The cynicism and manifestly crass commercialism of the new Hollywood trend of splitting the final books of a series into two movies instead of one, in order to double the profits on what they assume will be a blockbuster—a tactic first used to the great detriment of quality and the even greater success of the bottom line in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—is carried on with an even more blatant disregard for narrative integrity in Mockingjay, a novel only a third the length of Deathly Hallows. Of course, the culmination of all this disingenuousness is yet to come with the third part of The Hobbit—a 280-page novel that needed three films to complete, the second of which was padded with a thirty-minute dragon battle that was not in the book and was completely unnecessary for the plot. But I digress. And besides, I should have plenty of time to rant about that film when it’s released. Let me return to Mockingjay, Part One.
As the third book in Suzanne Collins’ Young Adult dystopian fantasy, Mockingjay was the weakest of the three to begin with. Lacking the unifying device of the games themselves to structure its action, it is something of a rambling narrative that is not particularly original (a rebel alliance uniting against the apparently invincible power of an evil empire? Where have I seen that before?) and often leaves the series’ charismatic protagonist, Katnisss Everdeen, outside the main action looking in, or suffering teenage angst about her boyfriends while far more important things are going on. So I guess the Hollywood reasoning was, hey, this is weak material…let’s make two movies out of it!
Still, director Francis Lawrence (Catching Fire, I Am Legend) and a stellar cast—led by Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence in her iconic role as Katnisss Everdeen and including Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee and Julianne Moore as rebel leader President Alma Coin—all make a valiant effort to bring this mutilated creature of a film to life.
The story begins where Catching Fire left off: Katniss and Finnick (Sam Claflin) have been rescued from the brutal competition of the Quarter Qwell, the latest “games,” by the rebels, but have been forced to leave Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) behind. The rebels are based in a huge underground bunker in the supposedly deserted ruins of District 13. With Katniss in the bunker are her mother and sister as well as her “other” boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and refugees from District 12—the grudgingly sober Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the reluctantly drab and wigless Effie (Elizabeth Banks).Here Coin and Plutarch attempt to persuade Katniss to adapt the persona of “the Mockingjay,” the symbol of the rebellion, and be filmed in a series of propaganda pieces. Katniss, however, is suffering from a kind of PTSD from the games, and some sort of survivor’s guilt after leaving Peeta behind. She ultimately agrees to accept the Mockingjay role if President Coin will promise to rescue Peeta from the Capitol and from the villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Having seen for herself the smoking, corpse-strewn devastation wrought by President Snow’s bombers on her own District 12, and heard Gale’s pained description of his evacuation of the district’s few survivors, and having visited a hospital in District 8 and seen what her symbolic presence means to the wounded there, Katniss has witnessed enough of Snow’s atrocities to make her first promotional piece, challenging the Capitol to open warfare. In the meantime, though, the Capitol begins using Peeta for its own propaganda purposes, and in interviews with Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) Peeta pleads with the districts to stop the rebellion, and with Katniss to stop letting herself be used by the rebels.
Thus the two story arcs of Mockingjay Part One are intertwined. For Katniss, the story is the quest for Peeta: she wants him extracted from the Capitol and safe with her again. For the rest of Panem, the story is the propaganda war between President Snow with his Capitol advisers and President Coin and Plutarch. As for the first, through much of the movie you are looking forward to a reunion between Katniss and Peeta by the film’s end. If it does occur, will that reunion be what you and Katniss hoped for? In any case that plotline gives the filmmakers a good spot to end part one and leave viewers in a cliffhanger until next year at this time, when part two of Mockingjay is due out. It’s a frustrating, but effective, place to end.
But as for the propaganda war, this is the one aspect of the film that has a claim to originality and that makes what amounts to a social commentary. Indeed it is the first dystopian novel since Orwell’s 1984 to explore the true manipulative power of the media in controlling the population. Released as it has been shortly after an American election characterized by some of the most brutally negative, misleading, disingenuous, and mendacious advertising ever seen in a midterm election, the topic of the manipulation of public opinion in order to convince people to act—and vote—against their own clear self-interests is a serious and vitally important one. It is clear (at least to Katniss, though not at all to Gale) that Peeta is being forced—or brainwashed?—to say things to dissuade citizens from joining the rebel alliance. Katniss is suspicious from the beginning about the motives of president Coin and of Plutarch, who after all had been Snow’s trusted architect of the Quarter Qwell games just one movie ago. Besides, even Peeta warns Katniss to consider the true goals of those she is serving. Of course, he says this in a propaganda appearance so how should she take it? This complex ambiguity of motive and counter motive is fascinating and compelling, though it isn’t much to hang an entire movie on.
Jennifer Lawrence gives a powerful performance, with a range of emotions that go from devastated to furious to terrified to thrilled to appalled (sorry, happiness is not an option in this film). Hoffman is a delight to see again in what—except for Mockingjay, Part Two—may be our last chance to see him. Moore is stiff and official, a mirror image of Sutherland in many ways, and keeps us wondering how good the good guys really are. Hutcherson, though filmed almost completely in shots of a television screen, is memorable in his gradual decline from a subdued but still vigorous Hunger Games survivor to a crushed and deflated shell by the film’s end. Whatever disappoints about this movie, it isn’t the cast.
But it must be said that Effie isn’t all that’s drab in this movie. The outrageously flamboyant style and color of the Capitol and its fashions never brighten this film. Even the scenes with Tucci, so colorfully and spectacularly staged in the first two films, are completely subdued, as is Tucci’s Caesar, now playing the role on camera of the concerned and sympathetic ear that Peeta can whisper his deepest troubles into. The grey military bunker of District 13 spreads its shadow everywhere. District 12 is grey rubble. District 8 turns into grey rubble. Occasional scenes where a bit of action actually occurs are filmed at night, so there is no color here either. The film might have been shot in black and white, and nothing would have been lost. This is not a complaint: certainly the color scheme of the film fits the darkness of its theme and mood. It is a dark, cold film into which, unlike the first two movies in the series, no beam of light ever enters.
I’d really like to tell you to skip this movie altogether and just wait for part two to come out in a year. If enough people did that, studios would stop making us pay twice to see one story. So little actually happens in this one that you will be able to catch up pretty easily, and there is little that is memorable in it, so you’ll just have to watch it at home again anyway to remember what went on before seeing part two. Why not just wait and watch it that way to begin with?
But I know that’s futile. Mockingjay is already the top grossing movie of the year in its first weekend. And there are interesting things in the film: the propaganda war, for one, and the performances for another. Heck, it may be worth buying a ticket just to see Philip Seymour Hoffman again. So I’ll be a bit generous and give the movie two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson. But if you’re disappointed in the movie, don’t say I didn’t warn you.