Takeaways from Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1: Jennifer Lawrence has truly mastered the art of crying on command, the CGI masterminds are really good at making Peeta’s neck look scary skinny, today’s youth might be preoccupied with image, that one girl looks really badass with an undercut, and adaptations of novels should never ever be split into two parts. This iteration of the Hunger Games was largely a disappointment. The film half-heartedly pursued a few tired themes without fully hitting home its message with any of them. Perhaps this was a result of breaking the last book in the series in two. The first half ultimately suffers as it serves only as build up for the finale. The one redeeming quality of Mockingjay is its (intentional?) reflection of itself. The culture and hype surrounding the film are part of the very same pressures experienced by its characters. Unlike similarly successful enterprises (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight), The Hunger Games feels especially specific to the cultural moment in which it exists. The anxieties about love, image, responsibility, and courage are marked with a 21st century meta-awareness. It is this self-consciousness that partially redeems what is otherwise two hours of filler narrative that transports the plot from the quarter quell (the Capital’s unprecedented call for another Hunger Games that featured a battle between the surviving tributes) to full-fledged civil war in Panem, the post-apocalyptic, highly regulated world where the games take place.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Producers: Suzanne Collins, Jan Foster, Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik, Michael Paswornek
Writers: Peter Craig, Danny Strong, Suzanne Collins
Cinematographer: Jo Willems
Editors: Alan Edward Bell, Mark Yoshikawa
Music: James Newton Howard
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore
US Theatrical Release: November 21, 2014
US Distributor: Lionsgate
Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1 finds our favorite tribute cooped up in the secret, rebel zone of District 13, still scarred from her evacuation from the games. Katniss has competed in what are known as the Hunger Games in Panem. Two teenagers called tributes are chosen from each district to fight to the death in an arena while everyone watches at home on TV. For the first time ever, there were two victors: Katniss and Peeta, winning the sympathy of their viewers by playing the role of lovers (though Peeta genuinely felt affection for Katniss). This small moment of dissent has spawned a full-blown revolution. Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the new game designer for a second Hunger Games featuring only former winners, double crossed President Snow to engineer an escape for some of the tributes. Katniss and a few others made it out alive and in good hands but Peeta, left behind, was seized by the government and held hostage in the Capital. Here in the aftermath, Plutarch and rebel President Alma Coin approach Katniss in an attempt to convince her to become the Mockingjay, the symbol of rebellion and hope. In typical Katniss fashion, she tries to reject her calling only to realize that she can bargain for Peeta’s rescue if she agrees to help the rebel cause. In order to get the most genuine, fire-y response from her, a team of media experts bring her around the destroyed districts to film propaganda videos. And so she officially becomes the Mockingjay.
Perhaps most frustrating about Mockingjay-Part 1 is its complete dismissal of its skilled cast. Jennifer Lawrence is reduced to a blubbering, soap opera star who spends most of the film crying, screaming, and/or wistfully wandering through the destroyed District 12 (disappointing even to this true blue Jlaw fangirl). Julianne Moore is Alma Coin, the cold, calculating President of District 13 who does little more than issue commands to her inferiors. What is her backstory? We know literally nothing about this character. Liam Hemsworth is stoic per usual as Gale, Katniss’ friend with benefits, playing the whole “you only love me when I’m in pain” card that feels really old at this point (#teampeeta). There is no opportunity for Woody Harrelson to shine as Haymitch—former tribute from District 12 and Peeta and Katniss’ drunken, antagonizing coach—as District 13 is enforcing prohibition.
Even Philip Seymour Hoffman rarely has the chance to flash that knowing smirk. This trend partially comes from narrative need: Panem is totally screwed and things are looking bleak for the rebels. There is not much room for humor or light heartedness. But this does not mean that all the characters should be reduced to one note, flat manifestations of their literary versions. The books as well as the previous films in the series celebrated the nuances of the characters (or at least, celebrated as much as a multi-million dollar Hollywood trilogy can without losing its tween fan base). One of the rare moments of laudable acting comes early on in the movie. Katniss is filming her first propaganda film after agreeing to act as the Mockingjay. She stands in a ridiculous get up (prepared lovingly by Cinna, her stylist, before his death) against a green screen as she urges the other districts to join the cause. Here, Lawrence’s sass shines through to inform Katniss’ discomfort with her assigned role. She delivers her lines awkwardly, with the perfect amount of self-consciousness. She cracks jokes to herself about the ridiculousness of the situation. It is one of the few moments of (intentional) comic relief and transparency and though it is brief, it provides the audience with much-need insight into Katniss’ more complex emotions.
Also frustrating is the film’s lack of commitment to any of the themes it engages. Mockingjay-Part 1 has the opportunity to critique our culture’s obsession with image. The middle section of the film is preoccupied with fabricating a heartfelt response from Katniss. But after a botched attempt to inspire rebellion in District 8, the film shifts from this oxymoron, giving it less weight. Though viewers might once have felt uncomfortable with the rebels’ artificial attempts to elicit genuine emotion, the film moves past this contradiction so quickly that we forget to care. Later, the Capital attacks District 13, destroying everything above ground. When Katniss emerges with her crew to film another propaganda video, she discovers that President Snow has covered the ruble with white roses, a symbol of Katniss’ own fragility. Though this jars her and she claims she cannot film the piece, this reaction seems rushed for narrative purposes. Does it really take white roses to make the destruction of Panem seem real? The emotion ingrained in this scene is an afterthought.
It rings especially hollow in light of the Jennifer Lawrence nude picture scandal. Lawrence is heralded as America’s sweetheart, a charmingly bumbling actress who trips over her dress on the red carpet, vomits on Madonna’s stairs, and has a crush on Jack Nicholson. She owns the media game because she is so refreshingly candid. Lawrence is playing the same game as her character: giving her audiences just enough of what they want to keep them at bay and not enough to reveal her act. Actors must always walk this thin line to perpetuate the public’s adoration. So when her photos leaked and she lost ownership of her image, it felt like a betrayal, not so dissimilar from Katniss’ own inability to deny the spotlight. Though obviously the leak didn’t happen until long after Mockingjay was shot, it feels like the film missed an opportunity to comment on the perils of celebrity beyond the scope of the Hunger Games narrative. Though perhaps this heady meta-awareness would alienate a teen fan base that grew up too preoccupied with their iPhones to notice the motif of art reflecting life.
The film also abandons other themes halfway. It barely mentions either of Katniss’ romantic motivations, which have served as a greater conflict for her in the previous films. Her devotion to Peeta is taken at face value despite her previous star crossed lovers act, even after he appears gaunt and deranged on television, urging her to abandon the rebel cause. And though she spends the majority of her time in District 13 with Gale, their romantic history only rears its head once, briefly. By no means does Katniss’ love life have to be foregrounded in the Hunger Games plot, but the scenes that do exist feel unnaturally wedged into the narrative.
Mockingjay-Part 1 ultimately leaves its viewers unfulfilled, and not necessarily in a way that keeps them on the edge of their seat. The film feels scattered, unable to properly follow any thought through to it endpoint. Though this may be the result of breaking a single book into two parts, Mockingjay-Part 1 is little more than a narrative device to get from Part A to Part B.