Well, that was an enjoyable half a movie.
Mockingjay isn’t exactly the strongest novel in the Hunger Games series. Although it has some interesting ideas and a lot of ambition, it’s hampered by the fact that the narration is always trapped inside Katniss’s head. Since Katniss is so often kept in the dark, left out of important scenes or too traumatized to know what’s going on, the novel feels disconnected and unsatisfying.
The Mockingjay movie does not have this problem. Although it follows the plot of the first half of the book fairly closely, it elevates the material, thanks to showing moments outside of Katniss’s perspective, Jennifer Lawrence’s amazing acting, and the added inclusion of Effie.
Because the camera can see things that Katniss can’t, we’re shown key moments in the rebellion, including a haunting moment in District 7 and the attack on the dam. These scenes don’t always work from a logical point of view — the attack on the dam was a suicide mission that would have benefited from the slightest bit of strategy — but the fantastic cinematography definitely makes them engaging to watch.
But Katniss is still the protagonist, and the real thing that sells her story is the mind-blowing talent of Jennifer Lawrence. I swear I could just watch her react to things for two hours — which is convenient, since that’s mostly Katniss’s role here. Lawrence digs deep into Katniss’s pain and her PTSD, and she sells every moment of her heartbreaking performance. Her speech to the districts in front of the bombed hospital brought tears to my eyes. Her fear for Peeta was literally heart-wrenching. While her emotional trauma was not always well executed in the books, in part simply because her thoughts were our only window into this story, it adds a tension and emotional depth to the movie that’s as painful as it is compelling.
Although the movies have generally skimped on showing physical disability — Katniss’s deafness and the loss of Peeta’s leg — Katniss’s mental health problems, along with Finnick’s, were sensitively and believably handled, emphasizing the fact that such issues don’t make a person “weak,” and that even heroes and heroines can suffer from them. Representation matters, and the series did an excellent job here. However, although Beetee appeared in a wheelchair, representing physical disability in the action-adventure genre, it is frustrating that a side character can have visible disability, while the two protagonist’s disabilities are never mentioned, not even as technology erases them.
Finally, the inclusion of Effie in District 13 was the most notable example of the movie writers streamlining and fine-tuning the plot of the books. Effie was a compelling part of Catching Fire, so it makes sense to see her story and her emotional growth continued here. She also adds yet another female face to a world with many varied and compelling women, including the tough and talented Cressida, wonderfully played by Natalie Dormer, the gentle but brave Prim, and the unflinching Preside Coin.
All in all, while “enjoyable” might not be the word for this emotional experience, Mockingjay is a compelling movie to watch.
Unfortunately, it’s only compelling in each moment, and not as a move as a whole. It can’t escape the fact that it’s only half of a story. In fact, it feels like less than half of a story, with some pacing missteps, and a complete lack of forward narrative. Each character moment is great to watch, but they don’t tie together into something greater.
The movie opens and closes with a focus on Katniss’s powerlessness and lack of agency — her rocking in terror at the start of the film, before being dragged away by guards, and her staring at a screaming, struggling Peeta at the end of the movie, knowing that Snow has played her, and knowing that there is nothing she can do to help. Very little changes in Katniss’s story over the course of the movie, and the one significant change that does happen — Peeta’s rescue — occurs in a scene where Katniss is not present and where we ourselves don’t see the pivotal moments. It also happens too far from the film’s conclusion to really be described as its climax, but nothing really happens after it that feels climactic either. The movie attempts to make Coin’s stirring speech of war into its big ending, but it doesn’t quite ring true, because not enough has changed or evolved during the course of the movie. Katniss got a new outfit and a new braid, she saw a hospital get bombed, she went to District 12, she hid in a bunker, she got terrified by roses, she was scared for Peeta, she gave a few speeches to camera, and all of those moments were incredibly well acted and filmed, but they don’t build on one another to create a compelling story with a beginning, a middle and an end, or even just a beginning and a middle. It feels like this entire movie was the start of a story, stretched too far. The rescue of Peeta was not enough to make a complete and satisfying story, because Katniss simply wasn’t involved.
The movie has plenty of tense moments and fantastic characters, it inspires tears and pulls you in, but once the credits hit, you’re left thinking, “And?” It’s good to watch but not emotionally satisfying to leave, and we’ll have to wait another year to see whether those decisions make sense for Mockingjay‘s adaptation as a whole.