Credit: Murray Close

Mockingjay is the most polarizing novel in the Hunger Games saga. Although most agree that it’s Suzanne Collins’ weakest book, some defend it; others claim it’s actually the series’ best. However, all three camps agree that, in Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins takes things to extremes, tackling traitors, murder, war, and one of the most haunting, realistic portrayals of violence in YA literature.

That being said, Mockingjay is also a study of post-traumatic stress. After two books of children both killing and being killed, Collins uses Mockingjay to finally give her characters time to be damaged. That divide—one half of the book focuses on extreme emotion, while the other half focuses on extreme action—keeps Mockingjay from flowing as smoothly as the rest of the series. But it’s also why Mockingjay—Part 1, if done correctly, should make for the best film in the Hunger Games franchise thus far.

No, it’s not often that the third film is the best in a given trilogy, especially when said trilogy actually includes more than three films. But Mockingjay represents a rare opportunity for a number of reasons. First and foremost, audiences have had two movies to get invested in the lives of these characters. Theoretically, they care more about them now than they ever have before. Every tear will be that much more heartbreaking; every betrayal will be that much more shocking. Quite simply, the stakes are higher now—especially since, for the first time in the franchise’s history, these characters will really get time to breathe and develop in Mockingjay.

Both The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire presented a lot of ground to cover in two-and-a-half hours. Much of that time was taken up with action scenarios. In Mockingjay, though, we’ll watch as less important characters finally make their way to the forefront, while established characters start to cope with what’s happened as a result of those action scenarios.

For the first time, Gale will be more than just Katniss’ best friend and one third of a love triangle. In the book, he becomes a fighter; he stands on his own two feet; he makes mistakes. He finally plays a real role in the action. Mockingjay gives Prim an opportunity to become something other than Katniss’ younger sister—she’s now a caretaker, of both her sister and the sick members of District 13. Finnick, the Capitol’s pretty boy-turned-ally, is left with emotional scars that expose a much uglier side of him. It’s those scars that force him to relate to Katniss when the two find an awful common ground—both of their loved ones are tortured in order to break them.

As for Katniss, this film marks the first time since Prim’s name was called that she’s able to stop and think, to look at the person she’s become and decide that she doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror… then do something about it. Katniss isn’t just a super-rebel Mockingjay who willingly leads people into battle. Her inner turmoil is much more complicated than that, and Mockingjay is her opportunity to wallow, get angry, and get revenge.

And with that comes an extraordinary acting opportunity for the very capable Jennifer Lawrence. This film will show Katniss going through dozens of emotions, from sadness to confusion to self-hatred to anger to unbearable loss to even more unbearable love. Balancing that will be the biggest challenge Lawrence has faced in these films—and I’m not just talking about the pivotal scene in which Katniss finally breaks down. In Mockingjay, every move Katniss makes comes about after a large amount of internal debate—and without a voiceover, Lawrence will be left to visualize that process for her character using only her face, body language, and voice.

The same can be said for Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta. For the most part, Hutcherson’s part in the films hasn’t been very challenging. Peeta has always been Katniss’ rock—the guy who loves her and will do anything to keep her alive. But in Mockingjay, Peeta is changed forever. Throughout the book, he goes from being the guy who will do anything to save Katniss to the guy who will do anything to kill her, before he eventually becomes the guy who will never quite be the same. Hutcherson will be tasked with be balancing Peeta’s roles as the ultimate good guy, the ultimate bad guy, and the guy who has no idea that he’s a bit of both—which means we’ll finally get to see what he can really do as an actor.

All this, plus a setting that’s practically designed for powerful imagery—what with the destruction of District 12 and the entire design of an underground District 13—means Mockingjay is built to have a lasting emotional impact on its audience. But more than that, Mockingjay‘s setting will be an opportunity to build tension. Technically, Mockingjay—Part 1 will cover more ground than any of the previous films. But with other Districts being obliterated, and much of the focus surrounding District 13, the parameters of the film will make it feel more confined, which ideally will give the movie a chance to really takes its time and focus on the details. Although some people remember Mockingjay for its battle scenes, the majority of the book is about plotting: Coin’s plan to take down President Snow, the scheme to rescue Peeta, Katniss finding it within herself to fight. The film will have an opportunity to zero in, making sure every shot and line serves a purpose—and ultimately build to an action-packed Part 2.

All of this is to say that to really be successful, Part 1 itself shouldn’t be action-packed. If done correctly, it’ll stand instead as a character study that doubles as the most adult Hunger Games movie yet. Much of the book feels almost too mature for the YA label, and the movie should follow suit. A highly disturbing tale about a society that values only the rich, and the one individual who fights back even though she’s broken beyond repair? A heavy bummer of a book. But as a carefully made movie—and one starring Jennifer Lawrence—it just might mean great things.

The Hunger Games
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