Although Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is ostensibly the heroine of the Hunger Games saga, the story has developed to where she’s no longer in the mold of a traditional protagonist. She began that way in the first movie, but The Hunger Games: Catching Fire started to push her to the background as she became part of a much larger conflict rather than its leader. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 continues this shift to the point where it barely resembles the first two pictures as the true story of the latest installment isn’t Katniss’ journey, but the revolution that’s consumed her and the rest of Panem. She’s still an integral part and the focus of the narrative, but director Francis Lawrence has expanded the social commentary far beyond the first film, and put it squarely on how media can be used to control or inspire in the true battle for hearts and minds. Although the movie is eventually weighted down by the business requirement of splitting the final book into two movies, and Katniss still becomes a puddle of tears when the melodramatic love story surfaces, Mockingjay remains a fascinating and dark development in this unique franchise.
Holed up in the subterranean and militarized District 13, Katniss is still recovering from the trauma of the Quarter Quell and losing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). When she’s called upon to become the “Mockingjay”, a symbol to the rebels in Panem, she reluctantly assumes the mantle as she sees how President Snow (Donald Sutherland) mercilessly tries to crush the uprising she unintentionally inspired. Understanding that she’s meant to be part of Plutarch Heavensbee’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) propaganda, Katniss is still determined to save Peeta, who’s being held captive by the Capitol and forced to be their mouthpiece.
I think Mockingjay is the weakest of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books because it reduces Katniss to little more than a weeping pawn, and the film starts on a discouraging note as the first shot is Katniss huddled in the fetal position and crying. Thankfully, Lawrence mostly leaves that Katniss behind and far surpasses the source material by trying to get away from the character’s survivor guilt and making her an active participant in the rebellion. Although she’s still being moved around by the adults in the room, which includes not only Heavensbee but also Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore), they’re just as reliant on her inner strength and knowing that she can’t fake being a leader. Katniss has to go out in the field and actually fight. She remains a reactive character, and when it comes to fighting the Capitol, I mean that description in the best sense possible.
But when it comes to the love triangle involving Katniss, Peeta, and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the movie devolves into soap opera as Katniss loses all her fortitude and becomes almost a completely different character. It’s one thing for her to love Peeta or use Gale, which could be interesting. But since this movie is all about trying to keep Katniss and Peeta apart (they’re now on opposite sides of the propaganda war), all she can do is cry when she thinks of him or sees him on television (side note: Katniss cries seven times over the course of the film ranging from a single tear to anguished wailing; it doesn’t humanize her as much as it makes her almost unbearably fragile). As for Gale, he gets more screen time than ever before, but he may as well go around wearing a t-shirt reading “Friend Zone”. Hemsworth can look down at the ground and speak softly, but he never comes close to the credible vulnerability conveyed by Hutcherson, especially here as we see him slowly worn away by the Capitol’s abuse.
Removed from the romantic crutch, which these films no longer need to lean on so heavily since we already understand the connection between these characters, Mockingjay comes alive in a way the previous films hadn’t because the “games” have left the arena and now everyone is playing not against each other, but against the Capitol. Before, children were sacrificed to keep the populace in check, but now people are willingly sacrificing themselves to fight the Capitol. The director doesn’t shy away from the harshness of these scenes as we see scores of innocent people gunned down as they charge against the Capitol’s soldiers. Propaganda can romanticize the Mockingjay, but there’s also ugliness in civil war, and the director doesn’t shy away from it.
What Mockingjay – Part 1 brings into stark relief is the propaganda war that was already simmering beneath the surface in the first two movies. The Hunger Games pointed out how the privileged can’t see the people past as entertainment, and the most powerful kind of propaganda is the kind where people aren’t even aware it’s pushing a message. Everyone in the Capitol is so wrapped up in the bloodbath that they don’t even see notice the dehumanization of children. They’re “tributes” and “contestants”. The enemy has been so thoroughly dehumanized that they’re not even seen as an enemy. Meanwhile, those in the districts are left with nothing but a cruel reminder.
The rebellion began when Katniss subverted this propaganda and changed the script. Although she was simply trying to save Peeta and herself, she set off the realization that the Capitol wasn’t unshakeable. Entertainment was transforming into a message of dissent, and in Mockingjay – Part 1, that message explodes into revolution. It may not be subtle, but most blockbusters are willing for shrug off any themes that might make people uncomfortable. The confines of the Capitol’s arena are gone, and while Mockingjay – Part 1 still has some set pieces, they rarely affect us as much as the quieter moments of the movie.
And while I’m glad Mockingjay – Part 1 has the room for these moments, you can really feel the narrative stretch as it pulls to the end (or rather, the halfway point of the full conclusion) as we’re drawn through a poorly-paced action scene. It’s like the movie had to hit an arbitrary two-hour mark, and Mockingjay – Part 1 comes perilously close to showing what happens when you try to split an average-sized YA novel into two parts. To be fair, the movie far surpasses the book since it removes Collins’ poorly written prose and dialogue in addition to providing new dimensions of Katniss’ role in the rebellion.
Although greatness still escapes The Hunger Games film franchise, it continues to set a high bar in the YA genre by refusing to back away from the unpleasant aspects of its story, a story that involves lots of innocent people dying for freedom and a leader whose power to control perception has long surpassed her skill with a bow and arrow (although she has a particularly impressive archery kill in this film). There’s only one film left; Katniss Everdeen’s darkest days are yet to come. Mockingjay – Part 1 makes us want to fight beside her until the end.