Ever since the release of the final two entries in the “Harry Potter” film franchise, it has been the trend to split the final adaptations of book series in two. While “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was arguably split for story reasons—almost every detail in the 759-page final book is important to the plot—the films in other series, like “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” have clearly been cut solely to squeeze more money out of moviegoers, to the detriment of the films themselves (though, to be fair, I doubt even a one-film adaptation of “Breaking Dawn” would have had enough plot to keep anyone interested.) So, when Lionsgate announced that “Mockingjay,” the final “Hunger Games” book (which is only 390 pages long) would be made into two films, I was nervous, to say the least. Thankfully, though “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” isn’t perfect, it is certainly better than expected.
My main complaints about “Mockingjay – Part 1” come from the aforementioned split. As its title makes clear, it is only the first half of the final chapter of “The Hunger Games.” On the surface, this makes it seem like every other film in the franchise, as the previous two entries also tell only a portion of the overarching story. However, while the previous two films are clearly part of a series, they also work on their own and tell satisfying, individual stories. “Mockingjay – Part 1,” on the other hand, is almost entirely setup. Instead of feeling like another two-hour entry in a series of interconnected films, “Mockingjay – Part 1” feels like the first two hours of a four-hour movie. One could argue that it doesn’t need to be anything more than that, but it is a frustrating experience as a viewer, especially considering the one-year wait between the end of “Mockingjay – Part 1” and the beginning of “Mockingjay – Part 2.”
This isn’t to say that “Mockingjay – Part 1” isn’t interesting or that it stretches the book’s story too thin. At its core, “Mockingjay – Part 1” presents the same nuanced depiction of rebellion as the book, portraying District 13 as equally manipulative to the Capitol itself. Unlike the book, however, “Mockingjay – Part 1” is able to depict the world outside of Katniss’s point of view. The audience is granted insight into the Capitol’s own strategies and is able to witness the rebellion take shape throughout the districts of Panem, providing an even more complex look than the book allows.
It is this incredibly compelling depiction that makes the movie’s sudden ending so disappointing, especially since the film does not seem to end at an important moment or turning point. Instead of ending at a cliffhanger-worthy moment that occurs in its last twenty minutes, the film continues on for several more scenes, ultimately ending on a scene that repeats information that the audience already knows. It feels empty, and it feels like the movie is pretending that it has just reached its middle. The ending does not necessarily come too abruptly, but rather is not abrupt enough. The movie is incomplete, but tries to deny that it is setup for the second half of a story. Instead of capitalizing on the audience’s frustration and ending with a cliffhanger that would have sent viewers reeling, director Francis Lawrence goes with the much safer, more boring ending that doesn’t feel like an ending at all.
That being said, Jennifer Lawrence gives a riveting performance in her penultimate outing as Katniss Everdeen. As President Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are quick to point out at the beginning of the film, Katniss is needed as the face of the rebellion; she is Panem’s emotional anchor into the war. Similarly, it is Lawrence’s performance that anchors the audience in the film. Lawrence gives Katniss authentic, raw emotion; without the strength of Lawrence’s performance, the tragedy and violence seen throughout the film would mean nothing.
While Lawrence’s Katniss is clearly the star of the franchise, it would be hard to discuss this film without also mentioning its plethora of other women. As she did in the first two movies, Elizabeth Banks steals all her scenes as Effie Trinket, who, though almost entirely absent from the book, is thankfully very present in the film. Additionally, Julianne Moore gives a fantastic performance as the enigmatic President Coin, the leader of District 13. We are introduced to Cressida (Natalie Dormer), the director of Katniss’ propaganda videos, and even the minor role of the District 8 commander is portrayed by a woman. The film, unlike so many others, passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Though men are also obviously present and active in “Mockingjay – Part 1,” aside from the other films in the series, I don’t believe that I have ever seen a sci-fi film where women are given so many and such varied roles.
“Mockingjay – Part 1” is a very good first two hours of the four-hour “Mockingjay” epic. It faithfully adapts and expands upon the book’s complex themes and introduces the audience to a slew of fantastic female characters. However, it does not succeed as a film in its own right, and its cinematic success will depend on “Mockingjay – Part 2,” released next November. All that aside, it is an enjoyable, engrossing watch and should certainly not be missed by any fans of the series just because of a disappointing ending.