It’s amazing how quickly “The Hunger Games” has changed the culture in the few years since the first in the three-book young adult novel series was published, and especially since the first movie adaptation of the series premiered in March 2012. All three books became massive best-sellers worldwide, while the first movie made nearly $700 million globally and launched the career of its star Jennifer Lawrence, who by year’s end had served up an Oscar-winning performance in “The Silver Linings Playbook.”
Now, the second movie in the trilogy – “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” – has been released, and it admirably fulfills its duty in being the part of the story that has the darkest moments and the biggest cliffhanger of all. In that respect, it follows in the footsteps of “The Empire Strikes Back,” and is wildly entertaining as well. But as anyone who’s familiar with the concept behind the series of books and films, that sense of entertainment comes with some caveats.
The series is set in a dystopian future America that has become a dictatorship and renamed Panem, with the country divided into 13 districts, of which only a dozen are believed to remain. Everyone, except a highly elite ruling class who live in a lavish capitol city, is subjected to a life of grinding poverty and hopelessness that forces them to survive as if they’re living in the colonial era.
But each year, to distract the masses from their misery, a national competition called The Hunger Games is held. The government’s armed forces force teenagers to submit their names in a drawing, and the “winner” whose name is chosen has to represent their District in the games. The 12 youngsters selected then have to engage in training and eventually the nationally-televised games, in which they are expected to kill each other with a variety of weapons in a rugged terrain until only one is left standing – and that victor is then given a lavish lifestyle for the rest of their days as a smiling (yet secretly miserable) representative of the government.
In the first movie, a girl named Katniss Everdeen (played by Lawrence) won the games despite orchestrating a twist in which she refused to kill her final opponent – meaning that she shared her win with a boy named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). In the new movie, they’re living their falsely happy life of luxury while a revolution is starting to brew among the populace, so the president (Donald Sutherland) announces new games that will force them to fight again.
This time, Katniss and Peeta will have to face off against the surviving winners of the previous 25 years, meaning the competition will be far more ruthless than before. If Katniss refuses, the president will kill her mother and sister, and possibly her entire District. And so it goes that Katniss re-enters the games and finds herself using her wits more than ever to stay alive and slyly make life difficult for the tyrant who controls her people.
The first “Hunger Games” was extremely well-made, edge of your seat entertainment, yet still left many discerning viewers queasy with its depiction of teens forced to kill each other for sport and survival. The new movie’s use of past winners in the competition largely eliminates that concern, because the heroic duo are fighting older, adult former winners. Yet they also have to contend with poisonous fog that induces awful boils on their skin, and fight off a pack of wild baboons that are truly terrifying.
Regardless, the violence is nothing those who are teens and older can’t handle, and the positives far outweigh the negatives in these films, as its two main teens are trying to win as nobly as they can, finding any possible alternative to avoid killing their opponents while staying alive. And the fact that the films are set in an America that slowly slipped away from its ideals is a valuable wakeup call and lesson to viewers of any age that to preserve a healthy democracy, citizens must always stay vigilant no matter what leader is in charge.
The movies are admirably profanity-free and free of sex scenes, but in this chapter, Katniss and Peeta are forced by the president to pretend to be in love for the ever-present TV cameras. While it’s clear they don’t have sex, they start crossing the line emotionally when Katniss has horrific nightmares about the Games and asks Peeta to start sharing a bed with her for comfort – and that is potentially a bad message to convey to teenagers, who in real life would be in a high state of temptation if they engaged in such behavior.
Put it all together and the new “Games” comes out a winner, although parents should definitely take the PG-13 rating seriously and not allow kids under 12 to see it.