It’s easy to dismiss Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series as teenage fodder – a poor man’s Harry Potter, or Twilight-lite. Certainly the books fall squarely into the burgeoning young adult genre: they’re written quite basically; the prose effective but pedestrian. Substantively, there’s a love triangle, a big bad, a dystopian backdrop: the usual suspects. But the unoriginality of the concept belies a richness that helps to account for the series’ status as global phenomenon, to its widespread popularity among millions who are decidedly not teenage girls (including the likes of me). Themes of power and justice, war and control, political ideologies and so forth, pervade the books, with no easy answers.
At their very best, the movie adaptations have reflected that depth. This was Catching Fire, the sequel that was everything the first Hunger Games should have been. That second installment maneuvered adeptly around the dominant presence of the games, managing to world-build without blatant exposition. The screenplay quite naturally carved out identities for the districts, traced the blossoming rebellion, and developed the villainy – and overall character – of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). By devoting time and space to the historical context of the tournament, to the surrounding political and social upheaval, it infused weight in the games themselves beyond the immediacy of survival. In so doing, it infused more meaning to Katniss’ (Jennifer Lawrence) journey. It was what Collins had done to perfection in the books.
At their worst, the movie adaptations have meandered. The first Hunger Games, for instance, got lost in the games. Although the first half of that movie takes place entirely outside the arena, it still feels like the screenplay barely broached life in Panem. Instead, much of the attention was focused on Katniss after her life had already changed, after she had volunteered as tribute in place of her sister. The larger geopolitical context is summarily dismissed when the action shifts to the games. The rich world from the source material is thus reduced to mere background noise; the screenplay narrowly focusing in on one woman’s physical survival: The Running Man redux. The Hunger Games felt like a standalone: an entertaining and well-executed one, but a diversion nonetheless.
Thankfully, Mockingjay Part II falls closer to the Catching Fire end of the spectrum. I suppose the nature of the concluding chapter provides it an unfair disadvantage in that regard. After all, it has to be more substantive and wider reaching, being tasked to wrap up not only Katniss’ story but the whole universe’s. Notably, it does not do either of these perfectly. Much of this rests on the messy shoulders of Mockingjay Part I, the worst of the series and comprising enough material for half a movie at best. Part II has to take on the resulting burden – it is at times overstuffed and underdeveloped. Rebel leader Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, gamely) in particular suffers as a character, and the path to the climax and denouement feels awkward in spots; the legwork to get there not entirely weak, but lacking nonetheless.
Still, the movie does benefit tremendously from its focused structure, in particular the intertwining of Katniss’ mission and the rebels’ as they take the Capitol. This is something none of the previous installments had the luxury of, with the games the central entity in the first two movies, and Mockingjay Part I marking essentially a recovery and scouting period. To its credit, Part II runs with that action. The traps on the Capitol streets effectively recall arenas past, even as the open warfare there and underground offer novel backdrops for the series. Even during the down moments, the group – and Katniss in particular – is forced to deal with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who has been manipulated by Snow. The movie is by far the most intense of the series, one of the most intense PG-13 movies I can recall. It all gels.
Of course, none of it would work without the titular Mockingjay. For all the flaws of the series, the Katniss character has remained the one constant, and Jennifer Lawrence has been every bit up to the task. She is captivating in every scene. The resolve as she makes her decision to go after Snow, the lingering but implicit good-bye to her sister Primrose (their relationship still the heart of the series), the flicker of frustration when she’s reduced to a propaganda tool. Her anguish, her guilt, her anger: it’s a remarkable performance that gives Part II its center, and one enhanced by the terrific Sutherland as her counter. Only the movie’s occasional lapses into young adult mode – with the love triangle surfacing with Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) – detract from the character. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often.
Thus marks the end of the Hunger Games series then. It’s strange. I enjoyed three of the four movies, and thought Catching Fire in particular was a phenomenal effort. They were all incredibly well done, blockbusters but grounded, with heart. The series was impeccably cast, surrounding Lawrence with a host of terrific if underutilized talent – Sutherland, Moore, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, among others (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s presence was greatly missed in the final scenes). But I still can’t help but get the feeling that there’s something missing. The lackluster world building in the original, the decision to split Mockingjay up – the series became a bit more disconnected than it should been. Somehow, the Hunger Games series seems less than the sum of its parts.