“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” ended with Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen shooting a well-timed arrow at the sky and taking down the Hunger Games arena, giving Panem’s rebel forces a unique opening against the totalitarian Capitol. It was a potent symbolic victory not unlike Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star in “Star Wars,” and “Mockingjay: Part 1,” with its obligatory cliffhanger ending presaging the final film, is inevitably being compared to “The Empire Strikes Back.”
Yet where “The Empire Strikes Back” opened with Luke having become a lieutenant commander in the Rebel Alliance, and set him on a grueling path to Jedi knighthood, in “Mockingjay” Katniss’s importance to the rebellion is more symbolic.
Her prowess with a bow, and whatever strategic or leadership skills she might have, are of no interest to Julianne Moore’s Alma Coin, president of the rebellion, or her advisor Plutarch Heavensbee (again played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his penultimate performance). What they care about is Katniss’s celebrity status as an icon of resistance to the Capitol. Alas, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss’s hometown ally and ambiguous love interest, was left behind in the arena and is now in the clutches of Capitol forces, to whom he has exactly the same value as Katniss to the rebellion.
Propaganda and symbolism have always been a crucial weapon in the arsenal of any campaign, but their value increases exponentially in the information age. This isn’t a particularly radical idea, although this may be the first time it’s trickled down into a blockbuster franchise. Can you imagine Luke making subversive videos calling out Darth Vader and coining popular slogans about fighting the Empire?
I appreciate this; I’m not sure we need two hours of Katniss largely sidelined in a mostly action-free movie. The increasingly common move of splitting the final chapter of a book series into two films (an expedience pioneered by the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” franchises) has always tended toward a sense of gathering storm clouds with little payoff, but here there’s a further complication: After “Part 2” comes out next year, we’ll have a four-film “Hunger Games” series that’s half Hunger Games, half no Hunger Games.
This seems disproportionate, particularly given the literary discipline of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, each volume exactly 27 chapters long, divided into three acts of nine chapters apiece. The Games themselves — annual televised gladiatorial death matches with randomly chosen civilians forced to kill and die for the titillation and chastening of the masses — aren’t just the series’ gripping central conceit. They’re also a powerful metaphor applicable to an array of contemporary pathologies, injustices, and anxieties.
Tyranny, class warfare, media voyeurism, economic injustice, social and cultural disintegration, the cheapening of human life, and the horrors of war are just some of issues reflected in some way in the spectacle of the Hunger Games.
Many of these are tied to what Pope Saint John Paul II famously termed “the culture of death.” While this phrase is particularly identified with euthanasia and abortion as well as contraception, John Paul II also indicts other forms of violence and dehumanizing circumstances, including war and genocide, unjust distribution of resources, the arms trade, ecological irresponsibility, illicit drugs, and unsafe sexual practices (see Evangelium Vitae 10).
Part of the power of a good metaphor is that it can mean different things for different people or different circumstances. Yet with the metaphor of the Games giving way to a literal war movie, if one with some relatively provocative implications regarding the power of propaganda and the subordination of the individual to the collective, the franchise risks overplaying its hand.
It could be argued that if “Mockingjay: Part 1” is less entertaining than its predecessors, that might not be a wholly bad thing. With the first two films, the element of moral critique couldn’t entirely negate the irony of the spectacle of Katniss’s life-or-death struggles being presented for our own entertainment as well as that of the masses in the Capitol and throughout Panem. (The same can be said of the theme of voyeurism in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” which implicates the viewer as well as the characters.)
On the other hand, the franchise maintains its grip on the obligatory romantic triangle, with Katniss turning for comfort to ever-attentive Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) while agonizing over Peeta’s fate.
Beginning in medias res and trailing off without a real cliffhanger climax, “Mockingjay: Part 1” may be essential to series fans, but it feels more like a TV series arc episode than a feature film.