"Catching Fire," the second adaptation of Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy hits theaters this Friday in what's expected to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. Jennifer Lawrence, now an Oscar winner, returns as Katniss Everdeen, who won the 74th Annual Hunger Games in an act of defiance disguised as true love for her fellow Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). The winners have to go on a Victory Tour of the Districts proving they're in love or Panem's President Snow (Donald Sutherland) will kill everyone they love. Instead of placating the President, Katniss ends up a symbol of a growing resistance to the totalitarian Capitol, so the President announces that the 75th Annual Hunger Games will feature not kids but former winners from each of the Districts. Having faced the Arena just the previous year, Katniss and Peeta must return to the Hunger Games once more and again fight to be the ultimate survivors.
"Catching Fire" is rated PG-13 for its violent and frightening sequences. Even if you have a younger fan of the books at home, consider whether they're ready for the deaths, jump-worthy scares, and sadness contained in the movie. For teens who've already read and seen the original, it's the must-see movie of the holiday season.
1. Read It, Then See It: "Catching Fire" is the middle book in Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" trilogy, and the second of four planned films. If you saw the original, you don't need to read the book to understand its follow up, but it will be that much better if you know what's happening, what's missing, and what's changed. Even though the movie comes out Friday, you could definitely read it before heading out to the theater; it's a gripping, unputdownable story with tons of action, political intrigue, and pulse-pounding moments. As a firm believer in fully understanding adaptations, my sixth grader knows I won't be taking him to the movie until his finishes the book.
2. How does your kid handle violence in movies? This is a violent trilogy, but that should come as no surprise if you saw the first film. The violence in "Catching Fire" is as intense as the original, but at least the only under-18s involved are Katniss and Peeta. The rest of the Hunger Games competitors this time around are older former winners. Of course being former winners, they are that much more prepared for the atrocities of the Arena and know how to wield a triton, axe, bow, gun, and blade. People die from being stabbed, shot, poisoned and attacked by animals. "Peackeepers" flog a young man, shoot people, and strike Katniss on the face. This is not a safe universe, and death, squalor and hunger surround everyone in the Districts.
3. Do you worry about sex/language? Despite the PG-13 rating and the abundance of violence, there's not much language for parents to worry about in this installment. There's one "s--t" and a few bleeped out expletives, but otherwise the language is fairly mild. As for romance, this movie, as with the book, ups the love triangle subplot between Katniss, best friend Gale and fellow victor Peeta -– both of whom are clearly in love with her. She kisses both of them a few times, with one particularly intense kiss in the Arena. The romance is there, but it's not the primary issue like in "Twilight." The first time Johanna speaks to Katniss and Peeta, she asks Peeta what it's like to have people want to sleep with him and then strips naked in front of them (and a happy Haymitch).
4. Who will enjoy the movie most? Obviously teen and double-digit-aged readers of the books will enjoy the movie, but if you have a precocious reader who finished the trilogy in third or fourth grade, think twice about whether they're indeed ready to see the movie adaptations. Research shows that seeing violence portrayed on the big screen is different than reading and imagining it from a book. That being said, if your kids are 11/12 & up, are familiar with Katniss' story, are fans of Suzanne Collins' series, and are mature enough to discuss the themes of uprising, totalitarian government, sacrifice and more, they're probably ready to handle "Catching Fire."
5. What are critics saying about "Catching Fire"? Overall, critics are impressed with the second installment in the dystopic trilogy, and its average on Rotten Tomatoes is a certified-fresh 94 percent, with a positive 74 on Metacritic. "One of this year's best and most thought-provoking blockbusters," writes Randy Myers of the "San Jose Mercury News." Sara Stewart of the "New York Post" says: "Yes, it's the middle chapter and feels like it, but it's never dull." "Oregonian" critic Mike Russell sums up the appeal: "Jennifer Lawrence remains the series' biggest coup. 'Catching Fire' asks the actress to add PTSD and romantic stirrings to Katniss' psyche, then cover it with a barely affixed public mask. Lawrence steps up. And her character's fierce independence provides a welcome alternative to certain vampire-fixated young-adult heroines who define themselves entirely through the attention of much-much-older men."