Recognition, restoration, reparation
Just when I was trying to have a quiet year over here (not completely voluntarily – the indie theater I frequent around here has changed ownership and is currently closed for who-knows-what-horrifying alterations), the sluice gates of ignorance opened upon the release of the final Hunger Games film, and I felt the need to add my spices to the pot, as it were. So here’s how it actually is.
The second part of Mockingjay, based on the final novel in Suzanne Collins’ subversive-heroine-in-generic-dystopia trilogy, continues to center on its characters, particularly Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who narrates the novels and stands at the center of nearly every scene in the film. The story follows Katniss’s involvement in the rebel District 13’s final move against the autocratic Capitol, led by President Coriolanus Snow, played once again by Donald Sutherland, who continues to smirk his way into movie-villain history. Although Katniss has become the symbol of the rebellion, she does not fight on the front lines as most “YA” protagonists would; instead, she is placed with a filmmaking crew led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer) and tasked with creating propaganda videos. However, Katniss has her own plan, which is to kill President Snow herself. Her crew, of course, is in no less danger than anyone else, given the fact that Snow has placed deadly “pods” around the Capitol, which makes the journey to his mansion resemble the old Hunger Games arenas. Roughly half the movie deals with the most expendable members of the crew being picked off in traditional adventure movie fashion whilst Katniss attempts to talk Peeta (Josh Hutcherson ) into becoming himself again. The second half concerns what happens after the war ends – something too few stories about war actually explore.
Criticism has been aimed at the fact that this is not the expected ending of a series like this. Apparently, the absence of a rousing finale with orchestrated victory music, a concrete happy ending, and a “final battle” is too much (or too little) for some to handle (none of whom have actually read the source material). But Mockingjay ends as it should, with Katniss trying to find her place in the new system of government, or rather, being told what her role is going to be in an administration that has used her as a pawn for years. Now bereft of her sister and countless friends, plagued by PTSD and nightmares, and without any sense of “mission,” not to mention recognizing that a horrible cycle is about to repeat itself, Katniss has never been more truly alone among other people.
How do you reconcile with a best friend whose aggressive carelessness is responsible for the death of your beloved sibling? Do you? How do you move on with your life when a war that has lasted your entire adult life finally ends? How do you accept the mantle of “hero” when your victory was achieved through the slaughter of countless innocent people? To whom do you turn when everyone close to you is equally broken, despite the larger goal being achieved? These are the sorts of questions the film asks, and it doesn’t shy away from them or pretend that the future is bright just because the “correct” side won the big battle.
I’m not sure The Hunger Games really is “YA” anymore. Sure, Collins’ prose is accessible to even the least well-read of preteens, and sure, giant cinema chains pair the film with trailers for teenage brainjunk and Justin Bieber albums, but its themes resonate in a way that is important now, especially for ambitious young people, but also for adults who don’t think about the way they talk about war and death. In the world of Katniss, just like real life, killing is not glorious, and the idea of “war heroes” is fiction. But although Katniss sacrifices her chances at normalcy and calm (not to mention becomes irreversibly disfigured in a way that is severely toned down onscreen), there is a mite of optimism. She’s done this out of hope for the next generation: the hope that her children will be the first living people to experience an entire life without the Hunger Games. She may be too shell-shocked to bond with them, may have taken the guy she ends up with only because he’s the sole person who knows what she’s been through (save for Johanna, but she’s another story), but ask yourself this: has any entire generation of Americans been able to live without witnessing our country involved in any kind of organized violent conflict?
J-Law is at her best once again in this (and on fire – at least one trailer before the film has her in it, albeit as David O. Russell’s muse for the third time). Jena Malone is still incomparably powerful and seen too little, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who makes his final-final-final onscreen appearance, fades away with a (digitally rendered) smile. It’s obvious which scenes he was supposed to be in and unable to do, and it’s heartbreaking.
Katniss is an important character for the unique place she finds in the YA canon. Her very real vulnerability turns off the faux-masculine and those who need their heroes to be blocks of wood with just enough stubble and the same inability to express emotion that they themselves are inflicted with. Her self-sufficiency, take-no-shit attitude, and various talents are enough to make anyone root for her, but in spite of what we (or the people of Panem) might demand of her, she refuses to stop being a real person, and in a world where so many narratives, especially for young people, feature only girls and women who find themselves in the stock roles of the virgin, the Tsundere, the whore, the nerdy friend-zoned best pal, and so on.
I’m not made of stone. The Hunger Games is populated by characters with dumb names (combine a random nonsense word with a name from Shakespeare, and you’ve got someone who could live in Panem without making anyone flinch) and contradicts its own anti-reality-TV/anti-coliseum/anti-war-as-spectacle commentary by being a blockbuster film series in the first place. But I think we’re well-served to also recognize its importance as a popular franchise that not only has a fully realized woman at its center, but confronts themes of death, futility, and the horrors of war. It just hasn’t happened enough to be tired yet.
Mockingjay: Part 2 (2015); based on the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Peter Craig, Danny Strong, and Suzanne Collins; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore, and Josh Hutcherson.