By chasing after a PG13 rating, Mockingjay Part 1 has lost much of the moral ambiguity that made the books so interesting.
In Mockingjay: Part 1, the latest installment of The Hunger Games films, director Francis Lawrence has us spend a lot of time staring at hover crafts – taking off, flying, landing, sitting inert – and very little time observing character beats — even though they’ve split the final book into two installments. Then again, the films have always been more interested in action, in Katniss’s (Jennifer Lawrence) hero arc, than in the depth of the trauma that comes with it.
The films tell a straightforward story, losing most of the nuances about personal mythology and coping with unbearable pain that made the books exceptional. There are glimpses of something more complex in some of the film’s best and most haunting scenes. But this adaptation never hits the emotional peaks The Hunger Games: Catching Fire did. That’s partly because the previous films excised important events that become even more important in Mockingjay, and it’s partly because of the screenwriters’ (Danny Strong and Peter Craig) decision to expand the plot and action and continue to elide the scenes that most served character development.
Mockingjay Part 1 picks up where Catching Fire left off: after being rescued from her second Hunger Games, Katniss is living in District Thirteen — previously thought to have been obliterated decades ago in the last rebellion — struggling to keep it together. She’s been separated from her partner in the Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who, along with fellow tribute Joanna (Jena Malone), was captured by The Capitol.
Between her survivor’s guilt, her homesickness for the destroyed District Twelve, and her difficulties connecting with her one-time confidant Gale (Liam Hemsworth), she’s disconnected from her peers who haven’t gone through the horrors she has. She often appears without anyone else in frame. Tormented by nightmares – made all the worse by not having Peeta there to comfort her — Katniss is also under pressure to become the face of the rebellion against The Capitol — The Mockingjay.
But Katniss has reservations. She’s not sure she trusts their leader, District Thirteen’s icy and reticent President Coin (Julianne Moore). And director Lawrence feeds our suspicions by deliberately shooting Coin similarly to how he shoots her seemingly omniscient and pernicious arch-nemesis President Snow: both give speeches from on high, to large crowds of faceless people, herded into a public square. And once Katniss becomes the Mockingjay, she’s asked yet again, to perform for the cameras and rally the troupes. The Games still aren’t over – Peeta’s still playing, still protecting her, even as a prisoner – but it takes her a long time to realise this.
The film follows Katniss as she figures out how to accept the responsibility of being The Mockingjay without losing herself entirely. Each time she has a triumph, however, she has to watch the results of Snow taking it out on Peeta. Occasionally broadcast live to the nation, on television, to further the Capitol’s agenda, Peeta’s addresses punctuate the film, and we watch as he becomes increasingly broken. But Peeta is crafty and has his own motives: in the books, especially, his words linger with Katniss, and they keep her strong, questioning Thirteen, even as she’s falling apart at the thought of him being tortured.
Mockingjay Part 1 has a few profoundly moving moments. When Katniss sings “The Hanging Tree,” a dark and foreboding song, here set to a bluesy tune, to Gale and her camera crew in an empty and peaceful gorge, we feel her hurt, her pain, and her ability to bring you on that journey with her. When she dreams that Peeta is there to comfort her through the night terrors, and she awakes to discover that he may be gone forever, it’s an intensely emotional moment that highlights the strength of their connection — even though it’s shot from too far a distance where Katniss’s crying out almost seems comical. And when she discovers Gale can only see Peeta The Traitor, it’s heartbreaking to watch her realise that Gale, the boy she grew up with, whom she thought was her closest friend, is now a million miles away when standing next to her.
The key to the first half of the book Mockingjay is the way that the glue of mutual need shifts Katniss’s prime alliance from Gale, the boy who helped her to feed her family before The Games, to Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the people who went through The Games with her. Gale’s ideals now seem cruel and calculated to Katniss, who’s had to fight to keep her integrity after being forced to kill people in The Hunger Games. Meanwhile, Finnick is going through exactly what Katniss is going through, only he’s got extra years of coping with trauma under his belt: both of their loved ones were captured by the Capitol, both of them can’t get past the horrors of the Games, and both understand most urgently what’s at stake. Finnick may be a wreck, sobbing and crying at all hours, but he’s also Katniss’s and the book’s emotional anchor.
In order to highlight the action in the film, Gale gets reduced to Katniss’s lovesick, omnipresent shadow, never speaking his mind, never pushing Katniss’s buttons, only finding a cold and distant Katniss on the other side. She takes no comfort in him, but there’s no confrontation either. Gale is less interesting and less important in the films, which is not just a disservice to the story, but to the overall feminism of it. You can’t have a truly feminist text if the men in it are stuck playing the stereotypical “female” parts. They have to be every bit as complex as the women, and that’s just not happening here.
Part of the adaptation problem is that much of Katniss’s struggle in the first half of the book was internal and never articulated to others. She’s trying to reconcile the story she’s been telling herself, that Gale is her best friend, with the reality that he just doesn’t get it. And she’s confused by how much she can’t live without Peeta, if it was all just an act for the cameras to survive The Games. In the film, the main indication we get of her deep longing for Peeta is that she spends a lot of time fiddling catatonically with the pearl he gave her in the last Games, a detail I would not have even picked up on had the previous stories not been fresh in my mind. She may be distant from Gale, but there’s no turmoil.
Meanwhile, half the scenes with Finnick in the book have been cut: the film totally forgets about his wry sense of humour, a coping mechanism, which defined him in Catching Fire, and it never distinguishes between the public face he puts on for the cameras and the more complex man beneath. There’s a practical justification for this: often, Finnick would appear in the book for just a page or two at a time, where the plot didn’t advance much. But the cumulative effect of his shared moments with Katniss over time was powerful: they were forming a deep friendship that her increasingly stilted camaraderie with Gale could never match.
Finnick’s shocking reveal in a propaganda clip about what his experiences really were after his first Hunger Games is incredibly important in the book. It completely changes how Katniss thinks about him and about the Games which never really end; even if the rebellion hadn’t started, being in the Games still signs you up for a lifetime of PTSD. But in the film, his confession is interspersed with a nail-biting action sequence, which makes it lose almost all of its emotional impact. The action is an attempt to create a climax in the film where one didn’t exist in the book.
By chasing after a PG13 rating, Mockingjay Part 1 has lost much of the moral ambiguity that made the books so interesting. Gone are the displays of brutality within District Thirteen, which made it seem not all that different from the worst of times in Twelve: there’s nothing but parallels in imagery to suggest that Coin may have more in common with Snow than she’d like to admit. Katniss’s primary condition for becoming the Mockingjay in the book – that she be the one to kill Snow – is entirely left out of the film, minimizing just how dark things have been getting. Even the more action-packed sequences, when the cast is on the ground in the rebelling districts, feel stilted: more often than not, the cast looks as if they’re standing in front of a green screen, instead of amongst the actual rubble from the destruction of war. We may see an ocean of skeletons and wounded soldiers, but we only see Katniss staring at this in horror, not knee-deep in the middle of it.
What keeps me going back to the books, time after time, is not just Katniss’s hero journey and her relationship with Peeta, but the nuances of all of the other relationships. These were short-shrifted in the previous films, and now we’re paying for it in “Mockingjay Part 1.” In the book, the slow start was there to tie together seemingly unimportant earlier threads.
But the necessary groundwork to do this in Mockingjay Part 1 was never laid. Since Peeta spends the entire film in the clutches of the Capitol, his relationship with Katniss – what made the earlier films tick – is put on hold. We’re left with a plot-heavy, often clunky, film. I cried a few times during the best scenes in Mockingjay Part 1. Yet the first two films left me feeling like I’d been mowed over with a hundred feelings, while Mockingjay Part 1 left little impression. We’re still waiting for the second half of the story, and until we get to see the whole thing, the force of its impact is getting greatly diminished.