It’s easy to roll your eyes and groan about Hollywood greed whenever a studio announces that it has to, just has to, split up into multiple parts one of the books being adapted for one of its gazillion-dollar franchises: When the seventh Harry Potter book becomes the seventh and eighth Harry Potter movies; when the Twilight trilogy magically acquires a fourth installment; when Peter Jackson releases (you know it’s coming) The Hobbit: Part 4: Three Hours Wasted Smoking Pipe-Weed with Gandalf.
But sometimes, studio greed can serve the cause of art. The mandate to fill more screen time can be a permission slip to linger over elements of a story that normally wouldn’t find a place in a big-screen treatment, to do something a little more interesting and personal amid all the action set pieces.
So Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy has been a disastrous overexpansion, but his extended-edition versions of the three Lord of the Rings movies included a number of effective grace notes and narrative fleshings out, and the Rings adaptation might have benefited overall if some studio honcho had demanded a two-part Return of the King.
Or again, the penultimate Harry Potter film padded its running time by expanding the stretch of the book where the Harry–Hermione–Ron troika wander and bicker in England’s heaths and forests — and that padding provided a coolly beautiful, genuinely human-scale interlude in a franchise otherwise dominated by pyrotechnics.
Now comes The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part I, the first of two movies subdivided out of the final chapter in Suzanne Collins’s immensely popular, grim-as-nails dystopia. And here, too, the division turns out to have advantages. You can tell, of course, that Mockingjay: Part I is something short of a narrative whole, and the ending is about as abrupt as you’d expect from a story that’s been cleaved in two. But Collins’s final novel was a bit of a narrative pudding to begin with: Unlike her first two, it’s organized around a messy rebellion rather than the cleaner (if equally bloody) arc of a single Hunger Games, and that messiness makes the division easier, the narrative compromise less significant.
Meanwhile, the need to fill out a two-hour running time ends up licensing a story that would never be greenlit on its own but that’s true to the best part of Collins’s trilogy — which is the fascinating portrait of how its heroine, Katniss Everdeen, can be a revolution’s instigator and its victim all at once.
That portrait isn’t what draws people to the saga, of course: That honor belongs to the games themselves, the irresistible hook of kids battling to the death while adults look on and cheer. But after the first book finishes, once the initial shock-fascination-horror of the kids-in-the-arena plot wears off, it’s Katniss’s psychology rather than the (not always plausible) dystopian backdrop that makes the series worth finishing. And it’s their focus on that psychology — and of course the work of Jennifer Lawrence, consistently earning her stardom — that makes these movie adaptations among the best that our era of multipart blockbusters has produced.
In Mockingjay: Part I, that focus takes the form of an extended depiction of propaganda-making, in which Katniss finds herself recruited to play Joan of Arc for the politicians (notably Julianne Moore as the chilly President Alma Coin) who run District 13, the hidden refuge that’s trying to organize and channel the rebellion against the brutal Capitol and its villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland). We see that rebellion’s actual battles now and then, and the movie culminates with a rescue attempt aimed at liberating Katniss’s maybe-love-interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) from the Capitol’s clutches. But all of the action is secondary, and Katniss herself barely participates; what she does, instead, is hopscotch from battlefields to bombed-out ruins, trailed by a film crew (headed by Natalie Dormer as a tattooed documentarian) charged with capturing her emotional reactions to carnage, goading her into speechifying on the scene, and turning the results into wartime movies for the cause.
Those finished products duel, for a while, with the propaganda that the imprisoned Peeta has been tortured or otherwise forced into making — one-on-one interviews with the Capitol’s sinister, insinuating TV impresario Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), in which Peeta appeals for calm and peace and suggests that Katniss is being used by the rebels for ends she doesn’t understand. His claims, the movie strongly suggests, are at once false and true: false in their moral equivalence between the absolute evil of Snow’s Capitol and whatever alternative Coin’s District 13 would offer, but true to the reality that Katniss isn’t really the mistress of her fate, and that even necessary revolutions can compromise the humanity of the people involved in making them.
To say more would be to give away details from the looming Part II. So suffice it to say that what Part I delivers — an imperfect entertainment, yes, but one that’s deeply faithful to Collins’s cold-eyed look at what a revolution really means — makes me hopeful that this series, so effective across its first three movies, will finish well, and dark, and true.