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‘Mockingjay Part 1′ shifts series’ tone, keeps books’ integrity

Third 'Hunger Games' installment brings Katniss to war, propels series towards finale

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‘Mockingjay Part 1′ shifts series’ tone, keeps books’ integrity

Murray Close//Lionsgate

Murray Close//Lionsgate

Murray Close//Lionsgate

In "Mockingjay Part 1," heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) reels after a bombing, as buildings burn.

By Abby White, Shaker Heights HS, Shaker Heights, Ohio

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Spoiler alert, but not about the movie: I devour books like potato chips. “The Hunger Games” trilogy has not escaped my appetite.

I read Suzanne Collins’ books in spring 2010, at the height of their popularity. Even in France, where I lived at the time, everywhere I turned I saw posters for “Mockingjay,” the trilogy’s then-upcoming finale.

As a film series, “The Hunger Games” has garnered the same attention and acclaim — for good reason. I watch these movies as a reader first and foremost, most concerned with whether a film captures and honors its origin’s integrity. In my opinion, 2012’s “The Hunger Games” and 2013’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” films earned top marks for that. The movies’ plots do not follow their corresponding books point by point, but they retain the major events and don’t add unnecessary ones. In conveying the books’ media- and appearance-obsessed dystopia, and the ensuing results and themes, the films became fantastic, impactful works in their own right.

So you could say I went into “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” with high expectations. I wasn’t unjustified: the odds were not, necessarily, in my favor. The book “Mockingjay” caused an uproar when it came out in 2010. It takes readers away from the eponymous games that had starred in its two predecessors, becoming instead an unmistakable war novel. For that reason, the book lacked much of its ancestors’ color and flare, inserting bleak realism that alienated many readers.

Moreover, Collins, director Francis Lawrence and Lionsgate Studios decided to split “Mockingjay” into two movies. Financially, the decision made sense. Warner Bros. Studios made more than $2.3 billion from splitting “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” into two parts; halving “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn” earned Summit Entertainment more than $1.5 billion. However, “Deathly Hallows” is 759 pages long, and “Breaking Dawn” is 756. “Mockingjay” is just more than half as short, with 390 pages. To fill two films, then, Lawrence and his screenwriters, Peter Craig and Danny Strong, would have to add a significant number of scenes.

President Snow (Donald Sutherland) prepares to give an address to Panem’s rebelling citizens from his office in the Capitol.

Murray Close / Lionsgate
President Snow (Donald Sutherland) prepares to give an address to Panem’s rebelling citizens from his office in the Capitol.

At least, I assumed they would. Perhaps the Burrow’s burning in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” left me a permanent cynic about scene additions. To my delight, however, “Mockingjay Part 1” used its expanded space to include several important scenes from the book that would have had to be cut otherwise.

That’s not to say the film followed the book exactly. Notably, the movie’s climactic scene deviates substantially from its written parallel. However, the changes enhance the scene’s power in key ways, slipping in foreshadowing that will titillate both viewers who have and haven’t read the book.

Remaining loyal to its source, “Mockingjay Part 1” is a war movie. It returns to Panem, the post-apocalyptic dystopia stretching across an unrecognizable North America, ruled by authoritarian President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and dominated by Panem’s extravagant, ruthless Capitol. Twelve Districts provide resources to the Capitol, and are kept in line through an annual overdose of fear: The Hunger Games, in which two children from each district are reaped to participate in a televised fight to the death, with only one Victor allowed at the end.

Harrowed heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has fought in two Hunger Games when “Mockingjay Part 1” begins. From the first scene, the film faces rather than hides her post-traumatic stress disorder, which manifests as hallucinations and nightmares. That Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her fellow District 12 tribute for whom she at first only faked love, has been captured by the Capitol doesn’t help her recover. Nor do President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), architects of the anti-Capitol revolution. They want Katniss to be their rebellion’s Mockingjay: a symbol for propaganda, to inspire the districts to fight back.

But Katniss, one of the most complex characters I’ve had the pleasure to encounter, does not want to lead a revolution. She wants her loved ones — Peeta, her best friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and her treasured younger sister, Prim (Willow Shield) — to survive. Although she fears death, she cares little about her own, tortured life. When she agrees (minor spoiler) to be the Mockingjay, she does not make the decision for her own sake.

Every time I see Jennifer Lawrence play Katniss, I deem her perfect. Yet with every movie, somehow, she improves. In “Mockingjay Part 1,” she plays Katniss — a warrior of slightly hardened heart who’s bursting at the seams — with touching tenderness. She deserves as many accolades for “The Hunger Games” movies as she does for her collaborations with David O. Russell.

Lawrence anchors the film, but receives strong support from the actors around her. In his few scenes as Peeta, Josh Hutcherson turns in a strong performance, and Hemsworth has improved as Gale — in my opinion, he was the weak link in “Catching Fire.”

Revolution leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) plans her next move against the Capitol from District 13.

Murray Close / Lionsgate
Revolution leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) plans her next move against the Capitol from District 13.

Elizabeth Banks plays Effie Trinket, Katniss’ lovable manager from the Games, with appropriate indignation as she adjusts to a darker, wigless life (with no mahogany in sight). Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch Abernathy, Katniss’ former Games mentor, remains a scene-stealer. In his entrance, he snatches the spotlight from the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his second-to-last role, who is predictably brilliant.

But the best supporting cast members are the two presidents, who tug at Katniss in equal turns. Donald Sutherland’s elegant President Snow is a villain who understands and respects worthy opponents. He taunts Katniss with mirth and bombs Panem without mercy, growing his signature white roses all the while. Veteran actor Sutherland delivers a tour de force, especially in the film’s climax — it’s a tribute to Jennifer Lawrence’s talent that he didn’t run away with the whole movie. But Julianne Moore’s President Coin, who leads the rebellious, underground District 13, may be the more interesting of the two. She directs a rigid society: District 13’s citizens all wear the same dark gray jumpsuits, follow an immovable schedule and abide by strict requirements. Everyone eats the same foods; pets and other extravagances are forbidden. Coin hears but does not always listen to others’ advice, and has a salute of her own: a fist pounding the air, instead of Katniss’ well-known three-finger salute. Moore plays Coin as driven and committed, a practiced politician with a nearly reptilian intensity.

People who haven’t read the books may find the series’ shift in setting and deepening of tone a disappointing surprise. Viewers who haven’t read the books or seen the previous movies may well be at a loss. But “Mockingjay Part 1,” though not better than the phenomenal “Catching Fire,” meets the franchise’s high standard of quality. Francis Lawrence retains a sensitive touch as director, constructing a few specific transitions and scenes that were, quite simply, beautiful. His direction reinforced, rather than masked, the film’s themes of inequality, survival and revolution.

Most importantly, the film accomplished two objectives I consider key. The first was to do justice to its source material, which it did: “Mockingjay Part 1” was at least as good as its book, and many viewers may consider it better. The second objective was to set the stage for “Mockingjay Part 2,” coming out in November 2015. This, I believe the film did splendidly, dropping the subtlest hints and setting the framework for the revolution to intensify.

“Fire is catching,” Katniss says in one of the film’s pivotal moments. Her words, spoken in a gust of passion, prove right. The flames keep spreading throughout the movie, and in “Mockingjay Part 2,” they will create an inferno.

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