UK staffer, Ciara McIntyre saw The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 at an official FDA screening before the World Premiere in London.
There is a particularly satisfying trend in every adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ stories so far – an opening that sets the tone without fault in a seemingly effortless fashion. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is no different.
The story begins with a broken, almost frantic Katniss Everdeen helplessly, desperately, rhythmically reciting the facets of her life that she knows to be true. In one brief scene, the Girl On Fire threatens to unravel completely, barely holding the pieces of her sanity together. Add a performance of the highest calibre by Jennifer Lawrence, and perhaps we’re not following the typical franchise finale.
So let’s get it out of the way first: joining the ranks of other mega box-office adaptations, is the split of the novel justified? To be frank, not exactly. We delve more into the characters, the world is more expansive, the rebels in each District given more screen time. It’s what fans have been yearning for, it is a very enjoyable watch but despite it all, there is no denying that this feels like half of a story. But what a marvelous first half!
The average movie-goer who was hooked on the action and thrill ride of The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire may find the shift a little jarring. However it will be nothing new to fans of the source novel. Mockingjay Part 1 follows the plot extremely closely once again, albeit with extra character and District rebel padding. Regardless of the run-time, it does feel a little bit longer than the first two installments because it doesn’t move at the same breakneck pace but takes a slower, more measured approach to really hone in on Katniss’ deteriorating psychological state. Once you adapt to the different pace, there is lots to revel in here.
Katniss is prepped and coerced into being a symbol for the rebellion, a reason to fight, a figure they love. The Mockingjay may appear to be fiercely involved in the resistance from the propaganda films, but the real girl from District 12 is anything but. There are an abundance of lingering shots of Jennifer Lawrence witnessing atrocities carried out by the Capitol, attempting to comprehend it and take action without breaking apart entirely. Something that could credibly happen at any moment. When Panem is fully ignited, Katniss’ spark is close to flickering out.
District 13 certainly doesn’t help. It’s a different world. The gloomy, militaristic production design of District 13 can leave you feeling just as displaced as Katniss, who only feels alive in the woods. The lack of sunshine and colour can be more suffocating than the rebellion. Every set piece keeps building towards a smothering climax. And Katniss isn’t the only one. Her fellow companions from across Panem are all out of their comfort zone (to put it mildly).
Gale seems much less like a soldier hungry for revenge and ready for war, and more like a young man who has lost everything. He is bereft and searching for a place and a purpose with few takers apart from the resistance movement. Liam Hemsworth may look like a man but when sent on a mission (one of the film’s most intense scenes) for District 13, he looks like a boy. He is definitely not comfortable or confident in war. Sam Claflin’s Finnick Odair is even more broken and riddled with guilt and sorrow.
In the same way The Hunger Games opened up a new side to President Snow not glimpsed from Katniss’ point of view, the same can be said of District 13’s President Coin. She has deeper layers that help define her struggle against the Capitol. Through steely green eyes, she creates no illusion of who is in control in District 13. Julianne Moore is a joy to watch in every scene and breathes life into Coin from the page. Hers will be another performance to watch closely in Part 2.
Brought to the forefront of the rebellion, the master planner, the purveyor of the image of Katniss, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the head of the propos. With the help of Jeffrey Wright’s Beetee, he controls the voice of the Mockingjay and spreads it across Panem, inspiring District dissent. There was fear that the death of Hoffman would cause his role to be diminished but on the contrary he is very prominent in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. Hardly ever letting his optimism crack, Plutarch knows exactly how rebels will respond to the films he produces. An actor of Hoffman’s stature could have easily phoned it in but he seems to relish playing Plutarch’s facetious side in the face of Katniss’ despondency. The propos are aided by top ex-Capitol director Cressida (Natalie Dormer, perfect) and her front line camera crew (also perfect). There is something undeniably cool about the film crew, the design of their costume and equipment, the directness and instinct of Cressida who knows just when to get the shot. They are a welcome addition to the world.
Woody Harrelson turns in another effortless, pitch perfect performance as Haymitch. Elizabeth Banks adds much needed colour and humour as Effie Trinket, or as much as possible in her 13 issued jumpsuit. She doesn’t see herself as assisting a rebellion but as a prisoner of war held in a cave. Again, she steals every scene she is in. Again, you’d find it very hard not to grin the second she appears.
Fan favourite lines, moments and symbolism from the previous films are revisited albeit to taunt Katniss into despair. It makes it all the more tragic that when the things she cares for most are kept out of her reach and protection; it is difficult for her mind to reconcile. There is a great deal of visceral imagery depicting her emotional state. Katniss standing on the bones of her people, being trampled by a force greater than her, to name a few.
It’s not all darkness. There are the same touches of irreverent humour, the kind glimpsed in Catching Fire, particularly when Katniss fails at being inspiring in her first attempt at propaganda. Jennifer Lawrence hilariously nails it as a character out of her comfort zone who cannot perform.
The only character who appears comfortable despite the rising tide in his direction is President Snow. Donald Sutherland is thrilling and commands every scene he is in from his threatening introduction. Failure will not be tolerated from Snow. Not from his Capitol attendants and not from the Districts disrupting the functionality of Panem. He doesn’t panic, he knows what needs to be done and behaves accordingly with cold command. He understands Katniss completely and knows how to break her.
Josh Hutcherson is perfect as Peeta Mellark once again. Confusion building towards an eruption of rage, sorrow, and complete brutality. When the extent of his life in the Capitol slowly becomes clear, he is captivating and unnerving to watch.
James Newton Howard’s score is flawless. Picking up sweeping themes from the first two installments, he keeps the series a cohesive whole and ties Katniss’ story together. Some highlights, aside from the adapted themes of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, include an Appalachian vibe in District 12 and Jennifer Lawrence singing the bluegrass tune, ‘The Hanging Tree.’
The scenes of war and District rebellion are when the movie really comes alive. The sound design is truly wonderful and thrilling. The thrum of gunfire reverberates loudly as Peacekeepers mow down District citizens desperate for change. The special effects are of the same high quality as Catching Fire. The world of Panem has never seemed so big with sweeping shots of the landscape as hovercrafts travel to war and the rebels take down landmarks and Capitol resources.
Every revolution and act of defiance is very powerful and poignant. But with all the war scenes, all the rebel successes, you never feel triumphant, never elated. Every District victory is shrouded in such a huge amount of human cost that it never truly feels like a victory. These set pieces are apt and allegorical. The rotting, war-torn victims in District 8’s hospital are juxtaposed with the leaders in Snow’s decadent presidential manor house authorising another onslaught. Grainy footage of an important military assault is watched by Coin and other leaders in the command centre of District 13 via cameras attached to soldiers’ helmets.
This is a film about propaganda and the symbol of hope that Katniss never wanted to be rather than a straight up war film. It focuses on how powerful one voice can be and the effect propaganda can have on people. The effect Katniss has and the events she inspires, mostly by accident. The Mockingjay has a voice but very little control over how it is used.
The District rebels aren’t exactly fighting as much as condemning themselves to death for the cause while singing Katniss’ tune. Each destruction of a Capitol stronghold is bathed in so much loss that it feels wrong to be triumphant when it suceeds, something that is not lost on Katniss. In the Games, a death was one step closer to victory but there were consequences to taking a life. In the rebellion, the deaths are no different. The Districts are sacrificed once again but this time for a cause and a symbol they believe in. Francis Lawrence makes sure that the theme of being a piece in a larger game is etched in every frame.
I don’t think Mockingjay Part 1 will have the same emphatic gut reaction that Catching Fire had on audiences. But it’s hard to judge the merits of this outing without having seen its conclusion next year. Hopefully we could be on track to a perfect set of popular, thought-provoking and entertaining films. There’s just one piece left in the Games and we have the perfect crew to take us there. Bring on Part 2 because judging by Mockingjay‘s beginnings, we’re in for quite a finale next November.
Any last advice? Stay in your seats ’til the end.