When I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, I felt conflicted. The allegorical weight and unapologetic bleakness of the series, which exceed usual Young Adult standards by a significant margin, took me pleasantly by surprise. At the same time, I was frustrated by the tremendous unrealized potential of the story. The books try to be so many different things: dystopian sci-fi epic, political allegory, mass-media satire and adolescent coming-of-age/romance, topped off with the unconventional gender dynamics a female action heroine brings to the proceedings. However, Collins’ skill as a writer doesn’t match the scale of her ambition. The writing is too simple, the plot too uneven and often contrived, and the character motives too underdeveloped for the books to reach the heights they aim for.
I watched Mockingjay – Part 1, the third installment of the The Hunger Games movie franchise, with the same sense of frustration at the story’s unachieved potential. The movie itself is actually great, with some brilliant cinematic moments. But precisely because it’s so good, I’m upset that it didn’t try to be better.
Mockingjay – Part 1 picks up where Catching Fire ended. Katniss Everdeen kicked off an uprising by firing the arrow that destroyed the Quarter Quell of the Hunger Games. Panem is now in the midst of a bloody civil war. Katniss has been rescued and is hiding in District 13, a subterranean military faction leading the fight against the Capitol and its cruel despot, President Snow. The leader of District 13, President Coin, and sly ex-Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, enlist Katniss to be the face of the rebellion and star in a series of revolutionary propaganda videos, called “propos.” Katniss, however, is broken—District 12 has been obliterated, her in-Games love Peeta has been captured by the Capitol, and she is in the grips of intense post-traumatic stress from the last two Games.
Katniss wakes up to a whole new reality in this movie—and so do we. Mockingjay – Part 1 is so different in theme and tone that it is difficult to evaluate it as a continuation of the first two films. The Hunger Games and Catching Fire were grim and dystopian, too, but the flamboyant reality-TV spectacle of the Hunger Games and the clownish extravagance of the Capitol gave them a surreal, fantasy feel. Mockingjay – Part 1, rid of the games and the glitz, alternates between the dim, drab underground world of District 13 and the war-ravaged aboveground districts. The color palette is bleak, and the atrocities of the war are horrifying: this is an out-and-out war film.
It is, though, in the war scenes that the movie truly shines. The stark, underlit images of the destruction inflicted by the Capitol, captured beautifully by cinematographer Jo Willems, are reminiscent of World War II images. One shot in particular, of the annihilated District 12, is chilling. Another haunting scene features an ISIS-style public execution of three hooded figures. This is a frightening film, but the scariest part is that there is nothing here that you don’t already see in the news.
On the other hand, the action scenes of the revolution, galvanized by Katniss’s propos, are incredibly rousing, and in some ways are reminiscent of images of the Arab Spring. In a stirring sequence, a plaintive folk song that Katniss sings on camera builds into a war-song hummed collectively by the rebels as they break through a dam, taking beatings and bullets on the way. There is a reason the three-finger Mockingjay salute and Katniss’s “If we burn, you burn with us” war cry have been adopted by real-world rebels, from protesters in Thailand to Ferguson demonstrators. The movie’s incendiary, pro-democracy message is presented so powerfully that it spills over beyond the fiction.
The war uplifts the movie not just visually, but also thematically. The war for Panem is more than a war of force—it is also a war of ideas. While the rebel forces, led by President Coin, try to sell Katniss as the spokesperson of the revolution, the Capitol broadcasts its own videos, featuring Peeta as the counter-revolutionary mascot. This to-and-fro between the two camps, their battle for the airwaves and therefore for the imagination of the masses, not only makes for excellent watching but is also a potent allegory for politics in the Internet age, where trending topics and viral videos exert a decisive influence on public discourse.
Despite its plentiful high points, Mockingjay – Part 1 is hampered by its tendency to sugarcoat its bitter pills with cheesy YA fluff. Director Francis Lawrence seems fully aware that the true allure of this series lies in its sociopolitical commentary, and chooses to downplay the love triangle in favor of the action. However, the film still incorporates Katniss’s romantic dilemma as a Twilight-esque triangle, possibly to appease the intended demographic of the film. The sparse romantic scenes come off as jarringly cliché, and the lack of chemistry between Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth, who plays love interest Gale, is conspicuous. There is also an unfortunate tendency to over-explicate things and to dress up the obvious and the unimpressive as shocking revelations.
The lead actors, nevertheless, are stellar. Jennifer Lawrence is stunning as Katniss—perhaps because, as a real-life media darling, Lawrence is well-suited to this role. In dramatic moments that have the potential to veer into melodrama, Lawrence shows admirable restraint, acting out her Batman-esque moral struggle with nuance. Another casting coup is Julianne Moore as President Coin; she brings just the right amount of icy ambiguity to the character. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland, as Coin and Heavensbee respectively, are precise and on-point, as expected. However, even the all-star cast cannot elevate the corny, overly simple dialogue foisted on them.
The only significant damper, though, on this eminently watchable film is the unnecessary, commercial decision à la Harry Potter and Twilight to split the last novel of the trilogy into two movies. Figuring out when Mockingjay – Part 1 would end was in itself a source of suspense, for the novel Mockingjay has neither the length nor the structure that allows for easy cleaving. Screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig did a commendable job in finding an endpoint and setting up enough conflict and resolution to conclude the movie satisfyingly. However, there is an unshakeable hint of stasis in the film’s plot, a feeling that nothing really happens. Mockingjay – Part 1 feels primarily like a prelude to the final movie – I can only hope that Mockingjay – Part 2 fulfills this film’s promise.
First published in Post- Magazine, December 4, 2014. Illustrated by Tim Blaine.