Slight spoilers for the movie The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1:
Those greedy studio executives. All they care about is stuffing their pockets with money. The decision to now routinely split the final books of YA series into two movies is a stone-cold, cynical move to keep milking their cash cows.
Except in the case of Mockingjay, the final book in The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, it may have actually been a brilliant move.
At the end of the last movie, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was rescued by rebels from the arena where she was in a fight to the death, along with her fellow tributes Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright). Two other tributes Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) were captured by the Capitol.
Katniss was taken to District 13, once believed to have been wiped out by the Capitol many years before. The residents of District 13 live underground in a stark, bunker-like environment and are led by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). They are soldiers who have been waiting for a long time to strike back at the Capitol.
All they needed was something or someone to spark rebellion in the other districts.
That someone is Katniss, who has become a lightning rod for her society.
The problem is Katniss doesn’t want to be their symbol of rebellion. Furious with her former mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) who promised to make certain Peeta would survive the games, and the Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who plotted her rescue without telling her beforehand, she resists the pressure to comply with their wishes.
It soon becomes apparent that the Capitol is using Peeta as a weapon against the rebels. In interviews with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) broadcast all over Panem, Peeta tries to persuade the rebels to cease fighting. In District 13, he is seen as a traitor and pariah.
It’s Katniss’s little sister Prim (Willow Shields) who makes her see her value–and bargaining power–as the Mockingjay, the symbol of the uprising. Demanding that Coin rescue Peeta and give him a pardon, she finally agrees to become the Mockingjay.
Saying the series takes a dark turn may seem strange when one is talking about a dystopian story that features children killing children for entertainment. But that’s exactly what happens. The games as a metaphor for war become an actual war. Not a war of idealized heroes, moral high grounds and pristine motivations. This is a real war, with messy grey areas and consequences that mark the soldiers who fight it for life.
And yet the game is still being played. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) continues his game of cat and mouse against Katniss, using her love for her friends and family as a way to weaken and demoralize her. Plutarch, Coin, and others leading the rebellion seek the right buttons to push to keep Katniss in line as their weapon against the Capitol. When a “propo” (propaganda piece) of Katniss giving a raw, from-the-gut speech against the Capitol is broadcast, it bears more than a slight resemblance to ads for the movie. I’ve no doubt that is entirely deliberate.
The muted palette and shift in tone from the previous two movies will no doubt bother some viewers, but it is a necessary shift. Director Francis Lawrence and screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig clearly understand the political and personal complexities of the themes Suzanne Collins was tackling in the book.
Katniss is a young woman who has had the crushing weight of responsibility on her shoulders from far too early an age–first for the survival of her family after her father died, then for Peeta and other tributes in the games, and now for her entire society. Katniss returns to her home district after it has been destroyed and finds herself literally walking on the bones of her erstwhile friends and neighbors. She knows Snow ordered their destruction because of her defiance.
It would have been so easy to make Katniss a willing, bad-ass heroine who wants to lead a glorious revolution. It would have been so easy to make the story a simple question of good vs. evil.
Francis Lawrence is careful to keep that from happening. In one of the most famous scenes from the book, where Katniss gives a rousing speech after the Capitol has bombed a hospital full of injured people, he keeps the hand of the cameraman in the shot. At first, this threw me and, yes, annoyed me. Then I realized why he did it. It was so we wouldn’t get too caught up in the rah-rah moment of Katniss’ speech. It was a reminder that her genuine reaction to a horrible tragedy is being used for other people’s purposes.
During the scenes when President Coin speaks to the citizens of District 13, whipping up fervor, her listeners responding to her with fist pumps, it’s easy to forget, if only for a moment, that these are supposedly the good guys. While there’s no question that Snow and the system he leads are evil, the movie doesn’t make us entirely comfortable with the alternative.
One of the ways the movie deviates from the book is to keep the character of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Katniss’s escort during the games, in the story. (In the book she only makes a brief appearance near the end.) It’s a good change. Now she is member of the team–albeit a reluctant one–helping to sell the Mockingjay and the rebellion to the citizens in the other districts. Banks does a marvelous job of remaining entirely “Effie” even without any of Effie’s outer accoutrements. (I love how she and Woody Harrelson keep up an intriguing subtext to Effie and Haymitch’s relationship–one of the few opportunities for a bit of lightness in this very grim chapter of the story.)
Hoffman’s Heavensbee is much more in the forefront than the last movie. It’s a performance that underscores what we lost when Hoffman died this past summer. (The movie, not surprisingly, is dedicated to his memory.) Plutarch more than anyone understands the moves and countermoves needed to make the rebellion succeed. He is willing to sacrifice whatever and whoever he has to.
Moore was a fabulous choice for Coin. She gives her some layers the character lacked in the book. Hemsworth finally gets some meaty scenes to play (ironically, up to now Gale has functioned the way female characters usually do in action stories). Claflin shows he can do much more than be charming, as he reveals Finnick’s vulnerabilities and how the Capitol irrevocably damaged him. Hutcherson is utterly heartbreaking as the captured Peeta, playing several difficult scenes directed at people who are not in the scene with him.
But of course the movie belongs entirely to Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss.
Sitting by a lake in her old district with her camera crew, Katniss is asked by one of them to sing a song. She sings The Hanging Tree, a folk song about lovers meeting at a tree where a murderer had been hanged.
Lawrence is no great singer. But in a plaintive, folksy, slightly bluesy voice, she brings the tale of the lovers to life. The song is broadcast around Panem and becomes a theme of the rebellion. As the scene builds to focus on a group of rebels singing it as they storm a dam and bomb it, it’s a moment that’s feels real, mostly because Lawrence herself is so real. It’s thrilling yet at the same time deeply disturbing–the power of celebrity to move people to action, to risk everything, even to die. It ties many important character and thematic elements together.
It’s a scene that probably wouldn’t have been made if there had been only one movie.
So let the studio execs count their stacks of gold coins and rub their hands with glee. For once, they made a good decision.