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'Hunger' dispute has no one sated

Parents fear film will be too violent; young devotees determined to see it

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By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / March 21, 2012
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When “The Hunger Games’’ opens Friday, moviegoers will watch kids battle one another to the death in a dystopian future. But off screen, epic fights are already raging between parents who fear the PG-13 film will be too rough for young children and the elementary schoolers who insist they can handle it.

“All the people who don’t get to see it, their parents aren’t cool,’’ said Becca Lev, a seemingly reasonable and cheerful Newton 10-year-old, who nonetheless threatened her mother with a three-day tantrum if she is not allowed to see the film. Mom was unmoved. “I never said I was cool,’’ responded Julie Goodman.

Parents and children have long disagreed over the definition of appropriate, but intergenerational struggles over “The Hunger Games,’’ which is based on the first book in Suzanne Collins’s blockbuster young adult trilogy, are particularly intense.

A big part of the problem is that many fourth- and fifthgraders have read the novels and therefore feel they have earned the right to see the film. (The books themselves are a continuing source of familial conflict, since young adult novels are generally recommended for readers ages 12 to 17.)

The story, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, in a country called Panem, follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, one of 24 teens battling to the death in a televised contest. The Motion Picture Association of America gave the film a PG-13 rating for “intense violent thematic material and disturbing images.’’

Children don’t like to hear it, but specialists say that reading about violence isn’t as scary as watching it. “It’s a gut experience as opposed to a head experience,’’ said Michael Rich, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center on Media and Child Health. “A movie is very direct. You are seeing it, you are hearing it, as compared with translating it from black ink on a page into something in your own mind.’’

Last week, the British Board of Film Classification demanded that the distributor of “The Hunger Games’’ cut out seven bloody seconds or face a 15A rating (meaning moviegoers 15 and under would need to be accompanied by an adult), a demand that Lionsgate UK met, giving the film a 12A rating.

As opening day nears, fans on this side of the Atlantic know one thing: regardless of the violence, they must see the movie.

“I really want to see it, but mom says I can’t,’’ said a poised Ella Sheidley, 7, of Newton. “I am very mad at her.’’

To her mother’s dismay, Ella was introduced to the books by an older cousin, and her interest in the film was further piqued when she saw a poster at Legacy Place in Dedham during an outing to see “The Lorax’’.

“She can complain all she wants,’’ said her mother, Beth Sheidley. “They have children that have to fight to the death [in the movie] - she’s not seeing it.’’

Jason Lobell, 9, also from Newton, took the soft-sell approach, promising to do his chores, brush his teeth, and try not to annoy his stepsister if his mother allows him to see the movie.

“Well played,’’ said his mother, Mim Plavin-Masterman, “but no.’’ She vowed not to cave in, but Jason was already planning to wear her down. “I’m going to keep asking until she says ‘yes,’ ’’ he said, grinning cutely.

As the buzz mounts, the strain on the decision-makers is growing, said Caroline Knorr, parenting editor of the nonprofit Common Sense Media. “Parents are really caught between making sure their kids are not completely ostracized because they can’t see anything,’’ she said, “and that pressure to ‘age up.’ Kids around 10 and 11 are very eager to get into what teens are into, and marketers take advantage of that.’’

“The Hunger Games’’ not only pits children against parents - it can put parents at odds with other parents, said Sandie Angulo Chen, who wrote the pre-release review for Common Sense Media. She sees an increasing need for discussions about “screen protocol’’ before playdates, sleepovers, and birthday parties.

“You have to deal with the Waldorf-schooled kids who are not even allowed to watch TV shows or movies,’’ she said, “and then you get the other end of the spectrum, where the kid is the youngest in his family and he’s allowed to see anything.’’

Chen also sees parents wanting bragging rights about what their children are reading, and in this case, seeing. “There is this whole thing where people say, ‘My kid is precocious and super mature,’ when in reality they might be having nightmares.’’

But all that many children really know about “The Hunger Games’’ is that their friends are seeing it - or at least talking about seeing it.

“We have enough violence in this world; they don’t need to see that,’’ said Teresa Martins, a nurse in Boston, who was eating dinner with her daughter Haley Lopes, 11, at South Shore Plaza’s food court. Just as the experts recommended, she suggested an alternative activity for her disappointed daughter. “I’m sure there is a Disney movie she can enjoy,’’ she said.

Haley stopped just short of rolling her eyes. “Boring,’’ she said.

Beth Teitell can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell

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