The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part Two
One year on from starting the revolution, Francis Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence and the many citizens of Panem, are back to finish it all off, one way or another. It’s been an interesting road for The Hunger Games: the first was brilliant, the second suffered really badly from a truncated ending and the third had all the problems of any single book adapted into two parts. Mockingjay – Part One was slow and dull, but I had hoped that, much like Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – Part One, all of the bad might have been shoved into the first instalment of the finale, leaving the second to be the tense, nail-biting climax it had the real potential to be.
And at the heart of it all was still Jennifer Lawrence, in what I presume will be her last ride out in the role that has been a major touchstone for “strong female characters” in Hollywood, an actress I’m always happy to pay money to see. So, was Mockingjay – Part Two, the suitable finale to a mostly enjoyable franchise? Or, split at the seams by a studio looking for extra profit, would it have all the problems of Part One, a simple continuation of the tedious melodrama?
The rebel armies of Panem, lining up behind “Mockingjay” Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), stand on the threshold the Capital, aiming to overthrow President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) tyrannical regime once for all. But Katniss has other problems: the political machinations of District 13’s President Coin (Julianne Moore), the continuing “propo” shooting of Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffmann), the unresolved relationship with Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the issue of the psychologically damaged Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). As the revolution heads towards a bloody climax, Katniss is pushed to the breaking point, physical and mentally.
I really did love the finale of Mockingjay, the book. There was something incredibly heart-breaking about its mix of bitter and sweet, and how the first part of the equation heavily outweighed the second. Time and again, Mockingjay – Part Two takes things from the page and reproduces them with remarkable faithfulness, which should be good. But there are some moments that should have been changed, and plenty of moments, start to finish, that do not work.
Mockingjay – Part Two is dominated, as ever, by the plight and mission of Katniss, whose desire to end the life of President Snow is practically part and parcel of her very character at this point. It’s classic revenge/death wish stuff, but the amount of damage that Katniss has to take in the course of going after that mission, through the deaths of those around her and to her own fragile emotional state, becomes almost self-parody by the conclusion of this film. Katniss is super damaged all the time, and to blame for everything bad that happens all the time, and maybe it is only on-screen, in this truncated version of Mockingjay and its last half or so, that this becomes alarmingly clear. Watching Jessica Jones recently I was struck by the same thing, these female characters whose entire existence seems to be defined by the hurt people around them take just by being around them.
Jennifer Lawrence continues to play the role with same brilliant humanity as she has on the last three occasions, her hurt face filling the screen time and time again in the course of Mockingjay – Part Two, but one feels that she is being asked to carry the weight of the production too much. Katniss Everdeen remains the poster girl for a new wave of strong female characters, and Mockingjay – Part Two does the business in terms of portraying those traits in here. She is used and abused, but she remains the Mockingjay, the symbol of strength and resistance, and a woman determined to take responsibility for things and save the lives of those that are close to her. The problem is that she fails. A lot. And it is a shame that what will likely be our last look at Katniss is such a pisspoor effort.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t some worth in the exercise. If Mockingjay – Part Two has a point it’s that nothing is true: every aspect of Katniss’ life, from her devotion to her sister to her need to get even with Snow is something that can be perverted and used by outside forces with ulterior motives. And when it comes to the revolution, Mockingjay – Part Two can be summed up simply enough in the words of a friend of mine some years ago, describing some of the crucial plot elements: “Meet the new boss, exactly the same as the old boss”.
Indeed, it is the political aspects of Mockingjay – Part Two, with Julianne Moore’s well-played President Coin seeking greater and greater power, to a Snow-esque extent, that is one of the most enjoyable things about the film. It’s been fun watching her transformation from our first encounter with her in Mockingjay – Part One. But even that is taken to a truly laughable extreme late on, that severely effects the “twist” ending that is at the heart of what made Mockingjay so good on the page. It isn’t shocking to see Coin slowly become a more antagonist-like force through the course of the film, but the eventual endgame of all that is a bit surprising.
And then there is the love triangle. It was played out in the first instalment of Mockingjay, but Part Two just keeps it chugging along, even though the Katniss/Gale relationship already seems deader than dead in the opening stages. Gale and Peeta talk about who Katniss will choose, and the effect is almost comical, this angst ridden teen romance in the middle of a war-zone, which has all the chemistry of flat soda. Katniss and Peeta share some half-decent moments – the “real or not real” recurring script choice is a nice touch – but add Gale to the table and it just becomes interminable. Peeta has always been subordinate to Katniss in the narrative, but it’s a shame he’s shoved to the side so much here, as his own recovery sub-plot is potentially quite juicy. Josh Hutcherson continues to give all that he can give, and the role is even harder to play this time around. He’s a damn sight better than Hemsworth, who seems simply to be the lighter version of his older brother, having none of the same charisma or screen presence.
At least Mockingjay – Part Two does succeed as an action/war movie. There is a nice emphasis, still, on propaganda, perceptions and the power of individuals to serve as inspirations to the masses, even while the grim reality of what war is continues to be brought home. The march into the Capital evokes shades of Der Untergang or Enemy At The Gates, as rubble gets piled up and artillery smashes down. The action is actually quite good – a sequence surrounding a malevolent tar-like substance half-way through stands out – and that’s very important for a film that can’t seem to decide which aspect of its plot – Katniss’ mission, the political side of things, the love triangle – needs priority. That makes for one jarring tonal shift when Mockingjay – Part Two becomes a zombie movie briefly though, and it’s all very shouty, shouty at times too.
The film winds down into a lengthy epilogue section, that has already drawn some negative comparisons to Peter Jackson’s The Return Of The King in its multiple ending points. It’s here that the faithfulness to the original material really starts to weight Mockingjay – Part Two down, as a satisfying moment for the credits to roll continually rears its head, only for the production team to ignore it and keep going. Lawrence takes it all the way to the last page and the last line of the novel: here, lacking some crucial aspects of the Katniss POV thought process, the effect is a poor one, that seems to undercut much of what came before, and borders on Deathly Hallows levels of fan service. Mockingjay – Part Two, and the whole franchise, thus ends on a regrettably sour note.
The supporting cast is a mixed bag. The likes of Moore and Sutherland are old pros who carry out their task with professionalism, with Sutherland clearly enjoying his ever more Machiavellian and cartoonish President Snow, the kind of bombastic villain, cackling in his fortress, that contrasts so sharply with the kind of hero that Katniss is (and this is an important thing to note, tying into the films points on truth and perception). Woody Harrelson has less to do here than in any other film, but still adds some needed wit and energy as Haymitch. Elizabeth Banks is largely side-lined in the Effie role, Jeffrey Wright, Natalie Dormer, Sam Claflin and Jena Malone only have a few brief moments here and there to make an impact and Willow Shields as Primrose is similarly limited, which is remarkable considering her general importance to the narrative. More praise should be given to Elden Henson, last seen in Daredevil, whose voiceless performance as “avox” Pollux is actually one of the films best, considering the manner in which he had to emote. Philip Seymour Hoffmann will not grace our screens with his immense acting talent again, and his untimely death means that Plutarch’s role is truncated: Hoffman remains a brilliant actor able to add the right touch, even if it’s just a slight smile, to his roles and the scenes where his character was clearly written out, in a fashion that couldn’t be anything but clumsy, are obvious.
Usually, the film is on a par with the militaristic look of Part One, with standard war colours of grey and greyer dominating. Some of the war cinematography begins to grate by the end, so over-used are some shots of buildings exploding and rockets streaking, but it’s a competently put together war production. It is only when Mockingjay – Part Two delves into the science-fiction side of things that it begins to really show off in a visual sense: the sewer sequence is a big stand-out in that regard, a horrifying and effective use of darkness and light to maximise terror, before a pulse-pounding, but all too brief, chase scene in the direct aftermath. In the end, much is the same as it always was: Lawrence seems to be at pains to compare and contrast the Capital of the first film to the Capital of the fourth. And always there is Lawrence: from first shot to the last, the camera seems glued to her face, to every expression and every tick.
Peter Craig’s and Danny Strong’s script is struggling a bit in comparison. Too much is taken word for word from the book here, and just transcribing Katniss’ thought process into dialogue was never something that was going to work out flawlessly. Numerous scenes are overly-wordy: Peeta’s hospital room conversation with Katniss, a similar scene between the Mockingjay and Johanna, group stops in the Capital, and plenty of scenes in the epilogue. There’s too much vomiting of of exposition and character traits, especially by the likes of Peeta, and it’s remarkably how one of the best pieces of uninterrupted wordplay is a letter from Plutarch, read by Haymitch, clearly because Hoffman wasn’t able to film the scene. It seems very much like a script that not enough thought was put into, as if the people behind it were perfectly happy to just take Collins’ words and not worry about actual adaptation.
Some brief spoiler thoughts follow.
I’d like to take a minute to talk about the ending a bit more detail. There are numerous problems evident: President Coin’s quasi-mystical behaviour in the Snow execution scene, the very idea of another Hunger Games being organised and Haymitch being OK with it, Primrose’s death lacking weight due to her absence from the screen, etc.
But you could get beyond all that. Indeed, Katniss’ decision to kill Coin is vital to the character: a final rejection of the authorities that would seek to control her and her power, and a recognition that very little in Panem is pure, especially not revolutionary politics. Having a reconciliation between Katniss and Peeta, in line with the disintegration of her relationship with Gale – Lawrence’s “Goodbye Gale” might be the most powerful two words in the whole series – is also perfectly fine.
But on and on it goes. There is a moment, after Katniss returns to District 12 and her first overt breakdown over Prim’s death, where she goes hunting for the first time in a while, surveys a landscape of lush beauty now without fences or aircraft raining fire, and fires off an arrow, a small look of contentment on her face. Credits could come there. Then she goes home and meets Peeta, planting primroses in honour of Katniss’ sister. They embrace. Credits. Nope, we keep going. Katniss and Peeta stare at each other in a new way during a rainstorm. The potential burgeoning of a new relationship is clearly there. Credits. Nope, we keep going. Katniss goes so far as to declare her love for Peeta, recreating their intimate behaviour in bed from Catching Fire. Credits. Nope.
Instead, we get a recreation of the books final words, a “ten years later”-esque thing that portrays a happy ending that feels incredibly wrong in the circumstances. You could see, or at least reasonably infer, a lot more darkness in the book: Katniss has lost her sister, Gale and her standing in the new world she helped create, and acknowledges that she is forever damaged by her experiences. There’s a definite sense that the relationship between her and Peeta, while loving, is not some star-crossed thing, but a realisation that they can only be with one another, no one else being able to understand what they have been through. There’s a sense of settling then, and Katniss even acknowledges that having children was more to fulfil Peeta’s desire than hers.
The film adaptation of the same scenes lacks any of this nuance, and instead portrays something altogether more cliché and corny. The final line of both book and film is the same, but the effect is radically different: in the book is a grim reminder that you can never completely escape your past, said as a warning that such things will always catch up with you, in this case through the questions of Katniss’ children. In the film it seems more like a final renunciation of the series’ central event, as if Katniss can outrun such things. And that is much less satisfying.
Thus Mockingjay – Part Two is a disappointing thing, which makes final the general downward trend that all four films have exhibited in terms of quality. Yes, even the rather dull Mockingjay – Part One was a bit more enjoyable than this, which can’t get over the lackadaisical approach to the narrative, the poorly implemented love triangle, the side-lined characters, the sometimes repetitive cinematography, the poor script and the very poorly executed ending, even if Jennifer Lawrence is as good as she always was. On a few short occasions Mockingjay – Part Two reaches the heights of the first instalment, but even then the film has the feel of a filmed Dungeon Crawl, lacking in character in favour of spectacle. The Hunger Games saga has thus ended on a downer: I’m not even sure that an amalgamation of Part One and Part Two would have fixed those problems, since many of them have nothing to do with the split. There was simply too much loyalty to the source material in Mockingjay – Part Two, and not even daring to craft something a bit more fitting for the big screen. Katniss Everdeen would surely not have approved. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Lionsgate).