Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 changes direction story-wise from the first two films while continuing to develop the series’ core thematic interests. The main difference is that there are no Hunger Games in this movie. No teenaged tributes from the impoverished districts fighting to the death for the enjoyment of the Capitol. The previous movie, Catching Fire, ended with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) being helicoptered to safety after destroying the stadium for the games. Her partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) was left behind in the hands of the Capitol. The start of Mockingjay – Part 1 finds Katniss in District 13, the rebel district long thought destroyed but actually still populated. The rebels live deep underground, building arms and biding their time.

With the arrival of Katniss, the rebels think their chance to overthrow the Capitol has finally come. As winner of the 74th Hunger Games and destroyer of the 75th, Katniss has become a folk hero in the districts. Defector Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymor Hoffman) wants to use Katniss as the “Mockingjay”—the symbol of the rebellion and the centre of his propaganda—but rebel President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) isn’t so sure whether this girl from District 12 has what it takes to be the face of the rebellion.

Images—how you control them, including the image of yourself, and how you use them to control other people—have always been central in The Hunger Games series. If the first two films are concerned, in part, with how the tributes create their images during the campaign leading up to the Hunger Games and then control their images during the televised death-match, Mockingjay – Part 1 is concerned with the role of images in war, rebellion, and revolution. As the former head game-maker, Plutarch is well aware that the Capitol controls the districts through show as well as force (the Hunger Games being their most fearsome display), and so he believes the rebellion needs to use Katniss’s image of natural defiance to galvanize the people.

As the title indicates, Mockingjay – Part 1 only recounts the first half of the last novel. This has become a prominent trend in YA series adaptations eager to stretch their source material into more movie events and therefore more movie bucks. I haven’t read Suzanne Collins’ last two books, but I was surprised to find this movie pretty compelling as a whole. It doesn’t seem stretched or full of filler, and I have to say, after the usual exhaustion I feel during the final battles of most blockbusters, I was happy to see the film stay more character-driven than action-driven. Like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, this first part of Mockingjay plays up the sombre atmosphere and builds tension before the inevitable big battle of Part 2. Whether some filmgoers will feel like they’re being unfairly bled is a valid criticism.

There’s not much action, and the measured amount there is is nothing special. It’s the scenes about making the propaganda that are the most interesting. The climactic sequence, which involves a small mission into the Capitol intercut with a conversation between Katniss and President Snow (Donald Sutherland), is fine, but the scenes showing the revolutionary acts Katniss inspires are the most compelling. The film nicely addresses how the rebels construct Katniss as the Mockingjay (thus suggesting the controlling nature of both institutions of authority and organized rebellion), while also demonstrating that it’s Katniss’s personal touch and spontaneous fire that makes her such a potent symbol. We also see how President Snow creates a distressing symbol for his own purposes.

While Lawrence’s Katniss does come across as a rousing hero, Katniss’s personality is also one of the annoyances of the film, and the decision to divide the final chapter into two movies may have exacerbated the issue. As a character points out in the film, Katniss is incapable of seeing beyond her immediate concerns and passions. This is both her greatest strength and her greatest weakness.

In this respect, Katniss is a lot like Captain Kirk: they are both heroes who will sacrifice everything for those closest to them, and they both always personalize the conflicts they’re involved in. They’re not ones to make sacrifices for ideals, for “the cause.”

I kept waiting for Katniss to realize that what’s going on is bigger and more important than her relationship with Peeta. Think of the big picture, Katniss, the common good! Perhaps this is a lesson she’ll learn in Part 2.

7 out of 10

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014, USA)

Directed by Francis Lawrence; screenplay by Peter Craig & Danny Strong based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland.