The team behind The Hunger Games film adaptations gets it. With plenty of explosions and covert operations to draw from in Suzanne Collins’s source material, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (Lionsgate Films, November 2014; PG-13) could have been just an action movie. Instead, the filmmakers’ decision to split the book into two movies allows the characters’ emotional considerations their due.
The movie opens with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), airlifted from the Quarter Quell, now sequestered in District 13 to recover from her injuries and plan her next move. Long believed to have been destroyed by the Capitol, District 13 still exists as an underground enclave in a constant state of preparation for rebellion. Although 13 and its leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) ally with Katniss and the rebels who rescued her, it becomes obvious that the claustrophobic District 13 has flaws of its own. Moore’s portrayal gives Coin some sympathetic moments, but the speeches she delivers to cheering crowds make it clear that the Capitol doesn’t have a monopoly on propaganda.
In fact, a major part of Katniss’s role as the “Mockingjay,” the symbol of the rebellion, is to star in “propos,” or propaganda pieces, urging the discontented people of the districts to unite against the Capitol. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Katniss’s former mentor and one of the rebels, wisely points out that Katniss is at her best when she’s unscripted, so Coin sends Katniss to devastated districts — including her own — for filmmaker Cressida (Natalie Dormer) to capture her spontaneous responses to the Capitol’s offenses. Quickly, the propos inspire what had been small uprisings to become coordinated attacks, which meet swift and violent retaliation.
Meanwhile, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) — who was taken hostage by the Capitol, along with other former victors, at the end of the Quarter Quell — repeatedly appears on Capitol TV, begging rebels to end the uprising before more people get hurt. As these appearances reveal that Peeta is being tortured, a frantic Katniss becomes more focused on saving Peeta’s life than President Coin would like her to be with so many other lives at stake. Katniss is also growing closer to Gale (Liam Hemsworth)… which brings me to the one aspect of the book I found a bit tiresome: Katniss understandably does a lot of brooding, but perhaps less understandably, she spends a lot of this high-stakes novel wondering whether Gale or Peeta is the man for her. The movie, though, manages to show her conflict through her actions, and through her reaction at one point when she thinks she’s lost both of them. Katniss’s internal debate (related in the novel through her first-person narration) doesn’t have a chance to weigh down the movie. And, as in the book, there are still moments of humor; Buttercup the cat steals the show a few times.
Did this novel of about the same length as its two predecessors need to be divided into two movies? Maybe not; scenes could have been shortened, similar incidents could have been combined, and ticket fees could have been forked over once instead of twice. But the plot of Mockingjay is more complicated, less self-contained, than the plots of the two previous installments. After all, no part of it takes place in an arena with a dwindling number of characters. If Mockingjay’s story had been rushed, what would’ve been lost would be characters’ emotional development. In both the book and the movie, every risk a character takes raises questions of that risk’s consequences for his or her loved ones. I’m glad the film made time for that.