First, it was the custodians of the Harry Potter franchise choosing to split J.K. Rowling’s final, ottoman-sized tome, The Deathly Hallows, into two separate films. A year later, the Twilight folks followed suit. Then television execs caught on, with AMC dividing the final seasons of Breaking Bad and Mad Men into two calendar years apiece—a cleavage that made nonsensical both the words “final” and “season.” (The latter, after all, once had a meaning that extended beyond “sequence of television episodes.”) Even though the second Avengers movie won’t be released for another six months, we’ve already been informed that the final chapter of the “trilogy” (another word getting stretched beyond recognition) will be doled out in two installments. And please don’t get me started on Peter Jackson’s rampant—and ongoing—Hobbit inflation. At this rate, we can expect the showrunners of Game of Thrones to divide George R.R. Martin’s (as yet unwritten) final volume into three “seasons,” each apportioned over the course of four years, concluding in 2038, when the actor playing the pubescent Bran will be entering middle age.
Which is a long way of saying that the decision to split the final Hunger Games novel—which is not appreciably longer than the first two—into a pair of movies smacks of imperatives more commercial than artistic. And yet, on the basis of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, it’s difficult to get too worked up about it. Is the film a bit baggy in places? Sure. Might it have been better if they’d squeezed the whole book into one movie? Probably. Nonetheless, Mockingjay Part 1 is a fine entertainment, shot through with moments of surprising emotional impact.
The Hunger Games novels, by Suzanne Collins, went steadily downhill from the first to the third. As a writer, she simply didn’t have the chops to carry her story along as it became larger and more politically fraught. But the movies, at least so far, have followed a more impressive trajectory. The second installment was already weightier than the first, and in this outing the moral gravity has been ratcheted up once more. The movie’s themes of rebellion and civil war are inherently cinematic ones, and the filmmakers involved—returning director Francis Lawrence and new screenwriters Danny Strong and Peter Craig—lend the story a grim urgency largely lacking from the novel. Most crucial of all, of course, is Jennifer Lawrence, who plays heroine Katniss Everdeen. Her Katniss-on-the-screen is so much richer and more compelling than Collins’s Katniss-on-the-page that it almost seems as though she’s playing another character altogether.
The movie begins with Katniss hospitalized and traumatized. Rescued from her second Hunger Games at the end of the last movie, she is now hidden away in the massive underground bunker of District 13, the heart of the rebellion against the nefarious Capitol. Alas, the love of her life, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) was not rescued with her, and Katniss is furious at his abandonment. She is also furious that the leaders of the rebellion—the chilly President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and her cherubic spinmeister Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman)—want to enlist her as a propaganda vehicle for their cause. Eventually, though, she relents. As Heavensbee advises, “They’ll follow her. She’s the face of the rebellion.”
At first this seems like a severe miscalculation, as the rebels’ efforts to feature Katniss in a few in-studio propaganda videos (or “propos”) call to mind nothing so much as ads for a third-tier congressional candidate. They have better luck, however, when they take her on location, to another District devastated by the Capitol. There, in what is probably Lawrence’s best scene, her righteous anger is at last channeled toward a worthy cause. What follows is largely a propo-war, in which the rebels broadcast on-the-ground videos of Katniss and the Capitol counters with chat-show interviews with a suddenly docile Peeta. (Has he been drugged? Tortured? Or is he playing a longer game?)
Mockingjay Part 1 is the darkest entrant in the series to date, visually as well as tonally. Director Lawrence (no relation to his star) presents his somber fable in shades of gray and brown. No one is primping for parades in the Capitol this time out, nor modeling incendiary eveningwear. Even reluctant rebel Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) must make do without her elaborate wigs—instead, she dons a Rosie-the-Riveter-esque scarf—and marzipan wardrobe. (“Now I’m condemned to this life of jumpsuits,” she moans.) The dispute between the Capitol and its outlying districts has moved beyond its bread-and-circuses phase. And while Katniss’s image is still being used for propaganda purposes, her persona is no longer the lovestruck tribute but the combat-hardened veteran.
There are only a few battle sequences in the film, but they are deployed effectively—in particular a brief uprising by lumberjacks that called to my mind the bamboo-forest battle in House of Flying Daggers. I’m pretty sure that there was an echo of the U.S.S. Indianapolis speech from Jaws in the description of the survivors (“915 out of 10,000”) of a massacre in District 12. And while I’m probably wrong in also detecting a nod to All About Eve (“Take a deep breath Mr. Heavensbee. It’s going to be a long night”), there are enough traces of nuance in the script that it seems at least a possibility.
Moore is a strong addition to the cast as President Coin, her shock of white hair suggesting that perhaps she is not quite so different from the Capitol’s diabolical President Snow (Donald Sutherland) as we might hope. Indeed, with the exception of Sutherland’s preening tyrant, the entire cast has dialed down the hamminess of the earlier films, from Banks’s Effie to Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman to Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy. It’s as if they are all following the lead of Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose understated performances in this film and the prior one gave both a touch of class. In Mockingjay Part 1, Hoffman tragically offers something else as well: a reminder, amid all the make-believe carnage and heartbreak, of what genuine loss feels like.