The worldwide phenomenon of The Hunger Games continues to set the world on fire with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, which finds Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in District 13 after she literally shatters the games forever. Under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends, Katniss spreads her wings as she fights to save Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage.
The largest obstacle facing The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is right there in the name: “Part 1.” As the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay concludes the series on a rather dark note. Among fans of the series, the book is divisive, but it’s (in my opinion) an outcome that feels natural in light of the events of the previous two books. When it comes to splitting the material for film adaptation, though, it’s a challenge to wrap up the material for the first half in a way that’s satisfying while also setting up the conclusion of the series. And with Mockingjay, there were a few spots where such a split could occur.
Given the strength of the creative team on last year’s Catching Fire, though, it’s a good thing that director Francis Lawrence returned to finish up the series with the two-part Mockingjay films. Mockingjay loses the Games concept that anchors the previous two films, and Part 1 doesn’t attempt to make up for it. Outside of a few action sequences, Part 1 is more focused on the sociopolitical elements of the civil war in Panem. Following the events of Catching Fire, revolution is kicking in within the various Districts, with the previously-thought-decimated District 13 leading the revolution. At least, strategically. The moments where the other Districts rise against the Capitol show them willing to fight with their lives at risk. The leaders in 13, including President Coin and especially Plutarch, show more fear in being attacked themselves. It’s better to produce an image that inspires others, such as the Mockingjay – Katniss Everdeen.
Katniss has rarely been a leader by choice, but Part 1 finds her receding into the background, even when she’s supposed to be the face of the revolution. It’s largely because of her new position as the official symbol of rebel forces. She’s not a leader – as it’s repeated to her and others over and over again, she’s a weapon for District 13 against the Capitol. A means to an end. And between the traumatic events of her two times in the Hunger Games and the loss of Peeta to the Capitol at the end of Catching Fire, Katniss is rarely in a position to argue against being used as a prop. In the rare moments where the cruelty of the Capitol does reach her, though, a fire ignites in Katniss that seems impossible to control.
Among the larger motivations for Katniss is Peeta, frequently used by the Capitol in televised interviews where he asks for a ceasefire from the Districts. She’s able to recognize that he’s being used by the Capitol as a weapon in a similar fashion to her. While her relationship with Gale is given more room than in previous films, it’s ultimately not important. The supposed love triangle of the series is not the focus of the series – it’s Katniss, and the whirlwind of emotions she’s wrestling.
One of the many ways The Hunger Games and its sequels have succeeded where other YA adaptations have faltered is its casting. From the core players hired for the first film through the new players in this one (particularly Julianne Moore as President Coin), the cast has been exceptionally strong. Jennifer Lawrence in particular continues to show new shades to Katniss, making even simple moments more emotionally complex. Donald Sutherland’s brief scenes show him at his most terrifying in the series to date, making the increasingly ferocious President Snow a frightful villain. And Josh Hutcherson, whose screentime is limited here, shows more sides to Peeta than he’s been allowed in previous films.
I have a hard time predicting how audiences will respond to Mockingjay – Part 1. It’s more character-driven than its predecessors, and it’s a darker film to boot. The series may have been better served with an extended single final film. Maybe. But assuming that Part 2 can stick the proverbial landing, Part 1 does a fine job building anticipation for the ending that’s a year away.