Mockingjay, on first read, wasn’t my favorite book in the Hunger Games series — not by a long shot. A long trudge to a deadly battle, it was initially memorable for all the time Katniss seemed to spend crying in a closet, worrying about Peeta Mellark, who was captured at the end of Catching Fire’s Quarter Quell. I didn’t want crying Katniss; I wanted victorious Katniss, angry Katniss, a Katniss who would lead the rebellion against the Capital.
And that, I eventually realized, was the neat trap author Suzanne Collins had set for her readers: We wanted our reluctant heroine to keep fighting. We, like the leaders of the long-hidden District 13, wanted her to be the Mockingjay, triumphant and inspiring — but Collins wouldn’t give us that without the painful, necessary focus on what the resulting war would do to her and the people around her.
Collins’ books stick to Katniss’ (Jennifer Lawrence) perspective, but the adaptations have no such limitations — making Mockingjay Part I, in a way, easier. We get out of that rattled, wounded mind; we get to see things Katniss isn’t present for. And if some of the dialogue is clunky and overstated, the screenwriters strike an excellent balance between Katniss’ struggle — to find her balance, to accept being a symbol, to understand what she can do for the people she’s inspired — and the action-packed side of the story.
Dividing the book into two parts may have been a cash grab, but it gives the filmmakers time to linger on the calculating face of rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), to follow Katniss through the rubble of District 12 and to introduce a few new faces (notably Natalie Dormer as a filmmaker with excellent hair).
The movie’s strongest sequence juxtaposes Finnick Odair’s (Sam Claflin) on-camera revelations about his post-Games life with a tense raid on the Capital, as Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and a team of District 13 soldiers go in after Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Johanna (a criminally underseen Jena Malone) and Annie (Stef Dawson). Knowing what’s coming makes it harder to watch, somehow, not least because the camera cuts away from Finnick every time his story is about to hit a crescendo of anger and pain. It’s almost as if the filmmakers are afraid to give us too much fury, lest they run out before Part II. Part I is setup; it’s the Empire Strikes Back of the Hunger Games series, ending on a note of moderate success, tempered by loss and steeped in grief.