The Hunger Games series is something of a paradox in cinema. Where the books get worse, the films actually get better.
By the time we hit Mockingjay, the third and final book of the series, Collins seemingly scrapped her established formula and left us with a fantastical and sometimes nonsensical war story that quickly fizzles out and loses the tension of the previous books. Yet with the films, the war narrative is more obviously a twist on the formula. Just like before, Katniss is a pawn primed for some big event (Part I) and in Part II we finally see her in action. More so, the two Mockingjay films turn a dystopian fantasy into a frightening reality – more than ever Katniss is a soldier and the use of handheld cameras, night vision, militaristic action and war-torn rubble-strewn streets creates a sense of a complete yet grim world that is utterly plausible and always compelling.
Part II is very much a continuation of Part I and begins exactly where it left off – after agreeing to the war propaganda of District 13’s leader President Coin (Julianne Moore), Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) fully embodies the Mockingjay symbol, whilst eventually Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is rescued from the Capitol but has been psychologically re-programmed to fear Katniss (I saw the two films in a double bill, something that comes highly recommended). Vowing to save her family and loved ones, the determined protagonist sneaks off to the Capital to bring the war to President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and assassinate him – that is before things take a political and tragic turn. It’s a set up that allows for a clever riff on the formula, with the Capitol itself becoming an arena for Snow’s sadistic traps.
This in turn allows for the tense action sequences largely missing from Part I. One particular sequence in the sewers verges on horror film as director Francis Lawrence plays with expectations and will have you on the edge of your seat, whilst the use of sound alternates between rousing score and terrifying moments of pause and silence. The gloomy visuals throughout lend the film a sense of emotional weight and gritty realism rarely seen in films of this sort – you often have to pinch yourself that this is a film aimed at young adults.
And then there’s the ending. The films may improve on the books, but they still can’t alleviate the dissatisfying conclusion. As one character notes, “no one wins the Hunger Games” and that, seemingly, includes the audience. The overall outcome may be positive, but there are major sacrifices from certain characters that lack emotional punch and are clearly sign-posted throughout; the love triangle ultimately disappoints (#TeamGale); and the revenge story fizzles into politics. Then, just as with the final Harry Potter film, there’s an awkward epilogue that undermines the steely determination of Katniss as modern feminist role model, especially disappointing after so much of the film rides on Lawrence’s tough and believable performance. Elsewhere there are watchable performances from the supporting cast despite being side-lined, though the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman has thankfully not affected the storytelling.
It’s all incredibly sombre and pessimistic, leaving you depressed and deflated. Perhaps, though, that’s the point. What began as a series condemning the media, reality TV and class divides has evolved into a comment on war, its futility and its psychological impacts – something far beyond the aspirations of most emo young adult novels/films. There’s undoubtedly an extra layer of poignancy to this latest film after the recent attacks in Paris; indeed, we live in a time of political strife, refugee crises and wars against terrorism. To that end The Hunger Games is the young adult franchise of the generation, the young adult franchise modern society deserves.
Watch: Mockingjay: Part II is out now.