Mockingjay, the final book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, always felt unfilmable to me. It broke drastically from the formula of the previous books, with no true Hunger Games as a part of the plot, covering instead a vast, complex revolution through the eyes of a damaged, broken, hopeless teenager. It was epic in scale yet filled with intimate, intense, but often internal emotions. It required basically reintroducing the audience to the universe, now filled with entirely different situations and concerns than of which we were aware in the first two books. And to cap it all off, it was one of the most dark, tragic, violent, and depressing finales to a beloved sci-fi series in recent memory. So the fact that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 not only works as a cohesive narrative, but is about as good a film version of an unfilmable book as possible, is praiseworthy, even if it struggles at times under the weight of its own story as well as immense expectations.
Mockingjay – Part 2 picks up where Part 1 left off. Peeta has been rescued from the Capital, where he was tortured by President Snow and brainwashed into wanting to kill Katniss. But while Katniss and her team try to help Peeta the revolution rages on, and Katniss must once again take up the mantle of the Mockingjay to inspire rebel troops while also hopefully dissuade those loyal to the Capital from the fight. The last stop before invading the Capital is District 2, where Panem’s military forces are trained and supplied, who have taken refuge in an impenetrable underground mine. The rebels want to bomb the entrances and seal them inside to die, but Katniss would rather try to talk them out peacefully in order to save civilian lives. When things go horribly wrong, Katniss is pulled from the front lines and once again relegated to filming propaganda pieces for the revolution away from the real fighting.
With the last barrier down, the war progresses to the very streets of the Captial, evacuated and booby-trapped by President Snow with deadly “pods” of outlandish design originally intended for killing Tributes in the Hunger Games Arena. Katniss, Gale, Finnick, their film crew, and a band of soldiers are sent into the war zone to film more inspirational footage, though only in relatively safe areas already swept clean by the rebels. Katniss, however, is determined to go off-mission and kill President Snow, for all the pain he’s caused to so many people. Her plan is put on hold when Peeta joins the group, in handcuffs in case his brainwashing should kick in, with the thought that seeing him triumph over his torturers will make for a compelling show across the country. But when things become suddenly more dangerous, the group sets off on Katniss’s new mission to strike at the head of their oppressors, hoping to survive the deadly traps and the troops hunting them long enough to deliver the death blow to tyranny. Yet through it all is the nagging suspicion that in the end they might just be replacing one form of tyranny with another.
Mockingjay – Part 2 is a thrilling, frightening, and emotional conclusion to a powerful story. It’s dripping with suspense, as Katniss’s team dwindles in size and you start to realize that no one is safe. Snow’s bobby-trap “pods” are visually impressive and intense, whether simple automated flamethrowers and machine guns or a killer wave of toxic black sludge and horrifying mutated nightmarish creatures, and they make Part 2 feel like the most action-packed, edge-of-your-seat film of the series. Yet the film’s best moments are the quiet ones, when we get a glimpse into the damaged psyche of Katniss, Peeta, and the other tributes, and the human costs of war and violence. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson shine in these intimate glimpses of character, particularly as Katniss tries to help Peeta sort out his real memories and feelings from those implanted by Snow. After four films, the entire cast has really taken ownership of their roles, and there’s a certain amount of protectiveness of the material and the characters that comes out in the film’s dramatic moments that really lends an authenticity to the proceedings. It really feels like the people we’re watching onscreen have been through a lot together.
But Part 2 also has some rather glaring flaws. Despite splitting the book into two movies, things feel pretty rushed throughout Part 2, leaving little time for some much-needed plot explanations and even more critically not allowing some of the story’s biggest punches the time to land and breathe. With such a big focus on action, the story’s ending in particular feels like it happens far too quickly, dulling some of the most tragically sharp elements of the plot and causing other developments to seem somewhat random. The film at times leans heavily on those of us who have read the books to fill in gaps for those who haven’t in order to make things a little more coherent. And for book fans, there are some pretty large cuts despite having two films, leaving key characters like Johanna, Haymitch, and Effie only a handful of scenes between them, while one glaring moment in Katniss’s development from the books is completely missing. Add to that the looming shadow of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose death necessitated some unfortunately rather obvious story edits and cinematic trickery in order to make the film work, and the result is a finale that feels more than a little disjointed and whose emotions don’t resonate as strongly as they should.
Unfortunately, Mockingjay – Part 2 shows the full extent of the compromise required to bring The Hunger Games to the big screen: the loss of Katniss’s voice. In order to make the films work, the filmmakers wisely chose to step back from the first-person narrative structure of the novels so that they could paint a broader picture of events. It worked well in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, but the book Mockingjay was built so strongly on Katniss’s narration and point of view, as well as her internal struggle to deal with everything that has happened to her over the past two years, and this final film really highlights what we’ve lost. Katniss’s motivations, decisions, and actions in the film feel arbitrary and occasionally out-of-nowhere without that glimpse into the internal conflict of her mind, and it’s that inner dialogue that made the book almost unfilmable. Director Francis Lawrence, who has directed all of the films except the first, has done all he can to bring the emotion to the series, but in the end Katniss’s voice has proved to be too crucial to the story for the film’s to completely succeed without it.
That’s not to say that Mockingjay – Part 2 is in any way a bad film. It largely succeeds, and is a tense and dramatic finale to a very successful series. It’s anchored by strong performances in a believable yet still foreign universe. It’s a singularly dark, tragic, strongly anti-war conclusion that stands out among other, more generic dystopian science fiction tales of this sort. And the series ultimately presented Suzanne Collin’s masterful story in a true and faithful way. But I find myself itching to return to the novels for the first time since the films began, to revisit the story of Panem and the Hunger Games, of Peeta Mellark and Katniss Everdeen, and of the Mockingjay once more from Katniss’s unique perspective. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 may be a successful conclusion to the franchise, but some stories will always be better on the page.