I went into Mockingjay today with managed expectations. The new Hunger Games film is the first in a two-part adaptation of the trilogy’s final book, which by now raises concerns of faddishness, and the book itself – I read it a couple of years ago – is not the series’ best. (That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I did, but both as a finale and a novel, it felt just-okay. Fans tend to agree.) The main strength of Catching Fire, last year’s film, was that it lived up to its source material, widely and wisely viewed as the best book. For Mockingjay, part one at least, to maintain the standard, filmmakers would need to improve on the text.
I shouldn’t have worried, because the the film isn’t just better than the book – it actually enhances it, accentuating elements I hadn’t noticed or appreciated.
The Hunger Games franchise has always been a textbook example of how to film a bestselling book series. (Harry Potter‘s mutilators, take note.) Consistently, it’s employed sensitive direction, pitch-perfect casting and an intently faithful scripting (Potter butchers, take further note) – but most importantly, those at work behind the camera have always taken advantage of film’s distinct storytelling powers. Whereas Suzanne Collins’ novels are told entirely through first-person narrative, restricting readers to the viewpoint of Jennifer Lawrence’s lead character, the first two films – instead of trying in vain create the same effect – show us unseen events only mentioned or guessed at in the books, fleshing out Collins’ story and wider world. Mockingjay does this somewhat less, perhaps because Katniss knows more of the plot this time round, but uses its status as a film in totally new ways.
In an early scene, President Snow (Donald Sutherland feasting on scenery) demands an aide revise lines from a broadcast speech before he performs them. The film is packed with self-awareness of this sort: later, attempting to record her own video message, Lawrence discovers she can’t act; her costars, Philip Seymour Hoffman among them in the last film he finished, play the scene like they’re in on the joke. In the book a camera crew follows Katniss everywhere, her role as the resistance movement’s poster girl a central plot point, but words never expressed the underlying themes as clearly as film does. Until the story’s half way point, where Mockingjay Part I appropriately stops, it’s only on TV screens she and Peeta see each other, speaking via propaganda films. (In another bit of metacinema, those involving Katniss use the same branding and animation from the film’s trailers.) The point that never struck me so effectively as a reader is that the two are now being forced to see each other as the world saw them before, at engineered, untrustworthy distance. The subtext of the previous entries about reality TV, truth versus pretence, sincerity versus image becomes the text of Mockingjay, and even more than the original, it’s a story made to be viewed.
In a montage of events I recall being unmentioned in the book (which doesn’t mean they don’t take place), a folk song Katniss recites becomes part of the score, captured on celluloid, broadcast as part her side’s media campaign and consequently sung by its supporters. The track, taken from James Newton Howard’s breathtaking-as-ever soundtrack, is online, but I beg you: if you’ve yet to see the film, don’t look it up. This is the standout sequence in its two-hour running time and deserves to be experienced unprimed. It’s a tremendous example of how cinema can improve a moment.
Return performances from the previous films are as good as they ever were, with Hoffman – a singular loss – getting more to do this time and Elizabeth Banks happily written in as Effie Trinket. The real standout is Julianne Moore as resistance leader Alma Coin, who though she never gives an Oscar movement (nor should she have) captures all of the character’s unreadability, teetering ambiguously between heroic and unscrupulous. You’re never sure whether or not you like her, which is just as it should be.
Don’t let complaints of scant action deter you – unlike certain other part ones, the film earns almost every minute of its length, never sacrificing tension or pace. Its only real missteps, which are minor, are its very beginning and ending, the former one or two scenes too early, the latter a couple too late. Watch and you’ll notice what I mean.
Is Mockingjay Part I as good as Catching Fire? Comparing the two doesn’t seem useful, because (while you won’t be left feeling you only saw set-up) it’s only the first half of its story. Certainly I didn’t enjoy or admire it any less. In one respect in fact, this instalment achieves something its predecessors don’t, proving that just occasionally, the film is better than the book.