Despite legitimate concerns about the violence and persistent secularism of the series, when it comes to young adult books and the movies based on them, you could do a lot worse than Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.
Unlike Twilight’s Bella or the protagonists in a spate of similar but less successful films like Mortal Instruments and Beautiful Creatures, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a fully-developed character with far more pressing concerns than deciding which boy she likes best. Among the problems crowding her plate: finding food for her family, filling in for an emotionally absent parent, and generally surviving a future in which the former United States is run by a homicidal dictatorship.
These dystopian elements serve as more than plot filler as Katniss wavers in her affections between the macho Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the mild-mannered Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). In the first film they provided a platform by which she tried to decide what kind of person she was: someone who takes her sister’s place in a state-mandated battle to the death or someone who does whatever it takes—including kill in cold blood—to survive. In the second adaptation, Catching Fire, Katniss’ struggle to first identify and then do the right thing becomes less stark yet all the more relevant for young audiences.
Picture 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 despises the self-worship of the Capitol elite and only smiles for the cameras to save her life and protect the lives of those she loves. When she lets her mask of glamorous warrior princess slip and expresses her disgust for the new kind of game she must play, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) decides to throw her back into the deadly ring.
Thankfully, though Catching Fire’s unflattering allusion to the Hollywood media machine is too pointed to miss, the excesses of the Capitol don’t come close to matching real entertainment-industry decadence. The famous here amuse themselves with gluttony and outlandish costumes rather than drugs, sex tapes, and obscene displays with foam fingers, yet we still understand that they are sick, shallow people who primarily concern themselves with sick, shallow things. They tacitly approve injustice by giving it inoffensive names and shed crocodile tears over “necessary evils” like the sacrifice of children.
The glaring (and fairly unrealistic) missing ingredient in Katniss’ world is a standard by which she can judge the motivations of her heart, as well as a source of comfort and hope to help her bear up under the Capitol’s atrocities. No one appears to believe in or even be aware of God in Panem, leaving Katniss only other fallible human beings like Peeta to provide her a model for righteous living. It’s a bleak proposition which serves to explain the ultimately bleak conclusion of Collins’ novels.
But we are not at the conclusion yet, and some PG-13 action violence and one nonexplicit scene of a woman disrobing notwithstanding, Catching Fire is a rare youth-targeted film that dares to ask some serious and uncomfortable questions. Namely, what do we, who live in one of the most affluent, decadent nations in the world, choose to invest our time and interest in? Justice and mercy or Kim and Kanye?