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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1

November 21, 2014
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1

Despite the army of competitors, the Hunger Games series handily reaffirms its status as the best adaptation going of a popular young-adult property. While Mockingjay — Part 1, like the third book in the series, takes a sharp turn in structure, some of the pattern laid down by the first and second movies remains the same. We have a relatively straightforward translation onto the screen of the main plot points that should please fans of Suzanne Collins’ novels, undercut by the same failure to translate their most recognizable literary quality: Katniss’ remarkably well-developed interior monologue.

The absence is felt even more keenly in this installment, since Mockingjay is the series’ most psychologically complex section. Collins built The Hunger Games around what is essentially a puzzle for Katniss to solve, reasoning her way through the various challenges she encounters. But now, confronted directly with the much larger and messier world outside the arena, the problems she faces are ill-defined and offer no clear right-or-wrong answers. She isn’t even clear what exactly she wants, now that mere survival doesn’t provide an obvious goal. And yet there’s only so much at Jennifer Lawrence can do to externalize these conflicts, even where they don’t seem to have been smoothed over entirely by screenwriters Danny Strong and The Town co-writer Peter Craig.

We again pick up straight after the last film left off; if you aren’t familiar with what’s come before, this may not be the place to start. Katniss’ second appearance in the Hunger Games has ended in a sort of jailbreak. Games designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and some co-conspirators have defected to District 13, a former military outpost long thought to have been bombed into oblivion by the Capitol. In fact, it forced a stalemate, and now under the leadership of President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) it seeks to turn the seeds of rebellion Katniss inadvertently sowed among the districts into a groundswell that can turn against the despotic President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland).

The conspirators managed to save Katniss and some other tributes in the arena, including expert engineer Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and the beguiling Finnick (Sam Claflin). And they evidently snatched up the stylish Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), whose role is significantly improved from the comic-relief she played before. But they failed to rescue Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and a few other tributes. Worse, the Capitol retaliated by leveling Katniss’ and Peeta’s home District 12, leaving a meager fraction of its population to escape to District 13, led by Katniss’ friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and including her sister, Prim (Willow Shields), for whose sake Katniss got involved in the first place.

Clearly the series must culminate with an armed revolt, but the filmmakers decided to hold that for one more movie. For now, the plan is for Katniss to become the symbol of the rebellion, particularly in a series of propaganda videos Beetee will shove onto the nation’s airwaves in pirate broadcasts. To get the required footage, Katniss must return to the rebelling districts along with a production team led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer), a video director who fled the Capitol along with Plutarch. Meanwhile, the Capitol will use Peeta as their own counter-propaganda weapon. There is a kind of short-term goal that provides a convenient stopping point for this section — a special-forces style mission that quotes liberally from the likes of Zero Dark Thirty — but largely it’s about laying the groundwork, providing a segue between Catching Fire and the endgame.

The Games themselves managed to provide the first two parts of the series with some teleological structure: Katniss was drawn inexorably into the arena, at which point a certain bloodsport logic could take over and provide goals. Everything that happened in the lead-up could pay off inside the Games. But without that clear endpoint, Mockingjay — both the book and this film, especially with the eventual assault on the Capitol reserved for Part 2 — tends to meander. Things tend to just happen, and Katniss is bounced along for the ride. The novel picks up this slack by exploring her ambivalence, particularly about President Coin, but it doesn’t really come across on screen.

In fact, Coin herself seems drastically simplified in the adaptation. There’s only seeming hint that her motives might not align perfectly with Katniss’: while director Francis Lawrence effectively quotes Blitz-era London during many of the District 13 scenes, Coin’s speeches have a tendency to sound less like Winston Churchill and more like a certain German chancellor. If some of the conflicts from the novel are to be maintained in the final installment, this script falls short in laying their groundwork.

Katniss’ and Coin’s characters are just the two most notable simplifications; Finnick’s shellshock is largely unaddressed, as are negotiations between Katniss and the administration of District 13. Still, while the adaptation may not stand up without some knowledge of the source material, it does flow rather smoothly given that knowledge. The action could be shot more cleanly, but it’s far from the worst I’ve seen recently. The scenes can sometimes feel perfunctory, like checking off a list to fill time, but most of them pull the audience along smoothly. There are even moments of irony, both intentionally humorous — Katniss has trouble acting in front of a green screen — and accidentally dark — Hoffman as Plutarch assuring Coin that “anyone can be replaced”, as we know some of his lines will probably get shoved off to Beetee.

It’s true that some of the dross could be cut out, and the series-ending assault could probably be squeezed into one hour rather than two, fitting the whole of Mockingjay into a single longish film. That said, I’m loathe to call it a mistake to split the film in the way they’ve chosen. As it is, this will probably turn out the weakest entry of the four, but it’s still far more engaging and entertaining than any other young-adult adaptation going.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass, and much stronger this time.

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