MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.
Today we want to talk about that rare movie that has critics and parents and teens talking.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HUNGER GAMES")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as character) The time has come to select one courageous young man and woman for the honor of representing District 12 in the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Primrose Everdeen.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) Prim. I volunteer. I volunteer as tribute.
MARTIN: Of course we're talking about "The Hunger Games." It is based on the hugely popular book series of the same name by Suzanne Collins. And if you haven't read the books or seen the movie yet, the storyline goes something like this: It's set sometime in the future after some sort of apocalyptic event.
To put down potential unrest and to distract the population, every year 24 children are chosen at random to fight each other to the death. Only one child is meant to survive this ordeal and the games are broadcast for entertainment.
The movie opened less than two weeks ago and has already brought in more that $250 million. Now, that's a huge hit, for sure. It's rated PG-13, meaning 13-year-olds and up can go without adult permission or without an adult accompanying them.
But we are asking who should go and what kinds of conversations should you consider having before and maybe after you go? We decided to call upon a panel of parents who think a lot about issues like this, how they're talking to their own children about the movie, and also about some of the other issues the film is raising, including race.
I'm joined now by Karen Brailsford. She is the mom of Amandla Stenberg, the 13-year-old who plays the character Rue in "The Hunger Games." Jane Horwitz is a movie critic who writes the syndicated column Family Film-Goer. Tananarive Due is an award winning author of nine books, including some supernatural thrillers. She's also an instructor in the English department at Spelman College and the mom of two. And Leslie Morgan Steiner is one of our regular contributors. She's the mom of three, author of the books "Mommy Wars" and "Crazy Love."
Welcome, ladies. All of you, thank you so much for joining us.
KAREN BRAILSFORD: Thank you.
JANE HORWITZ: A pleasure to be here.
TANANARIVE DUE: Thank you.
LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thank you for having us.
MARTIN: So, Jane Horwitz is our resident family filmgoer. This is actually your job. You actually write about films with the eye toward advising families.
MARTIN: What's your take on the film overall, and what age group do you recommend to go?
HORWITZ: Well, I went back and looked at my review and - to remind myself. It's already been two weeks. It has a dark view of human behavior, is what I said, and of what the future might be like. So I said for some younger teens it might be too intense, but I really didn't - unlike some folks - have too big a problem with the level of violence. It's very understated in the film. Much more graphic in the book, I think.
MARTIN: What about the concept itself? Just...
HORWITZ: The concept is pretty grim, but when you look at the kinds of books that we read in high school and middle school, even I - there was a documentary on PBS last night about Harper Lee and "To Kill a Mockingbird." The kids wandering through the woods and the sense that someone is stalking them is very grim. The Dickens novels, for heaven's sake.
MARTIN: "Lord of the Flies."
MARTIN: Which are classic, so you're saying...
HORWITZ: "Lord of the Flies," which they read - what - in junior high?
HORWITZ: They don't call it junior high anymore, but you know, I hear ya.
MARTIN: So it's kind of - you think it's disturbing, but not more so than other things that people have been...
HORWITZ: No. I...
MARTIN: ...presented with in the past. All right. Leslie, you are kind of every parent here in that you really didn't know a lot about the books or the film before your - but your 10-year-old daughter was clamoring to see it.
STEINER: It's true. My 10-year-old came to me probably four or five weeks ago and started talking about the movie, and I'd never heard of it. She knew about it, not because she had read the book, but because last year - so when she was in third grade a really good friend of hers had read it. A very precocious reader. And so my 10-year-old was leading the way, and so I got the book. I loved the book and I took her to the movie. She hasn't read the book yet. She's not that advanced a reader.
But I was by her side during the movie, kind of interpreting it and telling her what was coming next and trying to soften some of the blows, but I too thought that it was very appropriate for her and definitely for older kids, and in fact I was incredibly gratified that there's such brilliant, high quality literature and cinema produced for kids and teenagers. I mean, there's so much schlock out there, it was great to see something that was quality.
MARTIN: Tananarive, you write books in the supernatural genre, as we said, and you watch - I know you kind of are a fan yourself of that genre. But you are also me in this in that, you know, honestly, just listening to the trailer makes me upset and I have not been able to bring myself - I'll just confess. I have not been able to bring myself to go. I'm certainly not taking my children. I think they're too young.
What did you think of "The Hunger Games"?
DUE: Well, I actually enjoyed it a great deal, but it's kind of funny to me. I think it might be more difficult for those of us who are parents to sit and watch it than for our kids. You know, they haven't really experienced loss the way most of us have by the time we get to our age. So in some ways it's not real, it's almost like a video game, but against a backdrop of some thought-provoking ideas and concepts.
So my eight-year-old is too young to have seen it. A – conceptually, violence-wise, I don't take him to PG-13. And also, he wouldn't probably sit still for it. But, absolutely, if I had an older child I would not have hesitated, but I probably would have screened it first. I was the one who had to cover my eyes watching the movie.
MARTIN: And you make an interesting point. You think it's actually harder for the parents, because we are seeing ourselves as the parents who are giving our children over to this barbaric enterprise, and they have no concept of what that would be like. That makes sense to me. But did you like it? Yes. So thumbs up? Thumbs down? I think that's trademarked, so I'm sorry.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: But yes or no on the film. You think it's worth seeing for older kids. Mm-hmm.
DUE: Absolutely, I do think it's worth seeing. I think it deserves its success. I was thrilled at the diversity and age and ethnicity and the people standing in line.
MARTIN: Karen Brailsford, we can't give away too much, but your daughter Rue, portrays a character, one of the children chosen to compete. Let's just say she's one of the youngest and the smallest kids portrayed. Was it hard for you to talk to her about this? What were some of the conversations that you had with her about this character and about - did you even have any qualms about having her participate?
BRAILSFORD: I didn't have any qualms about having her participate, because she actually brought the project to me. She had read the book, approximately a year and half ago, and all of her friends were reading it. And so she knew the story and actually she read it about four times before she even auditioned for the part. And she, in reading the book, said gosh, if there's ever a movie, I think I could be Rue. And so that intrigued both my husband and myself and so we read the book. And I think my husband's read it, maybe, a couple of times since. And so it's been a wonderful experience and I think what everyone's brought up, today, is that what it does is that it causes parents to talk - children and parents - to talk about these very serious, very grown-up issues, but to really put it into some context. And I think my being able to have that conversation with my daughter is so important, and rather her to go a movie or having it with friends first.
MARTIN: What kinds of themes are you talking about? And I do - I think one of the reasons I think we're talking about this, is that visual imagery is sometimes different. I know there are many parents who allow their children to read whatever they want. Like they think there's a difference between using your imagination to kind of visualize something and then having it visually presented. So some people feel that the visual imagery is much more profound. So Karen, what kinds of conversations did you, and are you, having with her about this?
BRAILSFORD: Certainly. The book itself raises the themes of courage, of survival, of sacrifice. The protagonist is a female who is strong and she loves her family, especially her sister. She comes to love my daughter's character, Rue, because she reminds her of her sister, for whom she has sacrificed her own - possibly her own - mortality for. So it's just it has very great thematic themes that I think are very important and that figure in any literature.
MARTIN: We are talking about "The Hunger Games," and we have a panel of parents, moms, who have seen the film or read the books and thought - think a lot about the kinds of issues that are presented in "The Hunger Games." My guests are Karen Brailsford; she's the mom of the 13-year-old actress who played Rue in the movie. Tananarive Due is the author of award-winning science fiction and horror books. She's also a professor at Spellman College. Leslie Morgan Steiner is one of our regular contributors. She's also an author. And Jane Horwitz is a movie critic who writes the column "Family Filmgoer."
All right then, I want to talk about some of the other issues that have emerged around the film. And part of - one is this question of casting. And I don't know how far to take this because I don't know how widespread a sentiment this is. But one of the stories that has emerged after the movie appeared, is that, online, have been people expressing regret that some of the characters are of color - in fact, some even expressing distaste that they are characters of color.
According to The New Yorker, one person identified as JohnnyKnoxIV tweeted quote "I was pumped about 'The Hunger Games' until I learned that a black girl was playing Rue." And in this is not the only one like this. And then Jane, you've got this look of horror on your face, but what do you make of this?
HORWITZ: I don't know what to make of it. I saw that too, online. I didn't really - I don't understand where it comes from. Because - maybe because I'm not as aware of the sort of cult that has grown up around the books, that people have, but it doesn't seem to me that in what I've read of it that she gets into race and ethnicity. She talks about the people in District 12, Katniss' character, whose she's also the narrator, being of olive skin and dark hair, and that's the only racial reference that I caught. So I don't know where that comes from.
MARTIN: Tananarive, what do you think about this? I think other people disagree, that in fact, the race is a subtext because she's making a point that of the fact that this is a multiracial future and everybody's oppressed, I think that's how some read it. Tananarive, how do you - what to you make of this whole casting controversy or whatever it is?
DUE: Well, Rue and Thresh are described as being dark-skinned characters in the books, but I think people do tend to sometimes we past that, see themselves. I know people of color, for example, learn, very young, to empathize with favorite characters in film, TV or books who don't look like them. And anyone can learn that - I think young people are learning that. But what the controversy reveals - and I agree, I don't think it's the majority, look at the box office, it's made $250 million. But it is interesting to note that in cinema, when you're looking at something visual, it has been a practice in Hollywood to often change the race of characters to increase the empathy for audience members, precisely because perhaps it's a vocal minority, perhaps it's unspoken. But, you know, there are certain scenes I won't go into, that, for spoiler alert, but that were very difficult for me to watch because I could see this daughter as my own child. And did that affect me on a deeper level? Perhaps so, but that doesn't mean I would not have felt empathy for a child who did not look like she could be my daughter.
MARTIN: Karen Brailsford, what you think of this? Is your daughter aware of this or is this something you're trying to keep her from? Or what do you make of it?
BRAILSFORD: Sure. There's no way I could keep her from it, because she is on Twitter. And so, so many fans have reached out to her in support of her. And that's how it actually came to our attention. They are so few, I had to - I think it's really critical to note that these disparaging comments were made by a miniscule amount of people. And I think fans of the book, fans of the movies, were so outraged - a lot of them younger fans. And so, they have shown their love for the books and for Amandla's character by supporting her and saying how ridiculous it is. So one hand, I think, this is really unfortunate. On the other hand, to have this really momentous movement of kids, you know, just speak out about race and say, you know, Rue, you know, was exactly how I imagined her. And then, actually, she points out their own ability to read carefully, because it's so ironic. Amandla came to me with this book and said there's a character who I think I could play. And I said really? Oh, is she African-American, I was wondering about that. And she pointed to the specific passages. So it's just so ironic that this little, I call it, actually, kind of silly issue would come up over the character. It was clearly meant, both Rue and both Thresh, were clearly meant to be African-American.
MARTIN: Leslie, another thing that has come up is this whole question of Katniss, the character of Katniss, and how there are some critics who've said oh, she's not thin enough or scrawny enough to play this character. And I was also fascinated by your take on that, as a person who's written widely about the roles that women and girls play in this country, what do you make of that?
STEINER: Well, that's one of the things that I loved about her is that she wasn't, you know, your quintessential Hollywood starlet. She is really strong, physically, and you need some meat on your bones to have muscle on your bones. And she's got it. She is an incredible shot, you know, she can hit a bull's-eye from really far away with her bow and arrow. And she's just smart and tough and, you know, she's cold in some ways, but she's also so filled with love and loyalty. And that was one of my favorite things about the movie was - and the book - about that you've got a wonderful, complex female heroine. And I think that is great for all of the teenagers who are flocking to see this movie.
MARTIN: Are you talking to her about the whole body weight question, or is that not something you think she'd be exposed to at this stage?
STEINER: No. My daughter, even though she's only 10, it's very much of an issue in her life, I think it is in many kid's lives. And it was funny, because she didn't think that Katniss was very attractive. And, you know, hopefully one day she'll see the strength of that. But I think that my daughter, where she is right now, she in some ways would have preferred to see, you know, a teeny tiny...
STEINER: Waif. But, you know, we'll get to that over time.
MARTIN: Jane, what other conversations do you think that would be help - that parents might have around this? Because one of the things I like about your column is you talk about the things that you could talk about with your kids if you take them to see challenging material. What other conversations do you think would be helpful?
HORWITZ: Well, the other thing that seems to weave throughout the movie is the influence - and I think it's may actually pick up more on than their parents - is the reality TV and how it has just permeates the society now. And because during "The Hunger Games" everything that the kids do, including all the killings, are broadcast and people watch them with their families as though it was March Madness or something. You know, and here people are killing one another, children are killing one another, you know, the one who survives wins. And they're watching it like it's just Sunday night – Sunday football or something - or Monday night football. So there's that. There's the whole reality TV aspect and the way the contestants in the story are groomed and coiffed in this crazy futuristic style that sort of looks like a throwback to silent movies like "Metropolis" and that kind of crazy design and futurism. All of that, I think, is interesting to kids because it's about so much of what they read and see today.
And also I was going to say about the racial aspect of it, there's no way that a movie like this can escape what's going on in the public at large and what's happening right now is racially charged in the country.
MARTIN: Tananarive, I'm going to give you the last word because, you know, what are the conversations, as a person who writes challenging fare - some challenging fare yourself, what other conversations would you have about this?
DUE: Well, you know, first, I really want to congratulate Karen and her daughter, you know, for her strength and her performance and her future, because what I hope is that films and books series like "The Hunger Games" do open up young people's perceptions of these characters and which characters they relate to, which characters they don't. I know my husband and I have written multicultural science fiction and fantasy for years, and you do run into that wall. Do the characters have to be black? I think it's a question we'll hear less and less, but it persists now and I think books and films like this help change that conversation and create a better future for both our kids and these actors.
MARTIN: Tananarive Due it is an award-winning author of nine books, including horror and supernatural thrillers. She's a mom of two, and she was kind enough to join us from member station WCLK in Atlanta.
With us from NPR West in Culver City, California, and I second Tananarive, congratulations to you, mom. Karen Brailsford is the mom of Amandla Stenberg. She's the 13-year-old actress who plays Rue in "The Hunger Games." She joined us from NPR West.
Here with us in Washington, D.C., Jane Horwitz, a movie critic who writes the syndicated column "Family Filmgoer." And Leslie Morgan Steiner, one of our regular moms contributors, she's also an author and mom of three.
Thank you all so much for joining us, ladies, moms.
HORWITZ: Thank you.
BRAILSFORD: Thank you.
STEINER: Thank you.
DUE: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.