The Hunger Games series is one of the smartest, politically astute franchises Hollywood has released.
While most young adult series are content to exploit the disposability of their one-size-fits-all protagonists in order to capitalize on the identity confusion that defines adolescence, The Hunger Games instead asks questions about everything from identity and the necessity of bravery to the politics of a capitalistic social structure.
Mockingjay Part 1 is only half a movie and for that reason it is difficult to critique. In ten years when we watch the series as one piece perhaps this will be less noticeable, after all, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was a disaster of a two-part split but worked wonderfully as a whole. For now we will have to be satisfied with this partial offering of the final book adaptation in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy. Collins’ characters are even more engaging in this final chapter than they were in the first two movies, in which they were already quite fascinating. The script for Mockingjay Part 1 isn’t quite as sharp as the previous instalments and struggles early on to maintain the energy the games themselves provided, but the character dynamics, the politics and especially the scathing indictment of celebrity-obsessed media makes up for that.
The plot picks up right where Catching Fire left off, but focuses more on Katniss’ (Jennifer Lawrence) struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Lawrence is brilliant here, balancing Katniss’ tough exterior with emotional battle scars that will likely never heal, all while having to deal with being the leader of a revolution and wondering every moment if she is responsible for the captivity and torture of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who we learn at the end of the second movie is still in the Capitol. Focusing on PTSD allows the movie to say something poignant about the realities of the world in which this story takes place, an uncommon move for fantasy series where characters can go into “God-mode” and kill countless numbers without suffering a single blowback ethically or emotionally. Lawrence’s casting has proven to be key here as well, as the actress’ personal life and celebrity status reflects in Katniss and vice versa, making one of the most interesting aspects of the series something that nobody could have predicted.
Along with the familiar faces we are introduced to President Coin (Julianne Moore), the leader of District 13 who rules the uprising and revolution with an iron fist, determined to destroy the grasp of the Capitol, and Cressida (Natalie Dormer) who leads a camera crew that follows Katniss and broadcasts her to the members of the revolution so she can inspire them. These videos are called “proppos,” a cringe-worthy and obvious parallel in a story that was otherwise just subtle enough to respect its audience. Working alongside Moore is the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman – to whom the movie is dedicated – returning as Plutarch Heavensbee, gleefully directing the public relations of the mockingjay, the symbol of the revolution.
Contrasting with the previous movies, Mockingjay Part 1 is very bleak. There are no colours of the Capitol to speak of, no ironically beautiful arenas for the games to take place in. Instead this movie takes place primarily in an underground bunker where any ounce of happiness is prohibited in favour of grey uniforms, grey walls and grey food. Regardless, director Lawrence Francis manages to balance action spectacle with emotional intimacy surprisingly well, and even finds more than a few good comedic moments in the midst of all the bleak, bleakness (did I mention, this movie is bleak?). A change in tone would have been a heartfelt welcome by halfway through, but we do get to hear Lawrence sing “The Hanging Tree” – penned by The Lumineers for the movie – in an intensely moving scene that will surely be one of the hit songs of the next couple years.
For all it’s faults, most due to the marketing team arbitrarily deciding to split this adaptation into two parts, Mockingjay Part 1 ends on a powerful climax, setting up a set of dominoes for the final sequel to knock over. If Part 2 manages to pull this off, Mockingjay could easily be the best of the series with increasingly complex character dynamics, frighteningly astute real-world resonance and a piercing look at the real but mostly unmentioned struggles that come with the responsibilities of leading a revolution while still feeling unprepared for adulthood – something every teenager is familiar with. That adult audiences will find more to think about in a series aimed at adolescents than they will in most adult movies is more than a little impressive.