WhyThe Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1 Worked Despite Itself

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1

Call me a Negative Nancy, but I was immensely nervous going into The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 this last week.  Despite the incredibly high quality of the first two films, the third instalment in Suzanne Collin’s increasingly inaccurately named Hunger Games trilogy had everything going against it.

Since the film ultimately exceeded the promise of the previous films, it’s even now difficult to remember exactly what all the fuss was about.  I mean, why wouldn’t it be awesome?  It’s the Hunger Games after all!

While I could enumerate on any number of reason why Mockingjay Part 1 should have been a terrible film, I will limit myself to the main five concerns that I had before seeing the film: each of which was addressed by Francis Lawrence’s superb direction, Jennifer Lawrence’s riveting performance or sheer happenstance.

The Hunger Games Catching Fire Peeta Katniss

While far from a terrible film, Catching Fire was just decent.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it well enough.  It was a faithful and entertaining adaptation of the novel that was serviceably rendered by an impressive cast and a talented director.  In fact, the narrative was more complex, more interesting and more epic in scope than The Hunger Games could boast: branching off increasingly unique directions from a story that many derisively dismissed as a Battle Royale knockoff

The problem was that for all of its fidelity to its source material, the film lacked its stake-raising energy.  What the novel presents as an organic progression from the 74th Hunger Games, Catching Fire presents more as a retread of it.  It all seemed very “old hat:” nothing that we didn’t like, but at the same time nothing that really excited us.

What was weird is that while I preferred the second novel to the first one, the second film fell far from the first’s level of quality.  I began to worry that cinematically, there was really only one story worth telling, and that was the one told back in early 2012.  If Catching Fire couldn’t manage to pull it off, what hope did Mockingjay, with its identical cast and director, have?

Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Phillip Seymour Hoffman died before Mockingjay’s release.  2014 has been a terrible year to be an actor.  Not only did Phillip Seymour Hoffman pass away, but so did Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hoskins, James Garner, Robin Williams, Richard Attenborough and Joan Rivers.

If Catching Fire was any indication, this shouldn’t have been a major issue.  Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee, despite being significant, was a decidedly behind-the-scenes player, not having an especially large amount of screen time.  Those who read the novels, however, realized what a critically, and visibly, important character he becomes in Mockingjay.

What do you do in this situation as a director?  Do you recast the role (presumably drawing at least a little narrative attention to the change so that people aren’t especially confused)?  Do you try to minimize his involvement in the third film, having him mostly work off-camera?  Do you try to digitally render him on the screen, creating a CG Heavensbee?  Some combination of the three, perhaps?

It appears now, however, that it was mostly a moot point.  He appeared as Heavensbee in full in Mockingjay Part 1 and is the only actor credited as Heavensbee in Part 2.  Despite his tragic and untimely death, he was still able to give us a full performance as the brilliantly manipulative Heavensbee throughout the series.

The Hunger Games Trilogy

Mockingjay (the novel) was boring.  Actually, it’s a lot more specific than that.  There really was a great narrative of a grassroots revolt underneath it all.  Suzanne Collins, however, decided to tell an incredibly interesting story from the least interesting perspective possible: Katniss.

Yes, you heard me.  Katniss’ role in Mockingjay, although critically important to the revolution as a whole, is not especially interesting to read about.  She is almost exclusively confined to District 13’s infirmary and living quarters throughout the novel: safely removed from the revolution proper and anything even remotely of interest.

What’s worse is that, through a combination of post-traumatic stress and untrusting politicians, she actually knows very little of the war effort – most of which is told to her second and sometimes third hand – frequently after the fact, with no direct involvement on her part.  She is told about battles and martial strategy and the rescue of the Victors, but neither she nor the reader ever sees them first hand.

The part that she is allowed to play – a visual for Heavensbee’s propos – isn’t particularly interesting to see.  Her biggest battle is figuring out how to not suck in front of the camera, which everybody else is able to figure out for her.  And, unlike in the film, we never see the result of her work, just that it helped raise moral.  We never see lumberjack bombings repeating her slogans nor dam workers blowing up the power plant while singing “The Hanging Tree.”  We just have to believe indirect accounts of the whole thing that the propaganda war is, in fact, helping the war effort.

Katniss Everdeen

In the novel, Katniss is reduced to a shade of her former self.  Yes, I understand that “the games destroyed her.”  I understand that she is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after having survived not just one, but two Hunger Games.  And yes, I understand that this is not the kind of experience that you shake off before returning to your normal day-to-day life.

That’s not the problem.  The problem is that she spends the entire novel as a character that is completely unrecognizable from the Katniss that we have followed during the previous two novels.  She is cringing, paranoid and completely incapable of taking care of herself.  Her running internal monolog doesn’t help, constantly reminding the reader just how completely helpless she is through everything: content at every stage of the narrative to hide in a closet or pipe instead of doing anything that was actually interesting.

And we see this in the film.  We understand, from her first appearance in the film – desperately panicked and trying to convince herself that she’s not dreaming – that she is working through some very serious issues.  But that’s the thing: we see her work through it.  Divorced from her internal monolog and with Francis Lawrence’s clipped pacing, we don’t wallow in her perceived turmoil for two hours, but transform into a character that is actively invested in her own narrative and capable of overcoming her internal obstacles.

Part 1 and Part 2

They split the last novel into two films.  I understand exactly why this is an increasingly popular trend when adapting a series of novels for the big screen.  There are only so many Harry Potter books, so many Twilights, Hobbits and yes, even Hunger Games, to work with.  When each movie grosses hundreds of millions of dollars with a slavishly loyal fan base, why wouldn’t you milk it for all that it’s worth?

Sadly, this hasn’t really worked for the story that the films are trying to tell.  Even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and Part 2, previously the best example of this, really couldn’t manage to get two complete-feeling films from this.  They got one film that actually had a plot and then a two-hour battle scene.

While I understand why two Hobbit films are a necessity – they’re based on a surprisingly dense novel that glosses over a lot of scenes due to being intended for children – three is utterly ludicrous.  Jackson had to shoe-horn in every last passing reference and appendix entry as fully developed sub-plots in order to stretch the story to three films, and it’s obvious that shorter would have been invariably better two movies into the trilogy.

Mockingjay, however, somehow managed to pull it off.  The novel is actually filled with a lot of story, even though we don’t see it from Katniss’ removed perspective.  Additionally, the film adds in the previously mentioned examples of how Katniss’ propos actually do inspire revolutionaries to action in the various districts.  The broad scope, the added scenes and the fully realized depiction of the events of the novel actually do warrant more time than a single film would allow for.  The Victors’ rescue from the Capitol was also the perfect mid-story climax cum cliffhanger to end the first film on: making it feel complete while still knowing that the final battle is yet to come.

While I still have some concerns about Part 2, Mockingjay Part 1 is an unreservedly great film as far as I am concerned.  It is in every way superior to its source material: effectively addressing every substantive flaw from the novel’s first half.  I can only hope that Part 2 can succeed at doing the same to its conclusion.

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