I tried very hard to like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 out of respect for its more enjoyable predecessors. However, as the lengthy title makes clear, the Hunger Games series is the latest film adaptation to split its finale into multiple lucrative parts. Given the result, I am forced to seriously question the decision. What starts as an average next step for the series fails to build itself into a satisfying story. Although I paid full price for a ticket, I left the theater frustrated, feeling very much like I had only gotten to see half of a movie.
When the first Hunger Games film came out in 2012, I wrongly anticipated a childish adventure that would progress predictably to a happy ending. The reality was more engaging (and more brutal) than I expected. With echoes of Orwell’s 1984, The Hunger Games and its sequel, Catching Fire, tell the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a girl living in one of the twelve districts governed by the oppressive Capitol in the bleak, post-apocalyptic nation of Panem. Katniss finds herself fighting for her survival and her humanity when she is forced to participate in the Capitol’s Hunger Games, an annual gladiatorial event in which tributes—youths conscripted from each of Panem’s districts—fight to the death. Sparked by Katniss’s defiance of the Capitol throughout the first two movies, pockets of rebellion are springing up in the districts, presenting trouble for the Capitol and opportunity for a mysterious thirteenth district, allegedly destroyed by the Capitol after an unsuccessful rebellion years ago. At the conclusion of Catching Fire, we learn that District 13 has quietly sustained itself and seeks to renew its challenge to the Capitol’s power. To this end, Katniss is rescued from the clutches of the Capitol by the leaders of District 13, who hope she will join them as a symbol of their revolution.
Mockingjay – Part 1 picks up where Catching Fire left off and takes place largely in District 13, where Katniss resides in relative safety as the rebellion begins to gain momentum. An oddity among Suzanne Collins’ three Hunger Games books, Mockingjay doesn’t actually include a Hunger Games, leaving the action for the rebellion against the Capitol. But Mockingjay – Part 1 meanders with very little of this action or the emotional intensity better captured by its predecessors. A few short scenes depict rebel activity in the face of dire odds and are easily the most captivating moments in the film, but these snippets are granted only a few minutes of the two-hour runtime. I assume that the real excitement has been hoarded for the sequel.
I’m not sure who is to blame, but Katniss’s overly passive role in this installment is particularly troubling. Jennifer Lawrence is a delightful actress and works with what she has, but Katniss is noticeably blander this time around. Deeply troubled by the Capitol’s atrocities and her own suffering, Katniss spends a lot of time feeling sad or frustrated, worrying about Peeta (one of her romantic interests and a prisoner of the Capitol), and sulking in District 13. It is certainly more inspiring and more enjoyable to see a strong, determined Katniss, when faced with the horrors of the Hunger Games, fight against adversity and challenge the Capitol. But the film makes the disappointing choice to dwell aimlessly on the anguish and depression suffered after the Games, offering little redemption or catharsis along the way.
In choosing to stretch the final book into two parts for the film adaptation, Mockingjay – Part 1 almost necessarily becomes an introduction to the final part rather than a satisfying, self-contained part of the whole. Perhaps when the Hunger Games franchise is finally completed, Mockingjay – Part 1 may redeem itself. But in the meantime the Mockingjay sequel will need some pretty impressive substance to justify its lackadaisical feature-length introduction.
Half a story, with payoff in theaters November 20, 2015.