of Being Your True Self

  • It is worth parents and teens considering that the most dangerous message of “ The Hunger Games” is the insistence that the only way to survive is to adopt a “ false self”- to become what those in power need you to be.
  • It is worth parents and teens considering that the best part of “ the Hunger Games” is the fight against this message embodied in the character of the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. From volunteering, to shooting the apple, to holding out for two winners, to looking beyond the final applause to the face of her true love – she never stops risking being her true self.

As this movie ends – we are uncertain of the ultimate fate of the winners. What we want to believe is that there has been some proof of what the president (Donald Sutherland) has predicted…

 “Hope is the Only Thing Stronger Than Fear”

Frightened girl photo available from Shutterstock.