Violence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and the need for a better MPAA / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Whipping

The only people who like the Motion Picture Association of American are the people whose livelihoods depend on the success of the Motion Picture Association of America, and I expect that a fair number of them aren’t entirely fond of it either. I understand the reason for the MPAA, and I have no problem whatsoever with rating systems in general, but it’s not controversial to say that the MPAA’s rating system is broken. But while the basic point about how ridiculous it is that sexuality is considered more grotesque than horrible violence has been made countless times, I don’t think enough attention has been paid to just how horrible that violence has become. In November, a study was released that showed that the amount of gun violence in PG-13 films has now exceeded the amount in R-rated films.

What?

Seriously, though. What?

The year that gun violence exceeded, by the way, was 2012. A lot of great, ultra-violent films came out. For me, the biggest surprise was the original Hunger Games.

I haven’t read any of the books in The Hunger Games trilogy. I don’t know anything that happens in them. I saw the first movie because it seemed cool and, I mean, why not? My younger sister wanted to see it, so I saw it. I really liked it, more than she did. Many (though not all) of the problems my peers saw in it directly stemmed from the differences required by adaptation.  I didn’t have any preconceived notions of these characters or events, so I just took it as it was/is. As it is, it’s a film I really like. I haven’t seen it since that first viewing (in IMAX, a (somewhat problematic) spectacle to be sure), but I plan to at some point. Maybe I’ll just do a marathon when Mockingjay Part II releases. I look forward to that.

So, Catching Fire. Prior to the initial trailers, I had no idea what to expect, and it turned out that what I had been led to expect from the trailers was not really representative of what the film would become (and I mean that in a good way). And while I greatly enjoyed the film, there was something about its violence that bothered me on a fundamental level. It wasn’t even the content of the violence so much as the context, both on and off screen. There’s some pretty horrific stuff going on in that world, but seated behind me were probably a dozen kids ten or younger.

We can debate the merits of that violence until the cows come home, and there are plenty of legitimate arguments to be made that the films are too tame for something that focuses on the slaughtering of children for sport (see Battle Royale for exhibits A through Z), but that’s another discussion entirely. For what it is (a PG-13 movie marketed to children), Catching Fire is too violent.

I saw The Dark Knight in theaters twice. The first was on opening day, a 3:30 showing. Everyone in the theater was late teens or up. That film pushed the boundaries of what is reasonable in a PG-13 movie, especially with its pseudo-snuff film sequence after the hospital explosion. When I saw it the second time, there was a young child in the theater. At that scene, the kid started crying and he and his unhappy father left and did not return.

That kid should never have been in the theater in the first place, but unless that parent had been paying a whole lot of attention, there wasn’t much reason to know that. Legally Blonde is a PG-13 movie as well. That kid could have seen Legally Blonde and been okay. He could reasonably have seen 99% of existing PG-13 movies and been okay. The Dark Knight is that other 1%, if it’s even that big.

The Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit had one moment that seemed to go too far. Or if not too far, then farther than I thought a PG-13 movie could go. In that film, a man is shot in the head. That man is shot in the head onscreen. A bullet hole appears, blood splatters on the wall behind him, and collapses. I was as shocked as I have been in a movie theater.

The Walking Dead opens with something similar, but the growing level of violence in cable television programs is an entirely separate conversation, plus man-on-zombie violence is inherently less disturbing that man-on-man.

Catching Fire pushes that limit as well. In fact, the film was almost rated R. The difference between the final PG-13 rating and an R is the placement of an arrow. Producer Nina Jacobson told Vulture, “We had one shot where one of our tributes is killed at the cornucopia, and we had to move where the arrow hit him, from one part to another part," she told Vulture. "It used to hit him in the face, and now it hits him in the chest.”

And as I considered that, it seemed so silly. What an insignificant change that was. That they were so willing to change it means that the shot to the face never mattered (and in context, it really doesn’t, unless you’re trying to make this case about the horror of child-on-child violence, which is actually less relevant in the sequel since most of the players in this particular Hunger Games are adults). But what exactly does an arrow-to-the-face mean to the unknown members of the MPAA ratings board? And why is it the thing that would have pushed them over the edge?

Why wasn’t it the whipping scene? Twelve Years a Slave features a lot of horrific violence, but much of it is implied. The first scene where Solomon Northrup is beaten, the scene where he is told he’s a slave in much the same way that Kunta Kinte was told his name was Toby in Roots. But that shot takes place from a wide shot below, and while the actual strikes to the back take place onscreen and the reactions of Chiwetel Ejiofor tell everything, the film never shows the skin break.

That is a moment for adults, in a movie for adults.

Why, then, does Catching Fire have one just like it? While the context is undoubtedly less horrific, the visuals are actually more graphic. Liam Hemsworth’s torn back is on full display.

So why is that okay for children to see?

The PG-13 rating says “Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May Be Inappropriate For Children Under 13.” Reasonable, right? It’s the fault of the parents if the kids see something too mature for them! They should have done their research.

Sure, that makes sense, except that the lengthier description on the MPAA’s website states that, “There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence.” [emphasis mine] Does a public whipping not seem extreme to you? Does the bloody split skin not seem realistic to you? Does the existence of a violent uprising juxtaposed against a game where people kill each other not seem persistent to you?

Why is an arrow to the face the thing that would have done it? What does that represent to these people? Was it a particularly beautiful face? Did the idea of destroying something beautiful frighten them? I don’t remember the guy, so it really can’t have been too memorable.

But it wasn’t the whipping scene that got to me, although I would hope that the parents of the half-dozen ten year olds were feeling unhappy with their ticket purchase at that particular moment. Instead, it was a scene that came immediately before the Tributes went onto the field. Lenny Kravitz’s character, whose name I never learned but Wikipedia tells me is Cinna, outwardly defies Donald Sutherland, and that’s a problem. In that moment, it’s clear that something is going to happen to him. But the only word I can use to describe what actually happens is “sadistic.”

Deriving pleasure from inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.

Sadism is a reality. There are sadistic people in this world, and there are sadistic acts that take place. I am not advocating sheltering people from sadism. I’m not saying escapist fantasies shouldn’t confront evil head on.

But when making a film for an audience that skews pretty young, maybe focusing on the horrors of humanity isn’t the best way to go about things.

Cinna joins Katniss Everdeen as she walks to the glass elevator that will take her to the arena. He explains to her the functionality of her suit (he is her costume designer) and what the specifications likely mean for the layout of the map above. They talk and it’s nice and fine. Katniss walks into the elevator, and the countdown happens. But there’s a pause, and in that pause several guards come in and beat him to death. Or, if not to death, damn close to it. Close enough that it really doesn’t matter, because when he’s dragged away he’s a dead man one way or another. Katniss screams and hits the glass, because it was a show all for her. It wasn’t just a punishment, because that could have happened anytime or anywhere. It was an act of pure sadism on the part of the man who ordered it: Donald Sutherland. El presidente.

While the basics of that scene are found in the book (I looked up a synopsis just for this), it seems to be one of the few moments that is actually more horrific in the film than in the book. Rather than just a single knock-out strike, it’s a serious beating. The cold, calculated nature of that moment is stunning.

And none of the ten year olds should have seen it.

That’s not a scene for children. Thirteen year olds? Maybe. They’re in middle school and have already gotten their first taste of people who hurt others just because. It’s bleak, and even though Katniss shows that she can fight back, it’s a moment where she has no control. Cinna is dead. Yes, because of what he did, but also because of her. What he did was because of her.

When I saw Wanted back in 2008, one of the lovely theater guests was a small child. In the momentary silence that followed the big action moments, the child would gurgle and say something inane. That kid should not have been in the theater (but despite its R rating, even that film is less thematically heavy than Catching Fire, not that a child that young could understand any broader themes anyway). But there was nobody stopping that woman from bringing her child into the theater. In her own home, if she wants to make bad decisions about what her kid grows up watching, nobody can stop her, but there’s no reason to subject truly impressionable minds to such violence. There is no evidence that seeing fantasy violence leads anyone to actually being violent, but young kids can’t separate reality from fantasy in the same way that teenagers and beyond can.

That’s important. It matters.

There should be age limits. Perhaps something like the addition of the “15” in Britain, where no one under 15 is allowed into the theater, or a 12A (which Catching Fire received), where anyone under the age of 12 must be accompanied. PG-13, on the other hand, is all-but-meaningless. Anyone can buy a ticket to a PG-13 movie, whether it’s something they should see or not. Ten years ago, there wouldn’t have been films that were seriously unsuitable for those crowds. It’s a recent development, and the industry needs to react. Maybe no one under the age of 13 should be allowed in an R rated movie, even if accompanied by a parent. Maybe it could depend on the content of the film. The MPAA already justifies their ratings, so they wouldn’t even really need to do any more work.

But how do you test that? To some extent, you can’t (although Britain seems to have figured it out). But if the parents are asking for one child’s ticket for the 5 PM showing of 12 Years a Slave, please? Then they shouldn’t be sold tickets to that show.

If the MPAA is going to sit on their high horses and judge the “morality” of films, which is exactly what they’re doing by regulating the use of “fuck” so heavily, ignoring all of the other bullshit that Kirby Dick exposes in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, then they should actually do something. They should stop letting films like Catching Fire get away with ratings that allow them to be marketed to people far too young to grasp their significance. You may hate Catching Fire and think its narrative is drivel, but successful or not, it’s still saying something grand and significant.

And it’s doing it through violence. Extreme, realistic, and persistent violence. For some people, it’s not violent enough, certainly not as violent as the book. But put even that dumbed down violence up on a massive screen, an IMAX screen even, and it will have an impact that imagination could not, especially in those most impressionable of young minds that don’t really understand what they’re reading.

I’m not one for censorship, and that’s not what I’m advocating here, but I am advocating change. Movies are getting bleaker and more violent, PG-13 ones especially. I mean, Man of Steel is one of the least hopeful films in forever, and it’s about a dude who has the symbol for “hope” on his chest.

What chance do the rest of us have?