Please Note: The following post contains some spoilers for both Mockingjay – Part 1 and the Hunger Games series as a whole, so read at your own discretion.
Right up until last week’s premiere, I was concerned that Mockingjay would be the stumbling block when it came to adapting the Hunger Games trilogy. No, I do not count myself amongst the readers who grew exasperated with the final installment’s unrelenting grimness; if anything, Suzanne Collins earned my undying respect by painting such a plausibly—if dishearteningly—bleak portrait of a revolution (let’s not forget how frequently real revolutions die out, are hijacked, or result in a regime even worse than the one that preceded it). My concern therefore had less to do with Mockingjay’s tone or subject matter than it did with its structure. In both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the Games themselves function as a kind of narrative scaffolding; they carry with them their own climaxes and conclusions and, at least in Catching Fire, are the linchpin in the plans of both the Capitol and the insurgency. Mockingjay lacks this obvious structuring device, and in the added absence of the coherence provided by Katniss’s first-person narration, the movie seemed likely to falter.
As it turns out, my fears weren’t entirely groundless. Mockingjay, for all its action (the rebellion is now in full swing), is a more meandering movie than its predecessors. One thing happens, and then another, but there is less forward momentum, less rising energy than there is in either The Hunger Games or Catching Fire; the causal and thematic connections between events are simply less viscerally present. This may in part be the result of the decision to split the series’ final installment into two films; true, Mockingjay is the most densely plotted of the novels, but without the assault on the Capitol and, of course, the trilogy’s denouement to give it shape, Mockingjay – Part 1 has even less in the way of a five-act structure than it would have had as a one-off adaptation.
All that said, Mockingjay is still a very solid film. It’s probably the weakest of the movies so far, but there’s a lot to like about it, and in one key respect it actually manages to improve on the first two films; more explicitly than ever, Mockingjay draws a parallel between mass entertainment as depicted in the trilogy and The Hunger Games itself as a franchise.
Granted, this metatextual angle wasn’t exactly missing from the earlier movies. There’s a particularly nice moment in the first film when Katniss catches a glimpse of herself—dolled-up and literally blazing—projected on a massive screen during the Tributes’ Parade. She appears momentarily stunned, and for us, the shot is an uncomfortable reminder of the movie’s double edge as a form of entertainment. Were we—like Katniss, like the citizens of the Capitol—similarly dazzled by the sheer spectacle of her entrance? Does the interposition of a second layer of removal (the in-universe screen on which Katniss’s face appears) dampen our enthusiasm or does it actually heighten it, by allowing us to think of the Games as “just entertainment”? And just why is it that we demand this kind of hyperrealism—entertainment that is wholly immersive and ostensibly true to life, but heightened in a way that implies (and requires) artifice? These are the kinds of questions—about the nature and morality of popular culture and the extent to which the consumer is implicated in it—that make The Hunger Games more than just another YA saga. On page and on screen, it’s a highly successful franchise, but it’s also an unusually self-critical one.
But if the visual nature of film has at times actually underscored the moral ambiguity of the audience’s interest in the trilogy, it has generally tended to make it harder to maintain a critical edge. Indeed, there are times when Catching Fire seems to wholeheartedly embrace its status as blockbuster entertainment—nevermore so, perhaps, than in the increasingly elaborate, high-tech, and dangerous nature of the Games. To be fair, this upping of the stakes is built into the novel’s plot, and it makes a certain amount of sense; setting to one side the narrative truth that everything must become bigger and more intense as a story progresses, there is also the fact that the 75th Games are meant to blow those that preceded them out of the water. The problem, in the movie, is that this ramping up feels exactly the same as the arms race we see in every other film series: the need to make everything bigger, louder, and more entertaining in each successive movie. And in a series like The Hunger Games, that’s a problem.
Fortunately, Mockingjay goes a long ways towards correcting this problem through its ingenious use of Hunger Games promotional material within the movie itself. We’ve seen this kind of conflation before—most notably, perhaps, in the Mockingjay trailer that doubles as Capitol propaganda—but never, to my recollection, have the lines been so blurred within one of the actual movies. In Mockingjay, though, the filmmakers elect to use the gold mockingjay logo and Rue’s four-note whistle—both of which have been ubiquitous in the material surrounding the franchise—in an in-universe propaganda piece. Even better, they’re used in a propaganda piece shot by the rebellion rather than the Capitol, and are thus part and parcel of the movie’s interest in what we might charitably call the aesthetics of revolution.
Why is this so significant? Simply put, because it shows that the movie isn’t shying away from the moral ambiguities of the trilogy. To be sure, we’ve gotten a taste of this in the parallels drawn between the Capitol’s interest in the Games and our interest in the movies, but let’s be honest; there’s nothing really ambiguous about the Capitol. We all know we’re supposed to hate it. What’s discomfiting is the idea that we might have something in common with it. By contrast, we want to identify with and support the rebellion wholeheartedly. What’s more, we’ve been trained to do so; it’s hard to think of a movie where the rebellion/uprising/insurrection doesn’t come across as—at a minimum—marginally better than whatever regime it’s challenging. And while that rule still basically holds true in The Hunger Games, the series goes a long way towards deconstructing the aura of romance that so often surrounds revolution.
It’s in this particular respect that Mockingjay – Part 1 truly shines. What the film never lets us forget is the extent to which the survival of the rebellion—just as much as the survival of the Capitol—hinges on calculated effect. This is an uncomfortable notion in and of itself, since we like to think of uprisings as organic and self-sustaining outpourings of an indomitable human spirit. Indeed, the idea of spontaneity is an important one within Mockingjay itself, with Plutarch Heavensbee and President Snow wisely realizing that an apparently impromptu outpouring of anger on Katniss’s part will stir up discontent much more effectively than anything scripted possibly could. But what the movie so expertly shows is that the spontaneity of Katniss’s anger truly is only “apparent.” Katniss’s words may be her own, but she has been dropped into a situation calculated to provoke her and then prompted to speak; it’s a moment as emotionally manipulative as any in the Games.
And, incredibly, it shows. Katniss’s outburst in District Eight feels staged when held up against, say, the speech she gives at the memorial for Rue in Catching Fire, but it’s not because Jennifer Lawrence has suddenly lost the ability to act; it’s simply because we’ve been made aware of all the work that has gone into capturing that moment on camera. Unlike the people in Panem, we see the artifice of the scene, and it’s an unsettling experience—not least because it forces us to reexamine our reactions to other moments in the movie. Take the destruction of the dam in District Five. It’s a stirring scene—the steady march of the insurgents, the swelling music, the sudden blackout as the dam goes up in smoke—and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to watch it without feeling inspired. But watch it in the context of a movie that also spends a great deal of time belaboring the effort that goes into creating an inspirational “propo,” and you’re forced to admit that the dam scene is just as much a piece of careful craftsmanship. Perhaps you’re even forced to question whether you would respond similarly to an event that lacked polished camerawork and a triumphal soundtrack.
Which brings me back to why I so appreciated the movie’s use of the mockingjay logo and Rue’s whistle: two symbols of rebellion that are also symbols of a highly successful franchise. To me, this begs a certain question: What does it say about us that we so enjoy seeing rebellion packaged and commercialized in this way? I don’t have a ready answer to that question, but I certainly admire Mockingjay for daring to ask it.
Mockingjay – Part 1 is a Lionsgate film directed by Francis Lawrence, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth. Find out more about it on IMDB.