The Hunger Games trilogy deals with some very serious themes: abuse of power, a culture entertained by and celebrating death, and the true cost of selfless sacrifice, just to name a few. The serious topics of the first part of Mockingjay are narrower and more focused, perhaps even to a fault, but still comes around with a resounding message: fight those who bring death.
The first two installments in the series, focusing on the Hunger Games themselves, emphasized the culture of death. People were entertained by children slaughtering each other mercilessly while grooming themselves in the Capitol. It was entertaining. Children in the Capitol played at it and had fun watching it while children in the districts feared it, because they could be the next one thrown into the arena. The games having been explored in the first two films, Mockingjay moves past the culture of death and zeroes in on the person who brought about the culture of death: President Snow.
Mockingjay picks up where Catching Fire left off, with Katniss in the rebel District 13, being part of a plot by people including Cinna and Plutarch to rescue the tributes from the arena and eventually overthrow Snow’s rule of Panem. Katniss is a mourning warrior in a flood of emotional turmoil thrown into the midst of a strategic political game which she is woefully unprepared for. So while President Coin of District 13 and friend to the rebellion Plutarch try to convince Katniss to become the face of the rebellion, Katniss can only think of Peeta, and how his life is in danger, being subject to the wrath of the wicked President Snow himself.
The first and most obvious challenge for this film is how to live up to the hype that the first two generated while breaking form. The third story is not about a Hunger Games, making this in a sense unchartered territory for the filmmakers. That leaves it on the cast to convince us to care about a story that, to be quite honest, is somewhat boring. The first half of the book Mockingjay is dreadfully slow and filled with much more politics than action, a fact which caused some to question the wisdom of the decision to split the adaptation into two films (the second half of the book, I might add, is fantastic). And while the film does drag a tad slow between major plot points at times, it contains an element of something that the first two films have been far too busy to stop and think about: raw and emotional character development.
The culture of death has affected Katniss in horrific ways. She was forced to volunteer for the wretched games to save her sister from certain death, was forced to kill innocent people just to stay alive, watched one of her only friends in the games be killed, unintentionally sparked a rebellion, and now must watch in horror as the Capitol abuses (behind the scenes, of course) a boy for whom she cares very much. That’s a lot to take in, and it’s a lot to carry through on film, but Jennifer Lawrence does so with astonishing emotion. If her performance in the first two films was convincing, her portrayal of Katniss in Mockingjay is phenomenal.
Following suit, the rest of the cast picks up on the emotion of the film with quite satisfying versions of their respective characters. Phillip Seymour Hoffman simply is Plutarch, Julianne Moore fits President Coin like a hand in a glove, Woody Harrelson is as fantastic a Haymitch as ever, and Josh Hutcherson, while his part in this one is small, rounds out his performance in closing minutes of the film with incredible tenacity.
The film isn’t perfect, to be sure. Liam Hemsworth is a bit of a stiff Gale who’s difficult to connect with, and the film suffers from the lack of a well-rounded ending that was inevitable when splitting a story into two parts. But Lionsgate has succeeded in creating a story that will both satisfy fans of the series and entertain non-readers, all while highlighting the Capitol’s lack of respect for human life. There might be a concern to some about the series espousing a rebellion, but there’s a bigger picture here than the war. The rebellion is the conduit, but the message is that a culture, and ultimately a rule, which celebrates death will inevitably bring death to its people, and death to itself. That’s an idea that might be needed now, in our culture, more than it ever has.
Click here to read a review of the Mockingjay book.