"This isn't going to be one of those torture splatter films?" asked my fella on Friday as I invited him to accompany me to an early showing of The Hunger Games. I assured him it was a 12A rating, but in describing him the bare bones of the plot "It's about this game show where children kill each other", I doubted whether I would ever allow my imaginary 12 year old child or the 12 year old version of myself see such a film.
In the early 1980s, when I was 11, my father took me to "the pictures" to see Conan The Barbarian. It had a 15 rating, and I did not look 11, let alone 15. But my father has a somewhat intimidating and confident personality and so he announced to the ticket lady "This is my son, he's 15 alright?" and we were waved through. I recall nothing in the film which warranted a 15 rating, and when I caught it again a couple of weeks ago on ITV3 or ITV4, the only thing that was scary about it was Grace Jones, and the only thing corrupting about it was Arnold Schwarzenegger's decolletage. Standards of what it is acceptable to expose children to have certainly changed.
In order to get the 12A rating, the child deaths in The Hunger Games are not dwelt on or shown in graphic detail. Many of them happen off-screen - a dull "boom" sound announcing them to the other contestants and us. When they do occur, the camera-work is so quick and jerky that it's almost impossible to make out what's going on. The camera-work is the worst thing about The Hunger Games - it reminds me of the first time I used a video camera on holiday. And when we watched it back, my fella went upstairs and threw up.
But while there isn't any gore in The Hunger Games, it's the ideas themselves which should have earned it a higher age rating. Not only is this a contest where children have to kill themselves, it's one which is televised for entertainment, and it's part of a punishment inflicted on a once rebellious and now starving populace. The children are selected via lottery, and you can enter multiple times in order to receive food.
I remember the first time I read dystopic fiction - at 15 I read George Orwell's 1984. The book's hopeless ending threw me into a deep depression - around the same time I dyed my hair black - and turned into a proto-emo. I wasn't used to unhappy endings, and had thought that somehow Winston Smith would have grown a pair of biceps, got hold of broadsword and hacked Big Brother into bits, Arnie-style. But instead, after being captured, tortured with rats, screaming "Do it to Julia", and then mentally destroyed, the book ends with Big Brother triumphant. Forever.
The Hunger Games is one of a trilogy, and it remains to be seen whether in the later books, the silly blue-pompadour wearing elite of The Capital will be overthrown. As we left the cinema, my fella observed that it was a "1970s ending". With messages about the cruelty of reality tv and growing inequality in societies, The Hunger Games is the sort of film which young people should be watching - if only to ensure that they will treat the likes of me more kindly when we're in our 80s and they're in power and can decide what our taxable income should be and whether we get winter fuel allowances...
As of next year, the school-leaving age goes up to 17, then 18 in a couple more years time. We expect children to stay in school for longer and longer, yet we also expect them to grow up much more quickly. I hope they have the stomach for both.