How Did ‘Catching Fire’ Avoid An R Rating?

Some MPAA vague guidelines and camera tricks allow Katniss to keep her PG-13.

Considering its premise alone, “The Hunger Games” was never meant to be a book or film series for young children. An oppressive ruling class in the near future forces the underclass, which makes up the vast majority to a dystopian America, to offer up a young male and female for a gladiatorial kill-fest in order to remind them that rebellion is futile. It’s not exactly “Yo Gabba Gabba!”

Suzanne Collins’ young adult novels grew more violent over the course of the series, and unsurprisingly, the film version of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” has upped the ante from the original 2012 movie starring Jennifer Lawrence. Both films bear the PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Associate of America, which is essentially standard for films that studios hope to be blockbusters. But if anyone were to sit down for “Catching Fire” without knowing which side of the thin line between PG-13 and R it fell on, it would not be shocking for them to guess the latter.

That’s because there’s very little that separates “Catching Fire” from any other film that receives an R-rating for violence.

When a film is made on the big-budget scale like “Catching Fire,” the eventual rating from the MPAA is factored into how the movie is made. In the case of the new “Hunger Games” movie, most of the violence takes place bloodlessly and just before a cut or during a quick take. These are common strategies that have kept movies like “The Lord of the Rings” and the more recent James Bond movies from earning an R, which would ultimately cut into ticket sales.

People looking to consider “Catching Fire” for that honor could look to the point-blank executions, bludgeoning or the bloody, public lashing for a pretty compelling case (without even citing the deaths in the arena, which include Katniss shooting an arrow into a man’s chest and the Tributes impaling mutated apes).

For the MPAA’s part, their guidelines distinguishing PG-13 and R ratings on their website are more specific in terms of what sexual content merits more restriction. It’s made clear, for example, that more than one use of a “harsher sexually derived word” as an expletive results in an automatic R. If the word is used once in a “sexual context,” the movie goes straight to R.

The problem with violence is that once a film qualifies for the PG-13 level, there’s very little specifically outlined by the MPAA what would qualify it for restriction. There aren’t the same shortcuts between ratings as there are when it comes to sex. The closest the organization provides for justification of upping the rating to R actually falls under the explanation for PG-13. “The theme of the motion picture by itself will not result in a rating greater than PG-13, although depictions of activities related to a mature theme may result in a restricted rating for the motion picture,” the site reads. By this measure, the yearly Hunger Games and the totalitarian state of Panem could justify an R based on certain interpretations.

Yet, it’s the second note on violence under the PG-13 explanation that is often observed the most, as it much easier to see. “There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence.” It’s this rule that results in the quick, mostly bloodless violence we see in “Catching Fire,” but since these are guidelines and not hard and fast rules, this too is open to interpretation that could arguably sway either way for the latest “Hunger Games.”

For every film it rates, the MPAA explains reasons for the rating, but they don’t say what kept it from earning a restricted rating. We’re left to assume that the PG-13 for “Catching Fire” is mostly the product of showing little blood and cutting away from violence.

When MTV News reached out to the MPAA, vice president of corporate communications Kate Bedingfield issued this statement, standing behind their rating:

“As the descriptor accompanying the film’s rating states, ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language. With all film ratings, the ratings board takes into account the context in which material is presented and tries to rate the film the way they believe most American parents would rate it. And it’s important to remember that PG-13 means ‘parents strongly cautioned’ — it’s a strong warning to parents that a film contains elements they may want to take into account before their children see a film.”

When the line between caution and restriction is so blurrily drawn, it’s difficult to fully prepare them for what will appear on the screen until the lights go down.

Writer/editor for MTV. If it involves cowboys, spies, or hitmen, I'm there. All three would be ideal.
@KPSull