Once More into the Games, Dear Friends, Once More! Mockingjay Part 2 Flies into Theaters

The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-Part-2-Final-PosterFor the past four years, a wonderful local theater, the Yancey in Burnsville, has graciously hosted the readers of Mayland Community College for our own showing of the newest installment of the Hunger Games film adaptations. On Friday, November 20, once again the theater played the movie just for us, and, as we took in this, the last of the films based on Suzanne Collins’s remarkable trilogy, I once again toted my notebook and pen (along with lots of tissues) to collect my thoughts to share with you here.  So, the pieces are in place; the countdown has begun. Let’s enter the arena, one last time, to see how the conclusion of this epic and complex tale survived its journey to screen. (Fair warning: this detailed review contains major plot elements.)

 

Real and Not Real

Of course, one of the big issues with any film adaptation is the issue of faithfulness to the book, and it’s an issue we’ve taken up here before. Film and text are such different media that we cannot honestly expect any film to perfectly mirror a text. Nor should we. Starting with Catching Fire, Director Francis Lawrence and his team of Gamemakers deftly combined text-true narrative with extra-textual but appropriate scenes that could not have been in novels told only from Katniss Everdeen’s point of view. The added scenes, which are primarily focused on President Snow and President Coin, are quiterika and willowe good. We see Coin’s backstage work to ensure that Katniss always appears to be operating from the Alma Coin playbook. We also have a brilliant scene in which President Snow shows off his skills at sophistry and chemistry when he poisons one of his officers in front of a dinner party seated around a spectacularly symbolic circular table with white roses and red and black costumes (but more about that amazing visual work in a bit). We also see how Snow’s physical collapse really starts when he thinks Katniss is dead.  Sadly, none of the added scenes featured the character of Snow’s granddaughter (though the charming Erika Bierman attended the premiere and posed with Willow Shields—Prim—on the red carpet. Perhaps her scenes were cut and will appear on DVD.)

Obviously, to make the film fit its running time and to be consistent with previous installments, many elements from the book could not make it to the screen. Some of these are perfectly understandable. For example, I knew we would not get one of my favorite scenes– when Posy asks Octavia why she is green, and Octavia says “It’s supposed to be pretty.”—since those two characters do not  appear much in the films, and Octavia was never green. But there are some pieces I miss. I would like to have seen the cake at Finnick and Annie’s wedding (maybe it was there, but I missed it because it went by quickly; more on the speed issue later), showcasing Peeta’s frosting talents. I missed the wonderful little scene when Johanna asks if Gale is afraid of her, bumping him with her hip, and he says he’s “terrified.” There were two lost moments that resonate with symbolic value: Katniss never burns the artificially lasting white rose in her vase, and Prim’s ducktail shirt does not make its bookend appearance in the seconds before the fiery finale, though other elements of that sequence are lovingly faithful to the text, including the little girl in the lemon yellow coat (her title in the credits, as well as how Katniss describes her in the book), though her fate is less horrifying than in the book.

But my major complaint was not with missing content, but with missing weight at the end. Though Katniss is clearly devastated by her loss, she is barely scathed physically. One of the film’s great visuals, on par with her rise from the arena in Catching Fire, is when her cloak catches fire, mirroring her costumes earlier, but she sports no serious burns, and seems barely scratched by the time she returns to 12. Like deleting the loss of Peeta’s leg in the first installment, this is another of those glossy Hollywood decisions, Of course, they’ve had this woman, in that awesome costume, advertising cars in commercials aired during football games. She has to look good for the movie people, but her deterioration, emotionally and physically, culminating in her singing and later her cathartic burning of that white rose, are critical to the development of her character, and missing those steps in her journey detracts from the story’s heft.

 However, even though Katniss hardly languishes in jail and seems mostly undamaged, her post-assassination scenes are actually some of the most poignant in the film, for reasons that no one could have originally planned. Close to the end of production, Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose work as Plutarch Heavensbee is some of the best in all the films, died suddenly, a result of his heroin addiction, and the filmmakers had to scramble to continue the film. Evidently, most of his work was done, with the exception of just a couple of scenes. One was in part one, in which Katniss is presented with Cinna’s designs for her uniform. Elizabeth Banks, who has done amazing things with Effie Trinket, took that scene, and it works well, with the actors mourning Cinna, though they must have been thinking of Hoffman. But even more striking, if more subtle, is the way in which the filmmakers work around his absence when Katniss is shipped back to 12. Haymitch reads Katniss a letter from Plutarch, ostensibly sent because he can’t really be seen with her, a nice excuse. But the words of the letter are Plutarch’s profound speech on humanity and the cycle of destruction and optimism in which we struggle. Considering the means of Hoffman’s death, the sentiments about humans as “fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a remarkable gift for self-destruction” are both sobering and painfully ironic: those very tendencies, along with the Hollywood mindset that produces damaged “victor” celebrities, are the reasons why the words are not spoken in Hoffman’s voice. The letter also layers further complexity to Plutarch’s fascinating character. Though readers, like Katniss, are never entirely sure exactly who is complicit, and to what degree, in the tragic attack on the children, Plutarch’s letter indicates that he feels bad for Katniss’s losses, but that he would put her through this (and perhaps more) again, to achieve the endgame of a new Panem.  It also implies that he knew she would make that show stopping move at the execution, a wrinkle to end all wrinkles.

 Razzle Dazzle

Also in keeping with the pervasive, subtle presence of the master Gamemaker, the visuals of this film are stunning not just in their beauty, but also in their literary and symbolic power.

The settings always seem realistic, whether underground in 13 or in a devastated Capitol that is hauntingly reminiscent of scenes of destruction in a post-Saddam Hussein Baghdad. Katniss’s house, which I’ve loved since Catching Fire, continues to impress, and a beautiful scene toward the end, when Katniss and Peeta sit watching the rain from the doorway, evokes both the novel’s powerful statement about how they grow back together and reminds us of the rain-drenched cave where this relationship really began to grow.

The vehicles are wonderful, with aircraft that are incredibly impressive, seeming to bear real weight, and the hovercraft in which Katniss travels to District 2 and in which she stows away to go the Capitol (a change from the text to streamline the narrative) is labeled K-7, a great nod to Katniss’s name and Collins’s brilliant day of the week structure from the first book. The peaks of the Nut (there are three, and three hovercraft bomb them!) collapse in a visually amazing avalanche, and the Districts always look gritty and multi-layered, like documentary footage of real history.

But the Capitol scenes really are those that impress, especially with uses of color and ring symbolism. I was so taken with that dinner scene, not just because of its ability to convey both Tsarist Russia on the brink of the Revolution and the corruption of the Soviet regime, but because of that hollow circle table (at which the remaining victors later gather for that eerie vote) and its alchemical coloring. Red is also used to great effect in the flight through the Capitol. Though Katniss’s cape is not the red/black one of the text, the red tiles, posters, and other touches are just brilliant. The setting in which Squad 451 first gets into trouble is also powerful, a grass and stone courtyard of concentric rings that, after the pods fire, had me humming “Paint it, Black” with the remarkable contrast of black ooze and white walls.  But the music is so good that my Rolling Stone impression was hardly needed.  Fabulous mournful fiddle motifs and wonderful interweaving of the tunes from the previous installments add a fantastic layer to the visuals

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The real stunner, a Plutarch-worthy moment, is the set-up for Snow’s execution. After Katniss marches dramatically down the same path she has ridden twice in a chariot, she is followed by the hoi polloi in what is meant to look like a spontaneous show of support, but is scripted like an Olympic opening ceremony. Then, the post to which Snow is tied is positioned between and just behind (like an arrow!) two groups of 3 tributes each, with Coin behind and Katniss in front. The use of the three motif and the gorgeous symmetry of the scene both carry literary weight, as does the way color is used on the slain President’s fallen form.

The makeups and costumes are always stellar, from the realistic military gear of 13 soldiers to the garb of the Capitol refugees, which manages to be both ridiculous and pitiful. The film makers give us a world that truly looks as if it might exist, and it usually very close to the world as Collins described it. Tigris is fantastic and true to the text, the wedding is beautiful, and the work done to make Peeta look truly shell-shocked is extraordinarily effective, a great compliment to his outstanding performance.

 

“They need some players with some heat”

Josh Hutcherson’s performance as Peeta is right on the money. Though I’ve always been dissatisfied with the way the leads don’t fit the characters in my mind, no one can fault Hutcherson for his effort. He is wonderful, and since he gets to keep so many of his lines from the book, he is a faithful interpretation of Peeta. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is usually solid, but losing her real breakdown at the end makes it hard for her to convey the depth of Katniss’s damage. The late Hoffman’s Plutarch, as always is chillingly on point, as are our Presidents– Julianne Moore as Coin, and Donald Sutherland (ok, he’s creeped me out since I was a kid watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Snow. Willow Shields has matured seamlessly with Prim, her development completely believable, and Paula Malcomson is just great as Mrs. Everdeen, in her few, subtle moments. I particularly like how she conveys such strength and steady hands at the end, showing her growth from the unstable woman who let her children starve. Now she is confident, despite her grief, a mother again. Buttercup is even wonderful (even though he’s two cats).  I also particularly have enjoyed Elizabeth Banks’s Effie Trinket in these last two installments. Even when she is back in her outlandish makeup, she still nicely conveys the paradox of superficiality paired with a dawning comprehension of the horrors on which her comfortable life has been built.  Her good bye to Katniss and Haymitch is one of the film’s best moments, displaying her character’s development from the first installment, but also reminding us that when one cries, one smudges one’s mascara.

And, of course, there is plenty of crying in this one. I came armed with all those tissues for a reason. But, in order to keep the PG-13 rating, the filmmakers sometimes race us through the hardest moments of the text. Thy do give Finnick a hero’s death, the culmination of a spectacular fight sequence, though the mutts, to me, look too much like the zombies and aliens of other films, and I was hoping for more a alligator-y vibe on them. The film is undoubtedly violent, and often scary (my son still can’t believe he was jump-scared by steam), but the pacing means that no one who hasn’t read the books will realize the catastrophic nature of Boggs’s injury or even register what happens to all those children at the end. While this does cut down on the gore, it also sometimes makes the pace too fast and does not allow us time to process and understand what is happening, and some of those great, understated little performances hardly register: Sam Claflin’s Finnick and Jenna Malone’s Johanna, always great, or Pollux, who is just super duper,

 

“And they say nobody ever wins the Games”

As an adaptation of a text, it generally works. Readers will be pleased with faithful scenes, like the greenhouse chat with Katniss and Snow, and the way in which the words of the epilogue and Katniss’s Meadow song are used so effectively. But, they will also have to concede losses required by this medium. Like Plutarch, acknowledging that Panem’s triumph has come at great cost, readers will note that change always comes at a price, but this time, at least in terms of artistic decisions, it usually seems like a fair one.

Of course, as a movie, it works. All those high-speed action sequences, amazing visuals, and solid performances guarantee nothing less. Undoubtedly, it will make piles of money and propel its stars to ever greater heights. Ironically, this reminds us that the “winner” of the Games is Plutarch Heavensbee, a fact sardonically noted by Haymitch as our last three District 12 Victors watch Paylor’s televised inauguration, in which Plutarch stands at the side of the new president, secure in the position he has bought with his cleverness and with his willingness to play the long game while sacrificing many pieces along the way. Even more ironic, of course, is that this scene, done via a flickering television screen, allows the film makers to use CG to add Hoffman, even after his death. That is because in the “Real” hunger games of Hollywood, fame, and celebrity, the only winners are the Gamemakers, while their playing pieces often fall by the wayside, destroyed by the beautiful arena in which they are caged.

Who wins the Games? Plutarch, and his Hollywood Gamemaker kin, of course, but perhaps, this film will inspire readers, who will become thinkers, who will become changers of something more than television channels. To quote Plutarch himself, maybe this time, it sticks.

 MJ

Comments

  1. Great review – I was really looking forward to your thoughts on the film. My wife and I saw it last evening at the local IMAX. The digital re-mastering seemed to work very well, and the sound was beyond amazing. While I feel they did a wonderful job in staying true to the text despite the different format, I really missed a couple of key things that for me at least, really added to the impact of the story; Katniss in isolation after killing Coin and starting to find her voice and sing again, and Peeta not being with her when the children are bombed. It was really good to read your noting of the symbolic elements from Snow’s dinner assassination – It seemed so unnecessary to me; we already understand just how evil Snow is. That had been well established, and the extra scene seemed unnecessary. I would rather they have spent that scene time on Katniss’ self-reflection on the values her Father had instilled in her and finding her voice/inner peace. The fact that Katniss and Peeta were not physically burned seemed a mistake – that was one more thing that they alone shared with each other and seemed an integral part of them growing together (and Katniss needed to find her inner peace to be able to accept Peeta’s love for her; if you can’t learn to love yourself, you can’t accept love from another). Looking forward to puring over the film in more detail once we have it on Blu-Ray!

  2. What a thorough review! You picked so many details I didn’t notice. Visually, the movie was beautiful, dark, realistic, and so much like I pictured while reading the book. The only lead that never fit how I imagined has been Peeta. Chris Hemsworh fits my idea for Gale… Tall, handsome and a strong presence. But Peeta..well, I know the book describes him as medium build and stocky. But somehow I still always thought he would be around the same height as Gale. For me, that’s always been a distraction to being able to take him completely seriously. But Josh’s acting is always superb, especially in this film so it was easier to overlook.

    Anyways, really enjoyed reading your thoughts. Think I’ll read the series again once the semester is over and watch the movies to compare even more. 🙂

  3. Louise M. Freeman says:

    My family finally went to see it last night. I thought it was a great production, and was pleasantly surprised at how much book-dialogue was included. (Including some lines I quoted in my PTSD talks!) I, too, was a bit disappointed Katniss’s physical and psychological injuries weren’t emphasized more. I also thought it was odd that they never definitively confirmed Snow’s death. Overall, the biggest disappointment was the lack of Snow’s granddaughter.

  4. Louise M. Freeman says:

    Oh, I forgot to mention one of my favorite parts… early in the film where Peeta remembers the bread-tossing and makes some points clear that did not come through in the first movie– he burned the bread on purpose so he could give it to her and his mother beat him for it (in the film it looked like perhaps she just fussed at him a bit). Not as good as re-shooting the scene with an actual emaciated 11 year old instead of a trippin’ on ‘shrooms Jennifer Lawrence, but better.

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  6. I think the scene I missed most in the movie – two, actually, but the second the most: 1) Katniss smoothing back Peeta’s hair while they rest underground and 2) after shooting Coin, Katniss reaches for the nightlock pill and says “let me go” and Peeta says “I can’t”. I missed that foreshadowing in the movie, the “Peeta’s back!” That that implied to me in the book.

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