Hello, everyone! Well, it’s finally that time of year again. The time when I get to talk about a Young Adult novel series turned movies that I actually like.
For as much hassle as I give films in this vein, I won’t deny the films that have exceptional merits. Longtime readers will no doubt know of my fondness for The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins, and their subsequent film adaptations. Heck, Catching Fire made my top ten best films of 2013 list. I have always admired this series for its scathing societal commentary of obsession with reality television and the celebrity that comes with it, and its examination of governmental communism and manipulation.
So, you could see why I’d be so excited for today’s topic, Mockingjay – Part 1, based on what is my favorite book in the series. Of course, it still had its struggles to put up with. In what many assume was yet another money-grubbing attempt to cash in on the success of The Deathly Hallows, Mockingjay is the latest YA book to be split into two films, with the second half due out in November 2015.
And just like any of the tested alliances in the book, this decision turns out to be a necessary evil.
Having survived the Hunger Games once again, and taken to a top secret underground base in the presumed wasteland of District 13, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) now finds herself in the midst of a growing rebellion in Panem between the oppressed people of the districts, and the tyrannical forces of the Capitol. Seeking to finally make President Snow (Donald Sutherland) pay for his heinous actions, and to also secure the safety of Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss becomes the Mockingjay symbol of rebellion, not realizing what secret agendas may be in play.
Whereas the first two Hunger Games films were a commentary and satire against reality television exploitation, Mockingjay – Part 1 switches the dynamic up by further developing its revolutionary thematic (at times, evoking memories of Benghazi), and parodies World War 2 recruitment propaganda videos. Realizing that Katniss is not much of an actor, the natural decision is to take her out to various locations, followed by a film crew led by director Cressida (Natalie Dormer) who captures Katniss’ raw, unscripted anger towards the wrongdoings of the Capitol. Chockfull of subtle touches like budget-constrained visuals, and on the nose slogans, it also represents a true passion for practical filmmaking, as opposed to overly digitized green-screen shooting.
The acting is uniformly terrific, with the standout being Jennifer Lawrence once more. Having barely survived the Quarter Quell, we first see Katniss in an almost catatonic state, setting the grim tone we’ll experience for the rest of the film. While she may have been as strong as she could for as long as she could, we now see her suffering from severe PTSD, a condition she only finds solace from when actively becoming involved with the fight against the government. It’s finding that right balance of how much you let your emotions dictate what you do that’s a challenge for Katniss, and Lawrence is more than up for the task, showing off more incredible range of emotion, from snarky and hopeful, to devastated and grief-stricken. Joining the cast is veteran actress Julianne Moore as District 13 president Alma Coin, a figure who tends to act as nurturing and rational as she can, but much like her associated color of grey (in fact, much of the district is associated with that color), is shrouded in mystery with secret agendas. Much of the cast of the first two films make a return as well, all playing their parts terrifically.
As for the controversial splitting-decision, many critics have been quick to tear into the film for doing this, seeing it as a greedy way to extend the franchise’s life and make more money. While I don’t want to be too presumptuous myself, I can’t help but feel that everything said has been too unfair and hyperbolic.
While I also hate the decision of splitting one book into two films (or a trilogy in The Hobbit’s case), and I initially dreaded it entirely, with this book, this is a decision made for a justifiable purpose. Being that the entirety of the book is from Katniss’s point of view, we never did get to see much of what was going on outside the confines of 13. We only heard it through descriptions, something that would obviously fly in the face of the “Show, don’t tell” rule of cinema. With this film, it has an opportunity to flesh out and expand on the scope of the world, show off incredible sequences of uprising in other districts, and deliver some truly arresting action sequences, such as a stellar attack on a dam (with phenomenal sound work by Jeremy Peirson), and a Zero Dark Thirty-esque extraction of captured victors in the Capitol.
However, where credence is ultimately due to critics is that it also features dull, extended stretches. Sequences like this include conversations between President Snow and two high-ranking assistants (both of which were not featured in the original novel), and exist solely to pad the running time to two hours. This also applies for an ending which goes on several minutes longer than necessary, and doesn’t carry as strong a cliffhanger as it could have. The film also works in more Effie Trinket, notably absent from almost the entire book, and while Elizabeth Banks is still terrific, these additions can feel superfluous.
However, Mockingjay – Part 1 is clearly a set up for great things to come in the second part (and I can tell you that it won't be just one giant action sequence that many may assume), and it's ultimately unfair to accurately judge what is only a piece of a full product. If you haven’t liked any of the other films yet, this film probably won’t win you over as it is the weakest film yet, but if you’re willing to accept the decision to split these films for what it is, you’ll more than likely be able to walk away satisfied and filled with anticipation.
Fire is catching, and we’ll see how it all concludes next year.
**** / *****