If you’ve been living with your eyes scrunched and fingers wedged mercilessly in your ears under a boulder on the far side of the Moon then the release of The Hunger Games, Gary Ross’ adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ globe-conquering young-adult tome, might have passed you by. It’s been a colossal commercial success, and yet despite the film’s positive reviews you also sort of get the feeling that – even had it turned out to be a glooping stack of odious chod – it still would’ve broken box office records anyway, such was the efficacy of Lionsgate’s pre-release hype typhoon coupled with the sheer size of the pre-existing, book-savvy audience.
Part of the reason for the film’s hoovering up so much cash was that everyone was able to see it. Rated as PG-13 in the US and as its near-equivalent 12a over here, sprogs of any age could make it to a screening if they managed to drag a glumly acquiescent adult along with them, despite the film’s inarguably grim subject matter and ostensibly mature themes.
The Hunger Games’ studio knew both who its primary audience was and that a 15 certificate – precluding, as it would, the vast majority of its target market from paying to see it – would have subsequently destroyed it. So the studio took pre-emptive action, trimming seven seconds or so from the film to achieve its target rating, thus excising the tiny splashes of gore that Ross – who was filming under the instruction that 12a/PG-13 was non-negotiable – had deemed appropriate. The important thing to note here is that the BBFC didn’t force them to do anything – the studio approached the BBFC and asked for advice on how to chip off the scabby bits to get The Hunger Games down to 12a.
Whether this was a wise move or not is moot because – financially, at least – the answer is demonstrably evident: studios invariably consider cold, hard moolah to be the barometer of success, and The Hunger Games made plenty. Did the film, with 12a forever looming above it, suffer, though? The argument can’t be ignored that – with its non-committal, shaky-cam murders, goreless and painless deaths and off-camera infanticide – the film is bereft of much of the power and the situational repulsiveness that the author of the books both depicted and deliberately intended. And what of the parts of the book – dogs with the eyes of the children and tongueless servants, for example – which are missing entirely? Were these left unfilmed due to runtime? You have to think not – if runtime were an issue, you’d cut a couple of the quiet (and, dare we say, boring?) scenes in The Capital instead of some of the most memorable and affecting, surely?
Violence is rarely integral to a film’s quality and message, but of The Hunger Games it sort of is. Refusing to show much of the violence of the children’s actions is also refusing to show the consequence of them, and some might argue this is more dangerous and pernicious to the fragile constitutions of the kiddywinks than showing them too much.
And yet, films chasing that enviable 12a rating is simply the inevitable outcome of the way our rating system works, and studios willingly altering their own films to achieve it is something that happens fairly regularly. Earlier this year, Hammer took The Woman In Black to the BBFC and asked them to ‘soften’ it for 12a – which it did – and that film went on to become the most successful British horror film of all time. Though, importantly, The Woman In Black somehow didn’t feel as though it had suffered too much in the process.
It’s hard to blame studios for appealing for 12a: out of the Top 50 highest-grossing films of all time there isn’t a single – not one – entry of a 15 certificate or above. Universal appeal and, more importantly, universal availability, are key to profitability. And yet, while The Dark Knight managed to be mature and brutal within the constraints of its classification, others (like Die Hard 4.0) are insurmountably imbued with the smell of bottom as a direct result of chasing the dollar. It’s into this category The Hunger Games, unfortunately, falls. It’s not a bad film by any means – it’s just been blunted to such a degree that much of the power of the book is lost. 12a was a profitable manoeuvre, certainly, yet also an artistically detrimental and disappointing one.