Hollywood’s recent trend of splitting epic-scale fantasy novels into multiple installments, beginning with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, continuing through the last two movies in that sparkly-vampire-saga-that-must-not-be-named and culminating in Peter Jackson’s improbable three-part expansion of The Hobbit, tends to evoke two radically different reactions. Fans of the books are generally pleased by the prospect of spending more hours in a movie theater soaking up their favorite alternate universes, and rejoice to know that minor characters, interesting subplots, rich detail and telling nuance need not be entirely excised in the name of narrative economy and visual flow. Most everyone else cynically chalks the filmmakers’ motives up to pure greed.
While even many Tolkienophiles will grudgingly admit that the two Hobbit movies seen so far contain non-canon padding that adds little to the story’s charm, I’m pleased to report that the same cannot be said of Mockingjay – Part 1, the screen version of the first half of the last book in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. Not much was added to make the tale more cinematic; the only striking change was giving the character of Effie – Katniss Everdeen’s absurdly fatuous chaperone during her time as a Tribute in the deadly Games – a reluctant role to play in the rebellion against the Capitol that constitutes the third book. And that was done, according to director Francis Lawrence, because Elizabeth Banks’s portrayal of the character in the first two movies was such a hit with audiences.
Otherwise, there isn’t a scene in Mockingjay – Part 1 that feels extraneous or implausible, or interferes with its narrative momentum. There’s a little awkwardness in the very first scene featuring Games-designer-turned-rebel Plutarch, but that’s because it has been visually jiggered to conceal the fact that Philip Seymour Hoffman was already dead before it was shot. It’s fortunate that it comes early in the narrative, so that it can be gotten out of the way and we can settle down and enjoy the rest of the scenes actually performed by the actor himself. Though dystopian sci-fi isn’t the usual sort of vehicle that one associates with Hoffman, it’s by no means slumming on his part; his perpetual amusement as the brilliant political strategist leavens the tone of what is mostly a very dark film.
Woody Harrelson serves a similar function as Katniss’ sardonic, alcoholic coach Haymitch. Here he’s pricklier than ever as he’s forced to detox by his hosts in the highly militarized underground rebel stronghold of District 13, and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is mad at him for not rescuing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in the general rout from the Quarter Quell in Catching Fire, so the ever-entertaining Harrelson unfortunately gets less screentime than in the first two movies.
As for Peeta, we only see him on-camera in propaganda broadcasts from the Capitol, where he is held captive and clearly being subjected to some sort of brainwashing. The painful arc of his deprogramming is mostly being saved for the fourth film, but Katniss’ struggle with PTSD is a recurring theme in the current installment, right from the very first scene: She props herself into weird positions at night, trying to keep herself awake to avoid her horrible nightmares. By now she is beginning to understand that the very rebels who arranged her rescue from her second round of Games are motivated by the desire to use her as the poster child for their recruitment campaign. Julianne Moore plays President Coin, the rebel leader who is pulling Katniss’ strings, as the perfect queen bee who rises to the top of a hierarchy through her skill at manipulating people behind a mask of sincerity.
No mere YA fantasy, the Hunger Games saga gamely tackles big socioeconomic and political themes that are very relevant to our times, among them the abuse of mass media to control group behavior. Mockingjay – Part 1 covers the part of the story that delves most explicitly into that angle, focusing on Katniss’ resistance to the idea of being used in propaganda videos as the Mockingjay, symbol of popular resistance, to foment rebellion in the other Districts of Panem. There are some amusing bits where she tries to “act” in character and fails, coming off too wooden to be of use – until she’s taken to see the human bonepile that remains of her home District 12 following her escape from the Games.
The sequences of stomach-churning inhumanity and destruction are deftly balanced with moments of comparative levity and a couple of stirring acts of large-scale monkeywrenching, yielding a narrative pace that trots along nicely, even though there are fewer big action set pieces in this film than in its two predecessors. It’s arguably less of a “blockbuster,” but only audiences whose favorite movies involve aliens blowing up entire cities are likely to complain much.
Mostly, of course, it’s Jennifer Lawrence’s spot-on portrayal of Katniss, believably blending steely resolve with fragility, fear and despair, that makes this whole machine go. She has a great supporting cast behind her, too: There has scarcely been a creepier villain onscreen in ages than Donald Sutherland’s President Snow. Liam Hemsworth strikes the right slightly embittered note as handsome Gale, Katniss’ childhood hunting buddy who might’ve ended up her boyfriend, but now no longer understands her so well as someone who has actually endured the Games. Sam Claflin brings empathy to the golden-boy Games survivor Finnick, spilling his darkest secrets on-camera to buy IT genius Beetee (an excellent Jeffrey Wright) critical time to hack into the Capitol’s security system. With one side of her head shaved and tattooed with green vines, Natalie Dormer makes a striking debut in the series as Cressida, the Capitol-expat filmmaker assigned to helm the propaganda videos starring Katniss.
Everyone pulls his or her weight in Mockingjay – Part 1, and there’s nary a scene that feels out of place or like filler. It’s a propulsive futuristic political thriller that always keeps at least one eye on the human-scale costs of war, political oppression, thought control and extreme economic disparity. It remains to be seen if the final installment will stay true to the book’s conclusion, whose downbeat realism disappointed many fans who were hoping for something more triumphant. But for now, the filmic version of the Hunger Games franchise remains a thinking person’s tentpole spectacle.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.