Continuing the trend of splitting the final book in a popular series into two films, “The Hunger Games” released part 1 of “Mockingjay,” the movie version of the last installment of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian teen series, last week. With the building success of the first two films, it’s no big surprise that “Mockingjay — Part 1” raked at the box office, outpacing the No. 2 movie by $100 million.
Much like “Catching Fire,” this edition sticks very closely to the source material. It tells of heroine Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, and her transitioning to life in the underground shelter of District 13 and as the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol. The leaders of the revolution want to use her mostly as a propaganda star, but when it becomes clear that she can’t just act her way into being a firebrand, she goes into a field of combat to visit a hospital of wounded citizens, which then leads to her first taste of combat outside of the Hunger Games when a Capitol bomb squad attacks the hospital. Throughout her time there, she sees propaganda pieces aired by the Capitol that feature interviews with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her partner in the Games and government-enforced love interest, where he looks increasingly depreciated. At Katniss’ request, the rebels send a team to extricate Peeta and a handful of other hostages from the Capitol, but when she sees him again in District 13, he tries to strangle her as a result of the psychological torture he underwent at the hands of the Capitol.
The movie expands on the scope of the events taking place throughout the districts, as well as among those leading the uprising. The books are limited to Katniss’ first-person account of events, so readers don’t see anything that happens while she isn’t present. Then, once she learns about what’s going on, the information often comes across as a rush of news that can sometimes get overwhelmed by Katniss’ intense reactions to personal pieces of it. The film, on the other hand, offers more looks into the behind-closed-doors meetings of the rebellion’s leader, Plutarch Heavensbee, and District 13’s President Coin, some scenes from the war effort in other districts, as well as a few peeks (but never too many to spoil the plot points) into what’s going on in the Capitol with President Snow.
There are plenty of changes made in the movie version. The one that makes the most sense is replacing the captives taken by District 13 to help Katniss with her appearances. In the book, it’s her makeup team, the ones who worked under her designer Cinna, who are kept there to touch her up before her appearances. For the film, it’s her handler, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who is held there for her experience in seeing Katniss through things she doesn’t want to do. Effie might not have much to do in the plot past the first hour or so, but hers is a character much more established in the film series, and Banks’ acting talent alone makes the swap worth it.
Most of what really makes this movie is the acting. Lawrence, Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson as sobering-up mentor Haymitch, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s subtly manipulative Plutarch and, of course, Donald Sutherland’s cold-hearted President Snow bring new dimensions to their book counterparts, and all for the better. There are a few tweaks that felt stronger in the book, though. While Julianne Moore did a good job as District 13’s President Coin, her character was much kinder and warmer toward Katniss than she was in the book. That’s not to say Coin was cold to Katniss in the book, but she handled everything with a rough, efficient, direct approach that was lacking in the film. The movie was going for a different angle, though, choosing to highlight instead the notion that it’s impossible to know who is really in charge as Plutarch is always hovering around her.
The other big change is in Katniss’ longtime friend and possible romantic interest, Gale. The book has the two of them on somewhat cold terms for much of the first half, starting when he verbally attacks Peeta after his interviews. The two still interact, and he still goes out of his way to help her (herding her sister, Prim, into the bomb shelter when Capitol forces attack and volunteering to be on the team to rescue Peeta), but there is still a disconnect between the two because of their differing opinions of war. There are hints of that in the movie, but Gale is painted as a much more sympathetic character than his actions in the book would dictate. This will likely play more into the events of Part 2, so it’s too early for real concern for fans of the book at this point.
Overall, “Mockingjay — Part 1” a strong addition to the film series. It improves and enhances the story much in the same way the Harry Potter franchise did with “The Deathly Hallows: Part 1.” Sadly, Part 2 of that series didn’t quite follow through and left me wishing the movie makers had stuck closer to the source material with their grand finale. I don’t think that’s going to be as big an issue with “The Hunger Games,” but we’ll have to wait another year to find out for sure.