Whenever a popular novel is adapted to the screen, I make a point of staying away from the book until after I’ve seen the movie. My approach goes against conventional wisdom, I know, but it allows me to enjoy the same story twice rather than complain about the filmmakers omitting my favourite passage. As such, I reviewed The Hunger Games (2012) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) before committing to a single word of Suzanne Collins’ prose. After watching The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, though, I had to break tradition and plow through the source material, not just so I could find out what happens next but also to decipher what on earth possessed Lionsgate to split this tale into two separate motion pictures.
I realise other studios have set a precedent with the likes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. However, both those books had a natural break point, not to mention enough plot and characters to keep things rolling in their first halves. In contrast, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 feels downright meandering as Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) mopes around her new home in District Thirteen until her love interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who got left behind in the last movie, changes status quo independently of her actions. Cut to credits.
There’s more to the story, in fairness, as the leader of the Panem revolt, Coin (Julianne Moore), enlists Katniss to star in a series of propaganda videos, prompting President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to retaliate with public announcements from Peeta. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 works best when expounding on the mechanics of this back-and-forth manipulation. One would expect the rebel publicists to pay closer attention to details, though, and avoid shooting their reluctant Mockingjay in baggy coveralls after making such a big deal of her spiffy new outfit.
Having mentioned that, I love the way director Francis Lawrence encapsulates all the horror of effective propaganda in a single sequence, wherein a broadcast of Katniss singing a childhood ballad morphs into a choir of suicide bombers. Those who’ve read Collins’ novel will adore the haunting melody Jeremiah Fraites and Wesley Schultz have composed for “The Hanging Tree”. Those who haven’t will find their spirits momentarily lifted, until they realise a teenage girl’s nostalgic crooning is responsible for countless deaths. I only wish The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 had explored our heroine’s own ambivalence regarding the rebellion, of which we learn little other than its orchestrators live underground and eat gruel.
Part of the problem lies in Katniss’ reactive nature. The girl can overcome any obstacle on the field, but drop her in a political arena, where one has to think three “moves and countermoves” ahead, and she comes off as kind of a dumb-dumb. That’s what made her interactions with born diplomats Peeta and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) so fun in the previous instalments. Unfortunately, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 strips our heroine of these relationships. Heck, screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong even isolate her from the secretive Finnick (Sam Claflin), who surely would’ve made a decent replacement.
Instead, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 gives us the perpetually bland Gale (Liam Hemsworth), who foams at the mouth every time someone mentions the Capitol. Three flicks in, I still don’t see how young Miss Everdeen could possibly hesitate between Peeta and this simpleton. Mind you, I do like how he, Finnick, Haymitch, little Primrose (Willow Shields), and just about everyone else in the cast resolve the love triangle by figuring out our wishy-washy heroine’s feelings before she does. Classic Katniss.
For those interested, Gale does come off better in the source material, and Finnick features more prominently, providing a sounding board for our protagonist’s doubts about Coin’s rebellion. Come to think of it, we also get further details on District Thirteen, but the plot only kicks into gear in later chapters, which brings us back to my initial inquiry: why did Lionsgate split this story in two? I came out of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire eager to trade my hard-earned cash for a glimpse at what happens next, but so little unfolds in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 that the feeling remained more or less intact… I think I just answered my own question.