The current trend with film adaptations of popular young adult novel series is to split the last book into two movies. It started with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, followed by The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, and will continue with Divergent and so on until we’re paying to see multiple films of a single book. This is just the studios’ way of taking more of your hard earned money. Why should you pay once for a complete movie when they can get you to pay five different times to see segments of it? Don’t get me wrong. Aside from the money grab, I’m not bitter. Multiple parts allow for more time to tell a complete story, and if HBO has taught us anything, no great story can be too long. Yet in the case of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, we are nevertheless stuck with half a movie, so to accurately review it, I have to look at how it succeeds at exciting us for Part 2.
Mockingjay is extremely grim, much more than the previous films. Flashy wardrobes and aerial views of the Capital have been replaced by grey army jumpsuits and claustrophobic interiors. Most of the film takes place in a military bunker where the Rebellion has been hiding. Occasional humour lightens the mood, but long scenes of dialogue with little music darken it. There are no actual Hunger Games or much action for that matter. Part 1 is very much akin to a game of chess. It focuses on positioning its characters for war, following decision makers as they discuss strategy, military tactics, and preparation for an all out assault against the Capital. Then it ends. Anyone expecting all out war will be extremely frustrated. However, if Part 2 delivers on Part 1’s set up, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay could very well be a magnificent science fiction epic. We won’t know for sure until we see Part 2, but at least for now we have an ambitious, intelligent, and very different chapter in this saga.
The Rebellion’s most powerful piece on the board is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), now known everywhere as the “mockingjay” or “girl on fire.” Still grieving for Peeta, who has been captured by the Capital along with Joanna Mason (Jena Malone) and Finnick’s girlfriend Annie, Katniss wakes up in District 13 where she meets President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Both Coin and Heavensbee are able to convince Katniss to become the face of the rebel movement. She is to be featured in propaganda videos that will be broadcasted in hopes of uniting all the Districts into a single Rebel army. In response to this, the Capital starts producing propaganda videos of their own with Peeta in front of the camera in hopes of breaking the Rebellion and convincing the other Districts to swear allegiance to the nation. Thus, Part 1 becomes a face off of propaganda videos.
President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Capital’s Peacekeepers make it pretty easy for the Districts – and in turn us the audience – to hate them. The previous films have shown the government to be a vicious totalitarian system that exploits the lives of many so that a few can live in luxury and ignorance. In Mockingjay Part 1, we see the Capital magnified in the worst possible light through acts of torture, martial law, and murder of unarmed innocents. It’s easy for Katniss to get riled up and make the Rebel’s propaganda videos effective. But there’s also a noticeable change in Katniss’ demeanour this time around.
One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard about Suzanne Collins’ third book in the series is that Katniss is no longer a strong hero but an overly emotional pawn that does what she’s told as she hopelessly obsesses about her reunion with Peeta. I disagree with this complaint for many reasons, and fortunately for me, Part 1 does not deviate from the novel in this respect. There are many scenes where Katniss breaks down in tears, mostly over the Rebel’s vague responses to her requests that they rescue Peeta. She is frequently manipulated by the Rebellion in their propaganda videos as they take her to the devastated wastelands of District 12 or a destruction torn hospital in District 8 in order to invoke an emotional retort against President Snow. But it does all this for a good reason.
Director Francis Lawrence takes great care to reaffirm us that Katniss did not volunteer in place of Prim at the 74th Hunger Games to ignite a rebellion. She only wanted to protect those she loves. Plutarch and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) frequently remind Katniss of this. Her protective personality is reflected in two brilliant scenes involving Gale – one in District 12 and another when Gale condemns Peeta for being the Capital’s lapdog. Other scenes show how the weight of responsibility that’s been thrust upon her, combined with the Rebel’s de-emphasis of individual worth in relation to the overall mission is taking a psychological toll. In doing so, Mockingjay Part 1 successfully deconstructs Katniss as a hero and forces the audience to see her as a fallible human being driven by her emotions to take care of those she loves, which, if you look back at her actions in previous films, is who she has always been. It also makes us question the Rebellion. Unlike the peace and unity that the Rebels in Star Wars celebrated at the end of Return of the Jedi, I don’t feel that the Rebels in The Hunger Games will establish a better or more just regime if they do manage to overthrow the Capital. This is the world that Suzanne Collins created in her book, and the film raises the same concerns she has about the cost of peace, good government, and personal freedom. Orwell’s spirit is all over this story.
I’m not about to complain about the ending, but I am going to warn you. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is all set up and no pay off. Just as things start to come together, the credits roll and if you’re in a packed theatre, expect to hear a collective groan. Personally, I’ve gotten used to this, but I completely sympathize with those who are tired of having to wait a full year to see how it all ends. I say bring back the Intermission. My mother – also an avid film fan – used to tell me of the days when films by Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick and David Lean were accompanied by a 10-15 minute break due to their length. (Lean in particular made movies that ran close to 4 hours.)
I don’t know about you, but I would sit through the entire 4 or 5 hour Mockingjay with an Intermission if it meant experiencing the film in its complete form. Part 1 is a strong film in its own right. It does what it’s supposed to do very well. Just on an acting level the film is fantastic. Jennifer Lawrence communicates with one look what most actors can’t do with an entire monologue. President Coin and Plutarch have as much time onscreen as Katniss, which is great considering that Coin is played with sheer ferocity by Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of Plutarch further solidifies him as one of the greatest actors of all time. But in order to work completely, it needs Part 2. And so the wait commences.