The upside of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire being a 12A

Getting a 12A rating might've been about maximising profits for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but there are some benefits to it...

To be on the safe side, it’s probably best to give this article a miss if you’ve not seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

This weekend, I finally caught up with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I went to my local multiplex on a Sunday afternoon, and was surprised at the number of under 10s that had been hauled along too. But then I remembered: Catching Fire is a 12A.

By the end of the movie, I was wondering if it should have been. There seems an ongoing slight relaxation of what’s allowed in a 12A/PG-13 movie, as more and more studios target their big movies at exactly that sweet spot. In the Venn diagram of movie making, it’s the crossover between a film being deemed too young, and one too inappropriate for a family audience. As such, you get a 12A or PG-13, and nobody feels left out. In short, it allows you to play to the broadest possible audience.

But while Catching Fire‘s promotion, rating and wildly inappropriate Subway tie-in all courts that audience, the film itself is a very different beast. The first hour and a half in particular is a very dark, very melancholy piece of blockbuster cinema, that makes Man Of Steel seem positively chipper. If you missed the first film or haven’t read the books, it doesn’t pander to you at all – there’s no recap here – and the film expects you to cling along for the ride, no matter how unsettling the subject matter.

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And that’s before we get to the brutality and violence. A face being smashed up against a see-through wall. The brutally of the Hunger Games themselves. Elderly citizens being led to their execution. Surprisingly, Catching Fire doesn’t flinch in the face of all of that, and not for the first time, in cutting away at key moments to just about get its rating, the impact of such moments is only heightened. Several times throughout the film I found myself thinking it beggared belief that this didn’t get a harder rating. But then, in the UK, Taken and Die Hard sequels are seemingly for 12 year olds now. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I’ve always been a bit wary of family friendly ratings on films, and how they seem to give the green light for some parents to leave the cinema as a surrogate babysitter for their children while they pop off to the shops or something. I distinctly remember seeing Apollo 13 on a Saturday afternoon, complete with its PG rating, and the screening being ruined by uncontrolled children running round and round, with nobody there to say stop.

Thus, when I looked around just before the Kevin Bacon advert started at who I’d be sharing a screening of Catching Fire with, my heart sank. This is why 12A is all wrong, I thought. That it’s now seen as a family-friendly greenlight.

Yet it was one of the best multiplex audiences I’d shared a film with in some time. For the vast bulk of the film, there was silence, and a sense that people were watching, and being engrossed by, the movie. That’s in part due to the strength of the film itself, certainly, but it also planted a thought in my head: that maybe this was one of those cases where there was an advantage in a young audience getting to see something of this ilk.

Because, as derivative as elements of the story clearly are, The Hunger Games books and films have an awful lot to say. Crucially, they have an awful lot to say to an audience demographic that rarely gets so firmly targeted with material this ambitious. Especially in blockbuster movie clothing.

The clue is in the title, after all. The foundation of the Hunger Games themselves is a celebration of a government crushing a rebellion against it. By the time we get to Catching Fire, the 75th anniversary of said rebellion being crushed is something that’s celebrated by those in charge. So that’s 75 years of a lavish, opulent government keeping its people segregated, keeping them poor, keeping them hungry, and keeping them under control.

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And control is what the games themselves are all about. That the citizens of the assorted districts in the films offer up their young to be sacrificed. They then become complicit in it by watching the interviews, watching the coverage, and witnessing the slaughtering of young, innocent lives. There’s no spinning of this either.

On whatever level a young audience takes the Hunger Games films, there’s something to be gleamed from them. Ideally, it’s the political subtext that will resonate, and the science fiction themes (at one stage in the movie, the very rich offer a drink that allows you to be sick, so you can eat even more food, even while others elsewhere are starving). So much of the best science fiction takes segments of life as we know them now and extends them to possible eventualities. It’s not hard to see that The Hunger Games may unlock an interest in the genre from people not usually exposed to such material.

Furthermore, the inherent seriousness, mixed into an accessible, non-condescending blockbuster, that assumes a degree of intelligence, is also welcome. You can hardly say this is a film that handholds you through the opening act, and there’s no raft of exposition to bring you up to date. There’s story to tell, and Catching Fire assumes you’ve done your homework. The audience I had the pleasure of sitting with clearly had, and I’d wager that the film is rattling around the brains of the younger members of it in particular, and will be for some time. So whilst I still think the 12A/PG-13 system is troublesome, there is arguably an upside in this case (even if it’s more the exception than the rule).

I can’t lose the fact that it’s baffling that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire emerged from the BBFC with a 12A though, but then presumably it obeys the exact letter of the law of the ratings. It still feels quite harsh to me, but then I wouldn’t necessarily suggest that The Wolverine and The Lone Ranger deserved that rating this year too. They seemed to stray into 15 territory.

But still: there are positives from Catching Fire being seen and absorbed by 12 year olds, and it’s not as if they’re legally allowed to see Battle Royale yet, which otherwise should be next on their shopping list. Don’t be tempted to show 12 year olds A Good Day To Die Hard, though. 12A or not, no child deserves a trauma such as that…

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