Mockingjay 2: Tossing Out the Blockbuster Rulebook

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From the moment I finished reading the Hunger Games novels back in 2011, as the first Hunger Games movie was already starting production, I worried about Mockingjay.  It’s hard enough to make a PG-13 movie series about kids being thrown into an arena and forced to kill each other, and to expect general audiences to want to watch said series.  But to follow the story through to its fairly bitter and sobering end, and expect people to keep sticking with it, was beyond what I could imagine.  I was 34 when I read these books, and as I closed Mockingjay after finishing its final page, all I could think of was, I am a fully-functioning adult, and I feel like I need therapy right now.  How in the name of all that is holy could a 12 year-old read this and be o.k.??

At that point, all I hoped for from the the movie adaptations was for them to be decent, and to get enough of an audience that they could make all 3 movies (well, 4 – it’s basically a given these days that studios will split the last book into 2 films for the extra cash-grab).  And then The Hunger Games was released in March 2012.  And it became the 11th highest-grossing (domestic) film of all time.  And then Catching Fire was released in November 2013, and it made even more money.  It was the highest-grossing film of 2013 (domestic), and surpassed the Hunger Games to become the 10th highest-grossing movie of all time.  Not only that, but The Hunger Games was a pretty damn good movie, and Catching Fire was flat-out fantastic.  All of this was about a billion miles past what I could have ever hoped for from this series.

But still, I told myself even as I watched Catching Fire – “You’d better soak in all this fanfare and hoopla now Rachael, because it’s not going to last through Mockingjay 1 and 2.”  There’s just no way it could.  Catching Fire ended on such a badass note – that close-up of Katniss’s face, looking like she was ready for the juiciest and most satisfying revenge a person could ever possibly get.  General audiences were pumped as shit to get that revenge come Mockingjay … but book fans knew better.  We knew going into this that triumph and victory are not what this series is about.  In a sense, it’s precisely the opposite of what this series is about.  And it’s a key reason why this series is more interesting to me than any other YA book-to-movie or general action blockbuster series I’ve seen.  It’s doesn’t tell you the feel-good story you want to hear – it kinda smacks you in the face with the truth instead.  Movies that do that aren’t generally the ones that bring in a lot of cash.

It has to be said that there is also a legitimate issue with Mockingjay – it’s slow.  Arguably the biggest reason that most fans agree that it’s the least-good book in the series is that the pacing of the book is frustrating … infuriating at times.  I remember reading it and constantly checking what % of the book was left to read, and getting so pissed that the full-on action STILL had not kicked into gear yet.  It’s a book full of fits and spurts, stops and starts, frustration for the protagonist, and frustration for the reader, until in the last third or so of the book (if I recall), the action finally kicks fully into gear.  And this is the book they decided to split in 2.  Why??

In the most logical sense, choosing to split this book is insane, creatively.  But in another sense, after seeing both halves of the movie, I can’t imagine them having done it any other way.  I say that as a book reader of course, and when you’ve read the books, you always have that desire to see more of the story play out on screen.  But for general audiences who know nothing going into this, splitting it was probably pretty detrimental to their interest in finishing off the series, and thus, had to be detrimental to Mockingjay 1 & 2‘s overall box office.*

* The phrase “detrimental to the films’ box office” is extremely relative, of course: These movies are still box office behemoths.  They’re just not quite at “crack the top 10 domestic films of all time (unadjusted)” levels anymore.  For some perspective, MJay2 has already made $22M more in just 10 days of release than the newest Bond film, Spectre, has made in 24 days of release. And Spectre is considered to be very successful.

So, I recognize the pacing issues and I’ll touch on that a bit more later, but for now let’s get back to the subject matter.  Because despite the pacing and my frustration with Katniss’s stubborn behavior in the first third of the book, its overall message is kinda brilliant for modern young adult fiction.  I have a couple friends who haven’t read the books, but love spoilers.  So they asked me to tell them how Mockingjay ends.  I prefaced it with my best estimation of the moral of the series, and this is what I came up with: War is hell, and it comes at a very high cost.  No matter justified you are in your struggle, and no matter how noble your cause, when you engage in war you’re going wind up participating in some terrible shit.  There’s simply no way around it.  And a revolution can often result in a new regime that is not much better than the last.  That’s not at all to say that the districts weren’t right to start a revolution, it’s simply to say that a revolution comes at a high cost, as would remaining stagnant under Snow’s regime.

And at no time in my adult life has this message felt more relevant.  9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab Spring, revolutions and regime changes gone awry, ISIS terrorist attacks, our vets suffering from PTSD, new rallying cries for more war, media spin, government spin, etc.  And that’s not to mention other parallels with real life – Take the Capitol vs. the districts for instance, and compare it to the out-of-control wealth disparity problem in this country – The 1% vs. all the rest of us peasants.  Or take our obsession with reality TV and the fact that the Kardashians are inexplicably the closest thing we have to royalty here.  Suzanne Collins was inspired to write this series by flipping TV channels between news coverage of the Iraq War and reality competition TV shows.  It’s no wonder these movies feels so relatable, despite their fantastical sci-fi setting.

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Mockingjay isn’t interested in making you feel warm or fuzzy.

The Hunger Games series wants to entertain us, but more so than any other YA or action blockbuster series I’ve seen, it has something it wants to say about us.  It takes a funhouse mirror to our dysfunctional society and reflects back to us a story that’s wild and wacky yet somehow still uncomfortably familiar.  And it’s pleasantly shocking that the movie producers didn’t attempt to sanitize its message.  This passage from one of my favorite reviews of MJay2 sums this up perfectly:

“…there are films that exist primarily as commerce that could easily be produced in the safest, most middle-of-the-road way possible and they would do fine with their audience.  When Lionsgate saw the frenzy that greeted the announcement that they were making films based on the Suzanne Collins novels, they would have been smart to make the single safest version of those books.  From the start of the series, though, they’ve made choices that make these feel like they’re not doing anything the safe way.  There’s something relentlessly sad and even ugly about the way they’re telling the story, and it gives the films a soul that you don’t always see in blockbusters.”  (Full review here)

I honestly don’t know that I’ve ever seen a story told this way in a major blockbuster film/series.  I think you see it on TV a lot; TV is a hell of a lot more daring than movies are these days – at least when compared to the big studio flicks.  And the primary feeling that this gives me is this weirdly giddy sense of accomplishment … almost like, “Holy shit, I can’t believe they actually got away with this.” Granted, it could very well be that Mockingjay 1 & 2‘s downturn in box office dollars might be a warning sign to studios to NOT do this again.  And that would be a huge bummer … but hey, at the very least, they managed to get away with it this one time.  If this was just a one-off flash in the pan, then thank god there’s so much great TV out there to give me my fix in the future.

Here’s what else I thought Mockingjay Part 2 hit its mark on, and what I thought didn’t work quite as well:

The (Rest of the) Good Stuff

Not that it even needs mentioning at this point, but JLaw.  Duh.

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This is a given, so I wouldn’t even bother pointing it out if it wasn’t one of the things that is really still sticking with me after watching MJay2.  The first thing I ever saw her in was Winter’s Bone in 2010, and she was absolutely mesmerizing to watch.  That was all I had seen of her when I heard she was cast as Katniss, but that’s all I needed.  I knew 100% that she was born to play this character. But after Catching Fire and MJay1, it’s almost like I started to take her for granted.  The girl is all over the place these days, she’s nominated for Oscars left and right, and she’s so goofy in real life that it’s easy to forget sometimes just how crazy next-level she is at her actual job.  But Mockingjay 2 kind of brought me back to that original sense of awe at what this girl can do on screen without even speaking a single word.

Buttercup.

Look, when I’m super tired, I tend to get emotional at the drop of a hat.  I didn’t get home from seeing MJay2 until probably 1:45am, but then was wide awake till past 3am.  And I had to work the next day, which means that I got less than 5 hours sleep.  All day that day, the thing I felt like I could legit burst into uncontrollable tears about at any moment was Buttercup.  Old, beat-up, cranky Buttercup. He is very symbolic by the end of the novels as a creature who will survive against all odds … he is the feline version of Katniss.  He is Catniss.  And I would like to give this cat an Oscar.  O.k. I’m half-joking, but only half.  Again it says a lot about miss J-Law that she can spend almost the entire movie in a trauma-induced daze, having kind of retreated within herself and buried her emotions in order to get the job done … and yet still keep us emotionally right with her.  And when that cathartic moment finally comes … I wanted to crawl into the fetal position and cry for the next week straight.  I’m really glad Buttercup gets his well-deserved moment in the sun, in movie-form.  I can’t wait to watch this again when it comes out on BluRay and bawl my eyes out.

The movie’s plot, themes, and overall message: Just a couple more thoughts.

I know I already talked about this at length above, but I just have to call out another passage from another awesomely spot-on review, because Todd VanDerWerff summed up the point of this series far better and more concisely than I did earlier.  Here’s what he said:

The point of all of this is simple: War is a machine that grinds ever onward, and it steamrolls its participants. It’s repackaged as entertainment for an unsuspecting populace, lest they get too bored by it, but those who took part in it have to live with the scars forever. (Full review here)

It reminds me so much of watching Fox News during the beginnings of the war in Iraq.  I was still a bit ignorant of Fox News’ slant at the time (all news networks have a slant, to be fair).  But as the war began, I found myself constantly wanting to switch the channel to Fox News to get their depiction of what was going on.  Why?  Because their spin on it was so much more positively on the side of “Go Team America!  We’re liberating the Iraqi people because we’re awesome!!”  It frankly made me feel less shitty and uncomfortable about what was going on.

The HG series and Mockingjay in particular tell a very pointed tale about media spin and propaganda.  The entirety of Team Katniss’s role in the revolution is to act as the friendly – or evil – media faces of the war, depending on which channel you’re watching: Snow’s, or Coin’s.  The story told over the airwaves is the story each side wants you to hear, and neither of these stories accurately represent what’s actually happening.  That’s how this works, kids.  I first learned it with Iraq, and you young’ns should pay attention to how it’s shown in Mockingjay, because you’ll see it again in real life over and over.

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O.k., final thought on this topic: This movie was released 1 week after the ISIS terror attacks on Paris.  I was nervous going into it that there might be elements of the film that would feel uncomfortable or wrong, in light of those recent events.  But actually, it turned out to be quite the opposite – the movie felt even more prescient and true to real life than I remembered from the books.  It almost felt like the movie form of so many rants and conversations I’d had with friends and family over the week since Paris.  I had heard so much drum-beating for war and revenge, and I was kinda shocked by it, given the lessons I thought we learned like one hot fuckin’ minute ago in Iraq.  Mockingjay reminds us that now more than ever, there are no easy answers.  Let’s take a sec and think through our strategy here.

And the moments of the movie that are uncomfortable are that way in the same way that life itself is uncomfortable. It’s distressing in a “too soon” kind of way when our heroes strategically blend in with the Capitol refugees in order to attack Snow, but then a few minutes later, we’re reminded in a brutal way that the people they’re fighting for are no longer necessarily the heroes of the film.  By this point, they are fully engaging in tactics that are just as heinous as Snow’s have always been. These are the tactics that caused the rebels to start this revolution to begin with.  And more often than not, this unfortunately really is how these things go down.  Humans are a self-destructive species.

The Not-as-Good Stuff

The romance aspect of the love triangle.

This series does contain the requisite YA love triangle – a plot device which I rarely find enjoyable.  But it works in the books, partly because its presence is never the most important thing going on any particular moment.  You never feel like Katniss has any need whatsoever for either end of the triangle to work out in order to accomplish her goals … yet it is simultaneously very clear how much she cares for these two guys. It gives her important relationships to maintain and protect, outside of her sister and mom.  Because the books allow us to explore her connections to each of these friends, it works, and it makes us care which one she chooses in the end (if either).  The movies, however, have never been able to spend enough time exploring the romantic aspects of these relationships for us to fully invest.  They’ve always felt slightly forced to me in movie form, and in no movie is it more apparent than in Mockingjay 2.  Both Peeta and Gale are present together in this movie, and Katniss has to juggle both of them at once for the first time in the series.

In watching it, it wound up feeling like she just was taking turns kissing each of them, back and forth.  And that made some of the scenes feel a little cheesy.  Harry Potter had this same issue – I didn’t read the HP novels, so when I watched the movies, the pairings, especially Ron and Hermione, felt totally random to me.  The love stories felt like an afterthought in the movies, where as in the books I’m sure they were explored in more depth and had a much bigger impact.  Still though, because the romance has never been the most important element of either of these series, I’ve never seen this as a major issue for either one.  And I think the HG movies have done just fine with establishing Katniss’s friendship with these two guys to the point where you totally get why she would do anything and kick anyone’s ass to protect them.  That was the case with the Harry/Hermione/Ron best friend trifecta as well.  And that’s really all I need.

The pacing.

Like I said, the pacing of the last book is extremely frustrating.  The movies have the same issue, because they’re faithful to the book, but the bright side is that for book readers, it’s actually a significant improvement.  By their nature, movies are forced to compress the stories from the books, and that means that in movie form, Mockingjay, and much more so MJay2, still move pretty damn fast by comparison.  For non-book readers, however, all I can say is – Welcome to Mockingjay, lol.  Now you have at least a small taste of what the rest of us felt when reading the book.

A slight quibble with the way those couple major deaths were filmed.

The two biggest deaths in the movie occur in scenes that are just a tad more chaotically filmed and edited than I would have liked if I had not already read the books.  It’s hard to tell how I would have taken any of this in if I came into this movie with no knowledge of the books, but I’d imagine that those death scenes might not have quite the impact they would if they had been filmed in a slightly less frenzied way, with a tad longer pause to allow the audience to fully absorb what just happened.  The good news, though, is that both of these deaths have quiet follow-up scenes that allow the characters, and the audience, to properly take in the impact of the losses.

The final scene.

Don’t get me wrong, the audience in my theater absolutely lost their shit for the final scene.  It’s what so many the book readers were waiting for … the cute and sorta-reasonably-happy-ish, or at least hopeful, epilogue.  And I think most people will eat it up.  I, on the other hand, don’t necessarily live for this sort of thing, and I found it to be fairly cheesy.  But my bigger issue with it was the creepy-ass effects they put in to age Katniss.  They used … maybe CGI? … to fill out her face, and I found it to be one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen.  O.k. that might be a slight exaggeration, but I almost had to avert my eyes, I was that creeped out by it.  It’s almost exactly like the epilogue in The Deathly Hallows, except I don’t recall the aging effects they used there to be nearly as bizarre-looking.  Again, most book fans will love this final scene, but I personally would’ve kinda preferred that they had ended the movie one scene prior to that.

A Few Other Thoughts

Effie and Johanna and Plutarch, oh my!

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Effie and Johanna don’t get much screentime in MJay2, and I started to put that into the “Bad” section, but I changed my mind, for the following reasons: 1) Effie wasn’t even in Mockingjay the book at all, so every second of screentime we got from her in MJay 1 & 2 was a gift from Francis Lawrence and the screenwriters.  Yes, it’s a bummer she only got a couple scenes in MJay2, but Elizabeth Banks did such a great job with that final scene with Katniss and Haymitch that it’s hard to complain.  Like J-Law & Katniss, Elizabeth Banks was born to play Effie Trinket, and I’m so happy we got to witness it.  2) I had completely forgotten that Johanna doesn’t go with Team Katniss to storm the Capitol in the book.  That was both a surprise and a bummer to me, but Johanna got a couple great, quiet and important scenes with Katniss here that I really enjoyed.  Johanna is an amazing character and Jena Malone absolutely knocked her performance out of the park in this series.  Which reminds me, I’d be remiss to not call out Woody Harrelson and Haymitch in this bunch either, because my feelings on him are exactly the same.  The only reason I didn’t call him out initially is that he actually got a tad more screentime here than the other two.  But just a tad, really, now that I think about it.

And last but not least, we have Plutarch.  I was completely shocked and thrilled when Phillip Seymour Hoffman signed onto this series … I mean when you think about it, the cast of this thing has just been way beyond what anyone should ever hope for from a YA book-to-movie series.  Waaayy beyond.  It’s batshit insane, honestly.  There’s also Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, the list just goes on and on.  It was sad to watch the scenes that Phillip Seymour Hoffman was clearly absent from (and meant to be in), because it means that the actors had to film them shortly after his death.  It must have added an extra melancholy to their final stretch of filming the series.  PSH added extra heft and validity to every scene he was in in this series, and it was far better for it.

The Bottom Line:

The Hunger Games trilogy understands its teenage audience, and it knows how to entertain them, but most admirably, it doesn’t baby them.  It respects them enough to trust that they can understand complex themes along with their entertainment.  It fully gets that you can ‘ship Team Peeta or Team Gale and still appreciate commentary on the state of society and politics and war.  You can love the crazy fashions of the Capitol people and have a deeply awesomely interesting female protagonist and enjoy a really fun sci-fi story all at once.  None of these elements are mutually exclusive.  And thank goodness for that because I love ALL of these things.

And as much as I worried about Mockingjay and said that it was the only part of the series I’d be o.k. with the screenwriters changing for the movie, I’m actually glad in retrospect they didn’t take my advice.  I’m glad they stuck to their guns and refused to sanitize it or make it an unrealistically happy-go-lucky “good guys win and bad guys lose, yay!!” ending to maximize their box office dollars.  It probably limited their box office potential, but frankly I’d much rather see a movie challenge its audience than pander to them, any day of the week.

And despite its flaws and my relatively minor quibbles with it, this movie series turned out about a million times better than I ever expected it would, and a million times better than it should have, given the Hollywood precedent at the time, and despite all logic and reason.  It’s frankly a complete miracle from the sweet Lord above that we got such an amazing 4 films out of this. My fangirl heart is happy and fulfilled.

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