The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 could definitely have benefitted from dropping the saga’s title and just sticking with that of Suzanne Collins’ novel. While it is the continuation of the story that began two years ago with The Hunger Games, it is the first film in the series not to feature the titular games, although their impact looms large over Katniss’s mental and emotional state. The “Part 1” has renewed the debate over splitting books into multiple films (a complete success with Harry Potter, a disaster with Twilight, and the jury is still out on The Hobbit), as well as what is actually required to distinguish a film as more than just an extended TV episode, but at this point it’s so common as a practice that it’s been grudgingly accepted by many. But the most important part of the title is right there in the middle: Mockingjay. Mockingjay focuses almost entirely on the idea of the Mockingjay, as a symbol and as a person, and to that end it’s an extremely successful and engaging film despite its occasional faults.
Mockingjay picks up right after the events of Catching Fire. Katniss destroyed the dome over the Hunger Games arena, and she, Finnick and Beetee were rescued by revolutionaries in District 13, while the other surviving tributes were captured by the Capitol. District 12, home of Katniss and Peeta, was destroyed by the Capitol, but Gale managed to rescue some of its citizens, including Katniss’s family, and brought them to 13. District 13 has become the center of the revolution against the Capitol, as President Coin, along with a handful of advisors including Beetee and previous gamesmaker Heavensbee, wages a war comprised both of battle and of manipulation. Their hope is that Katniss will agree to resume the mantle of the Mockingjay, acting as the face and symbol of their revolution in propaganda pieces designed to encourage the rebellion. Katniss, however, is completely destroyed by what happened, filled with a mix of PTSD, guilt at Peeta’s capture by the Capitol, and unwilling to work with the people whom she feels betrayed and lied to her.
Things change after she visits her home and sees the results of the Capitol’s bombing, and it’s revealed that Peeta is being used by the Capitol to condemn the rebellion, and she agrees to be fashioned into a tool that District 13 can use. She’s given a group of filmmakers to follow her around, a new Mockingjay outfit and a specially designed bow and arrow, Gale becomes her bodyguard, and she’s sent out on non-combat missions into situations which might inspire the same kind of spontaneous acts of defiance that she showed in the Hunger Games which will look good on TVs throughout the districts once the Capitol’s signal is hacked by Beetee. And all along the way, President Snow does his best to fight back the revolution and to dissuade Katniss from playing the symbol, turning the struggle into a personal war of will between the two.
There’s actually not a lot of plot in Mockingjay – Part 1, lending some weight to the argument that the book should never have been split into two films. Plenty of events happen, but there’s very little forward motion to the story, and with the exception of one major development at the end of the film, the situation facing the film’s heroes hasn’t changed significantly after two hours of movie. On the other hand, having read the book I feel like Part 2 would have suffered without this piece of the puzzle to set the stakes and establish the tone. Mockingjay is very much a war movie, with everything we’ve seen in the two movies wiped away and a completely different thrust to the plot. And despite the lack of major plot developments, Mockingjay is character-rich and fascinating to watch.
At the film’s heart is Katniss Everdeen, an woman idolized for actions she took to survive who wants no part of it. She’s haunted by memories and guilt, and angry at both her allies and her enemies for the situation in which she finds herself. As the movie progresses we watch her struggle with a position of importance that she dislikes but which it’s felt is necessary. She both loves and fears the Mockingjay, and while she loathes being anyone’s puppet she still finds a sense of strength within the symbol. By this point it shouldn’t be any surprise that Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic; she’s had the largest hand in elevating The Hunger Games beyond the stigma of “young adult” literature (a term I hate), and she continues to shine in Mockingjay. She makes Katniss wounded yet defiant, at times a hardened shell of a person and at others a frightened, caring teenager. She’s equally convincing shooting down Capitol aircraft or giving fiery speeches as she is in the small moments where she questions everything she knows about life.
Katniss is not alone, however, as the movie is filled with many familiar faces from the previous films. Peeta is given little screen time, mostly serving as a tool in Katniss’s story, and Johanna Mason (the breakout character from Catching Fire) hardly appears at all. Finnick gets his moments to shine, as he’s dealing with the same emotional fallout as Katniss, but he’s still pushed aside a bit. Liam Hemsworth’s Gale finally gets to step into the spotlight, with his passion for revolution and his longing for Katniss occupying the bulk of his character. Unfortunately in the film he comes off as more of a jerk than necessary, sapping any interest in the love triangle aspect of the story before it can even really begin (not that it was ever the purpose of the story in the first place). Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks as Haymitch and Effie are both a pleasure to see, as each has to deal with the uprooting of their way of life with the move to District 13, and they get some of the funniest and sweetest moments in the film.
Of all of the returning characters, the one who makes the biggest impression might be Plutarch Heavensbee, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. The former gamemaker for the Capitol, he now serves as the rebellion’s master strategist, knowing not only just how to portray the revolution in the best and most useful way but also how to twist, goad, and manipulate even his allies in order to serve his purpose. The film also introduces a handful of new characters, led by Julianne Moore as Coin, the president of the revolution who is so cold as to seemingly have lost perspective on the cost of her uprising. Natalie Dormer makes a great impression as Cressida, the film director in charge of shooting the propaganda pieces, who voluntarily left the Capitol because she believed in the cause. She brings some needed passion to the film, but of all of the architects of the rebellion she seems to have the clearest view of the toll it takes on those involved. She and her film crew bring a tenderness to the film that feels crucial to its tone, providing a balance that would have otherwise been lacking, and I hope we see more of them in the next film.
The series still continues to set the bar extremely high in terms of production quality. In many ways The Hunger Games saga has set an impossibly high bar for most “young adult” adaptations to meet. The story is treated with the epic seriousness it deserves, and the whole production has a level of artistry that raises it above its peers. The casting is obviously top notch, but director Francis Lawrence knows just how to craft these movies in order to connect with the audience. One sequence in particular follows Katniss as she sings a song from District 12, and we see that song as it touches her film crew, then we see it as a propaganda piece, then as rebelling workers sing it as they march, until finally the score picks up the melody as we watch the sacrificial battle between citizens and soldiers. It’s all powerful stuff, expertly crafted, and it’s a shame that these movies are still dismissed by some people based on their source material.
Still, Mockingjay – Part 1 never feels like a complete story, and it makes me wonder how great the film could have been if it were simply the first half of a longer, complete version of Mockingjay. With the exception of Lord of the Rings, we’re long past the point where studios release four hour epics, but Mockingjay could have benefited from that sort of treatment where something like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows can thrive as two separate movies. Mockingjay also carries on for one scene too long, missing out on the chance to leave things with a jaw dropping twist and instead taking time to offer an explanation before things end. It makes sense from a Hollywood standpoint, but it’s a bit of a missed opportunity. Regardless, Mockingjay is still an excellent film in a series of excellent films, and it’s one that changes the formula and gives us a wider look at the world of Panem, all while raising the stakes and setting the stage for a thrilling finale. Trust me, as a fan of the books, and knowing how it all turns out, Mockingjay – Part 1 is important to the success of Part 2, even if it might not seem like it now.