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Mockingjay: A Fan’s Reaction

Blah blah, spoiler alert, blah blah, don’t read if you haven’t read Mockingjay, it’s been out for years, get your life together.

Mockingjay 1

The time has come to complete my trilogy of Hunger Games film reviews. But Courtney, you may be saying, shouldn’t it be a quartet? Yes, but somebody didn’t like her review of Mockingjay: Part 1 enough to post it. So like the book series that spawned them, my reviews come in a trio.

The whole trend of splitting final book installments into two films is fairly odious to me. You have examples like Breaking Dawn, which would have barely had enough material for one film to begin with. Then you have Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows, which actually had enough material and produced two decent films. Mockingjay probably falls somewhere in the middle. When you turn the second half of a book into its own movie, the result tends to be action heavy to the point of excess, but for The Hunger Games it works out.

Mockingjay offers some new adaptation challenges for the filmmakers. The first part of the book takes place in District 13, which is entirely underground. Ah, nothing says great cinematography like a complete lack of natural light and space. Part 1 suffered more on this front and, despite the honeycomb sets that were more interesting than the District 13 of my imagination, probably led to my impression that the film was a bit drab. Part 2 has the advantage of new settings as the rebellion advances on the Capitol. There are some great set pieces like the Capitol apartment courtyard where a big action sequence takes place.

Mockingjay 2

Mockingjay: Part 2 has another advantage besides a change of setting. Katniss and Peeta are back in the same place, allowing the central relationship of the series to do the emotional heavy-lifting. Liam Hemsworth may be easy on the eyes, but I’m Team Peeta 4ever. If anything, I could have done with a little more emotional development, but the actors make good with what they have. (Can anyone dispute the centrality of Katniss and Peeta? The relationship between Katniss and Prim is a catalyst for story action, but Prim gets minimal page time and even less screen time.)

The tipping point that turned me into an absolute fan of this movie was the ending. With no easy triumphant conclusion, it was a tricky balance for the filmmakers’ to achieve, but they nailed it. By the time Katniss makes her surprise decision at the execution, her actions feel justified and her reasoning clear to the viewer. The return to District 12 has room for mourning and cautious hope. Can Jennifer Lawrence make us cry by screaming at a cat? Oh yes, she can. And I would likely have thrown a small tantrum if they hadn’t included one of my favorite romantic exchanges in young adult lit. Real or not real? Real. 



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Catching Fire: A Fan’s Reaction

If you want to remain completely spoiler-free, don’t read this post until seeing Catching Fire, particularly if you haven’t already read the book. (But also, go read the book!)

If you haven’t seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire by now, you’ve probably at least heard the raves. Several of my Facebook friends, not to mention a magazine review, even went so far as to declare it better than the book. Those words are sure to cause contention with the literary set. Catching Fire is my favorite book of the Hunger Games series, and I’m not about to say that the experience of reading it can be replaced with a movie. That being said, this is one awesome adaptation.

Catching Fire Katniss

As I walked out of the theater, my first thought was, “Well, someone had a bigger budget!” A quick trip to IMDB confirmed that Catching Fire had almost double the estimated budget of The Hunger Games. The improvements are most obvious in the special effects. Remember Katniss and Peeta’s flaming costumes during the tribute parade? I found the first iteration disappointing, but Flaming Costume Redux is everything I hoped it would be. Effie Trinket tells Katniss and Peeta that the Capitol has spared no expense for the Quarter Quell, an amusing nod to the increased production value. It certainly paid off in the training sequences with futuristic technology beyond that of a typical gym.

I was also curious to see what had changed behind the scenes from the first to second movie. Most people know about the new director, and the finished product is evidence that the change worked out well. On the DVD extras for The Hunger Games, I was not overly impressed with director Gary Ross. He praised his crew members for their ability to work within his vision, not for helping to improve his ideas. Maybe that single-minded attitude is to blame for some questionable stylistic choices. Many people will be happy to see that the dreaded shaky-cam is nixed for Catching Fire. Instead director Francis Lawrence keeps his focus on the narrative while working in some beautiful cinematography.

Some other details that improved were the costume and set design. The design team appears to be largely unchanged, but the costume designer is different. Trish Summerville, the new costume designer, deserves major credit for her work. The series of Effie Trinket dresses are a feathery extravaganza. Just look at the photo below. That’s a dress made of monarch butterflies. Peeta continues his series of goofy necklines that I can’t help but love. (Deep V! Weird floppy turtleneck! The boy loves sweaters that make a statement!)

Catching Fire Reaping

In my review of The Hunger Games, I explained how I try to judge film adaptations based on tone rather than scene-by-scene accuracy to the source material. Catching Fire just worked for me tonally. It showcased the series’ always fantastic cast while placing them in a world that felt absolutely true to the books. In some ways, this story is probably easier to translate to film. Katniss always has companions in the arena, so that situations and tactics can be explained without the clunky insertion of TV commentators. The new cast includes the adorable Lynn Cohen as Mags, and Jena Malone might not fit my mental image of Johanna Mason, but she certainly pulls off her attitude.

And what about Jennifer Lawrence, now an Oscar winner and America’s sweetheart? Since the book ends with a dramatic revelation, I wondered how it would play out on film. The answer is that you just zoom in on Jennifer Lawrence’s face. She will take you from shock and devastation to steely resolve without saying a word. And you know the revolution is on.


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The Hunger Games: A Fan’s Reaction

I do not recommend reading this post unless you have already seen The Hunger Games movie. Consider this your spoiler alert!

As a member of the original Harry Potter generation, I’ve had many occasions to judge blockbuster film adaptations of a beloved book series. I have always tried (but often failed) to ask the question “Is it a good movie?” rather than “Is it a completely faithful retelling of the book?” Over the years my guiding light has become tone. I can handle slight deviations from the source material if I feel that the movie remains true to its tone.

That’s how Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban became my favorite Potter adaptation. Unlike the glossy Chris Columbus versions, Alfonso Cuarón captured the gritty textures that were key to my impression of Hogwarts and the whole Harry Potter universe. Subsequent films continued to embrace that darkness, but the presentation was often a little too slick for my taste.

Of course, judging tone can be a very individual enterprise. It depends a lot on emotional reaction, and mine might be very different from someone else’s. Perhaps that’s why I find myself at odds with some of the extremely positive reviews of The Hunger Games. I enjoyed the film, but for me something was missing in terms of tone.

Most of my complaints have to do with style and structure. Admittedly, the filmmakers faced some major structural challenges in taking The Hunger Games from page to screen. The novel has Katniss as a first person narrator. For long stretches during the actual Games when she speaks to no one, the reader is able to follow the psychological drama through her thoughts. The filmmakers choose to avoid any voiceover narration, which can muddle character motivation. The scenes in the arena become completely action-centric. Jennifer Lawrence does an admirable job of communicating nonverbally, but she can only do so much.

The film uses the fact that the Games are a televised event to provide some of the necessary exposition. I enjoyed the inclusion of TV commentators, but the scenes in the Gamemakers control room took the behind-the-scenes gimmick one step too far. Perhaps if they had stuck to one device for exposition, I would have felt less distracted from the story. And if we’re going to pick just one, I would definitely avoid all-white control rooms and cheesy holograms.

Stylistic decisions also hinted at the culture of surveillance and voyeurism found in the novel. I imagine that the extensive use of handheld cameras was intended to mimic the style of reality TV, but it also made me feel distant from the characters during the scenes in District 12. These touches could have been used more sparingly, preferably just during the Games themselves. That would have heightened the sense that they were intrusions on normal life. The same goes for quick cuts and extreme closeups.

All that being said, they have made a quality film. As a fan of the book, that should probably be my number one concern. Most fans of the books seem satisfied, even pleased with the finished product. Overall the cast is impressive. Jennifer Lawrence is every bit the Katniss that I hoped she would be after seeing her in Winter’s Bone. My other favorite casting decision has to be Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the over-the-top TV personality who presides over the Games. He really knows how to toe that line between hilarious and creepy. The movie is fast-paced, almost to the point where I wish they had slowed down for a bit more character development, but you certainly won’t be looking at your watch.

I don’t intend this post to be a warning to fans of the book before seeing the movie. I think people should have the opportunity to view the movie with a clean slate and form their own opinions. I will certainly be looking forward to Catching Fire in 2013.


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