Given the grimness (and ultimately, cynicism) of the worldview on display in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian young adult novels, The Hunger Games, some parents—particularly Christian parents—are understandably wary about their popularity. Yet while the books present some problematic ideas along with images that are occasionally more graphically violent than they need to be, they also offer insightful commentary on our culture. At no point is this truer than in the second novel and now the second film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, where vague parallels to modern America suddenly become far more pointed and uncomfortable.
Imagine, if you will (and this will be difficult), a Kardashian-type star who is an unwilling participant in the making of her own fame. She knows that a populace rabid for celebrity gossip is being fed a false image of her, and she knows it keeps them distracted from the greatest moral issues of their time. From the parties she attends, to her engagement, to an announcement that she’s with child—everything her fans learn (or think they learn) about her life is timed to elicit a very specific response.
The difference between Katniss and Kim, of course, is that Katniss (a steely yet supremely sympathetic Jennifer Lawrence) is only doing what she must do to save her life and protect the lives of those she loves. She despises the to-the-death hunger games that brought her fame and fortune and the empty words of sympathy the government expects her to mouth. When Katniss lets her mask of blissful warrior princess slip and expresses her disgust for the Capitol’s regime, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) decides to throw her back into the ring with her fellow survivor from District 12, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).
In keeping with the age-range of Catching Fire’s largest fan base, the excesses of the Hunger Games’ Capitol don’t come close to matching the grossness of real entertainment-industry decadence. (And thank God for that!) Here, the famous amuse themselves with gluttony and outlandish costumes rather than drugs, sex tapes, and obscene public displays with foam fingers. Yet the unflattering comparison is too on-point to miss. The denizens of the Capitol are sick, shallow people who primarily concern themselves with sick, shallow things. They tacitly approve injustice by giving it inoffensive names and crying crocodile tears over “necessary evils” like the hunger games and the oppression in the districts.
Other entertaining storylines pop up throughout the movie, which opens in theaters today: Will Katniss ultimately fall for Peeta or her hunky best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth)? Can she trust her allies in the new games? Will she survive to lead the oppressed districts to revolution? Some of the subplots work better than others, yet the best reason to see Catching Fire (and to take those kids who are old enough to handle the PG-13 action violence and one non-explicit scene of a woman publicly disrobing) is to discuss the greater theme: What do we who live in one of the most affluent, decadent nations in the world choose to invest our time and interest in? Is it justice and mercy or Kim and Kanye?