Violence in popular books and movies

I am not sure why I am even attempting to broach such a huge and important topic, but since I am often ambitious and stubbornly determined, despite my limitations, I am going to try to at least put in a few words and opinions about this subject.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games." Credit: Lionsgate/Murray Close

The recent uber-popularity of the book and movie versions of The Hunger Games has brought this topic to mind yet again. I think it is vital that as a society we seriously consider the issues of the kinds of content we view, hear and read in the media, whether it’s TV, movies, books, music or video games. There is a lot of research available about these issues, and there are definitely people who are concerned about these topics, but I think it still bears discussion. Since I have this blog as a forum, I’ll bring it up here.

First, I think it’s safe to say that the media we view/read has gotten steadily more detailed and explicit over the years as a whole. Sure, there have been incidences of movies or books years ago that were heavily sexualized or violent, but I think that overall, more and more of the things we see have become filled with content that could be offensive or outright dangerous. I know I have read about studies that link violent behavior with the levels of violent content viewed in movies or video games, but I won’t attempt to find them or list them here. I’ll leave that for others. This is just a blog post. I’ll talk about my feelings and experiences.

I was raised not watching any movies that were rated R. I also was raised by a father who was a television director. He worked in the TV industry and then moved on to teach about it as a university professor. He and my mother both were sensitive to the ways the media influence us and were somewhat cautious about what we watched, and when we did watch TV and movies, we often talked about them. We even talked about commercials and what messages they were giving. On the other hand, for example, my husband grew up watching R-rated movies, plenty of stuff that was filled with violence and bad language, and didn’t really give it much thought until we were married. So I find it interesting to compare how we react to things we watch.

When I see a film that contains violence, each violent act strikes home to me, and I feel it. I particularly feel affected by the portrayal of just plain evil characters. I appreciate good acting, but I never cease to be bothered by really effective portrayals of characters who are purely wicked, whose sole intent is to cause pain and suffering in others, whether it’s for gain or purely because they enjoy seeing someone else suffer. That feels all too real to me, and I would prefer not to experience that. I often don’t see the point of having to portray those kinds of people or the point of my needing to see/feel it. I flinch and cringe away from the screen. My husband, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be as affected as I am. I feel it personally, and he views it as just part of the plot of a fictional story.

I know that how much violence we see affects how we continue to experience it. The more violence viewers are exposed to, the less it bothers them. We can actually have our feelings numbed, where difficult images don’t disturb us anymore, if we see a lot of violence. I worry a great deal about people, young men in particular, who are constantly exposed to strongly violent images and acts via movies and video games. It changes their very natures, so they are no longer bothered by acts that should be bothersome. That inevitably translates into real life in some way or another.

Now, I’m talking mostly about what might be termed “gratuitous” violence. Violence, as well as sex and strong language, have become a normal part of many movies and other media. But often they are simply there to “entertain.” I simply do not find those kinds of content entertaining; I find them offensive and soul-scarring. But there are times I think that violence has an appropriate place in media. Good literature and film and other media help to show us how life works and what happens sometimes, to remind us of history and how not to repeat it, for instance, or to remind us about how bad human nature can be and how to overcome our basest natural inclinations. So the question is, how much detail do those “good” media instances need to contain to be effective in their aim? How much evil needs to be shown to remind us to do better, be better, in some way, as individuals and as a society?

The Hunger Games has struck a chord with friends of mine, for instance. I’ve been interested to see what various friends have had to say about the books and the movie. Some have wholeheartedly embraced the positive messages of the series and what it seems to aim to do and say, even just sitting down and reading the series in one big marathon. Some have appreciated what the books are trying to do but have still felt the violence was too intense, too detailed, unnecessary. I already mentioned in my post about the movie and book that I liked them overall but felt that I could only read the books in small doses, not three right in a row, because they are so intense. I just couldn’t swallow them whole, all three in one sitting, without a break of lighter fare. I respect and find interesting and valuable the views of all my friends who have weighed in on the topic. I think that in the case of this series, it’s a valuable book series and movie, but it’s important to know yourself and what you’re comfortable with.

Some people may truly have been numbed by watching lots of other violent fare over the years, so they aren’t as sensitive; some people may just be more sensitive naturally, whether they’ve been exposed to much violence in media or not. In the case of Hunger Games, parents should be careful about knowing their children who might read the series or watch the movie to judge if it would be a good fit for them. But they shouldn’t just abdicate making any judgment on the matter because the movie and books are just so popular and “everyone” is reading/seeing them.

I think another movie and book series that bears discussing here is the very popular Stieg Larsson series, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. As a book reviewer, I had an opportunity to read this book when it first came out, and I read the flap and decided it just wasn’t something that would sit well with me. I wondered about it later when it began getting a lot of buzz. After some more investigation, I still concluded that it wouldn’t be something I would enjoy. Then, with my website, I still needed to have a way to provide guidance to readers also trying to decide if the book would be a good fit for them. Finally, someone who reviews for me read the book and was able to give it a rating. She confirmed what I’d heard, that the book was filled with many explicit, disturbing scenes of sexual violence against women. She also linked to an article online I found very useful in giving more insight.

In some ways, I want to leave judging to individuals, to let them make their own decisions about how certain content might affect them. But at the same time, I find it profoundly disturbing that so many readers are embracing these novels. I asked one blogger last week who said she is a Christian what she felt about this content, as she proclaimed how much she enjoyed the Stieg Larsson books. She said, in short, that since Larsson doesn’t “endorse” the assaults, and “warns against” this kind of violence, that she was OK with the content, even though it was very difficult to read.

I found that to be really interesting. I think that is where we all have to make some kind of a judgment on any violent content; is it important to include it if it sends a message? I think so. I think an even more important question is, however, how detailed and explicit should that content be to be able to get across the message? Is it necessary to have multiple scenes of extreme violence, even misogyny? Does the negative impact of a reader (or movie viewer) experiencing that kind of secondhand assault get outweighed by the positive impact of sending a message that these things happen and are wrong, and that we can do something to prevent these acts?

Again, I’d like to say that in most cases, individuals should be able and encouraged to decide for themselves what will be best for them. I created Rated Reads for that very purpose, to give readers extra information so they could judge more accurately for themselves what they would find acceptable, given their own sensitivities and sensibilities.

But on the other hand, I think there truly are cases where too much is simply too much. That doesn’t mean censorship; I would never say that a book shouldn’t be published, period, because of its content. But it does mean that there should be warnings; there should be more information easily available to readers about what they might be facing in picking up a book. There should definitely be some lines drawn about what can be made available to readers who are younger than 18, much like R-rated movies are restricted to younger viewers. I would like to see less gory, explicit and gratuitous violence in movies and video games, as well. I just don’t think enough is being done to limit that violent content that can truly numb sensitivities and even affect violent behavior.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s much we can do to limit things in our free-speech society. But I think it’s important for us to talk about these ideas and be more aware of the damage that can be done by a steady diet of violence, or even an occasional sampling of “unnecessary” violent content. Obviously, we all are going to have different ideas of what constitutes the “right amount” of disturbing content or which messages are truly beneficial to remind us of truths about humanity and what’s happening in real life. I already have made clear I am pretty sensitive to violence and have a low tolerance, so I might have a much shorter list of books or movies I think are important for people to see (BUT at the appropriate ages and maturity levels) than others. But let’s make this a national conversation and be more aware of the effects of what we and others in our society are seeing.

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

One thought on “Violence in popular books and movies”

  1. Sexuality, immorality and violence are a part of mortality.
    Our perspective on whether these actions, depicted in media (in all forms) are “only natural”, “no big deal”, or “soul-scarring”, are based on three factors: our spiritual sensitivity, our physical sensitivity, and whether or not we bind ourselves to a way of thinking/living, which is in connection with higher ideals: the divine.

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