I’m writing this in a little Jamaican cafe around the corner from the Brixton Ritzy Picturehouse. I’ve just paid £15 for my ticket to see the final part of the saga, which was coming under fire for being a divided third novel before it even went into production. Predictably, Mockingjay Part 1 came under fire for being inert – it’s the criticism you have to make if you think it should have been one film for the novel as a whole. Catching Fire seemed to get pretty positive reviews on the whole, as the film which had the most tangible grab-bag of desirable qualities: an emotional heft, a political satire, tense gladiatorial eliminations, and a cliff-hanger ending. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in lacking real appreciation for the starting point of the saga, a wuss’s Battle Royale. The box office for each successive film has increased, and I’ve no doubt that Part 2 will find its way into the top echelons of this year’s films as a whole. Whether it’ll have the staying power of, say, Inside Out, which was in the UK top-10 for 16 weeks, nobody can say for sure, but as the final part in a beloved trilogy, I’ve got even money that we’ll be revisiting this franchise progressively for a generation. It’s appeal is certainly broader than, say, Twilight, though its fans are not so fervent, and it’s prompted a slew of close relatives and imitations, which is always a great sign of longevity to come – provided a protege doesn’t outshine it.
The most fundamental question I’ve got is simply, what’s it all about? What mythic structure informs and drives its actions? Have we got a classic thousand-faced hero’s journey on our hands? I don’t think so, and I think that’s a key structural part of its appeal, and a structural point of differentiation with the masculine fantasy of Beowulf or Odysseus. To the extent that Katniss goes on a quest when entering the Hunger Games, it’s a quest in a fishbowl, a journey that can literally go nowhere. The “monsters” she faces are deliberately her analogues, and the point of the film is that they are not easily “othered” as Orcs or Balrogs or whatever are. We recognise different levels of moral virtue in the contestants, but they are all definitely humanised and human. An analogy would be the Athenian sacrifices to Minos, without the Minotaur. The tributes are straightforwardly a sacrifice to the monster that is the Capital, a sacrifice made to demonstrate their ongoing subjugation, and President Snow is not subtle in making that point at various times in the three films. The rebellion has been crushed and the Hunger Games are the punishment for trying, the reminder of the consequences of disobedience. I think some critics have seen the Hunger Games fulfilling half of the classic equation, “Bread and Circuses”, when they are virtually the opposite.
The confusion comes from the description of the “Victors”, a point made by virtually all of the victors with enough lines to make any points. They’re in fact survivors, who’ve essentially refused to be one of the sacrifices. From what we see in the games, none of the victors ever goes quietly. Katniss and Peta, by being prepared to kill themselves rather than commit that last act of murder necessary to survive strip this protective nomenclature from the games and show it for the horrific act that it really is. Katniss becomes not a symbol for victory, but for subjugation. The salute her followers make is precisely a signal that death is preferable to playing by the rules of the Capital, and the hugely costly ploys the rebels are shown making demonstrates the acceptance of this psychology. The decision by the Capital to have a champion-of-champions games rams home this point, and must surely be a substantial contributing factor for the strength of the uprising.
What this leaves us is a first film whose whole structure and action leads step-by-step to a single defining moment, of the would-be suicide. This to me is both unsatisfying and inefficient. The inherent horrific nature of the games is abundantly apparent; going through the motions provides a substantial number of, if you like, “action points” that creates the impression that a lot is happening. If you try and write down “what happens” in the first film, there’s a long list of “and then this horrible thing happened”, but it’s all simply scaffolding for the singular concluding blow to the idea of the Hunger Games as a mass entertainment and crowd-pacifier. Simplistically, it’s a one-act story, and hence dull. I took a couple of goes to get through the film on Netflix, and if I hadn’t been unemployed at the time, I doubt I’d have found the time to persevere.
The second film is, to a large extent, just what President Snow represents it as: a doubling-down on the basic strategy of the games. What adds interest and complexity to this is not the “love triangle” that was a patent mis-direct, but the very real and simple relationship dynamic between Katniss and Peta. Perhaps I missed some subtle cues, but I never for a second found the supposed love-match between Katniss and Gail remotely interesting or convincing. Whereas, with Peta, the structural arrangement of their lives made the relationship difficult. Two perspectives: firstly, if Katniss hadn’t real attachment to Peta, why not simply kill him? She’d reluctantly killed others before. Secondly, she could never acknowledge any positive feelings toward Peta because that had been sublimated into the mythology by Snow – turning her victory, such as it was, into a defeat. Katniss is a character utterly ruled by her emotions, and to think she acted at any time against her emotional inclinations is to argue that black is white.
Which leads us to the third film, which I’ve heard and read described many times as padded and somewhat dull. “Not enough happens” is the basic refrain. That may be true, inasmuch as to simply list this happens then that happens and then this other thing goes on… but there is a far more complex emotional scenario going on in the lives of the characters, especially Katniss. She has been a very one-dimensional character living a completely over-determined life in the first two films, and the invitation in Part 1 was to embrace that iconic identity and become “The Mockingjay” as part of the propaganda war. Katniss must now deal with having to make real decisions. Loving or not loving Peta, for example, is now a choice that makes little difference to anyone other than herself, it is a free choice. Her value as a rallying point for the information war is important, but it’s clear that it can’t be forced upon her. What that means is that from scene to scene, there’s uncertainty about what will happen next, compared to the first film especially which felt over-determined by the needs of plot and entertainment spectacle. Perhaps for the first time in the franchise I found myself actively interested in and engaging with the characters as people, rather than one-dimensional symbolic story entities (combatant, victor, lover, etc).
Once a world begins to become complex, it naturally gets harder to maintain an “actions per minute” rate appropriate to a simple skop skeit en donner, and I think that’s really tricked simple viewers into thinking it is dramatically inert when in fact it’s the most charged, the most interesting, and the freest from the basic driving action that I began this post by discussing. My worry about Part 2 is that it will bog down into the choreography of another war film, with its rote story beats and forced actions-per-minute rate, and hence lose the emotional depth and complexity that made Part 1 the most compelling of the films for me.
Well, ready or not, my time’s up. I’m going to write my post for Part 2 straight afterwards, but I’ll only publish in 48 hours, so anyone who’s interested has a chance to read this before that.