“Mockingjay Part 1” is well-acted but thin
It’s important to consider audience when viewing a film. “The Hunger Games” franchise is based on a highly popular series of young adult novels and the films closely follow the source material in the development of its themes. Anyone who has seen the previous two films are aware of disturbing and violent political machinations of the society of Panem.
Child sacrifice, violent dismantling of uprisings, and genocidal actions are heavily on display in each installation of the franchise—the Empire and Darth Vader have nothing on the evils that seem to corrupt the Capitol. In other reviews, the political subtext of “The Hunger Games” has been called sharp and poignant. But let’s remember that the series is meant for preteens and teens between the ages of 12-16.
Many of these ideas are explicit and overt, barely qualifying as subtext. There is no depth in their examination. Nor should there be: “The Hunger Games” is an introduction to very real, very demonstrable forces at work in the world for young people learning about these topics. Panem is almost a fictional version of North Korea. At the same time, the on-the-nose oppression in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” is rare. Modern injustice is much more subtle, and far more sinister.
As with all sequels, the film picks up an undetermined amount of time after the end of the previous one. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has been rescued from her second Hunger Games against her will by the Resistance, who hope to use her as a symbol for the cause. Katniss was a pawn for President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the previous installations and has traded one gray-haired politician for another. She is now in the company of President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who is working closely with former Gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee (the late, sorely missed Philip Seymour Hoffman) to turn Capitol-style propaganda against the enemy. Coin lacks the charm of Snow, but matches his resolve and controls her own people with an iron fist of jumpsuits and temperance.
Clearly, the film is indicating that individuals are simply tools used for a cause and true freedom is in short supply on either side of the war. Much of the film is exposition and explanation—the little action found in it is at the midpoint and the rest is filled with various looks of horror and disbelief from Katniss herself. Despite her skill with a bow, Katniss is not much of a soldier and her open defiance at the Capitol seems futile when locked underground and separated from Peeta, who remains a captive of President Snow.
The film is well acted, as it is stacked with an exceptional amount of talent. However, the decision to split the final book into two parts smacks of cynical capitalism and continues a frustrating trend of Hollywood to draw out stories that should have ended long before they do.
The film feels incomplete because it is. It should have been one movie with a definite conclusion rather than two. The themes are developed effectively, but they are very much found on the surface. Many films, even popular adult films, seem thin when held up to the light. “Fight Club” is no more nuanced at a second glance than “The Hunger Games.” This may just be a challenge of adaptation. Important ideas will always be lost in translation from page to screen.
I found myself wondering at the brutality in the film and the value of teaching that the only response to injustice is a violent uprising. We don’t know what other measures have been tried in Panem, of course. However, I might encourage parents to discuss with their children the danger of such action or even take their children to see “Selma” later this year to show them another, more effective way to effect meaningful change.
Using “The Hunger Games” as a stepping stone for understanding seems more valuable to me than using it as entertainment. The teacher in me finds value in adapting a popular book into a more accessible medium—literary technique can and should be taught through film. By that measure, “The Hunger Games” series is satisfying.
But the critic in me doesn’t need to watch the films more than once and probably would catch the final installment on TV.