I read a lot. Usually in short, intense, ADHD-driven bursts. I read all of the Hunger Games books on vacation in 2012 and got so caught up in them I used up the batteries of two flashlights reading at night. (Luckily, I had my phone’s light to fall back on then.) So, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that I was one of the eight or nine people milling around in the cold outside of the Cobble Hill Cinema last Thursday night in anticipation of the 8 o’clock premiere of The Mockingjay, Part 1, the third installment of The Hunger Games films. While I enjoyed the first of the films based upon Suzanne Collins’s books, it didn't quite do justice to the serious tone of the books, nor did it seem to fully flesh out the themes of massive oppression and classism, focusing more superficially on Katniss Everdeen’s personal struggles and her developing relationship with Peeta. The second film, Catching Fire, was much better, but still seemed to downplay the darker political themes in favor of the dramatic action of the games. In The Mockingjay, however, the Hunger Games are over and the real game of war has begun.
Set in a dystopian future in the ruins of what used to be North America, the film picks up the story where Catching Fire left off, as Katniss is rescued from the destruction of the Quarter Quell Hunger Games and taken, along with fellow tributes Finnick Odair and Beetee, to the secret underground stronghold of District 13, where a militaristic new government has formed and the rebellion against the Capitol is fully underway. Thanks to Collins’ significant involvement in the screenwriting process, Mockingjay is a remarkably faithful adaptation and an impressive film overall; the third installment of the franchise takes The Hunger Games out of the kiddy territory expected from a “young adult” story and addresses the themes of militarism, oppression, and classism without the coyness of the previous films. To put it simply, shit gets dark.
Perhaps this is because Katniss herself has gone through such a stark transformation as a result of her experiences in the Hunger Games and the Quarter Quell; displaying unmistakable signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, our protagonist is caught in the midst of a rebellion she unknowingly began. The audience follows Katniss through the film, and so our viewing experience and understanding of the story are shaped by Katniss’ own experiences and understanding. She acts as a guide and surrogate for the audience throughout the story, translating the first-person narrative of the book into cinematic subjectivity by visually aligning the audience with her state of mind. Throughout the film, we discover information when and how Katniss does. While the book starts with Katniss already in District 12, the film doesn’t show the ruined remains of District 12 until Katniss sees it for the first time herself; by starting the film instead with the shot of Katniss talking to herself (and the audience) hunkered in a dark corner of 13 instead, the reveal of 12’s destruction is more powerful because we react alongside Katniss, seeing it together for the first time. And because we’ve been aligned with her already, our reaction to the destruction continues to echo hers.
The changes made throughout the film all reflect differences in literary and cinematic storytelling; every scene that differs significantly from the book does so in order to heighten the audience’s experience through the film, increasing the dramatic tension and emotional impact through the visualizations of the narrative. The most outstanding examples are some of the most powerful scenes in the film: the bombing raid on 8, the bombing raid on 13, the mission to rescue Peeta, and the acts of rebellion in the other Districts, blowing up the Peacekeepers and breaking the dam. Each of these scenes takes action that occurs over a only few pages or even paragraphs in writing. While those passages are dramatic in text, when they brought to the big screen, the power of the action and associated emotion are intensified exponentially.
The destruction of the giant dam that powers the Capitol is especially noteworthy, as the film so beautifully carries and transitions the emotional momentum created by Katniss singing “The Hanging Tree” (a lilting song with a dark message, strongly reminiscent of the protest song “Strange Fruit”) into a poignant moment of collective heroism and spectacular action. Katniss’s song continues in voiceover as the image cuts to Command and then to a group of marching rebels, who take it up and turn it into a battle hymn as they storm the dam and knowingly sacrifice their lives to destroy it. This sequence is gorgeously composed and the haunting lyrics and melody of the song underscore the dramatic tension and emotional payoff as a magnificent series of shots shows wave after wave of water crashing over the ruined dam, sending the Capitol into a blackout. The combination of the slow, ethereal song layered over the violent clatter of gun-fire and fighting has a profoundly chilling effect, recalling how Pippin sang as Faramir marched to his own sacrifice in The Lord of the Rings. (I had to bring it up somehow.)
Throughout the film, these sorts of turning points and moments of emotional turmoil are marked by shaky, handheld cinematography and extreme close-ups on Katniss, again placing the audience in her subjectivity and encouraging us to feel her emotions as powerfully as she does. I could go on for another couple hours about all the nuanced ways in which the filmmakers guided the audience’s perceptions of each character and use subtle foreshadowing to set the stage for the last installment of the series. But I’ll restrain myself. Might tweet a few more tidbits because, let’s be honest: I can’t really restrain myself (I like to think I’m channeling a little bit of Katniss). I do have to praise the judicious use of CGI; especially compared to the ridiculous indulgence and over-stylization of the Hobbit preview that preceded it onscreen, Mockingjay is an artfully restrained sci-fi film, dipping into extravagant CGI and action in sufficient moderation that each big action sequence is thrilling without being collectively over the top. Suffice it to say, in bringing The Hunger Games series to a new level, with its insightful social commentary and truly moving portrayal of human trauma and resilience, The Mockingjay soars. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)