‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’: Sparks of revolution

November 20, 2013

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There’s not much to say about “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” because it does what it’s supposed to.

The sequel to last year’s hit, this second installment of what was a trilogy of books (but which will be a quartet of films) is directed by Francis Lawrence (the original was done by Gary Ross) with a script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael DeBruyn (the original was by Billy Ray and the books’ author, Suzanne Collins).

A series of young-adult novels that crossed over to the mainstream almost as vigorously as the Harry Potter books, the “Hunger Games” novels posit a future in which the U.S., now called Panem, has been through a revolution. Since then, power has coalesced in the Capitol under President Snow (an insinuating Donald Sutherland) and the country has been divided into districts.

It’s obviously a fascist state, with the citizens’ concerns and complaints ignored; the Capitol distracts them with an annual spectacle called the Hunger Games, a televised gladiatorial event in which two young people from each district are chosen to battle to the death, until only one emerges alive. But, in the first book/film, a young woman named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), from the Appalachian-like District 12, figures out a way to not only win but save the young man from her district, Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson).

Their love story captivates the audience. But Snow recognizes their dual victory – something Katniss manipulated into happening – for what it is: a form of defiance that could spark a revolt.

That’s where “Hunger Games 2” begins: with Katniss and Peeta on a nation-wide victory tour that begins to set off riots wherever they go. Katniss has become a symbol of a freedom absent for too long. So Snow, along with his new games-master, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), comes up with a ploy for the 75th annual Hunger Games.

They announce that the competitors this year will be culled from the surviving victors of Hunger Games past. The 24 winners who participate will, theoretically, be decimated, reduced to a single survivor. Theoretically. In fact, something else is afoot, but let’s leave it at that.

What I admire about Collins’ novels and the films is their ability to provide a message for young people that questioning authority is a necessary proposition, and that being subversive in the face of autocratic rule of a plutocracy is a virtual duty. Random revolution is one thing; fighting to get the boot off your neck is something else altogether.

Yet the books and films aren’t screeds or manifestos; rather they’re the story of one young woman (and that, in itself, is also a step forward), fighting for what she thinks is right and having the physical and psychological wherewithal to make an impact. That this story also presents her with a romantic dilemma gives it that much more resonance.

Still, with the first film and, more particularly with this one, that quest for the widest possible audience (and the most possible money at the box office) means a PG-13 rating that tamps down the violence. Tamps it down? There’s barely a drop of blood shed in a movie about people killing each other in a bloodthirsty televised game.

Katniss, for example, is an archer – and you see her victims with arrows sticking out of them, falling over wordlessly. It’s like something out of a western from the 1950s: Bang, you’re dead. Period. Yet part of the books’ horrifying power was exactly that kill-or-be-killed state of being, in which committing violence has as much impact on the person doing the killing as the person being killed.

Downplaying the violence itself strips the story of that power. You get little sense of the toll that surviving a competition such as this takes on the victor. For young viewers, it gives death no more impact than killing someone in a first-person-shooter game.

Otherwise, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is solid entertainment, provocative and exciting. What more do you want?

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