Remember Who the Enemy Is: A Defense of Mockingjay Part 1

Warning: Spoilers for Mockingjay (novel), Mockingjay Part 1, and Mockingjay Part 2

I have never uttered the words “the movie is better.” In fact, I rather pride myself on having unreasonable expectations for film adaptations of novels I enjoy.

When the film of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out, I was in sixth grade, and had read the available Potter books well over 50 times each (literally, more than 50 times each; I could recite full passages from memory for years), and that is when I experienced my first heartbreak.  It was the first time I’d seen an adaptation of a book I loved, and it felt shallow and empty to me. I just could not let the smallest changes go (it would have taken two seconds to include Dumbledore’s story about getting socks, dammit!).

But you know what? I freaking love the Hunger Games films.

I do want to note that I have learned over the years to accept some changes in adaptations—I better understand the limitations of taking a text and translating it into a visual medium, and I understand that changes must be made and why. It’s important to acknowledge that these changes will be made, and that some will be for the best; it is not always an affront to the source material, if such alterations are handled well.

Admittedly, the first film took some time to grow on me—I will never forgive how awful the mutts looked in that climax scene—but Francis Lawrence redeemed the franchise with Catching Fire, and he did it again with Mockingjay: Part 1.

When I saw Mockingjay in the theaters this past November, I was thoroughly pleased by the final product. When I left the theater and spoke enthusiastically about the film to some friends and acquaintances, they said it was boring, that nothing happened and they wished they had waited until Part 2 was released to bother seeing it. Baffled, I did some searching on the interwebs to see if others felt the same way and it seems a majority of critics and viewers felt lukewarm towards the third film of the tetralogy. They seemed to generally applaud the acting and effects, but essentially farted all over the movie just for existing.

The biggest gripe with reviews I’ve read is complaints that Part 1 feels like it is only a “placeholder” for Part 2. This is a qualm that I believe should not have an impact on someone’s overall opinion of the film. Considering that the third book of the series, Mockingjay, was split into two films for the franchise, and this film is the first part, it seems unfair to consider an inherent quality of the film (that it only tells half of a story) to be a flaw that affects it’s ratings. I find this gripe to be the equivalent of disliking a cliffhanger season finale for a television show because you have to wait for the rest. Isn’t part of the whole purpose of serialized stories like these to be broken up and paced in a way that makes you hungry for the next chapter?

The current Hollywood fad of splitting a final book-to-film adaptation into two parts (thanks again, Harry Potter) is an issue with the industry, not with this individual film— it is a symptom of a larger sickness, and I don’t think it is fair to penalize the movie itself for following the trend. Since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows started the habit, we’ve seen Twilight: Breaking Dawn and the Hobbit follow suit, and now the Hunger Games. While I won’t deny that at least a part of the cause for this is the double box office income, there is a practicality to it as well (well, except in the case of the Hobbit, but that’s a rant for another day).

The writers/studio/etc. had to make a decision with the Mockingjay book and how to best represent it. If you’ve read the series, you know a ton of stuff is going to go down in the next installment- another visit to an outside District, a wedding, some deaths, an expedition to the Capitol, and at least one surely to be epic training montage. Sure, the studio could have tried to cram the entire book into one film but think of the quality that would have been lost—they were able to create Part 1 without adding any fluff material. Every scene that I can recall from the film was in the book, or was a very close adaptation of what happened in the book. For instance, I’ll permit that they left out the Prep Team in favor of Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket getting some screen time she would otherwise not have had. And it makes sense in the narrative that the films have already established, since the Prep Team was almost entirely glossed over in the first and second films.

If the filmmakers were able to create a full-length film of only half the book using almost purely original material… clearly, this portion of the novel warrants it own film. So much would have been lost had they tried to create a single two and a hour film instead of creating two separate two hour long ones. The fact that Mockingjay Part 1 is a first part of two should not detract from the overall quality or enjoyment of the piece, and I think it is unfair for reviewers to knock it down a few stars in this respect.

Another issue I’ve read/heard frequently that is to the films detriment is that it is too slow-paced and doesn’t have enough action. To be perfectly frank, whoever thinks the film is uneventful must have been in the restroom during the District 8 sequence, the bombing of District 13, the montage of District rebellions played over the Hanging Tree song (which, by the way, was beautiful), the rescue of the tributes in the Capitol, and Peeta’s attempt to murder Katniss. But I guess, sure, if you missed all that stuff it may have seemed kind of dull.

I truly found the pacing of the film to be wonderfully engaging and enjoyable. There was a good alternation between quieter scenes that featured plot development and character growth with the action scenes that reportedly didn’t exist. We were able to see Katniss struggling with being used as a promotional item by President Coin and Plutarch Heavensbee in a way that echoed the Games she was fighting to destroy, and then the next minute we got to see Katniss and Gale kicking some hover craft butt. With explosions, mind you. We were treated to a wonderful sequence of shots of uprisings and rebel battles that transitioned from a serene scene in which Katniss visits District 12’s ruins and sings a haunting song from her District for a colleague who had his tongue cut out by the Capitol. We got to enjoy a rather minimal amount of love-triangle drama between Katniss and Gale while Peeta was out of the picture, and then even that was quickly countered by the tension of seeing Peeta’s deterioration at the hands of the Capitol and the subsequent bombing of District 13.

Yes, Mockingjay Part 1 is clearly setting the stage for its sister-film, Mockingjay Part 2. Yes, there was not a lot of screen time spent on children trying to kill each other for entertainment or CGI animals trying to eat people (though the studio better up their CGI game for Part 2. I will not abide another mutt fiasco). These are not reasons to rate the film poorly. The acting is honest—the characters feel like real people struggling with the trauma of war and oppression, the writing is engaging, well paced, and emotional, and the story is clearly propelling forward and promises to finish the story Part 1 has started. We have danger, high stakes, and a strong desire for revenge from almost everyone on screen that promises to be fulfilled with the next segment…

What is there not to like?