New movie sensation The Hunger Games has pushed death and violence to centre stage in teen films. Critics and parents are divided over whether it has gone too far, writes Jamie Morton

On your marks. Get set. Kill.

Teens scramble for medieval weapons to slaughter each other in the "bloodbath" during the opening minutes of The Hunger Games.

Brutal adversaries wield swords and clubs across the grassy arena, cutting down a boy who tries to hide behind boxes. Cannons boom for each of the slain.


Our doe-eyed heroine, Katniss Everdeen, makes for the bushes and the games begin.

Undaunted or possibly attracted by all the killing, teenagers around the country have rushed to The Hunger Games in record numbers - its opening weekend take of $1.6 million at the New Zealand box office slayed previous teen fantasy blockbusters Twilight and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

But some critics are asking if the movie marks a dangerous new level of violence and gore in teen movies, which were already pushed beyond previously acceptable limits by the earlier series.

In the final Harry Potter instalment, we saw a whimpering teacher murdered with the flick of a wand and fed to the giant serpent of the boy wizard's nemesis.

The Twilight saga, also rated M, had brooding bloodsucker Edward Cullen using his bare hands to decapitate a female adversary before the series later explored the uncomfortable side of vampiric teen pregnancy.

Of course, all of these films are not without their high school movie staples - the privileged bullies, the outcast underdogs - but The Hunger Games has been praised for tackling deeper social and political themes, including severe poverty, starvation, oppression and the effects of war.

For those who have missed the hype, the film depicts the first of Suzanne Collins' trilogy of best-selling books, in which 16-year-old Katniss takes the place of her young sister to compete in the annual televised tournament in dystopian Panem.

A ruthless government orders each of the dozen districts under its iron rule to volunteer a young boy and girl for the games. The winner is ensured everlasting glory, the losing children die.

Australian authorities who delivered the film's New Zealand M classification under transtasman rating did so on the grounds that its moderate sense of threat or menace and moderate violence were "inextricably linked and justified by context".

It was by this measure that Manawatu mother and feminist blogger Deborah Russell reluctantly allowed her 10-year-old twin daughters to see it.

"One of the major themes, political control, has been very cleverly mixed with a theme of voyeurism, and we've got a very elite group that can control a less privileged group and exploit them," she told the Weekend Herald.

"So, a controlling government making children kill each other for the entertainment of the masses, in order to reinforce its control, that's a very disturbing theme - but it may well be beyond a lot of kids who just see a competition and their heroine winning."

Despite requiring plenty of post-film analysis, she described the movie as "manageable" for a parent.

"I disliked the depiction of violence - and I encouraged my daughters to look away if they found it too much. For younger children, a lot of parental guidance and input is needed."

But for child psychotherapist Augustina Driessen, there was no room for discretion.

"I think it should be banned. It should not be seen by teenagers ... it's a grave concern," she said.

"I've seen children who have come to me traumatised by less aggressive situations in films, so I think we have to be very careful with our young people."

One of New Zealand's biggest contributions to the young adult genre, The Juniper Game author Sherryl Jordan, also had no wish to see the movie, having put down Collins' second book in the series after it inspired nightmares.

"I think what disturbed me most about the book was that it actually glorified teenagers killing teenagers," she said.

"I know we're not actually watching The Hunger Games, since they're fiction - but we are still choosing to be entertained by the idea of people killing one another, and by images, even if imagined, of human terror and suffering."

She was left shocked at one excited young young fan's description of Katniss as "such a strong woman".

"The horror just hadn't occurred to her; she found it totally thrilling. That, I think, is the real tragedy. Young people today are being desensitised to human pain and desperation, and adults are allowing it, if not actively encouraging it."

Family First's Bob McCoskrie saw The Hunger Games as an example of Hollywood and its distributors eyeing the shocking and explicit as market value for drawing in young movie-goers.

"The fact that it's been given an M-rating shows they are pushing the envelope."

But New Zealand's Chief Censor, Dr Andrew Jack, doesn't buy the line young people are seeing more blood on the big screen.

The Office of Film Classification continued to get complaints about the level of violence in unrestricted movies, but the number was "fairly static", he said.

Although many of the complaints stemmed from cross-rating, and a clash of transtasman values and attitudes, he still held the authority to test a cross-rated film against New Zealand law and lift a rating.

In some cases - notably the Land of the Lost and The Princess and the Frog - he had done just that.

But he didn't see the need to do the same with The Hunger Games.

Censors in Britain sheared the film of seven seconds of gore - notably a scene where Katniss sits in a tree treating a gruesome wound, to approve its 12-A rating - and also ordered distributors to remove blood effects.

Despite the occasional splash of blood, much of the film's violence is carefully crafted to occur off-camera. We don't know a 12-year-old girl has been impaled by a spear until seconds after it is thrown and the butchering of another at her forest campfire is only heard, not seen.

However Dr Jack said the quantity of violence on screen was not the sole consideration. "And as a general observation, I'm not aware of anything that suggests Hollywood moviemakers are in some way trying to sneak violence through by making it implicit rather than explicit. In any event, there's no magical rule which differentiates between the two. The key thing will be around the extent and degree of the violence, and how much impact it actually has."

Otago University Department of Media, Film and Communication lecturer Garth Cartwright said that in the case of The Hunger Games, and the Twilight and Harry Potter sagas much of the blood had been drained in the conversion from book to movie.

"I know some of them deal with violent material, but the treatment of it is quite muted, I would say. Twilight was very sanitised and, for a vampire film, it's incredibly bloodless."

Though it could be argued that violence in teen movies had grown more realistic, a more convincing argument could be made that it was becoming more cartoonish, Victoria University lecturer Dr Tim Groves said.

The premise of The Hunger Games was unquestionably bleak, but it was by no means uncharted territory. Dr Groves saw similar scenarios in 2000 Japanese horror Battle Royale, cult 1975 sci-fi's Rollerball and Death Race 2000, and even in cinema as early as 1932's The Most Dangerous Game.

"And I don't think films are generally more violent. The teen audience at which films like Harry Potter and Hunger Games are targeted have made up a large part of the movie-going audience for 40 years, so that stuff that's being aimed at them always has been."

Yet where Groves saw the status quo continuing, Jordan saw a disturbing development.

"Many years ago I spoke with the head editor of a major publisher in [Britain] and asked her if there was any subject or theme she wouldn't publish for young adults," she said. "She said she had no rules, except that a book must never be about despair. That ruled out suicide and, I suspect, would have ruled out books like The Hunger Games.

"Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, maybe narrow-minded; but I like to be stirred by what I read or watch, not shaken. I believe that what we watch for entertainment and what we choose to read, is to our mind what food is to our body - it can enhance, or it can harm."