Book to Screen: THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1 Is Better than the Book

     November 25, 2014

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If you’ve read the third book of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, you’re well aware that Mockingjay has problems and is undoubtedly the most difficult book of the series to bring to screen.  Whereas The Hunger Games and Catching Fire had the benefit of following the clear-cut chain of events involved in the Hunger Games, Mockingjay is more of a free-for-all.  Katniss is holed up in District 13, the Hunger Games are a thing of the past and now it’s just about the rebels trying to figure out how to get an edge on President Snow and the Capitol.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that narrative, but for folks who’ve enjoyed the spectacle and structure of the Hunger Games, Mockingjay could be a serious adjustment.

The same is true of the first half of Francis Lawrence’s big screen rendition, but it’s an adjustment worth making.  Minus the familiar faces and settings, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 bears little resemblance to its predecessors, but Lawrence and co. made a number of changes that make the film version far more accessible than the book.  [Please Note: This article contains spoilers for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, but there is no discussion of what’s to come in Part 2.]

No Love for Gale

the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-liam-hemsworthLet’s get the one glaring flaw out of the way first.  Even while reading the books, the whole Gale (Liam Hemsworth) vs. Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) thing always baffled me.  Why was that even an issue?  Who would ever pick Gale over Peeta?  Sure, Gale’s the ultimate warrior and probably has a better shot of protecting Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) in battle, but Peeta is sweet, charming and actually has a personality, and it’s the exact same situation in the films, too.

A) Hemsworth is constantly being out-acted by everyone around him; and B) the writers barely give him anything to work with.  No, the books don’t give the character much either, but at least Collins manages to make Gale feel like a piece of home.  It’s abundantly clear that Katniss should be with Peeta, but Gale still serves as a source of comfort.  That’s not really the case in the movie.

The problem is you can’t just have him there and expect him to mean something, and that’s essentially what the filmmakers have done with the character since day one.  We had that sad sap shot of him watching Katniss kiss Peeta in The Hunger Games that was borderline laughable and even when he’s whipped in Catching Fire, you don’t feel for Gale because you’ve got a strong connection to him; you care because Katniss cares.

I had hoped they’d beef up the role a bit for Mockingjay – Part 1, but all they really did was give Hemsworth more face time but very little meaty material to work with.  I don’t think this would have fixed the issue completely, but perhaps if Gale’s family were involved to a degree it would have made him feel more like a real person rather than just a prop. 

Seeing Things We Don’t See in the Book

the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-capitol-soldiersNow let’s get to the good stuff.  One thing that the writers behind the Hunger Games film franchise have done exceptionally well since day one is add new material – or rather, moments that were recounted or implied in the books that we never got the opportunity to see because the stories are all told from Katniss’ perspective.  During The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, this mainly consisted of scenes between Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the current Gamemaker, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) or Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but in Mockingjay – Part 1, Lawrence and his team went after many more, and all of them work exceptionally well.

Lawrence could have stuck with Katniss and kept the film within District 13 except when she ventures off to film a propo, but when you’ve got a movie that’s about a rebellion, it’s far more effective to actually show the growing unrest and commitment to the rebel cause.  In fact, the most memorable scenes of the film include the District 7 residents attacking the Peacekeepers from treetops, and the District 5 rebels destroying the hydroelectric dam.

And the same goes for the big rescue in the Capitol, too.  The cross-cutting between Finnick’s (Sam Claflin) speech and the mission does get a little jumbled, but it is far more exciting to see what it takes to get Peeta back rather than just having Katniss wait around until Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) tells her the mission is complete like in the book.

We’ve also got that scene featuring President Coin (Julianne Moore) during the bombing.  In the book, we stick with Katniss as she races upstairs to find Prim (Willow Shields) and then hunkers down with the rest of the D13 residents until they can return to their living quarters.  It’s one thing to know that Coin is the leader of District 13, but by giving the audience the opportunity to see why she’s their leader adds another layer to the character – and a particularly vital one at that. 

Effie 

the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-elizabeth-banksEffie’s absent for the large majority of the Mockingjay book, but it was pretty clear that there was absolutely no way Lawrence would do that in the movie version simply because Elizabeth Banks is a headliner and, over the years, she’s turned Effie into a fan favorite.  But Effie isn’t just in Mockingjay – Part 1 to be a crowd-pleaser; she truly serves a purpose.

In the book, shortly after agreeing to be the Mockingjay, Katniss finds her prep team in District 13.  Whereas Peeta’s prep team is executed live on TV, Flavius, Venia and Octavia are saved by the rebels, but, instead of being allowed to acclimate to life in D13, they’re held as prisoners.  Their story and the scene during which Katniss finds them are incredibly off-putting.  Sure, it’s war and order is of the utmost importance in District 13, but the conditions they’re held in make you second guess what Katniss is fighting for.  Not so in the film version.

Instead of having Katniss find her prep team in a downright deplorable state, we get a wildly amusing scene between Effie and Plutarch during which Effie longs for her wigs and other Capitol accessories while Plutarch explains she’s not being held prisoner and is essentially putting this misery upon herself.  It serves as some much needed levity and also pushes the narrative forward.  Seeing so many familiar main players come together for the same cause is invigorating and continues to prove that what Coin and the rest of the D13 rebels are up to truly means something.

Katniss’ Inner Turmoil

the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-jennifer-lawrence-2All three Hunger Games books are told from Katniss’ perspective.  Unless the filmmakers had the character narrate the story, it was going to be a challenge to represent much of what’s going on inside her head on screen.  It was likely easier to get away with it in Hunger Games and Catching Fire because of all the action and knee-jerk reactions, but Mockingjay is a calculating war movie.  It’s not as much about defying the Capitol by holding out a handful of berries or shooting an arrow into the arena force field.  Katniss needs to defy the Capitol by figuring out for herself whether or not she should be the face of the rebellion.

When Katniss arrives in District 13, it’s not about heartfelt reunions with friends and family.  She’s struggling with what she experienced in the arena, the fact that Peeta is being held prisoner in the Capitol and the pressure being put on her to become the Mockingjay and essentially lead a nation.  Should she trust Coin?  Is this cause worth losing so many lives?  Is she even capable of pulling this all off?  Even though we don’t get to read her thoughts on these issues in the movie, there isn’t a moment when we don’t have a clear understanding of what Katniss is going through, and it’s for two reasons – Jennifer Lawrence’s exemplary performance and the fact that this is just a remarkable adaptation of the book.

There are so many standout elements of these movies that it feels wrong to say that any one person is carrying them, but there’s also no denying that The Hunger Games film franchise wouldn’t be half as successful without Lawrence.  Not only does she sell the material she’s given well, but she adds another layer to it.  Whether she’s discussing strategy with Coin and Plutarch, having a heart-to-heart with Prim or in the midst of something a bit more action-heavy, you get full access to what Katniss is thinking and feeling, and always have the sensation that you’re part of her thought process as well.

For example, you’re with her every step of the way during her visit to District 8.  You feel her apprehension about stepping into a warehouse full of injured civilians, but then sit up a little taller when she’s embraced by the crowd.  And then, when the bombs start to fall, it’s easy to understand why Katniss ditches her camera crew and opts to take the risk and try to shoot down the bombers herself.  It’s not that the action itself is a mind-blowing and unprecedented sequence of events.  The reason it’s so riveting and means so much is because we’re experiencing it through a character we care so much about – even without the narration.

Conclusion 

the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-lawrence-mooreMockingjay – Part 1 is an excellent adaptation of the book.  The folks behind the film chose the perfect characters, scenes and ideas to keep, knew exactly what to remove and also knew what to add to the experience too and the end result of all of that is a movie that improves upon its source material.  Lawrence’s film does a far better job presenting both the rebel cause and Katniss’ hopes and intentions and by doing so, it makes the material far more human and an incredibly engaging watch.  Part of me does miss exploring the guilt Katniss feels after District 12 is destroyed and the comparisons she makes between the way D13 and the Capitol operate, but there’s absolutely no denying that the writers behind the movie both took out and added the appropriate elements and churned out a far more cohesive version of the story.

My one complaint, minus Gale’s ineptness, is that I miss the timeline of the Hunger Games.  Even after seeing the first and second films just once, I could do a complete play-by-play; there’s the reaping, the train ride to the Capitol, the opening ceremony, the training, the Games beginning, etc.  When I watch those films, I’m thrilled about what’s happening, but I’m also looking forward to what’s coming next.  Mockingjay doesn’t quite have that effect.  There are parts I love like the aforementioned scene with Effie, when Katniss sings “The Hanging Tree,” the bombing of District 13 and the film’s final sequence, but I’d probably have a much harder time recounting exactly what happens from beginning to end.  It doesn’t make Mockingjay – Part 1 a lesser movie; it’s just a quality I enjoyed and miss a bit.

It’s also worth touching on the fact that there are two parts to this tale.  Should we assess Mockingjay – Part 1 as part one of a two-part experience or should that not matter?  Should we evaluate Mockingjay – Part 1 as a standalone entity?  Personally, I don’t think there’s a right answer to those questions, but for me, Mockingjay – Part 1 built a good deal of hype for the second film, as it should, and also left me quite satisfied with what I got – again, as it should.  That’s what I wanted in Mockingjay – Part 1 and I got it.  It’s different, but Lionsgate and the filmmakers crafted another quality film that makes me proud to be a fan of the series.

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