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Today we're excited to welcome [tumblr.com profile] justira back to to Lady Business to talk about Mockingjay Part 1. Ira is an awesome illustrator, writer, and web developer who gained their powers by consuming the bones of their enemies. They make art, comics, and writing when they are not distracted by way too many video games. You can find more of Ira's work at their tumblr.





Mockingjay's recent release to DVD has reignited my ambivalence towards the movie— don't get me wrong, it's great having another female-led spec fic film, especially one with Natalie Dormer running support. But the film suffered a critical lack; the ghost of the movie it could have been hovered over the film for me: the film lacked confidence. The story — the book — is, at its core, part social commentary and part inspection of PTSD. But the film adaptation lacked the boldness to pull a full genre shift, or make up for Collins's shortcomings as a writer. Spoilers for the books and movies up through Mockingjay Part 1 and its equivalent part of the book follow.

What the movie should have done was listen to its own message more. It should have listened to Haymitch.

Haymitch explains how to use Katniss effectively.

Haymitch criticized Plutarch's effort at making Mockingjay propos: they were falling flat and felt artificial. What they needed to do — what the movie needed to do — was get inside Katniss's head, inspect the authentic intersection of her internal world and the world around her. Katniss's commodification had to be contingent upon her authenticity in order to function as intended. That's when the propos were the most genuine and effective. That's when the movie shone.

But this was a missed opportunity. The movie should have been a psychological thriller, something raw and tense. This is not what happened. Let me put it this way: imagine that the movie ended not with an explanation of what happened to Peeta, but before that. Imagine Coin's closing speech superimposed over Katniss first arriving at the hospital after the rescue mission, not over the aftermath. Imagine Coin's closing words right before Peeta attacks Katniss. Imagine the movie cuts to black right when Boggs bashes Peeta over the head with the pan.* No mercy, no explanation, just raw shock and juxtaposition. Now that would have been a bold note to end a movie on.

The Hunger Games books have always had a psychological element, telegraphed by Collins's decision to write in first person — there was a deliberate choice to focus on interiority there, on reaction and Katniss's inner world. This psychological element has been carried into the movies, resting in large part on Jennifer Lawrence's abilities as an actor, but Mockingjay is where that element really starts needing serious structural support in the type of movie it turns into — needs an actual genre shift away from action and to a more psychological, deliberate pacing and focus. There's only so much breath-held panic, soulful staring, and face-crumpling anguish Jennifer Lawrence can convey without the movie being structured to support her.

The Hunger Games series has also always played with the idea of the audience as spectators: how, in viewing state-sanctioned violence for entertainment, we become complicit in that violence. How compelling would it have been to advance that idea yet further, to bring the audience into an uncomfortably intimate — voyeuristic — perspective on Katniss's trauma? To follow through on that critique of spectatorship with a payoff that trades on a sort of forceful psychological intimacy, at once showing the results of spectatorship and exacting a price from the audience, paid in the interplay of discomfort and tension as we pay witness to true trauma? In watching the Hunger Games at all, we transgress. How shocking it would have been to show the audience how deep that transgression ran.

Mockingjay Part 1 contains the perfect vehicle to handle this spectatorship theme: Natalie Dormer's Cressida. But more on that missed opportunity later.

There is likewise a vast missed opportunity here to frontline trauma in general. We experience the Hunger Games through individuals and their individual suffering in the Games: the political is made personal. In Mockingjay, there was an opportunity to present the ruination of the districts and the conflicts raging in them as running parallel to the devastated state of mind experienced by not just the victors like Katniss and Finnick, but more ordinary citizens like Gale, too. The trauma experienced individually by people like Katniss and Finnick is writ large in the trauma imposed by the Capitol on the districts: the personal is made political.

Finnick represents another face of trauma.

This parallel could have further been driven home by preserving the frequent comparisons the book makes between the Capitol and District 13. Of those waiting to make Katniss the Mockingjay, Katniss says, "They have a whole team of people to make me over, dress me, write my speeches, orchestrate my appearances — as if that doesn't sound horribly familiar — and all I have to do is play my part." (p. 12) Speaking of life in 13, Katniss says, "In some ways, District 13 is even more controlling than the Capitol." (30) Later: "Another force to contend with," Katniss says of Coin. "Another power player who has decided to use me as a piece in her games, although things never seem to go according to plan. [...] But she has been the quickest to determine that I have an agenda of my own and am therefore not to be trusted. She has been the first to publicly brand me as a threat." (46) These comparisons build towards developments in the second half of the book (and, assumedly, Mockingjay Part 2), but they're also deeply important to the first half. These show not just the surface parallels between 13 and the Capitol, but parallels in how both seek to commoditize and weaponize the trauma of victors and survivors. Peeta is the Capitol's weapon, just as Katniss is 13's, but what does that mean? They are both being used in a very specific way, their trauma made into a tool, and while District 13's aims may be different from those of the Capitol, their methodology in many ways is chillingly similar. There is even a similarity in how Katniss is frequently medically sedated in the books, paralleling what we later find out has been happening to Peeta: both the Capitol and 13 are chemically controlling their chosen victors.

The parallels are not lost on Katniss — or on Collins, particularly not the connection to Katniss's own trauma. "Still, I hate them," Katniss says of District 13. "But of course, I hate almost everybody now. Myself more than anyone." (10) Katniss's trauma is a persistent haunting throughout the first half of the book. One such moment is captured in both book and movie as Katniss begins to recite a mantra to break out of a PTSD episode: "The headache's coming on and my thoughts begin to tangle. I shut my eyes and start to recite silently. My name is Katniss Everdeen. I am seventeen years old. My home is District 12. I was in the Hunger Games. I escaped [...]" (31) When Haymitch and Katniss talk after Haymitch revamps the propo approach, they discuss how they both still want to protect Peeta, and Katniss can't quite hold it together: "'We're still in the game.' I try to say this with optimism, but my voice cracks." (59) One of my favourite moments in the film is when Katniss sings the Hanging Tree song — it's one of the most authentic and effective. But there's an extra dimension to it in the book:
So, before I actually think about what I'm doing, I sing Rue's four notes, the ones she used to signal the end of the workday in 11. The notes that ended up as the background music for her murder. The birds don't know that. They pick up the simple phrase and bounce it back and forth between them in sweet harmony. Just as they did in the Hunger Games before the muttations broke through the trees, chased us to the Cornucopia, and slowly gnawed Cato to a bloody pulp—

'Want to hear them do a real song?' I burst out. (91)
When, after the bombing of District 13, Katniss is asked to recite the line about being alive and well, she bursts into tears: "I swing my arms to loosen myself up. Place my fists on my hips. Then drop them to my sides. Saliva's filling my mouth at a ridiculous rate and I feel vomit at the back of my throat. I swallow hard and open my lips so I can get the stupid line out and go hide in the woods and — that's when I start crying." (118) Trauma is a constant, unrelenting companion, shading even casual moments and interactions. The movie missed the mark on making use of this constant tension — sure, there were some nice asymmetrical shots of Katniss hyperventilating, but they served as the punctuation, not the full grammar of the film. The film's language was not one of suspense and tension, especially when it came to the handling of the action scenes.
Katniss recites her mantra, blocked into a corner of the shot by the flashlights of her caretakers coming after her.
More of this.

This is where the movie failed the most for me, because in playing earliest action scenes too straight, it undermined what should have been the most suspenseful moments of the film: the rescue mission at the end. By then, the movie had already played all its cards. More exciting action had already happened in District 8. More touching juxtaposition had already happened with the Hanging Tree. More effective suspense had already been deployed in the District 13 bombing.

I want to pick out the District 8 action scene in particular, because that was the biggest misfire. That was the movie at its most straight-faced, at its bad-propo shiniest and glitziest. It was jarring, and not in a productive way. What would have been productively jarring? If the entire film had had a tense, suspenseful atmosphere and the action had jarred both Katniss and the audience out of that, a sudden jolt as Katniss finds herself back in a situation she can actually do something about. Katniss's agency is a very important running theme of the Hunger Games media, and this moment — when Katniss is not being manipulated but acts on impulse and in line with her own goals and beliefs — is important. But it's played too straight, and it's missing any of that edge of spectatorship — even though a perfect vehicle for the spectatorship exists in that scene and throughout much of the movie in the form of Cressida and her film crew.

Katniss and Cressida's relationship was a potential site of rich metatextual interplay.

Cressida could have been the pivot-point around which the idea of spectatorship is crystallized and acted out in this film. Cressida represents the perfect metaphor for how others relate to Katniss: while she makes sympathetic noises and may feel genuine empathy for Katniss's situation, her ultimate goal is still to use Katniss and Katniss's trauma to further a goal. This would have been a perfect entry point for spectatorship in this film: something more intimate than the anonymous camerawork of the Hunger Games arenas and a fascinating relationship for two women to act out onscreen. Katniss and Cressida's relationship is rife with potential for deep metatextual interplay. The film crew in general are a great element. These are spectators, observers, who are physically present with Katniss, shadowing her as the audience shadows her, engaging in interplay with her. I especially like the subverted expectations with Pollux: an Avox and ripe to play the role of silent observer, he is actually the more communicative of the cameramen.

One of the movie's grace notes: Pollux signing to his brother Castor.

But these are all ideas only in potentia in the film — things that could have, should have happened. As it was, the movie lacked the conviction to follow through on these ideas. Which is not to say it was entirely lacking — it had many strengths. I am not saying the movie was not daring or cerebral — only that it wasn't daring or cerebral enough. That is what I find so frustrating: the amount of unrealized potential in a film that is already accomplishing so much. There is certainly a lot about Katniss's emotional state in this film, even if it is missing a lot of the backup from Finnick that was present in the books. These are still YA adaptations that have managed to get audiences to watch stories about income inequality, exploitation, and PTSD — that is truly significant. I am reminded of how Iron Man 3 successfully incorporated a PTSD narrative into a blockbuster: these things are happening, and audiences are coming out in droves to watch them.

This is still a successful movie with not one but several strong female characters. The movie did a good job of showing how all of Panem is like the Hunger Games writ large; how the Districts and the Capitol are constantly acting out the same relationship. It does a good job of establishing and fleshing out a larger world, and showing how Katniss impacts it — the transition from Katniss singing The Hanging Tree to the rebels bombing the dam was particularly effective.

Are you coming to the tree?

The movie also pulled off something the books didn't: a successful transition from the earlier entries in the series to this one. While the book made a bold move in discarding many of the elements that had made the first two books so successful, Collins simply does not have the prose-writing chops to pull it off. She is a much more effective screen writer, and this has been demonstrated again and again by the films through their use of image, interaction, and juxtaposition. The Hunger Games movies have all made excellent use of their medium. Mockingjay Part 1 follows in these footsteps, and successfully builds on the first two entries — the production work in general was excellent, making District 13 looks plausible and of a piece with the bits we've seen of the Capitol and its technology. The worldbuilding may be where the movie outshines the book the most.

If I criticize Mockingjay Part 1 it is because I believe in it. It did so much — but there was room for even more. Mockingjay is an important story about trauma, and about women. It deserves praise, but it also deserves more.

Other reviews:
In The Brilliant New Hunger Games Film, Katniss Can't Escape The Arena (Charlie Jane Anders at io9)
Biting social critique makes 'Hunger Games: Mockingjay' more than just a teen movie (Gavia Baker-Whitelaw at Daily Dot)
'Hunger Games: Mockingjay' Opens Where 'Catching Fire' Ended (NPR)
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 Is Bleak, Depressing, and Really Good (Vulture)




*The idea of ending the movie with the pan to the head was proposed to me by Henry of Fistful of Wits, but the juxtaposition on top of that is my own idea. ( back to the post )

Date: 2015-03-27 06:45 am (UTC)
owlmoose: Picture of a beanie moose and a small brown owl (owlmoose)
From: [personal profile] owlmoose
This is a great piece that raises some excellent points, but my take on the film is pretty different from yours. A couple of things I wanted to mention:

1. One of the things I like least about the books is how deeply embroiled we are in Katniss's point of view. The super-close first person narration works pretty well in the first book but is less successful in Catching Fire, and it's especially a problem in Mockingjay. I appreciate that the movies take a few steps back and give us a wider view, that we learn more about other characters and what they're thinking, how they're feeling, and what they really think about Katniss and the world situation (as opposed to what Katniss *thinks* they're thinking). By actually seeing Coin in operation, outside of what Katniss knows and sees, I felt like we did get the sense that her regime and the Capitol's aren't so different -- and more directly than in the books, because the film is showing us the parallels in her decisions and actions, rather than Katniss having to infer them.

2. While I definitely see what you're going for in your suggested changes to the ending, and they might have worked well for the series taken as a whole, I suspect a more ambiguous ending would have hurt Mockingjay Part 1 as a complete story that stands alone from its sequel. When I heard that the filmmakers were splitting Mockingjay into two movies, I was concerned that it would only feel like half a story. By making "what happened to Peeta?" into a major story arc, and then giving us the complete answer to that question, the movie is able to close out that arc while sowing the seeds for the next phase of the story. If they'd left that arc any more open, I feel like Part 1 would have had a far less satisfying ending. Not that the ending isn't a cliffhanger -- it absolutely is, just like the first two movies in the series. But it's a "where do we go from here" cliffhanger, not a "wait what just happened" cliffhanger, and I think the latter would have been frustrating for many viewers, especially those who haven't read the books.

Thanks for writing this, it does give me a lot to think about, and I will definitely be looking for the missed opportunities you saw the next time I watch it. :)

Date: 2015-03-31 06:31 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] justira
Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

In regards to your first point -- I agree that the movies do better by expanding out from Katniss's head. It's definitely one of their strengths compared to the books. And I don't think our views here are entirely incompatible -- I think the important thing for me isn't so much interiority as it drawing clear parallels using the language of film. This would in fact rely on showing more of the districts because the idea I wish had been driven home is how the destruction of the districts parallels the destruction of the mind, of the spirit, in Katniss and others. The material is there. For example, when Katniss first goes to District 12 and sees the piles of human bones and we see her reaction: that's one great jumping-off point. But I feel there wasn't enough of that, structurally. Another example could have been using Cressida's footage, juxtapositioning her shots of the destruction with shots of Katniss. I'm surprised at how little of Cressida's footage we see, actually -- it's such a perfect instrument.

As for the ending, I can see your point about it being a self-contained story. I admit I have a hard time imagining the experience of non-readers when viewing these films (even though I have one with me -- my partner hasn't read them but has seen the films). I think if some of the themes from the book had been played up more strongly -- the PTSD, the medical sedation, Katniss having actual fits of her own -- then I think Peeta's state at the end of the film could actually have made sense even to non-readers, with a little interpretive work. It just feels very... flaccid, I guess; very tell-don't-show the way it was done. Whereas if the parallels between Katniss and Peeta had really been leaned on (and both would have been buttressed by the parallels betweens the victors' trauma and the districts' trauma) and the pieces of what would eventually happen to Peeta were put on the table earlier in the film (via similar things being done to Katniss), then it would have been both a bolder ending and a more cinematic way of storytelling. Then the explanation of what happened to Peeta could have unfolded at the start of the next film, catching viewers up from the previous film and appropriately kicking off one of the main arcs of the second half of the book.

Anyway, thanks again -- you gave me stuff to think about, too!

Date: 2015-03-28 01:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
Love this post! I loved Mockingjay for what it WAS doing with Katniss's trauma, but you're definitely right that the movie could have given more to it. Maybe they'll be able to do more in the last film? (she said, ever optimistic) I especially love what you say about Cressida -- if they'd given her more to do, you KNOW Natalie Dormer would have knocked it out of the park. She was already making Cressida much more vivid and interesting than the material in the script set her up to be.

Date: 2015-03-31 06:37 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] justira
Oh Natalie Dormer would have been fantastic -- she's such a capable actor, I know she could have handled a more nuanced and metatextually rich role for Cressida. Seeing her and Jennifer Lawrence play off each other more would have been rewarding on so many levels.

I'm pretty curious to see how they handle a lot of things in the last film, particularly developments regarding Coin. Her framing in this film wasn't what I expected, based on her overall presentation in the book.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

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