When the posters for the latest Hunger Games came out, I received over ten text messages from ten different friends – some of whom I hadn’t heard from in years – asking me to reserve tickets in advance. I’m not sure at what point I became the human Fandango, but there were other issues that troubled me. Didn’t everyone know that Mockingjay was based on the insufferably dreary final book, now split into two insufferably dreary final movies? Is it really okay for people >30 years old to get excited about stories read by people <12 minutes old? How did I end up on a group text? Still, you can’t blame people for getting excited about one of the few decent YA movies to come out in the past decade. Mockingjay may bore you into an eternal sleep, but what a sleep it’ll be: featuring real actors and a real social agenda, lifted from a real college ‘zine. It functions, it tries. There’s no reason to book tickets in advance, so for your personal safety: get the hell off that group text.
Unlike The Fault in Our Stars or Maze Runner, Mockingjay is the one YA movie to come out this year that appears to have been written by an actual, mature, “A.” For whatever reason, writers like John Green (The Fault in our Stars) or Veronica Roth (Divergent) seem to think that in order to write for a teen, they have to think like a teen. What a terrible idea. According to actual science, teenagers are wrong about pretty much everything always. So while The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent float in the realm of teenage fantasy – complete sentences, total recoveries, forever love, forever families, Ansel Elgort – The Hunger Games is grounded in material teenage experience – monosyllabic monologues, actual trauma, sometimes-love, broken families, some dude named ‘Peeta.’ Mockingjay is a mature story featuring real, immature people. Distance, perspective, and a strong lack of Shailene Woodley are what give it strength.
Still, as we mature, we learn that that maturity is. so. deeply. boring. Growing up is never fun. You go into high school thinking you’ll find eternal love, you graduate into your thirties with a sometimes girlfriend who farts. How can you find a dream job when you can’t even find a dentist who accepts your PPO? And Mockingjay, being in so many ways, a very mature story, is also a very boring one. The war scenes don’t provide us with tremendous rushes of adrenaline because real wars don’t either. Real wars, like the wars we see in Panem, involve real victims, fields of skeletons, losing sides. While Director Francis Lawrence allows us one or two charged moments, including the scene where Gale and his crew go to save Peeta (honestly, is Josh Hutcherson worth it?), he mostly lets war be war. Bloody. Monochromatic. Featuring tremendous loss and a whole lot of confusing computer stuff. It’s adult.
What saves Mockingjay from being some dreary drear-piece on the nature of drear is Katniss herself. At the start of the film, Katniss is imprisoned in District 13, a district that once was bombed by the Capitol and then secretly retreated underground to prepare for war. It’s been years since anyone ever surfaced from District 13 (the whole place seriously looks like the set for Madonna’s “Express Yourself”), but Katniss’ performance in the most recent Hunger Games sparked a rebellion across the districts. Katniss, however, is only interested in saving Peeta, now imprisoned in the Capitol. She agrees to help the rebels, because she kinda sorta cares, and because she thinks they’ll help her save her snooze button of a boyfriend. The rebels in turn try and use Katniss in their marketing campaign, but discover that Katniss only really comes alive in battle. All of this makes sense, because throughout Mockingjay Katniss is the one character who keeps us as an audience alive. Also a stolen Adderall ‘scrip, which helped many of my guests last night.
The plot may stumble, but all along, we’ve been watching for Jennifer Lawrence (NOT in creepy nudey hackery kind of way, more of a Geocities fan pagey kind of way). From the start of The Hunger Games series, Katniss has cautiously walked the line between masculine warrior and feminine martyr. She’s adopted traditional male virtues: physical strength, bravery, and loyalty, without losing her “womanly” side: empathy, idealism, a nice side profile. While she challenges our idea of what it means to be a heroine, she doesn’t threaten it. She’s safe and exciting, alternative yet profitable, appealing to audiences both mainstream and lesbian. And while I would dread the idea of bringing Katniss to a party (no communication skills. Least funny person on the planet. What would she do? Drink juice? Hate everyone? Hang out with her loser sister by the bathroom?), I’d be more than happy to pencil her in as President.
Katniss saves the script from miserable mediocrity, but performances by Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman also go a long way. And Mockingjay, as part of the Hunger Games franchise, carries a strong, if laughably hypocritical, message. Few YA movies can even pretend to do the same. 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars worked doggedly to challenge our culture’s long held belief that “cancer is fun!” and “you can’t die from it.” Man, before I met Hazel I had no idea malignant tumors were anything less than one rapidly spreading ball of hilarity. Then there was The Maze Runner, which brazenly argued that “science is bad?” and “mazes r hard n stuff.” The Giver: “Hate your family!” Divergent: “Love your family.” Horns: “Who the f&*k knows.”
Thank God we have Mockingjay, which at least attempts to say something halfway nuanced about class and inequality in America. From the start of the series, Collins has tried to raise awareness about our modern power imbalances, using embarrassing symbolism involving birds. What distinguishes The Hunger Games from other social issue dramas in its genre is its complexity. The Capitol is evil but the rebels, we learn, aren’t blameless victims either. They’re power-hungry marketers who exploit Katniss’ pain for their stupid viral video campaign. And sure, they might be on the right side of the issues, but the rebels are also malicious and hypocritical and dressed like fax machines. The world is neither good nor bad. The rebels are neither kind nor cruel. Katniss is in love with a man named after a flatbread. If that isn’t good writing, I don’t know what is.
A couple of months ago, Lionsgate announced that they were close to launching a Hunger Games theme park. While the idea has attracted considerable attention, I struggle to understand how anyone could build an amusement park on the theme of “children murdering children.” It’s a tragic blind spot for a series that tragically, has so many. For all Mockingjay to pretends critique blockbuster capitalism, its producers lovingly embrace it. Too bad, because there’s so much to love in this terrifying apocalyptic dreamscape: real teenage characters, actual social agendas, details that resonate. It’s a strong story featuring a strong heroine, both trying to make their way through the ugly world that produced it.
Heather Dockray is a comedian and storyteller living in Brooklyn, NY. You can see more of Heather’s work at www.heatherdockray.com, follow her on twitter @Wear_a_helmet, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you aren’t from Moveon.org