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The Hunger Games are upon us. I’ve been dreading this moment since I heard that the first of the book trilogy was being filmed. Not because I didn’t like the books; in fact, I like them quite a lot. Several members of our household have lost a weekend or two, thanks to Suzanne Collins and her series. No, I have dreaded this because I was so afraid of how the book would be translated to film. More about that in a moment.

But first—the premise. The United States as we know it is no more; now called Panem, the nation has been divided into districts ruled by the Capitol and its sinister leader, President Snow. As a punishment for and a reminder of a past rebellion, the Capitol holds an annual event called the Hunger Games, in which a boy and a girl from each of the twelve districts are sent to an enormous outdoor arena to fight to the death. Meanwhile, the Capitol (whose people are exempt from the Games) considers the Hunger Games an exciting piece of entertainment, and the event is televised throughout Panem. If this sounds to you like a modern Rome and modern gladiators, you’ve got the picture.

Enter Katniss Everdeen, a teenage resident of District 12, which is apparently Appalachian coal mine territory. Her father has been lost in the coal mines, and she is the hunter and provider for her family in this hardscrabble district. At the “Reaping,” an event where the names of the Games participants are drawn by lottery, Katniss’s gentle younger sister Prim is chosen to compete in the Hunger Games. To save her, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her fellow district member Peeta are swept away to the Capitol, where they witness an excess of wealth and food that they have never imagined, and they enter a short training period to prepare for the Games. And then the fatal fighting begins.

The movie sticks closely to the book, though it leaves out tangential characters in an effort to maintain the focus of the story. While the story is violent, the violence is never glamorized. You will never find yourself cheering when someone dies—it is all horrifying. The violence that Katniss witnesses is painful and human, and the cameras move quickly, giving a very good idea of what is happening without showing every gory detail.

The performances and direction of this movie are excellent. Jennifer Lawrence makes a wonderful Katniss, as anyone who saw her in Winter’s Bone might have predicted. The film is suspenseful, the sets and scenery are perfect, and there are no flat notes in the acting. The main flaw is the lack of character development, likely due to time constraints. 

The themes from the book are all there: oppression, the inequity of some living in excess while others struggle in poverty, and the modern tendency to take a spectator’s seat to the horror that goes on elsewhere. One only needs to turn on the television to see the agony in Sudan, or the unspeakable events in Homs, Syria, to know that human beings are capable of inflicting much pain on each other. This story provides a way to reflect on what it means to be human in the midst of inhumanity.

What does that mean for parents whose children are eager to be part of this movie phenomenon? Well, first of all, I would recommend that parents inform themselves fully. In this film, people die, and you watch them die. Unlike a Mission Impossible or Transformers, where death counts are high but the people don’t really seem to matter, these ordinary teens matter immensely. These are no robots, orcs, or bad guys.

That’s both the beauty of the story and the reason it is so disturbing. It’s hard to believe someone could watch this movie and come away with a fist-pumping, adrenaline-fueled rush, certain that the good guys have won and the bad guys have been put in their place. Almost every character is portrayed as a human being, not a caricature. The challenge, then, is to be different from the people of the Capitol. The moviegoer should not be just another spectator, thoughtlessly enjoying the excitement.

If you have read the books, you know what happens on the screen. It is hard, sad, exciting, and it will make you think. There is the added visual dimension, which can be too much for some viewers, making the story too real. But I would recommend that if you do let your teens see this movie (please pay attention to the PG-13 rating), that you see it too. Many young people are going to be talking about it, probably seeing it multiple times, and this is an opportunity to talk to them about what it means to have much, what it means to choose right, what it means to be human. And, most of all, what it means to be a child of God in a broken and dying world.

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