In a world where children are growing up faster, it's hardly a surprise that young-adult movies are doing well in the market.
It's a feeding frenzy at the cinemas, thanks to “The Hunger Games”. It has clocked up a fourth consecutive chart-topping week at the U.S. box office — a feat last achieved by “Avatar”. News reports say that the movie has already earned more than $500 million worldwide, and is expected to earn at least $370 million in the US.
“Games” is the latest in a chain of young adult franchises that have crossed over into the grownup marketplace. Whether TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the iconic Harry Potter films, these series have found an extended audience beyond its target teen and tween bases. Often, the crossover starts at the literary stage as with Potter or “The Hunger Games”, which is based on Suzanne Collins' best-selling trilogy of books.
Such crossover filmic tales underline that I am not alone in my guiltily pleasurable fascination with the idea of the Hero — a Chosen One with gradually revealed special abilities who can save people from injustice and lead them to a place of greater peace.
The Journey of the Hero is one of our great archetypal stories. However, in our sceptical times, it's harder to sustain the myth with an adult acting out the hero — Neo of “The Matrix” being an obvious exception. Instead, when the hero is a teenager, we are far more willing to suspend our cynicism and enjoy the possibilities of a redemptive hope.
On a related note, “young protagonists tackling adult issues” is one of the very few arenas left for a contemporary exploration of such ideals as pure romantic love and sacrifice, without a trace of self-mocking irony (think the Twilight series).
If that sounds too recondite a reason for enjoying young adult films, here's a simple one: they are extremely entertaining, with absorbing battles between good and evil. When Luke Skywalker raced down the trenches of the Death Star in his X-Wing fighter in “Star Wars”, I was right there in the cockpit urging him on. The crossover tales are layered in ways that allow parents and children to have different takeaways from the film.
But is this wider popularity an indication that teen films have gone over to the Dark Side? Parents are concerned about the levels of blood and gore that the movies portray, an extension of the increasingly parlous times in which our children live.
There is, for sure, an upping of the shock value. In the past we got our frissons from evil Darth Vader — spoiler alert — breathily telling heroic Skywalker “I am your father”. Now the thrills arise from rather more blood and guts premises such as teenagers fighting each other to the death till there is a lone survivor (“The Hunger Games”) or an adult and a teenager battling to kill the other (Harry Potter).
In town, there is no restrictive rating imposed on “The Hunger Games”. Elsewhere, in different countries, the ratings given to the film have come under a lot of fire — such as the PG13 in the U.S. by the Motion Picture Association of America. In the U.K., the initial 15 certificate issued by the British Board of Film Classification was reduced, after some cuts, to 12A (i.e. children under 12 can watch only if accompanied by an adult). The British press carried reports of distressed kids walking out of the film, with psychologists and parents weighing in against kids under 15 being allowed to watch it.
The ratings issue is a valid debate that crossover films need to contend with, and probably resolve on a case-by-case basis. While exposing youthful minds to imagery and concepts they can't deal with is a bad idea, you cannot ignore that today's kids have so much more exposure, they are inevitably growing up faster. And smarter. The contemporary layered stories of young adult fiction — and by extension, the films based on them — are in direct response to the raised bar set by ever-more savvy tribes of young adult readers.
Advocates argue that such crossover young adult films can be harnessed for opening up the conversation with our youngsters, on matters of morality — lusty Twilight sparked a whole debate about sexual abstention and polity; “Games” can be extended to discuss issues such as the Occupy movement or economic inequalities.
In the end, if a movie provokes healthy debate, it's a sign that communication lines are open — and that the movie in question has some merit. No one seemed to mind the radical, atheism-fuelled themes of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials converted to celluloid as “The Golden Compass”, precisely because it was hard for the bland, sugar-pop cinematic version to raise a response more energetic than a stifled yawn.