I initially thought that The Hunger Games was a really good film. A really good film. It had all the ingredients, after all: a perfectly-cast Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role, Suzanne Collins as screenwriter, and a sympathetic director who really seemed to understand the material. The opening scenes of shaky-cammed apocalyptic gloom offset against the slick Truman Show-style televisation were perfectly pitched, so it was disappointing as the film inexorably slid into mediocrity the minute the violence started. Or didn’t, as it turned out.
The Hunger Games was passed by the BBFC as a 12A. “The certificate of death,” as The Guardian put it, because there’s a lot of death in The Hunger Games, though not much of it ends up on the screen. The clue should have come in the “adult” part of the Young Adult genre – the books aren’t aimed at kids. Katniss is 16 at the start, and the other characters are older, so it’s a fair bet that the books are aimed at 16 year-olds. Not 11, 12 or PG-13. The subject should have been a clue: they’re being forced into a desperate, bloody fight to the death, but what happens on the screen is – as the classification might tell us – “mild peril”. It’s so heavily cut it may as well have had black squares where the action should be, like that Nine Inch Nails video for Closer. Censored. If you didn’t see the bodies hit the floor, you wouldn’t have known they were dead – a (brave new) world away from the novels, where Haymitch plucks out his opponent’s eye before staggering forward, intestines in hand.
You find yourself mentally filling in the blanks – this is the bit where he bashes Clove’s head in with a rock – which makes me wonder if it would have made any sense whatsoever if you hadn’t read the books. The only way to convey the drama and brutality of the source material is by filling the screen with reaction shots, which makes Katniss seem more vulnerable and emotional and less like the girl who barely hesitates to shoot her own lover when he stands in her way.
(While we’re on the subject, I have to agree that the “love triangle” seems even more ludicrous when it’s a choice between the hot one and Mr Plain & Dull. Seriously, casting people, what were you thinking?)
Still, if The Hunger Games seems foolish when even the actual hunger is sanitized away, at least it’s not Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Season one was a cheap-and-cheerful teen series that happily fitted into the 6pm teatime slot on BBC2, but as Buffy grew up, so did the series. By season six, Willow was flaying alive her opponent, which appeared on BBC2 as a clumsily-edited reaction shot of Xander vomiting and shouting, “What did you do?”
Well, if you hadn’t seen the late-night showing, you’d have absolutely no idea!
The thing is, as the Guardian notes, there’s no artistic justification for the 12 rating. Jurassic Park was barely recogniseable from its gory novel origins, and other fare such as The Dark Knight is far too dark and violent for its tweenie audience.
That same mismatch appears in video games. A frequent argument on the Morrowind forum takes place between someone asking if there’s a mod to remove the dancing-girl bar, and those who believe Little Johnny shouldn’t be playing at all a game which contains themes of self-mutilation. Then its sequel Oblivion hit the US with a Teen rating, but was re-appraised after a mod revealed locked-down nudity not intended for release. On taking a closer look, the censors noticed that the game was far gorier than originally thought, and insisted on the Mature rating the game ought to have shipped with in the first place.
Sure, it gave the business team a heart attack or three, but when it came to making an expansion (Shivering Isles), the M-rating gave licence to an even darker tone. Liberated from trying not to give Little Johnny nightmares, the game could provide a much more satisfying experience.
Then followed Fallout 3 – an 18 in the UK – which makes no concession whatsoever to a younger audience. If Oblivion had been wildly successful, Fallout 3 exceeded their most ambitious dreams. Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed carry hard 18 ratings and sell by the million. There’s an audience for this thing: a lot of grown-ups in the world, don’tchaknow. So why are films so reluctant to entertain us?
If Judge Dredd had been so betrayed by the Stallone version – itself cleaned up and cutesified – then Dredd 3D should have been its salvation. Here, at last, was a film proud to display its 18-rated badge. It had gore galore, but it wasn’t gratuitous. That’s the thing – the reason why the rating exists at all – because in certain kinds of story you can’t adequately convey the situation without it. Like Greta Scacci in a nude scene, sometimes the script absolutely demands it.
Cruelly, outrageously, the audience didn’t appear for Dredd, and didn’t perform well at the cinema. It was a bad weekend, it wasn’t well advertised, and there were many other factors that contributed to its failure at the box office. The main thing is that it was an artistic success, and slowly audiences are finding it on the rental and DVD market. Perhaps its watch-at-home sales will be enough to persuade studios and distributors that – hey – we do exist. Eventually, they’ll have to fund films that are made for the grown-ups in the audience, but first we have to show them that, like with games, we’re a market, too.