Review of The Mockingjay, Part 1

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

http://www.washingtonpost.com/posttv/national/hunger-games-has-years-biggest-opening-weekend/2014/11/24/9fd8bed6-7401-11e4-95a8-fe0b46e8751a_video.html

My wife and I recently saw The Mockingjay, Part 1, the third in the series of movies based on Suzanne Collins Hunger Games trilogy of science fiction novels. Overall, we were very impressed. Like the previous movies in the series, which I reviewed here and here, this one features strong performances by the actors and does a good job of bringing to life the atmosphere and message of the books. Jennifer Lawrence is again effective as main character Katniss Everdeen, and—as most reviewers emphasize—the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is great in the role of Plutarch Heavensbee.

The Mockingjay deals with the events that occur after Katniss and other tributes escape from the 75th Quarter Quell Hunger Games, and ally with the long-hidden District 13 and other rebels seeking to overthrow the tyrannical Capitol. For much of the first half of the book, Katniss is reduced to being primarily a propaganda symbol for the rebellion led by ruthless District 13 President Alma Coin. Some reviewers complain that the emphasis on propaganda is unsatisfying because it means that Katniss does not have as much agency as in the previous books, and spends much of the time in frustration, as she and her loved ones become the pawns of more powerful forces. But I think this is a feature of the plot rather than a bug. It enables us to feel the moral ambiguities of propaganda and the manipulation of public ignorance, even when done in a good cause. Moreover, it would be implausible if Katniss, a relatively inexperienced teenager, arrived in District 13 and quickly assumed control over its policies, despite the presence of Coin and other long-established adult leaders.

The movie even manages to offset some of the world-building flaws in the books. For example, President Snow and the Capitol are given at least the semblance of an official ideology that might have some appeal to the people of Panem, and a few other plot holes are subtly plugged as well.

The portrayal of District 13 effectively evokes its oppressive socialism (even more than in the book), while also giving some nods to fascism and militarism. One speech by President Coin even includes veiled references to two lines associated with the Nazis ("One people, one nation, one leader," and "Today Germany, tommorrow the world"). Despite this, Coin actually comes off as a more sympathetic character in the movie than in the books.

Previous reviewers probably have a more justified gripe in complaining about the way in which the producers divided The Mockingjay into two movies, even though the story could probably have been told in one. I am not a huge fan of this decision myself, and it is pretty obvious that it was done for financial rather than artistic reasons. But the extra screen time does allow the producers to delve into the story more deeply.

There are a few scenes I didn't like, and more committed fans of the books will surely have a variety of complaints of their own. But, overall, if you liked the books and the previous movies in the series, I think you will like this one too. The film producers' achievement is particularly impressive in light of the fact that this book is usually considered the weakest in the series, and arguably the most difficult to adapt to the big screen.

Finally, a small confession: When I first read the book, it took me much longer than it should have to figure out the significance of President Coin's last name. Hopefully, you did better—or will do better soon, if you are seeing the story for the first time in the movies.

UPDATE: I should note that I can't be completely certain that the two Nazi-like formulations in Coin's speech are really meant to evoke the Nazis. In both cases, Coin's slogans are similar to the Nazi ones, but not completely identical. It's possible that the screenwriters unintentionally stumbled upon them for the same reasons that the Nazis themselves did: because they are catchy and sound good. But the fact that both occur in the same speech makes it more likely that they were intentionally inserted to evoke the Nazis—at least for knowledgeable viewers who remember the originals. In any event, whatever may be the case for constitutional interpretation, I don't think we are required to interpret movie lines in accordance with the original intent of the writers.

UPDATE #2: In this and previous posts about the Hunger Games series, I have had very little to say about the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, even though for many fans this is their favorite part of the plot. Personally, I find it much less interesting than many of the other elements of the story. I also believe that my comparative advantage is in commenting on the political and science fiction aspects of the books and movies. If you want to read about the love triangle or take sides in the ongoing war between Peeta shippers and Gale shippers, more power to you! There are many other websites where you can do that, probably far better than here.