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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I movie review: image manipulation

The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1 green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
One of the best SF series ever deepens its critique of the power of propaganda in ways complicated, intriguingly contradictory, and a little bit horrifying.
I’m “biast” (pro): big SF geek; love the book series; love Jennifer Lawrence (and much of the rest of the cast); crave female-centered stories
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have read the source material (and I love it)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Don’t tell Hollywood I said this, but chopping the final novel of the Hunger Games trilogy into two films might be the best thing that could have happened to this franchise. I mean, it didn’t work for Harry Potter — the first Deathly Hallows film was terrible — and Peter Jackson is already twothirds of the way (with the final third almost upon us) toward demonstrating that turning the brief Hobbit book into three long films was not artistically warranted. And it’s not even like the so-far enthralling Hunger Games films needed any help.

It’s just that this might be the best possible beginning of the ending that this particular story could have gotten.

The Games are done here. No more playing. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence: Serena, X-Men: Days of Future Past), reluctant heroine of District 12, has been snatched from the arena where impoverished teenagers play out a to-the-death bloodsport for the amusement of their cultural and political overlords of the decadent Capitol. In that arena, over the course of two years of her life and two iterations of the Games, she accidentally inspired a nation of downtrodden serfs in the future North American nation of Panem to begin to tentatively rise up. Now, she is among her rescuers, the people of the lone outright rebellious district, 13, the leaders of which hope to use her as a symbol to ignite all-out civil war.

The series has been, from the beginning, about the power of propaganda and the persuasive capabilities of media to tell a story that will sway hearts and minds even when the unvarnished truth might appall its audience. And with Mockingjay 1, the films continue on their astonishing track of being, if not actually better than, then at least more complimentary to the novels than maybe any movies-based-on-books have ever been. Because the books are told from Katniss’s first-person, present-tense perspective, which has its own intimate weight but which fails to offer us a larger view on Katniss’s world. Here, though, in the films, we are shown from outside her head how Katniss is used by others to further their own agendas, and the cultural impact of that in her world.

The extraordinary thing about Mockingjay 1 is that now, it’s not the rapacious Capitol and evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland: The Eagle, The Mechanic) who are offering up Katniss as a public inspiration… though they still have Peeta (Josh Hutcherson: Epic, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island), Katniss’s District 12 teammate in the Hunger Games, captive, and are trotting him out in endless propaganda “interviews.” Instead Katniss is a tool of the freedom-fighting leaders of District 13, including President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore: Non-Stop, Carrie) and former Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Most Wanted Man, God’s Pocket), who has defected, bringing with him his extraordinary skill in creating “propos” (he was practically the Leni Riefenstahl of the Capitol). Katniss — and we — may agree with their aims of overthrowing the Capitol, but it is startling and a little bit horrifying to see how very moving propaganda can be.

A terrific sequence early in the film illustrates this, and also shows off Jennifer Lawrence as an entirely remarkable actor. We saw in the previous films how Katniss was pretty good at pretending to be something she was not (such as “hopelessly in love with Peeta”). Yet here we see how absolutely awful she is at trying to force herself to show emotion that she intellectually agrees with but isn’t feeling at the moment. She’s completely unconvincing shouting lines scripted for her by Heavensbee about freedom and rebellion in a studio setting… but once another Capitol defector, director Cressida (Natalie Dormer: The Riot Club, Game of Thrones) gets her out in the field to tour another District devastated by Capitol bombing and to visit with the wounded, Katniss’s ire is genuinely raised. There’s a lot of complicated and even intriguingly contradictory stuff going on here: the triumph of a young woman who cannot be managed yet soars when she gets to be herself raised a huge lump in my throat, while at the same time I was fully aware that her powerful rage was being turned into a product. And so she ends up managed and handled anyway.

The fact that none of this is simple or falls along clearcut lines of right and wrong, good and bad might be an inspiration for the teen and young-adult audience this is primarily aimed at to consider how media can manipulate, and might even increase their media literacy and skepticism a bit. (I can hope, anyway.)

Cutting Mockingjay the book into two films means we’re left with a sort of Empire Strikes Back feel to this one — that’s a good thing — complete with a devastating cliffhanger that doesn’t leave room for a lot of hope. Except, that is, the not-at-all unjustified hope that, next year, The Hunger Games will deliver a satisfying wrapup to what has so far been one of the smartest, most enthralling science-fiction films series ever.

see also:
The Hunger Games (review)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire review: reluctant heroine
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 movie review: breaking the blockbuster

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I (2014) | directed by Francis Lawrence
US/Can release: Nov 21 2014
UK/Ire release: Nov 20 2014

MPAA: rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images and thematic material
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence, threat)

viewed in 2D IMAX
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Froborr

    I am really looking forward to this. I definitely thing the Hunger Games movies are better than the books; I found the books to be full of good ideas executed competently, but without flair. The films, on the other hand, take those same ideas and add on a far-more-than-competent execution, with fantastic cinematography and acting.
    I was quite worried by the decision to split the last movie into two. I’m still somewhat skeptical, but your review has convinced me it’s at least worth going to the theaters for.

  • RogerBW

    On a purely visual note, I don’t know whether it’s makeup, lighting, or Lawrence’s face changing shape, but the picture above seems rather starker than the “coddled” look she had in the first two films while still clearly being of the same person.

  • Hank Graham

    About the Peter Jackson: I dunno, MaryAnn, I’m *really* looking forward to next year’s Phantom Edit of the three, turning it into Just The Book.


  • RogerBW

    It’s a nice idea, but I gather that it’s going to be hard work — I gather there’s some book material that’s not adequately represented in the films.

  • But she’s not being coddled here. In the Capitol (outside the arena), she was.

  • Me too. But that will just end up being the movie Jackson should have made in the first place.

  • RogerBW

    Yes, quite so. I don’t know whether it’s a deliberate change of her looks, but I think it works very well.

  • Oracle Mun

    This sounds like just the adaptation I want to see. The war of ideas, deconstructed on screen – what a refreshing change from the average Hollywood war movie.

  • TwinPeaks 1

    Not being an actor, it seems to me that most actors do a fair job of mimicking emotions. How do you determine who is good or who is a bad actor? The real question it would seem is what material an actor is given. So aren’t the screenwriters the real individuals who are masters of the movies.

    If Mockingjay is successful it is due to the screenwriters

  • No. “Most” actors do not do “a fair job” of mimicking emotions. There are many many terrible or mediocre actors making a living “acting.”

    Of course screenwriters are a vital part of a filmmaking team. But in a story dependent on emotion, good actors are required to bring that emotion to life, to make the audience feel those emotions along with the characters. Good actors can save a bad script, but the best script ever written will not make a great movie if it’s performed by wooden automatons.

    The *Hunger Games* movies are an especially good showcase for Jennifer Lawrence’s talent because we see her Katniss in a wide variety of emotional situations. Sometimes she is containing and suppressing emotions she doesn’t want to deal with or maybe isn’t fully aware of (as with her feelings for Gale). Sometimes she is pretending to express things she doesn’t actual feel but it’s a matter of life or death to her to be convincing (as when she appeared on Capitol TV discussing her “love” for Peeta). Sometimes she is trying to navigate emotions far too complicated for anyone to handle, never mind a teenage girl (like how she really does care for Peeta and wants to protect him even if she isn’t in love with him). And then there is the sequence I mention here, in which we can see the difference between Katniss in a scripted situation versus an organic one. (The irony is that, of course, the movie itself is scripted, and Lawrence herself said just the other night on *The Daily Show* that she doesn’t really identify with Katniss, so the emotions she is enacting as Katniss aren’t ones the actor actually feels.)

    Good acting can be hard to pin down — sometimes it’s a matter of “I know it when I see it.” But Lawrence’s talent is pretty indisputable here.

  • Ivana Cvetanovic

    Katniss was NEVER convincing at pretending that she was something she was not, like hopelessly in love with Peeta. That was a major point in the first two movies. She was only “convincing” anyone other than the most naive people in the Capitol when she was showing genuine emotion for Peeta, which were always there, even though it was not a “hopelessly in love” kind of thing. So she only became really convincing as being hopelessly in love with Peeta when she REALLY became hopelessly in love with Peeta, i.e during the Quarter Quell games in Catching Fire.

  • ram

    Jennifer Lawrence is just the most amazing to watch, whether she is acting or joking or just being there. The movies for me, esp the katniss character is just a full step ahead of the katniss in the books.
    If U take Jennifer out of the movie, like gary ross said , its just another YA adaptation without any heart n soul.

  • She convinced the audiences in the Capitol, and that’s what mattered. But wait till you see the scene I’m referring to in this film — it’s on a whole different level.

  • AnneMarie Dickey

    Mockingjay (the book) IMO was one of the best military science fiction books since The Forever War by Haldeman and maybe even since Heinlein’s Starship Troopers…and it hit very, very hard on some of our not so nice cultural tropes that have festered since 9/11. In any event, consigning it to “Young Adult Fiction” is absolutely misleading. I found it to be unremittingly (and appropriately) grim and utterly horrifying in places.
    (complaints about the tone of the ending were comletely misguided in my view. I agree with GRR Martin that the ending has to be earned by the nature of the story…and Mockingjay would have been ruined by any other sort of ending that introduced an un-earned happy edge)
    I have been looking forward to this film, but somewhat dreading it at the same time.

  • Beowulf

    Since we have a rather nice home theater setup, I think we’ll wait until next (November?) and watch this on BD just before going to the final film.

  • I liked this movie so much. As you say, it’s the best kind of adaptation — one that adds new dimensions to the source material.

    One of my only criticisms is that there was a precise moment when it should’ve ended, and it went about three minutes past that moment.

  • Nathan C.

    My problem wasn’t with the dark tone of the ending, I loved how they showcased the two sides of the “Coin.” I loved how they showed how the people lose no matter who the victor is via the “war-debt” handed to said losers. I love the attention given to Mental Health and PTSD, and how it does this without making a pretentiously pornographic spectacle of suffering. My gripe with it was the epiloguey ending. I also find it hard to believe that they would let civilians live in an area so far from fractured supply lines and accessible roads. The pacing just felt a bit odd to me is all. I liked the “and they lived in relative contentedness as they worked on their unstable relationship and personal issues, for a lifespan that would make sense for those with similar emotional baggage, until the political situation (or their personal issues, health, or any number of things) got worse.” twist on the classic “and they lived, happily, ever, after” ending.

  • Nathan C.

    You can really tell how she has matured as an actor when you compare the first film to this one. It’s also been funny to see how a generally likable person had to play a character with poor social skills. I think Katniss is a foil to Lawrence in many ways, just look at her “talk show” scenes in the first movie compared to her real life interviews. She proves that leading female characters can have facial expressions (looking at you Twilight’s Bella), or emotional nuance even.

    On another note, I’ve lost all faith in my gender…

    “This movie was a complete waste of time to watch. She didn’t even show a bit of nip or ass in it.”
    -several male commenters on YouTube

  • Nathan C.

    You mean the “reunion”? In the theater I actually heard one distressed teenage fan say something to the effect of “not like this” during the fade to black. I agree with you.

  • Yep, right at the fade to black after the “reunion.”

  • Nathan C.

    I wish Ender’s Game could have had the same emotional depth as this adaptation. All frustratingly ignorant personal views aside, Orson Scott Card does do a stellar job in his novel. Not sure how a man who could write about the dangers of ignorance and the importance of tolerance and understanding could adopt such a narrow view. A character who’s greatest accomplishment is akin to the people who dropped the bombs on Japan should have been just as interesting as a character who was the figurehead of a Russia-esk government as they annexed an “evil” empire of oppressors.

  • That’s how I felt at the end of *The Empire Strikes Back*… :-)

  • Nathan C.

    That’s how I felt after reading the “Red Wedding” segment of Martin’s uncomfortably gritty series. Still foolishly waiting for “justice.”

  • AnneMarie Dickey

    As a transgendered woman who live in the same city with notorious homophobe Orson Scott Card…my feelings on him are decidely mixed. I like much of his work. I just don’t like him.

  • AnneMarie Dickey

    The fast forward look 10 years down the line is not particularly unusual in a book series. It allows you to make some sense of the charcter development you have been experiencing in more or less real time as you read. Katniss is still damaged and she always will be, but she also adapted (as she always has had to). Happiness is still possible even after bad thngs happen, and she has found some measure of it as best as she can.

  • Nathan C.

    Accept alien races that could wipe out humanity in certain circumstances, but human minorities with a unique perspective on life who deserve positive attention and support? That crosses the line apparently. I really don’t get that guy. One second he’s preaching compassion and understanding, the next second he’s supporting organizations that want to make homosexuality illegal. It’s like if apart from being fictional, Santa kidnapped the “naughty” children and used them for free labor as “elves” in his coalmines up north.

  • Oh my god, I want to see *that* Christmas movie!

  • Tonio Kruger

    Apart from a certain Neil Gaiman short story, I doubt we’re going to ever see a Christmas movie like that.

    Though I must admit that this comes close:


    Of course, your mileage may vary…

  • Nathan C.

    The last two have certainly been better, I think it may be the way the medium makes us a reflection of the Capitol. Sitting in comfy chairs as we revel in the suffering of others, I felt positively Roman.

  • Nathan C.

    I finally found this ad, I yelled in the theater when it played before catching fire.


    Did they miss the irony in marketing the “capitol collection” to the capitol, or did they realize this and see it as a good marketing decision. Either way I’m amused and disturbed at the same time.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Americans live in a society where a certain furniture store calls itself The Dump on the grounds that, sure, it’s a dumb name, but at least all the potential sucke — er — customers out there will remember it. So I would be very surprised to find out that the ad people responsible for that ad gave it much more thought than that.

  • Nathan C.

    Well sure, but what about the guy who thought *this* http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-19481400
    was a good idea, is it not somewhat similar to the above product branding? It’s hard for them to claim ignorance in either case.

  • Constable

    That… is something. I always thought the character somewhat sinister.

  • Constable

    Hmm, it’s been awhile since I read the last book, I’ll get back to you.

  • xelas42

    The “brief” book “The Hobbit” is 600+ pages and even breaking it into three parts, they had to leave parts out. You are a propaganda meister.

  • Bluejay

    Yeah, they had to leave parts out to make room for the parts they made up that weren’t in the book.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    It’s been out a month, so no real need to be terribly coy, but just the same: SPOILERS INCOMING.

    (Also, wall of text incoming.)

    On the MAJ scale, I would have yellow light-ed this one, for much the same reason MAJ yellow light-ed Deathly Hallow 1: there really isn’t a whole story here. Certainly not one that suggests a whole other still to be told. It’s all set up, no pay off, and a whole lot of spinning its wheels, trying to justify itself as a stand alone film. At a crisp 90-100 minutes, it might have worked, but at 123 minute runtime, it seems padded to deflect questions of why we’re going to be asked to sit through another film.

    And the film could have been cut down to less than 90 minutes. Two trips to District 12 is a waste of time. Heavensbee and Coin appear to only ever have one conversation, but they have it several times. Effie Trinket’s presence is as pointless as it is nonsensical. What we really have here is material to fill the first hour or so of a 2 1/2 hour film.

    This is the second time in a row a Hunger Games film has ended on a bad shot. Catching Fire ended looking down on poor Jennifer Lawrence trying to look steely eyed while lying flat on her back. This appeared to be trying for artistic symbolism with the POV shot showing Katniss’s reflection superimposed over Peeta strapped to a gurney. Not only does it not work photographically (Katniss is really hard to make out), director Francis Lawrence didn’t let Peeta acknowledge Katniss’s presence, wasting the chance for a strong emotional image.

    I remain unimpressed with Suzanne Collins’s world-building. I’ve always questioned whether the society she proposes (and the atrocities being perpetuated within) could survive nearly three generations. The last rebellion, which resulted in the establishment of the Games, has nearly fallen out of living memory. Yet were asked to believe that Katniss represent the first real cracks in the system? Plus, all of her technobabble has always come across as someone unfamiliar with the science fiction genre attempting to write things that sound science fiction-y.

    But this movie has really lost me on scale. The previous films had been vague on this point, which is easily forgiven as dramatic license. But Mockingjay 1 makes the mistake of giving us numbers. It’s a significant plot point that District 12 as been “burned to the ground”, to the point that the movie moves the action there twice (as I said, a waste of time). But not only do we continue to only see the one community, Gale tells us that only about 900 out of 10,000 survived the attack. So, a “district” consists of only 10,000 residents. That’s barely a small town. Meanwhile, I don’t recall if it’s explicitly shown, but it is heavily implied that Katniss and Company spend several days traveling on high speed trains moving between the Capitol and the Districts. So what’s filling all that space, and how does the Capitol maintain control without mass exoduses into the open wilderness?*

    Ultimately, this isn’t a bad movie. The performances are spectacular. Thematically it has a lot of good stuff to say. But it’s got issues. It spends a lot of time, especially for a major blockbuster, telling us about a lot of events happening off camera. I doesn’t go far enough in correcting problems with the source material (though it doesn’t introduce many of its own, either). It veers much t far from the plot trajectories established by the earlier films in the series. And as a standalone film, it just doesn’t feel urgent or necessary.

    * AFAIK there isn’t an “official” map of Panem. But there are plenty of fan made ones out there. Most of them show Panem superimposed over (and encompassing most of the land area of) the contiguous 48 United States, plus some of the Canadian provinces. A popular extrapolation is to place the Capitol on the site of modern-day Denver, but putting District 12 out in the Appalachian coal regions, possibly in West Virginia (though that always struck me as awfully cliched). With the other districts usually shown situated radially around the Capitol, that’s 1300 miles between Charleston and Denver, with nothing in between. Interestingly, though, you could place all of Panem within the Mountain West states, possible within the state of Colorado, and find areas that roughly match the descriptions of all the districts, with the possible exception of 4 (the fishing district). That would make the scale more reasonable, never minding the illogic of literally murdering your entire coal industry.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    I dunno, I just finished the books for the first time and they are so much fuller and with more plot and character development…I truly doubt the last film will come close. There are details in that which may be impossible to replicate on film.
    Collins said she was bringing the effect of war on and to adolescents. She succeeded. There’s no impeccably-tied bow in the end but there is absolutely a compelling case against war and for the power to live for something beyond war–the love triangle symbolizes that–which makes it wonderful literature with great teaching power. Reminds me of Dostoevsky.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    The pacing after the scene in front of the mansion was jarring–it felt like careening down a rabbit hole–but in retrospect, I found it very appropriate. It recalls the true accounts of intense loss.

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