So, I’ve been asking this question, in various forms, to various people (kids, teenagers, adults): “Should 5th graders read The Hunger Games? Should they see the movie?” They are reading it, in huge numbers at my school (in my last class of 20 5th grade girls, 11 had read it and 4 had seen the movie, and that seems like a pretty typical breakdown), but should they be?
Here’s an attempt at summarizing and analyzing what I’ve heard.
1. Reactions from the younger kids themselves
The 5th and 6th graders who have read the books are not disturbed and upset by them, on the whole. A few girls have said that they were a little disturbed, but for the most part, they are not having trouble. I think the kids who would have trouble, and I’m sure there are many, are steering clear of the book, either by their choice or parental choice. I’ve had a few kids ask whether they should read it, while sending me a very clear unspoken message that they want me to steer them away from it. They are feeling pressure from peers to read it, though.
The peer pressure element is interesting. It has come up in several conversations. One girls said her brother (also in 5th grade) had begged her to read it. A seventh grader said, ” My sister [5th grader] read it because it was the popular thing to do. It’s like a peer pressure thing. It’s not pressure, but it’s the thing everyone is doing.” I’ve heard a LOT of “You HAVE to read it!” declarations from 5th graders to other 5th graders.
Here’s what I think about these kids reading the book: I think that the horror of the premise (kids killing kids? are you kidding me?) is beyond most of the younger kids reading this book. It is so out there, so fantastical, it isn’t real. They aren’t scared or freaked out by it because it’s more like reading about Lord Voldemort than about something that might possibly happen. While I tend to read dystopian fiction as a sort of warning about what might happen in the future if we aren’t careful, these kids read it as pure fantasy. They love the action and suspense of the book, and don’t really think too much about the premise. I’m sure there are ones who do “get it,” but I haven’t talked to any young kid who expressed any sort of horror. It has been all excitement about the action.
The movie is a different story. I got really mixed reactions on that. Obviously, since it just came out, I have a small sample size to work with, but there are kids who love the movie and kids who have been upset by the movie.
The most interesting comment I got was from a 5th grader this morning, a girl who had loved the book: “When you read the book, you can visualize it in the way you can handle it.” (I asked her to clarify, and I didn’t write down her exact words, but she basically said that you only imagine what you can handle, that your brain protects you from picturing something you can’t cope with.) She said she had watched a youtube video of the scene from the movie where Rue dies, and said, “I was freezing cold for like the next hour. I forgot that it was fake.” That’s a pretty common reaction to trauma.
I also heard variations of, “It’s fine, unless you get freaked out easily. If you get scared by Pirates of the Caribbean or Mission Impossible, you can’t read it or watch it. If you can handle violence, you’d be fine.” Lots of kids talked about how the movie doesn’t show the worst violence. “It doesn’t focus on the killing. It’s more focused on before and after the killing.” One boy said, “One point in the movie was more violent than the book [the part with the wild doglike creatures]. I heard a bunch of people scream, and one person started crying.” I asked if he was scared, and he said no. A colleague wrote, “The violence was not gratuitous and could have been much more gory and explicit, but it was still pretty rough at times (as evidenced by the bawling 10 year old sitting next to us during a death scene).”
A few kids talked about vastly preferring the book because of how the book gives you Katniss’s thoughts. “I thought it was really good, but they left out some major parts and a lot of the book was from Katniss’s brain’s point of view, and they couldn’t really do that. I still liked it, but I didn’t like it as much because of that.” One boy talked about the book being a more “full” experience than the movie.
One girl said, “I hunt, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I see this stuff, so it wasn’t a big deal.” This comment really highlights to me how these kids aren’t seeing it as realistic at all. I don’t think this kid would think it was “no big deal” to see an actual human killed, but the gore didn’t bother her because she has been exposed to gore via hunting. The characters are more like animals than actual people.
2. Reactions from slightly older kids (grade 7 and 8)
I was really surprised by the conversation I had with four of my book club kids. Three are in 7th grade, and one in 8th. These are hardcore readers, and all of them have read and really enjoyed the book, and three had seen the movie.
Asked whether 5th graders should read the book, three of them were emphatic that younger kids should NOT read the book. One said, “It’s too violent.” But then another said, “I don’t think it’s too violent, but the concept is too. . . mature.” The first agreed, “Yeah, not too violent. Too mature.” For these kids, the premise is not complete fantasy. It’s disturbing to think about kids killing other kids, to think about a future and a government that would involve something so horrible. And since they get how sick it is, they don’t want little kids reading it. “I would NEVER let my brother [4th grade] read it. NEVER.”
I’ve seen this before with other books. Kids can be very protective of younger kids, of that innocence. I think that for many 7th graders, there’s this sense of yourself that has come where you feel like you just aren’t a kid anymore, that you have lost some level of innocence. And there’s a nostalgia for it. The 5th grader wants very much to be older and read the books for older kids, and the 7th grader realizes that they can never be little again and kind of longs for that time. (Of course, there are also ways in which the 5th grader wants to stay little, and the 7th grader wants to be in high school! It’s hard to be that age!)
But here’s where I was surprised. I asked about whether 5th graders should see the movie, and the responses flipped! The one kid who had said yes to the book said, “No, no, no! Not the movie. The movie is too gross. Too much blood for a 5th grader. I would never take my brother [4th grade] to that movie!” And the three who had been adamant that kids should not read the book were completely fine with the movie. “The movie is fine. My brother in 4th grade saw the movie, but I wouldn’t let him read it.” They talked about how the movie cuts away from the really violent parts. “It would not be rated PG-13 if it was violent.” And listen to this: “If you’re reading the book, you imagine stuff in your head that’s not in the movie.” The 5th grader above expressed the same sentiment, only for her, it was a gentler version in her head. For the 8th grader, it was worse!
3. Reactions from older kids and adults
“Don’t take your daughter to see the movie. It was too intense for my sister [6th grade].”
“We just got back from seeing [the movie] and I would be hesitant to bring a pre-teen to see it.”
“It was too much for 5th grade. I wouldn’t let my 5th grade daughter read it or see it.”
“[Husband] and [13-year-old son] thought the violence in the movie was not bad; [10-year-old daughter] and I thought it was far worse in the movie than in the book. I wondered if the male gender imagines and sees violence in their head more than we do?”
“I thought the violence was well played because it was quick or more audio than visual or so blurry you couldn’t tell who was winning in hand to hand combat. The whole premise of the book is that the games are not a good thing and even more than the books, the movie stressed the overall hatred for the violence of the games.”
“I do not think that kids are able to wrap their brains around how absolutely sick and twisted the underlying theme of this book is. The plot is so upsetting and disturbing to me that I had a hard time reading the first two chapters. My opinion is that adults are able to see how demented it truly is and can read it for what it is worth. I think kids (sorry to generalize- I know there are PLENTY of teenagers do not fall into this category) are not mature enough to comprehend how deeply disturbing the plot is, but are hooked on the characters, the excitement of the ‘games’ and the suspense it all brings.”
Overall, adults are all over the place with their opinions. Some have been super excited to take their own kids to the movies and are anxiously awaiting the next installment. Some are absolutely horrified by the fact that kids this young are reading the books and seeing the movie. Most would say, “It depends on the kid.”
Which I will end with, because that’s very much how I feel about it! It absolutely depends on the kid.
Time to find something else to obsess about!