The first Hunger Games movie hit theaters on March 23, 2012. It was the dawn of a new moment. The Harry Potter movie franchise had just ended. One final Twilight film loomed on the horizon. Shailene Woodley had not yet claimed every young adult novel for herself. And Jennifer Lawrence was still “rising star Jennifer Lawrence,” not “Oscar-winning megastar and meme-friend Jennifer Lawrence.” Hunger Games was a literary phenomenon: Would the movies follow suit?
This weekend, the fourth and final Hunger Games movie arrives. Mockingjay – Part 2 caps a victorious run for the franchise. The first three films grossed $2.3 billion at the global box office. Not bad for a series that starts with a downer concept — kids kill kids! — and then gets bleaker. By the end of Mockingjay – Part 2, the bomb-blackened streets of Panem reflect the burnt-to-a-crisp emotional state of Katniss Everdeen. And the films are still less dark than Suzanne Collins’ original books — and less funny, but we’ll get to that.
Comparing the Hunger Games movies might sound a bit strange. After Gary Ross kickstarted the franchise, Francis Lawrence has helmed every ensuing entry. The director brings a steady hand to the material, with occasional flourishes and lots of grayscale. The films aren’t different the way, say, the Alien movies are all different. But they’re all an intriguing mulch of genre tones: Future-weird dystopia and backwoods thriller, media-savvy satire and corroded-soul war movie. They’re all too damn long, but they’re also all interesting — even if one of them is barely even a movie.4. Mockingjay – Part 1
The third book in Collins’ trilogy offers a difficult challenge to an adaptation. Mockingjay isn’t much longer than the first two books, but it sprawls carefully. Nominally, it should be the most action-packed installment — its subject is nothing less than a revolution across the entirety of known human civilization — but the first half is talky and cerebral. Its focused on the statecraft of wartime, not the violence.
This becomes especially clear when, for reasons of wanting more of that sweet franchise money, Lionsgate split Mockingjay into two separate movies. Book-splitting got normalized with the final Harry Potter and Twilight entries. It worked with Harry Potter, which made the first Deathly Hallows into a road-trip heist movie. It kind of worked with Twilight: Nothing happens in Breaking Dawn – Part 1, but nothing happens in any Twilight movie. Unfortunately, Mockingjay – Part 1 feels more like the first Hobbit: an exercise in table-setting.
Lacking any real forward momentum, Francis Lawrence and his screenwriters try to keep the wheels spinning with entertaininment. Mostly absent from the book, Effie gets promoted to support staff, bringing Elizabeth Banks to a table of wildly overqualified wacky sidekicks that also includes Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julianne Moore. And there’s a flat-out brilliant sequence where Lawrence sings “The Hanging Tree,” a quiet moment that cuts to a populist uprising worthy of Eisenstein. But it’s a delaying tactic: you could skip from Catching Fire to Mockingjay – Part 2 without missing much. Unless you love gray corridors. If you love gray corridors, this is the Hunger Games for you.
Credit Gary Ross for doing a lot with a lot less. The franchise’s first entry has about half the budget of Mockingjay – Part 2, with none of the more obviously showy action scenes that define the latter books in the series. For a lot of the running time, the first Hunger Games is a movie about a girl in a forest wracked with doubt and anxiety: Not exactly the easiest thing to dramatize onscreen. And Ross also has to introduce all the core concepts that define the franchise, transitioning from the outer-frontier Appalachia of District 12 to the gauzy-gonzo fascist decadence of the Capitol.
He does a fine job, even if Hunger Games never flies as high as it should. Ross’ best decision was maybe his only important one: As Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence immediately ascended to Hollywood stardom. Ross isn’t great with the high-tension action inside the Arena, but he gets plenty of mileage from just pointing a camera at Lawrence’s face. And the film’s sanitized aspects aren’t necessarily Ross’s fault — although the PG-13 bloodlessness of the franchise neutralizes a lot of the potent power of Collins’ violent imagination. The first film is less glossy than the sequels, but Ross finds time for some outré touches. Witness: The comeback of Wes Bentley, cuckoo beard-waves and all.
Still, if we’re crediting Ross for Lawrence, we also need to give him demerits for some other choices. The miscasting of Josh Hutcherson is understandable, maybe even acceptable: Peeta is supposed to be powers-of-ten less threatening than Katniss. (Gale isn’t around for much of Hunger Games, and Liam Hemsworth is best when he’s offscreen.) The movie has some fun with the Capitol’s candy-colored media frenzy, but it also promotes President Snow to a looming supervillain. That gives Donald Sutherland a lot to play with, but also dampens the book’s power. In the movie, Snow is an obvious bad guy. In the book, the bad guy was the audience. Us, really.
It takes awhile for the last Hunger Games movie to get started, but it does. By this point, the Hunger Games ensemble has swollen past the breaking point. Newcomer Gwendoline Christie is in maybe three shots, while the film tries to find final-act grace points for everyone: Effie, Haymitch, Plutarch, Katniss’ sister, Katniss’ mom, even freaking Buttercup. In the first hour, people keep on waking up in hospital beds and having long conversations about distant battles. (There’s also a lot of focus on the brainwashing of Peeta, a subplot from the book that depends on all the chemistry Hutcherson and Lawrence don’t have.)
But around the halfway point, Mockingjay – Part 2 goes to war. The supporting cast shrinks to a squad of badasses with memorable faces, set on a suicide mission through the bombed-out streets of the Capitol. It’s the most straightforward plot the series has ever had. (Another title for this last movie: Kill Snow.) And it gives Francis Lawrence the opportunity to showcase his talents as a stylist, with grody blackwater assaults and subterranean mutate fight scenes giving way to helplessly resonant images of war-torn refugees searching for safety.
Mockingjay – Part 2 blunts the raw power of the book — something I’ll get into in an essay next week. But the power of Collins’ original novel is so raw that even a blunt version stings more than most action blockbusters. The death toll piles higher, the moral framework for Katniss’ mission gets murkier, and the film’s definition of Evil gets hazier. It’s a worthy conclusion to the franchise: a revolutionary movie skeptical of its own revolutionaries.
The sequel’s opening scene sets the tone: Katniss hunts through a forest, silent, mournful, riddled with PTSD and waking nightmares. It’s late winter, but the ice is thawing; her troubles are just beginning. The best Hunger Games movie is a bummer, like all the others, but there’s an urgency to Katniss’ despair, a sense of rebel energy building all across her world. Catching Fire ratchets up the jackboot totalitarianism: In one of the franchise’s most disturbing scenes, Gale gets whipped by stormtrooper-analogue Romulus Thread. When Katniss stops the whipping, its a point-of-no-return moment for her as a symbol of power.
But Catching Fire is also the most indulgent movie in the series. Francis Lawrence got his start in music videos and the goth-chic Keanu Reeves gem Constantine, and he has a blast with the wilder element of Capitol living. This is the movie that best threads the needle between the series’ passionate advocacy and blistering satire. Newcomers Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, and Hoffman all get good moments, but the movie’s mascot is unquestionably Jena Malone, playing the maniacal Johanna as the funniest and most homicidal person in the room.
Catching Fire is the most sci-fi in terms of pure spectacle. In contrast to the duller tones of the first movie’s Arena, the sequel’s clockwork rain forest is a garden of weirdo delights. But like Ross before him, Francis Lawrence knows his best special effect is his star. The final shot of Catching Fire is a close-up on Katniss’ face. Everyone she knows is dead; her whole world is finished. She’s sad, then defiant. She has work to do. The Capitol’s troubles are just beginning.