The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

November 29, 2014
Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1' (2014)
Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1' (2014)

Although it rocketed to the top of the box office in its first week, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, is a holding operation in this popular Hollywood franchise. As the title suggests, this is only the first part of a grand finale. It has been described as “half a film”, and that’s largely true. The big question is whether it is dramatically justified to split a ‘trilogy’ into four parts, or whether this is simply an exercise in maximising revenues?

It’s an unfortunate trend with these big franchises that financiers believe you can never have too much of a good thing. Yet the same holds true for audiences who flock to every new fragment with cult-like devotion.

The producers of these films are so confident of their audience they plunge us into the action without any preamble. It is assumed we already know the story so far, in which Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has survived two gruelling rounds of the gladiatorial Hunger Games, and become a symbol of rebellion against a ruthless totalitarian government.

In this third segment of The Hunger Games there are no Hunger Games, only vague references to the deeds of the past. Anybody who hasn’t seen the previous two instalments is sure to be confused.

Instead, we find Katniss being tarted up by a team of filmmakers, under the general direction of Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman). She is now the Mockingjay – the official face of the revolution, who has to be sold to the masses as part of a propaganda war with the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). For the sake of the cameras she is dressed up like a cartoon super-heroine, being told: “Everyone is going to want to kiss you, kill you or be you.” Try to imagine Joan of Arc being trailed by a team of paparazzi and you’ll get the general idea.

In the media battle Katniss as the people’s heroine is being challenged by none other than Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson), her former partner in the Games, who has been captured by the forces of the Capitol and now spouts defeatist statements on TV. You may have always suspected Peeta was a drip, but it appears he has been brainwashed. This has a devastating effect on Katniss, who is at best a reluctant figurehead. Her thoughts are mainly for her family and friends, with the responsibility of leading the rebellion being a heavy burden.

It is only when Katniss is taken to her old community, District 13, now a scene of massacre and devastation, that she finds the necessary steel and begins to speak and act in a suitably telegenic manner.

Hunger Games 2 was pretty grim, but this film is even bleaker, with most of the action taking place in the rebels’ underground military bunker. The parodies of the reality TV/game show mentality have given way to a muted critique of the image manipulations of modern media. There’s still a satirical subtext, but not the same quirky humour, with characters that were prominent in the earlier films taking on a secondary role.

Each of the three films has relied heavily on the charismatic presence of Jennifer Lawrence. In Mockingjay Part 1 she is as dominant as ever, but emotionally garbled – more inclined to sulk and sob than fire an arrow in anger. Her distress over Peeta is almost hysterical, even though her initial love interest – Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is nearby and slavishly devoted. As a study of conflict between personal attachments and duty to a higher cause, the story is unconvincing.

The most touching part of Mockingjay Part 1, may be Lawrence singing the film’s theme song, The Hanging Tree. “Are you, are you, coming to the tree?” she intones, in a sensual, haunting drawl. It’s almost enough to make one forget the many long scenes when she sits in the bunker weeping and moaning. This is not a girl to be kept on ice when revolution is knocking at the door.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Danny Strong & Peter Craig, from a novel by Suzanne Collins
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks
USA, rated M, 123 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 29th November, 2014.