The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) Review: A Beautiful Psychological Character Exploration
For the first time in a long while I can finally write a review because the much anticipated first part of the Mockingjay film came out around the same time worldwide (Deadlines. You’ll understand). Those who have done a skim of the IMDB forums will discover with apt disappointment, and perhaps intrigue, that there is much hate for the movie. Even a handful of casual movie blogs are unimpressed with its merits. This review aims to examine the quality of the film alone, and compare and contrast the information from a previous article by Jemarc titled Mockingjay: Expectations from Literature to Film, to please both parties. This article is mostly spoiler free!
It seems like the world at large has forgotten that the movie was adapted from a book. Many reviewers, whether they did or didn’t read it, complained Mockingjay Part 1 did not work as a film. The Movie Blog, for example, wrote “I have a message for President Snow… I’m dying of boredom!”. Where did all the “They ruined the book! They left out one paragraph of necessary information” comments go when Twilight, and to a much lesser extent, Harry Potter were getting released? Clearly, the uncanny ability of screenwriters Peter Craig (The Town) and Danny Strong to faithfully adapt Suzanne Collins work into a script has gone ungratefully unnoticed. Splitting Mockingjay into two films may not have been the greatest decision given the thinness of the source material, but thankfully it was turned into a two hour film and not two and a half hours like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013). Francis Lawrence proves he can still work magic with Mockingjay as much as the previous spectacle Catching Fire.
When I first heard about the movie getting split in two, I was angry. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010) had plot and character threads which had been built up over seven books. It was a spider web of information, and it was completely the right choice to split it in two. Breaking Dawn (2011), being the mess of love triangles that it is, didn’t really need two movies. However, it still managed to do better than New Moon and Eclipse because it contained significantly less waffle. At the end of Catching Fire Gale and Haymitch explain to the livid Katniss that they are headed for District 13. The first third of Mockingjay’s 390 pages was dedicated to Katniss and the team discovering the fact District 13 still exists, and also depicts how they get there. I wondered “How can they fill up two and a half hours of movie when they’ve completely left out the first third of the book?”. One, by making it two hours -- and two, making it the most fantastic, close-to-perfect adaption of any book adaption I have seen to date. Even more than The Fault in Our Stars.
In order to understand the seesaw of differing opinion with Mockingjay Part 1 (which will be called Mockingjay from here onward), it is necessary to understand the source material. Mockingjay takes place outside the setting of the previous two films. Since Katniss Everdeen destroyed the arena of the Quarter Quell, there is no more Hunger Games and no more fight to the death… at least, not in the same capacity. This time, the fight is much larger. This time, the riot that was building in Catching Fire has reached a peak. Instead of fighting the tributes from the other Districts, the elimination is between all the Districts against all of the Capitol. Already, we have a completely different set up from the first two movies. As such, you need to throw all expectations out the window. Mockingjay is grim. It is a psychological fight now more than a physical one, and this is shown with nearly all the characters.
The common criticism on IMDB reviews that Mockingjay does not work as a film is flawed because it follows the appropriate narrative structure of one. A film is generally structured in three acts -- an introduction, a conflict, and a resolution. This movie’s three act structure is orientated around “Peeta is in trouble” and “Peeta needs to be rescued”. This is as far as the movie goes. The elements of romance and rebellion are only built up here. Viewers may need to remind themselves of what the series multiple story points are in order to fully appreciate the finer aspects of the movie.
The Hunger Games was mostly about the action and survival, with a sprinkle of romance. Catching Fire shifted gear. It was one third action, one third a rebellion story and one section romance with psychological exploration. Those who wanted just action would have found the first half of Catching Fire a drone. Mockingjay is a psychological exploration of its characters, mostly Katniss and Peeta, in the middle of a political propaganda tug of war. You won’t enjoy Mockingjay Part 1 if you like action, because it is merely a glimpse of what is to come. The exploration of its characters is done fantastically, and the highlight of the movie.
The “Peeta Rescue Mission” story that comes full circle in Part 1 is thin. It isn’t exactly complicated. On the surface, it is the equivalent of a damsel in distress flick. The reason it can be dismissed here is the plot isn’t the main point of The Hunger Games franchise -- it is about the journey of Katniss and Peeta as they make their way through trauma and suffering. It is done beautifully here. The observations on trauma are portrayed so precisely, it is incredibly moving and chilling. Katniss’s symptoms of PTSD are explored via her dialogue, nightmares, dreams and the comments of the other characters about her mental state. It is drilled into the film. Peeta’s mental state is mostly brought to attention by Katniss as she tries to convince the others to go rescue him. Mockingjay has some explosions, propaganda and rebellion on the side. But those aren’t the main point of the movie because rebellion isn’t on the forefront of Katniss’s mind -- her psychological damage is.
How can I ramble on about the mental states of characters without mentioning the acting? Jennifer Lawrence does a wonderful job as Katniss. The strangled pain in her voice and body language perfectly portray how clouded and distracted she is. She is a highlight of the movie, without a doubt. Josh Hutchinson is also painful to watch as Peeta. The few depictions of him on a screen within a screen (you’ll get it when you see the movie) are as heartbreaking to see as they should. These were my favorite parts of the book and they are an exact replica of the scenes I imagined in my head as I was reading. Even more impressive is where his character does a 180 and Hutchinson becomes appropriately terrifying and unrecognizable. Kudos to the good thirty or so hair and make up artists for that, too. Julienne Moore (Laws of Attraction), perfectly balances distant, diplomatic but caring as President Coin. She adds an unexpected layer of suspense to the film. Effie without her make up and Haymitch without a drink add some refreshing comedic moments to the film. Sam Claffin (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) as Finnick plays more of a role in this movie, and is just as charming as he is depressed. Of course, it was both joyful and sad to see Phillip Seymour Hoffman again. Francis Lawrence refused to recreate him with CGI so instead the script was changed to accomodate his passing. The adjustments are seamless. You can’t tell anything was edited. No complaints in the acting department.
The cinematography by Jo Willems (Catching Fire, Hard Candy) and set design by Larry Dias (Inception, Transformers) has always been awesome to look at with these films due to the colorful and quirky Capitol culture and fashion. This is no exception, only there is a lot less color, and a lot more grey with destroyed buildings. District 13 is exactly as it is described in the book -- desolate, rigid and depressing. The Capitol is made all the more terrifying as the contrast between their colorful, rich lives, and their horrible capacity for destruction is made all the more clear. Another highlight is the soundtrack by returning champion James Newton Howard (Maleficent, Snow White and The Huntsman). Each scene is backed with a gorgeous orchestra, although this time around it is a lot darker, moody, foreboding and sad. There are next to no “Battle themes” here, but it still sends chills down the spine! A very pleasant surprise was the inclusion of the song “The Hanging Tree” from the book. It even shared a very similar melody to a popular fancover by adrisaurus . The song is about two people who decide to complete a joint suicide. The lyrics are basically unchanged which will make book fans very happy.
For book fans, did the film live up to expectations? (Non book readers should probably skip down until the last paragraph) Jemarc wrote that Francis Lawrence likes his cliffhangers “to open and end bold”. Mockingjay does both these things. The opening is somewhat jarring as it throws you head first into Katniss having a panic attack. The ending involves both Katniss and Peeta in a very interesting scenario (I said the article was spoiler-free, didn’t I?)! In regards to whether Peeta will still have the sympathies of the audience, given where Part 1 ends it is too soon to say. Audiences will definitely be intrigued, no doubt.
Jemarc also wrote about areas Hollywood could mess it up. One is in regards to the love triangle, which has been annoyingly depicted like the Jacob-Edward fiasco in New Moon up until this point. Thank Heavens, the film does not even touch this conflict with a ten foot pole. There is one scene regarding how Gale is still fawning over Katniss, but there is little exploration of Katniss’s feelings outside a short conversation with Finnick. This was a good choice. Another concern was in regards to showing how evil the Capitol is. It is finally portrayed to justice in this film, with bloody casualties, fear, explosions and many skeletons. Mockingjay does not hold back. The mutts have not been explored a great deal yet. I was surprised the details of what was happening with Peeta were not shown from his point of view, given Francis Lawrence’s choice to show things from President’s Snow’s point of view. I think it was done deliberately to maintain the impact of Peeta’s return. If we had seen what was happening to him, it wouldn’t have been such a shock. A character who is an Avox is in the movie, and all the information about Finnick’s background is kept as well. Really, Hollywood didn’t ruin the movie at all.
A thin plot it may have, but Mockingjay Part 1 makes up for it with its rich characterization, mood setting, soundtrack and spectacle. Fans of the previous two films may just have to leave any preconceived notions at the door. Mockingjay was my least favorite book, but the near perfect adaption made it my favorite of the movies. I have full confidence that Part 2 will be done justice. Highly recommended.
What do you think? Leave a comment.