It’s the beginning of the end of The Hunger Games franchise; though there is still one more film left to go – because Hollywood knows a cash cow when they see one – the release of Mockingjay, Part One marks the final installment of the book trilogy. On the one hand, this is kind of a bummer since I enjoyed both the books and the film adaptations quite a bit; however, Mockingjay was my least favorite book of the series and I don’t know how much story that there was really left to tell. Jennifer Lawrence has been a good soldier and has seen this franchise through to the end, despite her Oscar win, but it’s really time for her to move on to more adult roles (I’d spring her from the X-Men franchise as well, given the chance). All things run out of steam eventually, so while I’ve enjoyed the ride I do think it is time for The Hunger Games to come to it natural conclusion.
But the saga isn’t over quite yet; there is still a lot of story to tell and Mockingjay, Part One is not going out with a whimper. This film is not as strong as Catching Fire, but that is true of the source material as well. Mockingjay, Part One is handicapped by a few things, but perhaps the biggest hurdle is that it is only able to tell one half of the story thanks to the decision to split the final book into two installments. This is a trend that drives me crazy; while it makes everyone a lot of money, it isn’t necessarily rewarding for the movie goer to have the narrative broken up into pieces and spread out over time. It’s also a challenge for the filmmakers to find a way to make a satisfying movie that is also lacking its final act; I’m guessing that when Suzanne Collins was writing her trilogy, she wasn’t anticipating her final story being cut in half. When the big climax of the story is still several months away in a completely different film, the level of difficulty is higher.
Given this major constraint, Mockingjay, Part One does a pretty impressive job. Despite the story feeling unfinished, the film is still able to occasionally ratchet up the tension and create suspense and interest in the unfolding narrative. The film cannot completely overcome some of the shortcomings of the source material, but solid performances from the cast and the high stakes involved in Mockingjay, Part One, make it an enjoyable film that is worthy of its predecessors.
Mockingjay is the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy that leaves the actual Hunger Games behind. The events of Mockingjay follow the immediate aftermath of what happened in Catching Fire; revolution is brewing and the Districts are ready to wage war against the oppressive Capitol. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has inadvertently become the face of the rebellion; her actions in the last Hunger Games helped spark the spirit of revolution, though she was unaware that she was a pawn in this game. Recovering in the newly discovered District 13, Katniss’ primary concern is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who was left behind when she was rescued at the conclusion of Catching Fire. Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has convinced the revolution’s leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) that Katniss has real value for propaganda; she’ll unite the districts and inspire people to join the cause. Katniss obliges, as long as they rescue Peeta and the other tributes from the grasp of the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Oh yeah – Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is still skulking around for no apparent reason; he’s still a straw man obstacle to Peeta and Katniss’ relationship.
Mockingjay is the most political of the three books – it is, after all, focused on toppling a regime – but without the actual Hunger Games, the first film is somewhat lacking in action. There’s a lot of talking in Mockingjay, Part One and a lot less children killing children. There are moments of excitement, but the bulk of the film is focused on sowing the seeds of rebellion that will be sowed in the second chapter of the film. The rebels and President Snow trade their propaganda and Katniss and Peeta are mostly pawns in this larger game. There’s a lot of discussing action and strategy, but little actual excitement. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you are used to the more fast-paced earlier installments of the franchise, Mockingjay, Part One feels a lot slower. We’re now concerned with the fate of millions of people, rather than just those tributes in the game, but somehow it all seems a little smaller despite the vastness of the conflict. There’s a lot of action coming, but that’s still a movie away. Mockingjay Part One is mostly setting the table for the big showdown that is on the horizon. Because of that, it’s just not quite as satisfying as the other films. It’s still enjoyable, but it’s definitely a step down from Catching Fire, which I consider the high water mark of the franchise.
The reason that Mockingjay, Part One works as well as it does is because we care about these characters. They wisely stacked the cast with some pretty great actors that are able to elevate and deepen the words that they are given. Jennifer Lawrence has done such a great job in creating Katniss and conveying all of her emotions and uncertainty as the story plays out. The Hunger Games books are told from Katniss’ perspective and have the advantage of sharing her internal dialogue and thoughts; the films don’t have that luxury, but Lawrence is so good that we feel like we do know what’s going on inside Katniss’ head. She’s the heart and soul of the film and she continues to be invested in the role. We don’t get to see a ton of Peeta in this film, but Hutcherson does his usual solid job; he has to play a different version of Peeta than we have previously seen and he handles new facets well. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s role is greatly expanded in the final films and though it makes me sad to see him up on the big screen, he’s never anything less than spectacular. Julianne Moore is a welcome addition to the cast and quickly makes President Coin a memorable character. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks provide some necessary comic relief in the film; Banks, in particular, is fascinating to watch as Effie, who has now been stripped of her trademark over the top glamour and couture. The girls sitting behind me said “she’s the best” pretty much every time that Effie was on screen and it’s hard to really argue with that. Because we already care about these characters and their well-being, the viewer is automatically invested in the film. This helps overcome some of the slower moments where there is a lot of discussion about revolution and the effects of revolution, but not much actual revolution.
Some other thoughts:
- I was once again the oldest person in the theater for a Hunger Games movie. I learned some interesting takeaways about teenagers – while Hemsworth is “smoldering,” they don’t really dig Gale either; they are super excited for the new Pitch Perfect movie; they think the Divergent movie ruined the book; and they feel compelled to do the Mockingjay salute whenever someone in the film does it. That last one was kind of creepy.
- It’s been a while since this happened, but someone had a baby at the film. And we all know how I feel about that.
- One of the more ancillary problems that I had with Mockingjay as a book was that I had a tough time visualizing everything that was going on. In that regard, the film naturally enhanced the story for me by giving me a clearer picture of the new locations and characters that were introduced in the book.
- Based on this quiz, I’d only make it about halfway through as a tribute in the Hunger Games, which is actually a lot better than I would have done. But it’s a Buzzfeed quiz and we all know that those are gospel.
- She doesn’t have a ton to do yet, but it’s worth noting that Natalie Dormer (Game of Thrones) has joined the cast for the final two films.
- I always surprised at how young Jennifer Lawrence looks in these films. I know that is obviously intentional, but it’s still jarring to see her look so different.
- There is a fake out moment toward the end of the film when the screen fades to black for a moment and it appears that the movie might be over. The kids in the audience were having none of that; they got pretty riled up about it, though in all honestly I thought that would have been a better place to end the film than the actual end point.
If you like The Hunger Game series, you’ll enjoy Mockingjay, Part 1 but it is probably the weakest entry in the series. Since so much of Mockingjay, Part 1 is setting things up for Mockingjay, Part 2, that’s kind of inevitable; without a focusing event like the Hunger Games or the upcoming showdown with the Capitol, Mockingjay Part 1 suffers a bit by comparison. It’s still an enjoyable film for fans, given our affection for these characters and interest in what happens to them, and I have no doubt that they’ll stick the eventual landing, but there’s not the usual level of excitement and action in this film that we’ve come to expect from the franchise. Mockingjay Part 1 is simply a victim of the decision to spilt the book in half and it does all that it can, given those parameters. Not the best of the bunch, but enjoyable all the same.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 opens nationwide today.