I’ve been sitting here for the past two days trying to write this review. Not because The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (aargh, that title) disappointed me, far from it.
It’s because when it comes to blockbuster movies, it’s almost unheard of, at least in recent years, for one to so entirely subvert our expectations of what a blockbuster movie is supposed to be and do. To so entirely subvert our expectations of what a hero is supposed to be and do.
Of course, I SHOULD have expected this going into the movie, as I have read and loved the books for years. But we’re talking about Hollywood here. Even though the previous three movies in the series have hewn fairly close to the books, Hollywood is well-known for watering down source material.
Mockingjay Part 2 does an incredible job of keeping the complex political themes of the book intact.
When I say “political” I don’t mean author Suzanne Collins is presenting any specific ideology as preferable to others. In fact, it amuses me to no end how some (over the entire political spectrum) try to claim Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as their heroine. In the last movie, Mockingjay Part 1, we were introduced to District 13, a “lost” district in the dystopian/post-apocalyptic world of Panem, which is made up of various parts of what was once North America. District 13, a perfect socialist society where everything is shared equally, seems the polar opposite of the Capitol, which enslaves and starves the surrounding districts to feed its decadent lifestyle.
Collins’ point, it seems to me, is that any system of governing is only as good as the people running it, and that there is always the danger of power corrupting that system. In this case, power is consolidated by using children as pawns.
This is a running theme throughout all the books and movies. Katniss has survived two fights to the death in The Hunger Games, and has agreed to become the face of the revolution. She knows perfectly well that she is being used by both sides in the conflict, and she doesn’t much like it. Yet, as in every other installment of the story, love for those closest to her drives her to accept the role that has been foisted on her.
The movie opens right where the last one left off. Katniss is being treated for injuries after she has been attacked by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who was rescued from the evil President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) clutches. Peeta has been tortured and brainwashed into believing Katniss is an enemy he must destroy.
Katniss requests to be allowed to join in the rebellion, which is now in full swing. District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore) and former gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) resist the idea because of Katniss’ value as a propaganda symbol, but they send her to District 2, the final district that needs to join the rebels in order to take on the Capitol. Katniss’ friend, ex-hunting partner, and would-be lover Gale (Liam Hemsworth) plans with Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) a way to trap those resisting the rebels. When survivors escape the devastation, a well-meaning Katniss tries to help, only to be shot.
She recovers due to bullet-proof armor, but finds that now that District 2 has fallen, her value as the Mockingjay has plummeted, at least in Coin’s estimation. Still devastated by Peeta’s condition and traumatized by the cat-and-mouse game Snow continues to play with her, she decides she must assassinate the president. She stows away on a supply plane headed to a rebel camp outside the Capitol, only to find that she is immediately recognized by the rebels. Instead of forcing her to come back, Coin and Heavensbee create a “star squad” including Katniss, Gale, and Finnick (Sam Claflin) as the onscreen face of the rebellion.
The progress of the “star squad” becomes, in Finnick’s words “the 76th Hunger Games.” The streets and buildings of the Capitol are armed with booby-traps meant to kill their victims in the most horrific way possible.
To tell more of the plot would really spoil things. There is some heart-thumping action during a flight through tunnels underneath the city that was terrifying to read about and made me literally jump out of my chair watching it. Director Francis Lawrence is a superlative action director, but he also does an admirable job with the quieter, emotional scenes.
Just last week I reviewed Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Even though the two movies are about as far apart in genre, style, and subject matter as you can get, they both express their political themes through intensely personal stories. Every action Katniss takes is motivated by love for those closest to her. Along the way, she picks up allies who she adds to the list of those she wants to protect and save.
The reason I call her a “singular hero” is because she not only doesn’t want power, she is often oblivious to the power she does yield. Several people–even her little sister Prim–have to keep reminding to use her status as the symbol of the revolution, or warn her that her status puts her and those closest to her in danger.
But it’s not just Katniss who is a singular character for a mainstream Hollywood film. It is loaded with an array of remarkable, complex women, who represent many different aspects of Katniss’ personality. Lawrence, as always, is superb, and plays the difficult nuances of the character perfectly. The actors who play the other roles are also fantastic–Moore’s icy Coin, Jena Malone’s acerbic Johanna Mason, Willow Shields’ gentle Prim, Natalie Dormer’s determined Cressida, Elizabeth Banks’ less shallow than meets the eye Effie Trinket, Stef Dawson’s damaged Annie Cresta, Michelle Forbes’ pragmatic Lieutenant Jackson, Patina Miller’s forceful Commander Paylor, Gwendoline Christie’s brief but imposing cameo as Commander Lyme.
Of the male characters, it’s really only Hutcherson and Sutherland who get some meaty scenes. Hutcherson gives a restrained performance as the “hijacked” Peeta, who is desperate to find his way back to reality.
Mockingjay is the least popular book of the series and it’s not hard to see why: first, there is a segment of readers that is unhappy with the way the love triangle is resolved. It’s inevitable some people will be displeased when one side of the triangle gets squeezed out.
Another reason is because of the way Collins portrays Katniss and the other victors of the games as PTSD survivors. We are so used to seeing heroes emerge triumphant from battle almost unscathed in popular culture it’s discomfiting and disturbing to see heroes who continue to suffer long after the conflict is over. Collins, whose own father suffered from PTSD, doesn’t allow the survivors to return to their lives as if nothing has happened to them. There is no magical transformation from living in constant terror to a peaceful existence. The scars will always remain.
It’s this very aspect of the series that breaks my heart every time, but I also admire its brutal honesty.
If I have one complaint about the movie version, it’s that it somewhat glosses over this part of the story. Another flaw is one that the filmmakers could hardly help: because of the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman during production, a couple of key scenes had to be retooled. The results are awkward, though the actors do the best they can to make it work.
Still, the movie keeps so much of what’s difficult and special about the book that these end up being minor quibbles. I give Francis Lawrence, producer Nina Jacobson, and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong a lot of credit for keeping the integrity of the story–and not compromising the final portrayal of what is now an indelible, iconic character.