I have to admit, Francis Lawrence has pulled the same trick on me twice now. Last year, I watched Catching Fire in cinemas with low expectations, and was pleasantly surprised at how good the movie was. Last night, I watched Mockingjay (Part 1) not expecting much either. I was again impressed.
What was I impressed with? It wasn’t the plot or themes. In these two movies, Lawrence has proved himself adept at creating atmosphere. By “atmosphere”, I mean painting the cinematic canvas with elements designed to evoke strong visceral feelings in the viewer at the appropriate junctures. Since a large part of the films is really about spectacle and propaganda, the atmospheric qualities of the movies arise both of the plot – which is about making propaganda, as well as a more formal element of cinematic technique. The irony, of course, is that these two different atmospheric movements work at deliberate cross-purposes with each other. The spectacle and propaganda are carefully engineered to evoke specific positive responses, but the film itself employs techniques to muddy that message to the viewer. The whole idea of District 13 being the freedom fighters to the Capitol’s decadence and tyranny is subverted into a more ambiguous and uncertain picture, in which District 13 proves to be the Capitol’s equal in producing calibrated messaging to manipulate the people’s emotions, to get them to fight. This tension permeates the entire film and contributes to much of its emotional power, and serves to underscore the point that Katniss, and her image, are commodities – to be roughly used by whoever owns her body and soul.
The film has some brilliant moments – Katniss and Gale’s excursion, Katniss’ rendition of the Hanging Tree song, the post-bombing and the white roses. They are intensely atmospheric, a credit to the music, acting, and cinematographic techniques employed. They also give the film some depth because they are juxtaposed against the broader narrative of war; quiet moments side-by-side to scenes of violence and depravity, real moments against the manufactured propaganda – but aren’t these moments, in the end, propos as well? They are all appropriated to create propaganda videos that cause hundreds and thousands of rebels to lose their lives in a struggle that has no end in sight.
One more point – not reading the books helps. One of the things I’ve slowly begun to come to terms with is that if you don’t want your enjoyment of a fictive world ruined, stick to one mode of media. Don’t read a book and watch its film or TV adaptation (reading books and watching movies that are set in the same universe, but with different narratives, is okay). Or vice versa, watch the film version and don’t read the book. It’s hard to resist the temptation to see your favorite book characters or scenes on the silver screen, but ultimately it sets a strong visual precedent in your mind that conflicts with your already existing mental picture of the narrative. I’ve found that more often than not, that ruins the source material for me. Of course, that’s probably not going to stop me from watching more adaptations.
I give The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 3.5 out of 5 Mockingjays
+ Intensely atmospheric
+ Wonderful performances by Jennifer Lawrence and others
+ Meta-propaganda theme
– Panem society seems oddly structured – if they blew up their mining district, who’s going to mine for them? Did they blow up just the one town or the entire region? (Not having read the books I’m not sure how this works)
– Slow at times
– Peeta and Gale as proxies for Katniss’ vulnerabilities is a little teen-romancey