Short version: Mockingjay (Part 1) is an emotionally exhausting film that vindicates my (apparently unpopular) preference for the book from which it was adapted.
Long version, with spoilers, follows the cut.
The third book in The Hunger Games trilogy is a polarizing text. Fans of the trilogy as a whole tend either to love it or hate it; at the very least, it is seldom their favorite of the set. As a book, it does have its problems, especially where pacing is concerned (many of which could have been solved by a little judicious editing). That said, I think it is vitally important to the trilogy as a whole, and is the necessary and powerful capstone on the entire business. This is the moment in the story that (for me, anyway) highlights exactly how unreliable a narrator Katniss is (if the reliability you want is of the third person omniscient variety). She’s not deliberately deceptive (this isn’t a bucket of narratorial weirdness like, say, Pale Fire). Rather, what makes Katniss an unreliable narrator is also what makes her heroic: she really doesn’t always know or understand what’s happening to her, and her guesses are often wrong in disastrous ways. She does not tell a “hero’s” story. She tells her own story, and if the Katniss who struggles through Mockingjay is not as fully aware of the moral significance of her position as one thinks she ought to be, or if she is not as decisive as a reader might like, that’s because this isn’t the story of one of those decisive heroes whose success lies in the acceptance of a great destiny — it’s the story of a young woman barely keeping it together and trying to remain a person in a world that is systematically destructive to personhood as such. Honestly, it’s miraculous that she’s able to function at all.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: from the very beginning, Katniss is walking wounded. She’s not some nice kid who suddenly discovers a magical inheritance, or leaves the Shire on an Adventure, or scrubs pots and pans until her fairy godmother shows up. She’s a PTSD-sufferer living under a brutal despotic regime, constantly aware of exactly how thin the tightrope is and how hard the ground will be when she falls — and this is before the Games. When she insists that she didn’t want any of this, she means it. Her whole being screams it. This is not the story of an ordinary person elevated by events to extraordinary greatness. This is the story of a young woman whose primary job it is to keep herself from falling apart — and who happens to have fallen afoul of events far beyond her understanding and control. That her attempts to survive as a person and to protect those she values sometimes make her noble, that nobility is only an accident — it is not the point of her choosing, not her plan or her desire. As Haymitch notes, the moments that move us about Katniss are the ones where she doesn’t know what to do, and chooses anyway, typically on the side of personhood and dignity. What makes Katniss heroic is not her triumph inside (or out of) the arena or any violent thing or kind thing she does — it’s the simple fact that when push comes to shove, she comes out human. Her struggle is to be and to remain a person and not a thing. That she is not always particularly good at it is a part of what makes her as human as she is; she doesn’t always even understand herself, after all.
While I was originally concerned that breaking Mockingjay up into two films would be just as silly as making The Hobbit into a bloated trilogy, I have to admit that breaking this particular text up turns out to have been a good idea. It allows the writers and directors and editors of the film to work around the pacing issues in the book (something that the switch from the first to the third person also helps). This is a tight film. It economizes on character (giving us Effie alone instead of the entire “team”, for example), and it makes reasonably good use of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (to whose memory the film is dedicated). There are lots of grace notes — little moments of quiet, focusing on a hand, or a face — that work better than bloated exposition or an attempt to cram in more story would have. Jennifer Lawrence does a magnificent job in the part.
A part of what makes this film effective, is the way in which the audience is, like Katniss herself, often made to feel as if events are carrying us along with them. We watch as desperate people in the Districts run deliberately, knowingly to their own deaths as acts of resistance (after having been compelled to stand by and watch others executed before their very eyes), and we are pulled with them in their desperation. Katniss cannot fail to choose to fight when the people in the District 8 field hospital call on her to do so — but she has the look of a trapped rabbit the whole time, even though it is to some degree her desire to fight, too. The audience spends much of the film in the same position, confronted constantly with the nightmare that is Panem and helpless to do much about it.
For advice purposes: I’m pretty sure that people who didn’t like the book will find the movie only a slight improvement. I also suspect that people who want their heroes to be strong in ways that don’t include the occasional breakdown and confusion will find it frustrating. That said, I think it’s a good piece of work even so.
I look forward to seeing how the end is handled in Part 2.