Suzanne Collins wrote a series of books about war that are often unrelentingly brutal. Is it worth turning them into movies that the MPAA would balk at?
In his positive review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the franchise, David Edelstein noted that there's one instance where the movie falls short. "It’s too bad that, like its predecessor, Catching Fire doesn’t convey the full horror and injustice of each combatant’s death at the moment of killing," he writes. "That’s what you feel in a great war movie, whereas, in the end, The Hunger Games trilogy is just good dystopian pulp. It’s likely that the violence has so little sting because of the studio’s need for a PG-13 rating, which has the paradoxical effect of making murder less upsetting and therefore more family friendly."
Now, this is not a new criticism of the franchise. Back when the first film came out, our Richard Lawson wrote: "boy if Ross and his producers don’t, in an effort to appease censors and whoever else, totally denude the story of its most important aspect."
When it comes down to it, Catching Fire does do a much better job of at least establishing the emotional, war-like, stakes, if not actually showing much blood. The Catching Fire team, led by new director Francis Lawrence also pushes the MPAA's envelope in other ways. The cursing in Johanna Mason's outburst during the interviews before the start of the Quarter Quell—the Games that make up the heart of this story—were bleeped out, but we know from Philomena that two F-words can get you an R. Though we don't actually hear Johanna say the offending word, the sentiment is there.
Now, imagining an R-rated Hunger Games is purely hypothetical. None of the Hunger Games films will ever have an R-rating, producer Nina Jacobson told Entertainment Weekly. "Suzanne wrote these books for young people to be able to read them and discuss them and engage with them," she said. And that's true. In a 2011 New York Times Magazine profile Collins said: "I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war. For adolescents."
But on the pages of the book, she's allowed to do much more. Take, for instance, this passage from Catching Fire: "Around the Cornucopia, the ground appears to be bleeding; the water has purple stains. Bodies lie on the ground and float in the sea, but at this distance, with everyone dressed exactly the same, I can’t tell who lives or dies." For the most part tributes die and disappear in the film and the dead bodies go unseen.
Editing down Mockingjay—the third book in the trilogy, which will be broken up into two films—may prove even more of a challenge to filmmakers. The book truly is the story of a "real war," as President Snow coos to Katniss in the Catching Fire, film. "We see the revolution unfold, and we see the cost of being involved with violence and political uprising. It's the most brutal and bloody of the three books, and also the one that treats some of the supporting characters the worst," Charlie Jane Anders wrote in an io9 piece about why the final installment is better than Catching Fire. "Mockingjay provides little comfort to people who've grown to love these characters." Will a movie invite us to see one of our favorite characters being torn at by muttations? Probably not.
And maybe it's not worth it. Collins did write books for young adults after all. But The Hunger Games series has become so much more than just a book. It's now a product, and one that sometimes seems to lose touch with the original intent of the story. Perhaps, for Mockingjay, that touch of real, R-rated horror might remind us that Collins' intentions, as she told the Times Magazine way back when, were in part to educate young people about war. "If we wait too long, what kind of expectation can we have?" she told Susan Dominus. "We think we’re sheltering them, but what we’re doing is putting them at a disadvantage."