Catching Fire, the latest installment in The Hunger Games series of films, opened this weekend to massive box office. According to the New York Times, Catching Fire grossed approximately $161.1 million during its opening weekend, has had overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and can be described as " a full-fledged cultural phenomenon".
Catching Fire deserves all those superlatives. I saw the movie this weekend. While I said I might not watch any of The Hunger Games films in an article I wrote here at the Huffington Post about The Hunger Games and the criticisms it received from fans of the Japanese film Battle Royale, I did get around to watching the first film on DVD and was drawn into the series.
One of the extras on The Hunger Games DVD is a video called "Letters From the Rose Garden", which details a fascinating letter from Donald Sutherland to Gary Ross (director of the first film, who didn't return for Catching Fire) regarding his insights about his character, President Coriolanus Snow, and by extension the nature of the fictional totalitarian state of Panem that President Snow leads.
It is that totalitarian state that is the prime background character of Catching Fire. While the political backdrop of The Hunger Games world was a part of the first film, the state is the primary antagonist in Catching Fire in a way that was not really the case in the first film. This theme is developed over the course of the publicity/propaganda tour that Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence, who has created an iconic role on the screen) and Peeta Mellark (portrayed with intelligence and vulnerability by Josh Hutcherson) are forced to undertake during the first half of the film. The bleak imagery of the subjugated districts of Panem shown in the tour is evocative of George Orwell's 1984. This landscape is further developed with scenes of public torture and executions that are not a part of the regular mass entertainment structure of the Games coming to the forefront, including the introduction of a commissar-like character appointed to terrorize District 12, Everdeen's home district.
The film utilizes a mixture of images that successfully combines a sort of Stalinist aesthetic with a decadent Roman imperial style. Aside from being the sort of visuals that are natural crowd-pleasers, Francis Lawrence's directorial skills immerse the viewer in the world of the film, to the point where I felt a little disoriented when I walked out of the theater. The creators of the film did their work effectively.
Catching Fire is a film about state terror. While the genesis of the movie was a series of young adult novels, I think the film series has already taken on a separate life of its own with a depth that appeals to an older adult audience. If Mockingjay (the third book in the series, currently planned to be divided into two films) continues at the level of political detail and sophistication that Catching Fire provided and that Sutherland presumably would like for it to contain, The Hunger Games film series will become a classic in the genre of politically-engaged art in addition to its status in the young adult fiction marketplace. I look forward to seeing the next installments.