Mockingjay: The brilliance of the book and how the movies almost ruined it
Entertainment Geekly: The book is better. The book is about why the book is better.
Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay is 398 pages long. Lionsgate split Mockingjay in to two movies, because Lionsgate is a business that wants to make money. When a single short book gets made into two movies, it’s often more interesting to see what they left out. A moment like this:
I’m rising to my feet when a woman throws open the door. She wears a bright turquoise silk robe embroidered with exotic birds. Her magenta hair’s fluffed up like a cloud and decorated with gilded butterflies. Grease from the half-eaten sausage she’s holding smears her lipstick. The expression on her face says she recognizes me. She opens her mouth to call for help.
Without hesitation, I shoot her through the heart.
That is a sequence you might call cinematic. Every sentence like an individual shot from a sequence, maybe shot in slow-motion to heighten the tension. The door, opening; the silk robe, shimmering with birds; the crazy hair, those butterflies; the grease, smearing; the woman’s expression, shifting; her mouth, opening; Katniss, unslinging her bow and firing an arrow; the woman, dead.
And yet, that scene is nowhere in the nominally cinematic The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. The movie is too gray for bright turquoise, too antiseptic for half-eaten sausage grease, too offensively tasteful to let national treasure Jennifer Lawrence shoot an unarmed woman through the heart. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 is actually a decent movie, especially when you grade on the curve of PG-13 blockbusters. But the movie can’t compare to its source material. Mockingjay is a towering achievement, a brilliant conclusion to a popular narrative that attacks its own popularity, a dark and sad and funny and above all angry work of political theater.
What strikes you most of all, when you read Mockingjay, is Collins’ absolute clarity of purpose. We are used to endings that stumble, desperate for catharsis, overstuffed with final-act hyperbole. Collins refuses catharsis, sidesteps hyperbole. There is an entire war fought in Mockingjay, but our lead character experiences it from a distance. When Katniss finally joins the fight, no action she takes ever proves especially meaningful for her revolution. Mockingjay is a book that does not believe in heroes — a book, actually, that is about how most popular notions of “heroism” are constructed by powerful people and marketed to less powerful people. Katniss is at her most heroic when she is being filmed: She wants to be a soldier, but her real skill lies in marketing.
To be fair, Katniss tries to perform heroic acts, with uniformly neutral or negative effect. She fires an exploding arrow at enemy planes only after those planes destroy a hospital full of cute refugee children. She leads her squad on a suicide mission, and most of them die, and she never completes the mission. She convinces her allies not to kill everyone in District 2 — to give the citizens and noncombatants an opportunity to live — and gives a passionate speech about how everyone in all the Districts should unite against their common enemy. It is a beautiful speech. When she’s done, this happens:
My words hang in the air. I look to the screen, hoping to see them recording some wave of reconciliation going through the crowd. Instead I watch myself get shot on television.
Hold on that line, because it’s funny, and weird, and it gets back to what I’m talking about with Collins’ clarity of purpose. The Hunger Games origin story is etched in media history: Collins, flipping channels between some dumb reality competition show and our dumb news networks covering one Middle East war or other. There have been dystopian media satires before, but Hunger Games plays around specifically with the media ideas of our reality TV show moment: fame, and the Constructed Persona vs. the Actual Person, and the weirdness of how some people love reality TV because it’s real and some people love reality TV because it isn’t. “I watch myself get shot on television.” Like everything Katniss says, it’s so straightforward, so you-are-there immediate, that you might miss the droll humor.
Jennifer Lawrence never got to play that side of Katniss. Actually, it’s a revelation to reread Mockingjay now, after four years of four Hunger Games movies, and remember that Katniss is sarcastic, angry, and confused. Emotional, too. Typical line from Mockingjay: “I cross some line into hysteria and there’s a needle in my arm and the world slips away.” Katniss is a 17-year-old who has lived her whole life under a repressive regime. She has spent several days of the past year inside two different arenas full of people whose only goal in life is killing her. In Mockingjay, she finds herself in a last refuge full of people who want to use her and then dispose of her.
So this line is meaningful in ways that go deeper than the usual teen-angst cynicism: “I hate them. But of course, I hate almost everybody now. Myself more than anyone.” Hopelessness, nihilism, self-loathing — all this plus a weird sense of humor. When you read Mockingjay, you realize that Katniss has less in common with Movie-Katniss than with another weird teenaged loner embroiled in a fatal underclass uprising: she’s Winona Ryder in Heathers.
Heathers would never get made today. You hear this all the time. Heathers is a movie about kids killing kids. It is hilarious. The Hunger Games is a movie about kids killing kids. That first film in the series is dull as a plastic spoon, but that dullness serves a point. It lets the filmmakers pretend they are treating sensitive material sensitively. There’s a moment in Mockingjay when Katniss, walking the streets of the Capitol undercover, spots a little girl in a yellow coat. You think that little girl might recognize her. The movie recreates this scene. But then some rebels attack, and everyone starts shooting at everyone, and guess what moment the movie doesn’t recreate:
Another wave of bullets slices across the chest of her yellow coat, staining it with red, knocking the girl onto her back.
Mockingjay – Part 2 is a PG-13 movie, and PG-13 movies don’t kill cute little girls, and they certainly don’t show crimson red blood staining her beautiful yellow coat. But blood is important. Certainly, blood is important to Collins. She mentions it frequently: blood on uniforms, blood on tiles, blood on white muttation skin.
And let’s be clear: Blood onscreen also looks awesome. But just because it looks awesome doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a moral point. You think of the end of The Wild Bunch, with our “heroes” blowing men to pieces until they get blown to pieces, every bullet exploding from blood squibs rigged on the front and back of the actors’ bodies. You think of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity, every streetfight mad waves of blood and viscera crashing like waves on a disappearing beach. You think, for that matter, of Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, another movie about kids killing kids for the entertainment of the masses, where the hero’s best friend gets his head blown off in the first reel.
I don’t thing Collins knew about Battle Royale when she wrote The Hunger Games. It’s not everyone’s job to know about every weird awesome cult work of fiction. But I bet she would dig the movie. Battle Royale might actually be less violent than Mockingjay. There’s a beautiful and terrifying paragraph on page 207, when Katniss watches her forces — the good guys, remember — destroy a mountain refuge:
I imagine the hell inside the mountain. Sirens wailing. Lights flickering into darkness. Stone dust choking the air. The shrieks of panicked, trapped beings stumbling madly for a way out, only to find the entrances, the launchpad, the ventilation shafts themselves clogged with earth and rock trying to force its way in. Live wires flung free, fires breaking out, rubble making a familiar path a maze. People slamming, shoving, scrambling like ants as the hill presses in, threatening to crush their fragile shells.
And that’s the rare sequence without explicit gore. Later, as Katniss wanders the streets of the Capitol, we get this chestnut:
A pod’s activated ahead of us, releasing a gush of steam that parboils everyone in its path, leaving the victims intestine-pink and very dead.
Intestine-pink. Parboils. And there’s that weird wit in that last line: Not dead, but “very dead.” That paragraph continues:
There’s nothing to do but move forward, killing whoever comes into our path. Screaming people, bleeding people, dead people everywhere. As we reach the next corner, the entire block ahead of us lights up with a rich purple glow. We backpedal, hunker down in a stairwell, and squint into the light. Something’s happening to those illuminated by it. They’re assaulted by… what? A sound? A wave? A laser? Weapons fall from their hands, fingers clutch their faces, as blood sprays from all visible orifices— eyes, noses, mouths, ears. In less than a minute, everyone’s dead and the glow vanishes. I grit my teeth and run, leaping over the bodies, feet slipping in the gore. The wind whips the snow into blinding swirls but doesn’t block out the sound of another wave of boots headed our way.
Madness! Madness! Here is how good Collins is at what she is doing: On page 341 of the third book in a dystopian fantasy, nominally written for a teenaged audience, she gives us a sequence that can only really feel like something from a World War I memoir, or a Russian novel, or a Vietnam movie: The kind of story that is ultimately about pointlessness, set in a conflict with no clear moral or obvious happy-ending narrative. And Collins makes this sequence exciting, and terrifying.
Is it over-the-top? Italics and caps mine: FROM ALL VISIBLE ORIFICES. PG-13 movies can’t do a scene like this, which is fine, but maybe some stories shouldn’t be PG-13.
I get it, though. It’s hard. How many filmmakers can create a movie that is simultaneously self-indulgent silly and completely morally serious? How many filmmakers would include that scene of Katniss killing a random bystander — an unarmed citizen of the Capitol — and get at the snapshot horror of how Collins renders that scene, all those little details Katniss notices of the woman she’s about to kill? And how many filmmakers could include that scene, and the sequence a little later, when Katniss watches the Capitol propaganda program “do a tragic tribute to the woman lying where we left her, with my arrow still in her heart. Someone has redone her makeup for the cameras.“
Check that: The Capitol found a corpse with an arrow in it, and sent a makeup team to make that corpse look prettier. Who could pull off a scene like that, and get at how it’s funny and scary, and also connect it to the larger idea behind Mockingjay: that so much of what we think of as “reality” is controlled? At one point in Mockingjay, someone tells Katniss: “You’re going to be the best-dressed rebel in history.” That sounds like a line from a David Simon show — muttered with rueful self-awareness, by a cop or a criminal or a politician or anyone in a line of work too complicated for anyone to understand except in some false binary universe where “right” and “wrong” are actual concrete things that exist.
RELATED: Ranking the Hunger Games movies
How many filmmakers can be serious and silly, can indulge the beauty of onscreen violence but also make that violence symbolize true human horror? George Miller, for sure. Quentin Tarantino, definitely. Stanley Kubrick, but that’s like saying Da Vinci could do watercolors. Paul Verhoeven, although sometimes he’s just indulgent. Kathryn Bigelow, although her last couple movies are too serious to realize how silly they are. Lina Wertmuller, circa Swept Away. John Frankenheimer, circa Manchurian Candidate.
Notably, none of these people directed Water for Elephants.
Mockingjay knows that it’s not the most lighthearted read. “Frankly, I could use a little sugarcoating,” Katniss says, almost as a throwaway line. But there are no throwaway moments in Mockingjay. Collins can do the horrors of war, and she can do the hilarity of statecraft during wartime. The first half of Mockingjay mostly banishes Katniss far away from the frontline. You might come to Mockingjay expecting a big awesome action thriller, but the first half of the book is mostly about the war’s PR campaign.
Coincidentally, lots of people don’t like Mockingjay. There are many reasons, but these are the ones I hear most often:
1. Mockingjay is boring.
2. Mockingjay is disappointing.
3. Mockingjay ends with Katniss and Peeta together, and nobody likes Peeta, and absolutely nobody likes the implication that Peeta made Katniss have children she didn’t really want to have.
I get it. We’re used to endings that satisfy us in the most obvious ways. We want catharsis. That doesn’t mean a happy ending: We’re perfectly happy with Walter White going out in a blaze of glory against bad guys so irredeemable that they are actually Nazis. And fan culture demands a certain amount of i’s dotted and t’s crossed: We want check-ins with all of our favorite characters. Most people don’t like it when favorite characters die brutal meaningless deaths, or when they inadvertently kill other favorite characters. Most people want a hero’s actions to have meaning.
Mockingjay knows we all want this. The TL;DR of this essay is: The book is better. I know that’s a lame thing to say, obvious, reactionary, Comic Book Guy-ish.
But Mockingjay is literally about why books are so often better than movies, because it is about how the media-entertainment complex can take any idea — even a popular, bestselling book series! — and sugarcoat it even further. “The very notion that I’m devoting any thought to who I want presented as my lover, given our current circumstances, is demeaning.” That’s Katniss, throwing shade on the whole ‘shipper concept.
But Collins is too smart for potshots: So much of Mockingjay is actively deconstructing media construction. Typical line: “With my acid-damaged hair, sunburned skin, and ugly scars, the prep team has to make me pretty and then damage, burn, and scar me in a more attractive way.” The central running idea in Mockingjay is fascinating: Katniss doesn’t actually do anything substantive to help the rebellion, but her mere existence comes to symbolize something greater. Constantly in Mockingjay, Katniss is meeting actual rebels, soldiers, people on the frontline. Many of these people think she is a joke, call her “Mockingjay” as a taunting insult. The Christopher Nolan Batman movies circle around the idea of symbolism, too, but Batman always needs to save the city in an actual concrete way, too.
Mockingjay could just be a funny satire of war. There are lines that seem to come right out of Dr. Strangelove, or Wag the Dog: “The television crew means to provide a sense of heightened jeopardy by releasing smoke bombs and adding gunfire sound effects.”
But just when you’re ready to laugh, Collins throws in something like the prep team. Remember them? Venia, Flavius, and Octavia: supporting-cast avatars of the decadence of the Capitol? Katniss finds them in District 13, half-naked, bruised, and shackled to the wall. “The stink of unwashed bodies, stale urine, and infection breaks through the cloud of antiseptic.” They’ve been imprisoned for stealing bread, that most Les Miserables of minor infractions, punishable here with the Abu Ghraib treatment.
After Katniss frees her prep team, her old pal Gale gets confused. “Why do you care so much about your prep team?” he asks, and feel free to overly interpret that he asks that question while literally skinning a rabbit. To Gale, Venia and Flavius and Octavia are The Enemy: denizens of the Capitol, aligned with the people who destroyed his district. Katniss disagrees, but she doesn’t quite know why. (She admits to us: “I struggle to find a logical position.”)
“I guess I’m defending anyone who’s treated like that for taking a slice of bread,” she concludes. “Maybe it reminds me too much of what happened to you over a turkey!”
This is what’s great about Katniss in Mockingjay. She is confused, often: The genuine moral confusion of a smart person in wartime, and the genuine moral confusion of a young person who realizes all the adults are just making it up as they go along.
Compare her to Gale, a character mostly absent from the first two books, who has one of the most fascinating arcs in Mockingjay. Gale is someone who is absolutely sure he is doing the right thing. Early on, we overhear how Gale has been working with military scientist Beetee on a new kind of bomb. There is a detonation; the wounded scream; their allies rush to help them; a second detonation kills those people, too.
“That seems to be crossing some kind of line,” says Katniss. “So anything goes? I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being.”
Gale responds: “Beetee and I have been following the same rule book President Snow used when he hijacked Peeta.”
This is Gale’s perspective, reiterated and forwarded throughout the book. “If I could hit a button and kill every living soul working for the Capitol, I would do it. Without hesitation.” In District 2, it’s Gale who suggests the plan that will kill everyone in the mountain hideout, even noncombatants, even children. “So what?” he says. “We’ll never be able to trust them again.” Gale has lost just as much as Katniss, but his response is radically different. Collins outlines that late in the book, when the two former hunting partners hear what happened to a redheaded girl from the woods.
She died, of course. “She was lucky,” Peeta tells them. “They used too much voltage and her heart stopped right off.” Her friend Darius wasn’t so lucky: “It took days to finish him off. Beating, cutting off parts. They kept asking him questions, but he couldn’t speak, he just made these horrible animal sounds. They didn’t want information, you know? They wanted me to see it.”
They didn’t want information: I think about that line every time I watch an entertainment about nominally good guys who torture people. In entertainment, torture always has a purpose. In real life: Well, you decide. In Mockingjay, Katniss takes these deaths personally:
They lost their lives because of me. I add them to my personal list of kills that began in the arena and now includes thousands. When I look up, I see it has taken Gale differently. His expression says that there are not enough mountains to crush, enough cities to destroy. It promises death.
I don’t think Suzanne Collins likes Gale, or what he represents: the idea that violence begotten by violence is acceptable, that war should be won by any means necessary. “That kind of thinking,” Katniss tells Gale, “You could turn it into an argument for killing anyone at any time. You could justify sending kids into the Hunger Games to prevent the districts from getting out of line.”
I used to hate Gale. Rereading, I’m struck by how Collins never lets you forget why he becomes what he becomes. Here is a young boy who has lost everything, has seen his home turned to ash. Why wouldn’t he want revenge? It’s harder to imagine someone like Katniss, who experiences every manner of violation and still can’t stop seeing her enemies as human beings.
But just because Gale is understandable doesn’t make him right. By book’s end, that bomb he designed has been implemented, maybe: In the final act of the war, District 13 stages an assault on the children of the Capitol and the rebellion. The plan works; the war ends. Was it a justifiable act, killing all those kids to save a nation? How many kids would you kill to end a war?
Gale is the avatar for everyone who loves Man of Steel because it is “tough.” Gale is the kind of person who would make American Sniper or Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor or Black Hawk Down: war movies that pretend to be apolitical and argue that the real drama is in focusing on the toll modern war takes on soldiers. Those movies can never really identify the reasons behind the war: that would be too much of a bummer. It’s what makes modern war cinema different from, say, the great Vietnam movies, which preferred to start from the idea that war is madness.
Gale’s toughness is false, though, his cynicism cheap. I know a lot of people who don’t like Mockingjay because it’s dark, people who think the whole vogue for apocalyptic fiction is rooted in some kind of chic nihilism. But in Mockingjay, all that darkness has a point. Katniss’ toughness is different from Gale’s: She is a humanist, but it’s hard-won. She has lost everything, but that experience has only taught her that no one should lose everything. Compare that to Gale. He doesn’t know if he killed Prim, but that doesn’t matter: everything we have heard about Gale in Mockingjay proves that he would have killed Prim, and all those children, for the greater glory of the revolution.
(For his sins, he receives a fancy job in District 2. Every day, he probably passes people on the street who were inside of that mountain refuge. People Gale would have killed, gladly, without a second thought, if Katniss weren’t there to stop him.)
Is Gale a hero? A villain? Those terms don’t exist in Mockingjay, not really, and maybe they don’t actually exist in the kind of war Mockingjay depicts. There’s a great movie most people have never seen called I Was Nineteen. It was made in East Germany in 1968, directed and co-written by Konrad Wolf, a German child who moved to Moscow with his family when he was just a boy; when he was 17, he joined the Red Army; by the time he was 19, he was marching toward Berlin.
The film follows a Wolf analogue named Gregor, an impossibly young-looking teen soldier traveling with his squad across the ruin of Germany. The movie is digressive, tangential, occasionally New Wave meta: There are romantic sequences set to music on the countryside, and documentary sequences about the gas chamber. Gregor meets so many people: people who regret Nazism, people who think Hitler can still win the war, soldiers ready to surrender, concentration camp survivors, soldiers who promise to never stop fighting.
It’s all a bit insane, especially watched from this far point in history, when you know there is no happy ending awaiting anyone. The lead character is a German by birth, a Soviet soldier by trade: It only takes a bit of extra-filmic context to realize that you are watching a movie about the apocalyptic moment when one totalitarian regime ends and a new one begins. But that strange, sad, violent, tragic, thoughtful, deeply angry film is the only movie that feels even close to the best parts of Mockingjay. The lead character is curious, and sad, and hopeful; he sees the best in people, and the worst.
I Was Nineteen was made under the Soviet regime. Somehow, it still feels less like propaganda than The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.
Question: Do you think it’s okay to hack into the personal files of innocent people? Related: Do you think women deserve to be paid as much as men?
Unless you’re a monstrosity, you answered “No” to the first question, and “Yes” to the second one. As you may know, last year, someone hacked into Sony and unearthed untold exabytes of data about the company’s employees. E-mails, social security numbers, their kids‘ social security numbers — any information that should have been private became public, including that national treasure Jennifer Lawrence made less on American Hustle than Jeremy Renner
Over the weekend, Maureen Dowd at The New York Times wrote a brilliantly panoramic piece exploring Hollywood’s terrible, retrograde, sexist system of income inequality. In that piece, Dowd specifically codified the Sony hack as an inciting incident for the current conversation about this topic:
First, there was the Sony Pictures hack, which revealed the crazy fact that Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams received less money than Jeremy Renner for American Hustle. Below the level of the studio head Amy Pascal, it turned out that the top executives at Sony were nearly all white and male.
Coincidentally, Amanda Hess at Slate wrote an equally fascinating story last weekend that investigated the realities of life for the average Sony employee in the days, weeks, and months after the hack. Their experience was, to put it mildly, utterly terrifying. Nobody knew who the bad guys were, and the inability to depend on modern technology bombed them back to the telecommunications stone age. One of the most fascinating ideas that Hess hits upon is that the hack mostly played out as a soap opera among celebrities and executives in the media — one boss fired, a new one hired — but in the long tail, the people on top were also the least affected:
Now, one year out, it seems to some that executives and manages have recovered from the hack on a quicker schedule than some of their underlings. “For many of the higher-ups, it’s like it never happened,” one employee told me.
So the hack was bad for people, but it was less bad for rich people. This is such a fundamental fact of everything in life: bad things are worse for people who don’t have the money to defend themselves.
But in the wake of the hack and Lawrence’s essay, more people are talking about the wage gap. We’re used to the idea now that celebrities can be symbols for important things, which is a roundabout way of saying you get more clicks writing about feminists when they’re celebrities, but that also means feminist celebrities are hugely important for the cause of feminism because more people will click on a story with “wage inequality” in the headline if the headline starts with the words “Jennifer Lawrence.”
Lawrence right now an impossibly beloved icon. Surely it matters when someone like her writes openly about gender income disparity? Surely anything that got her to write about that pay gap — even a technological assault by a real-life dystopia defined by society-wide human rights abuses — is fundamentally good, or at least not-bad?
Then again, why do you care about Jennifer Lawrence? You’ve never met her. She’ll never meet you. Most of us aren’t actors, and almost nobody ever will be an actor at a high enough level to care about making less than Jeremy Renner. So do we care about Jennifer Lawrence, or do we only care about her insofar as she is a symbol for things we care about in our own life? Do you feel like you know her? Do you care that you’re wrong? Is it fair to her that you’ve made her symbolize something? Does that make her powerful, or helpless? Are symbols more important than the people? Are we just stupid?
There are no answers to these questions. And there are no easy questions to the whole “ends” and “means” argument. You either think one thing justifies the other, or you don’t, in which case you wind up criticizing something you probably agree with.
But so maybe you think: Jennifer Lawrence writing about gender pay inequality is a good thing, and it doesn’t matter if the hack that led indirectly to that good thing also led directly to rank-and-file everyday average worrying about identity theft from now till forever. And so maybe you also think: Katniss Everdeen is a symbol for good, and it doesn’t matter if every move she makes in Mockingjay leaves more people dead, dead, dead.
Mockingjay should end with the idea that all of that death was worthwhile. That all these sacrifices were made for a greater good. That somehow all of this madness was part of the plan. In the trailer for Mockingjay – Part 2, Peeta actually says: “Our lives were never ours. They belong to Snow and our deaths do, too. But if you kill him, Katniss, if you end all of this, all those deaths, they mean something.” (Nobody says this in the book.)
In book and movie, Katniss has only one mission: To kill President Snow. In the books, Snow is a distant figure, seen mostly on television, imagined in Katniss’ mind. She speaks to him only once in Mockingjay. Snow’s dominion has fallen; he is a captive in his own home. Yet he positively jaunty. He talks about the little bomb parachutes that killed all those children: “So wasteful, so unnecessary. Anyone could see the game was over by that point.” He didn’t release those parachutes; District 13 did. “My failure,” Snow says, “Was being so slow to grasp Coin’s plan… I wasn’t watching Coin. I was watching you, Mockingjay. And you were watching me. I’m afraid we have both been played for fools.”
Snow makes such an obvious villain, which is why Katniss hates him for most of Mockingjay. The movies make Snow’s villainy even more obvious: Throughout Mockingjay – Part 2, the camera keeps cutting back to him for various scenes that aren’t in the book. He becomes more obviously a Bond villain: he hosts a dinner so he can poison one of his generals in front of everyone else. (In the book, it’s made clear that Snow’s use of poison is a secret — but whatever, Donald Sutherland needs something to do.)
The interesting thing about Coin is that she is an antagonist from Katniss’ perspective — but only from Katniss’ perspective. To everyone else, she is a wise military leader, a savior-president promising freedom from the Capitol. Coin’s main villainous aspect is that she wants Katniss dead; she sends a brainwashed Peeta into battle alongside Katniss, hoping that in some indirect way that will result in Katniss’ death. But Coin never sends an assassin, never takes the direct step of poisoning Katniss or pointing a gun in her face.
You could argue that she would have, at some point: That any action Katniss takes against Coin is defensive, a preemptive assault. When most people point to Coin’s villainy, they point to the fact that she wants to reinstate the Hunger Games. But, pointedly, Coin doesn’t just reinstate the Games. She lets the Victors put the matter to a vote. And Katniss more or less casts the deciding vote — before walking outside and shooting President Coin dead.
Now, the last 90 minutes of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 are pretty good, mainly because even a dull version of the events that end the book is more fascinating than almost anything that has happened in a mainstream Hollywood movie this year.
But the movie tries do everything it can to soften the book’s raw power. In the book, Katniss and Peeta both wind up scarred from burns sustained in battle; this doesn’t happen in the movie, because cute actors in movies don’t get burn-scarred. (Movie-Peeta also never gets his leg amputated, because that would be weird and dangerously interesting.) In the book, mutts attack Katniss’ squad underground, and that sequence ends like this:
Far below, I can just make out Finnick, struggling to hang on as three mutts tear at him. As one yanks back his head to take the death bite, something bizarre happens. It’s as if I’m in Finnick, watching images of my life flash by. The mast of a boat, a silver parachute, Mags laughing, a pink sky, Beetee’s trident, Annie in her wedding dress, waves breaking over rocks. Then it’s over.
The movie can’t just let Finnick die for no reason. He dies heroically, rescuing Katniss; it’s not just three mutts, it’s a few dozen. This is the dumb hyperbole of Hollywood blockbusters, and also something Plutarch Heavensbee would appreciate. A beautiful hero like Finnick can’t just die; he needs to die for a reason, with purpose, and exciting trident action, and the music swellllllling! Julianne Moore is a great actress, but she can’t triumph over the fact that her wig and lenses make Coin look like a Child of the Corn all grown up. In her last scene, Moore-as-Coin wears an outfit that looks the gray pajama uniforms from Star Trek: The Motion Picture reimagined as Dear Leader totalitarian chic. She wears a cape: a hilarious flourish, but so painfully obvious in a movie that generally defers all opportunity for visual flourish, that renders Collins’ candy-colored Capitol as a series of suburban-Anaheim condos with bargain-Roman columns. And you go to the movie hoping that the filmmakers have really considered how to show all sides of Gale: The vengeful victim, the revolutionary glamour idol, the homicidal maniac, the guy who doesn’t mind killing kids. Look, Liam Hemsworth is a very handsome man.
But Katniss still kills Coin. The whole purpose of Mockingjay was supposed to be killing Snow, but he dies onscreen as he dies in the book: “An awful gurgling cackle accompanied by an eruption of foamy blood when the coughing begins. I see him bend forward, spewing out his life…” For once, Mockingjay gets to show blood. (I guess it’s okay when it’s coughing-blood and not gun-blood? Screw you, MPAA.)
In the books, what follows is more madness: “I transform into a wild animal, kicking, clawing, biting, doing whatever I can to free myself from this web of hands as the crowd pushes in.” God, I would’ve loved to see Jennifer Lawrence play that. In her films with David O. Russell, Lawrence has revealed herself as a performer capable of half-crazed physicality: The goofy-balletic dancing in Silver Linings Playbook, the angry-glam vamping singalong to “Live and Let Die” in American Hustle. You miss that Lawrence in The Hunger Games. By the end, she looks pretty bored.
Who can blame her? The book send Katniss to imprisonment, where she crawls onto bed bleeding from a hundred open scars. When nobody kills her, she makes a new goal:
I need to focus now on the manner of my suicide… I can make an excellent noose, but there’s nothing to hang myself from. It’s possible that I could hoard my pills and then knock myself off with a lethal dose, except that I’m sure I’m being watched round the clock. For all I know, I’m on live television at this very moment while commentators try to analyze what could possibly have motivated me to kill Coin.
She tries giving up: not eating, like Bartleby the Scrivener. She undergoes a withdrawal nightmare, like Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting. She takes a shower, and starts singing — “All the songs my father taught me before he died.” Does she feel happy? Cured? Not really: “I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despite being one myself.”
Imagine this sequence of scenes: Jennifer Lawrence, getting to play all of these emotions, wordlessly, but with maybe one song long enough to justify a dance remix. It would be a brilliant sequence, uniquely built for the specific powers of cinema: an actress, a setting, the vision of a person who finally took some meaningful action, and her only reward is a complete loathing for her entire race and the opportunity to sing a few more happy songs while she awaits execution.
None of this is in the movie. Which, fine, except the movie also tweaks the foundation of Katniss’ final act. Destroys it, really. In the book, Haymitch appears, promising to bring Katniss home. We learn that, while she was held captive, there was a trial. A curious trial, too: It was “the first big televised event” of post-revolutionary Panem. Plutarch Heavensbee was both the programmer and the star witness. When last we see Plutarch in Collins’ novel, he is in a fine mood:
“Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated,” he says. “But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss… the time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that.” And then he asks me if I’d like to perform on a new singing program he’s launching in a few weeks. Something upbeat would be good.
This is the final macro-statement of Collins’ Mockingjay: Maybe everything will be better, or maybe everything will go back to normal. Who knows? More importantly: American Idol is back in a few weeks!
To be fair to the makers of Mockingjay – Part 2, it’s clear that their own ending was supposed to heavily involved their version of Plutarch Heavensbee. As played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Movie-Plutarch has nothing to do with Collins’ character, a showbiz archetype who vibes variously like P.T. Barnum, Robert Armstrong from King Kong, and the vain chubby alpha bro played by Craig Bierko on UnREAL. Hoffman is up to something totally different: His Plutarch is quieter, amused, eternally laughing at some private joke. Book-Plutarch thrills over the snake oil he is selling; Movie-Plutarch seems more amused that people love snake oil so much.
Hoffman died with key parts of his Mockingjay – Part 2 role unfilmed, so I’m loathe to read too deeply into what remains. But: In place of Katniss’ imprisonment, the movie coughs up a scene where Haymitch reads a long letter from Plutarch. It is an insane letter, and the worst scene in the entire franchise. In the letter, Plutarch reveals that he is overjoyed that Katniss has killed Coin — that, in fact, Katniss killing Coin was part of Plutarch’s plan all along.
From what producer Nina Jacobson says, the original plan was pretty much the same, except that Plutarch would have said all those words instead of writing them down. This strikes me as a mind-boggling misreading of the intentions of the book. On the page, Katniss’ strike against Coin is the only action she takes that isn’t somehow scripted. The movie claims that it was all according to plan — that the Gamemaker constructed one final game, and Katniss was a willing pawn. And make no mistake: The movie thinks this is awesome. It is a way to justify Katniss’ not-particularly-justifiable actions. In this new paradigm, Coin was always clearly evil, and the good people recognized this, and now Katniss will be pardoned. (The movie makes much of the fact that eventual President Paylor is someone everyone likes who will do great as president; all the book says is: “An emergency election was thrown together and Paylor was voted in as President.”)
Suzanne Collins is credited with the “adaptation” of Mockingjay to the big screen: Do we credit her somehow with final act twist, which subtly and completely pulls the rug out from under Katniss? Or is this some greater metaphor for the difference between writing a novel and making a movie? In the novel, one single woman can make a difference. In the movie, there’s a dude behind the scenes who pulls all the strings.
I shouldn’t be so harsh, maybe. The last hour and a half of Mockingjay – Part 2 really is strong, in a low-fi pulp-action way. It’s just people on a mission, and most of them die, and the mission pretty much fails. This, in a year when most action sequels trended absurdist, decadent, incoherent.
And yet: Should we credit Mockingjay – Part 2 just because it finally gets out of the way of its own source material? Or should we keep listing all the ways the movie tries so hard to lessen the novel’s impact: to ameliorate it for the global audience, to find moments of unearned grace? After the war, Book-Haymitch descends back into alcoholic perpetuity: “Haymitch drinks until the liquor runs out, and then raises geese until the next train arrives.” In the movie, Haymitch says farewell to Effie with a kiss: a ‘shipping subplot, made manifest by the glories of Hollywood adaptation.
Oh, Effie. Mockingjay the book barely makes time for her. She appears precisely once: “Remarkably unchanged except for the vacant look in her eyes.” The Mockingjay movies make Elizabeth Banks one more kooky sidekick, because in movies, no funny cute people can ever be irredeemable idiot fascists. No, she was a rebel all along, and now her and Haymitch wuv each other.
Mockingjay the book ends happily, I guess you could say. Katniss isn’t dead, Peeta isn’t dead. They’re together, they have kids. How’s this for happy: “My children, who don’t know they play on a graveyard.” How’s this for happy: “One day I’ll have to explain about my nightmares. Why they came. Why they won’t ever really go away.” How’s this for happy: “I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away.” The last page of the book, folks!
Mockingjay‘s ending is better than happy. It’s tough. Strong. Thoughtful. It argues that no one who has experienced what Katniss experienced will ever really recover; it implies that the only real hope in life is that we make our crappy world better for whoever comes after us. This strikes me as one of the most optimistic ideas a person can have. I can’t think of another ending to compare this to: Not Harry Potter, where everyone has a cute little child next-gen clone traveling away on the fun magic train, where “All was well.” Not the original Star Wars trilogy, where the end of an Empire leads to a dance party.
The only comparison, really, is Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, not Jackson: Return of the King ends with a long denouement, and the Scouring of the Shire, and the implication that the pastoral utopia the heroes yearn for is gone for good. The Scouring of the Shire never made it into the movies, which kind of made sense before we had three whole movies about a dwarf fighting a one-armed orc.
But that’s Hollywood, right? Shrug, right? Why even complain? We’ve gotten so used to treating blockbuster films as engines for interesting ideas. What a Debbie Downer move, to point out how even the best blockbusters will barely ever have any ideas dangerous enough to be truly interesting. And it’s even more of a bummer to point out how the whole entertainment-industrial complex seems devoted to maintaining the facade that these things are interesting: That dumb kids’ movies about superheroes and spaceships say anything threateningly true about the problems we face today. We prefer our escapism to have “meaning,” and the less we have to actually ponder that meaning — the less that meaning requires us to ponder it — the better. On Aug. 28, 2011, the first Hunger Games trailer played on MTV. Three weeks later, the first protestors set up camp in Zuccotti Park. Four years later, it’s become common to criticize Occupy Wall Street for lacking a coherent message — they never found the right propagandist, I guess — and the media only talks about economic inequality when Jennifer Lawrence talks about economic inequality.
This is the simple message of Mockingjay: We’re all insane. And no leader can be trusted. And every symbol for good is a construct; maybe “goodness” itself is a construct. Anyone who thinks the ends justify the means is a bad person who may cause great things to happen. There’s only one pacifist in The Hunger Games, and it’s Peeta, and he winds up a brainwashed shell-person. The final heroic act in Mockingjay is an act of violence so bizarre in context — imagine if, at the end of the Revolutionary War, the Swamp Fox killed George Washington — that it only reads as “heroic” because the whole engine of Mockingjay demands that the protagonist assassinate at least one President before the book is over.
So maybe all we can do is praise The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 for screwing up as little as possible. For producing a vision that is helplessly topical and helplessly revolutionary. Anti-authoritarian, no matter how much it tries to pretend Katniss was working for some higher authority. There is a scene in Mockingjay – Part 2 where refugees flee from war, and a couple enemy agents pretend to be refugees, plotting an action that you might describe as “terrorism,” except the enemy agents are our heroes. These movies may be simpler, and dumber, than their source material — but maybe the simpler message is more important?
Jennifer Lawrence says Katniss inspired her to write that wage gap message. Surely there are other people who will be inspired by these movies, will use them as a gateway drug for similar works, less encumbered by the simpler-dumber instinct that basically define the Hollywood blockbuster. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, say, or the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Battle Royale, or Stephen King’s The Long Walk. The Manchurian Candidate. Dr. Strangelove. 1984. The Gulag Archipelago.
Or maybe they’ll just read Mockingjay, one of the best books ever written about war, celebrity, how one sells the other, and why we keep buying.