The Hunger Games: the Mockingjay problem

Feature Sarah Dobbs 6 Jan 2014 - 09:06

The third Hunger Games book might be the hardest to adapt to the screen. Sarah looks at the reasons why...

This article contains spoilers for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

By now, you should’ve had time to see Catching Fire at least twice, had a good cry over it, and compiled a mental list of everything that was different in the film to the book. So let’s start thinking about Mockingjay. Because of the three Hunger Games novels, it seems like that’s the one that’s going to be hardest to adapt to the screen.

For starters, it’s the most controversial book in the trilogy. Although it was fairly well received critically, not all of the fans enjoyed the book’s darker tone. Like the previous two books, Mockingjay is told from Katniss’s POV, but by this stage she’s thoroughly bruised and battered, and spends much of her time finding dark corners to curl up in and hide from the world. She’s suffering from PTSD, and it’s heart-breaking, but it also means not much happens for long stretches of time.

When something does happen, it’s violent and brutal and generally involves the death of at least one beloved character. Then there’s that epilogue, in which Katniss and Peeta fall in love for real, have a family and live… well, not happily ever after, since this is The Hunger Games and both of them are pretty scarred by their experiences, but as happily as could reasonably be expected. Portraying those things on screen, when many fans already hate the fact that they happened, isn’t gonna be universally popular.

But there are other issues, too, especially considering the decisions that have been made in the first two Hunger Games movies. The love triangle, for instance, despite being much trumpeted by the marketing and media coverage of the films, isn’t really that prominent in the actual movies. And despite Jennifer Lawrence’s all-round wonderfulness, some of the subtleties of those relationships has been lost in the movies.

It’s not clear from the films how Katniss really feels about Peeta, for instance; it’s possible to read it all as an act, when in the books she’s confused, unable to sort through her emotions, but definitely feels something for him. And Gale has been pushed so far into the background in the films that the Mockingjay movies are gonna have to work pretty hard to establish, well, everything about him. We got a tiny glimpse of his hot-headedness, his will to fight, and his hatred for the Capitol in Catching Fire, but is that enough to prepare movie audiences for what he’s do in the next movie? I suspect it might feel a bit like it came out of nowhere.

Speaking of coming out of nowhere, District 13 hasn’t really been set up very well in the movies, has it? In Catching Fire the book, Katniss meets two refugees from District 8, Bonnie and Twill, who tell her that they suspect District 13 isn’t the nuclear wasteland the Capitol claims it is, which sets up the exodus from District 12. But the movie didn’t include that scene, and there hasn’t been all that much focus on the district that started the last uprising, so the introduction of District 13 in Mockingjay Part 1 might seem a little out of the blue.

On a more practical level, the CGI creatures in the Hunger Games movies haven’t been brilliant so far (though Catching Fire did a better job of its killer monkeys than The Hunger Games did of the wolf mutts) and the muttations in Mockingjay seem particularly ill-suited to the screen. Human-sized white-skinned lizards that smell of roses? Yikes. There’s a very real danger that they’d just look ridiculous, rather than terrifying, and their perfume probably ought to be dropped completely – it works in the book, when we’re inside Katniss’s head and privy to all her thoughts and sensations, but on film, it seems like a trickier sell.

Then there’s the commercial side of things. Mockingjay has been split into two films, like so many of the final instalments in young adult film franchises. Arguably, Mockingjay deserves it, since there’s so much going on, and there’s even a fairly obvious place to split the story – Mockingjay Part 1 will almost certainly end with the scene where Katniss and Peeta are finally reunited and he tries to strangle her. It’s a killer cliff-hanger, and it changes the whole dynamic of the story.

There’s a lot of story to fit in, and the filmmakers have already said they’re going to be adding in new characters and new plot elements… which is interesting, considering there are so many new characters introduced in Mockingjay anyway. Whether fans will welcome the chance to see a bit more of the world of Panem that Katniss’s POV hid in the novels, or whether they’ll be outraged at any changes to their beloved texts, remains to be seen. (I’m a bit wary, myself.)

And then there’s the demographic issue. Both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire have been rated 12A in the UK (PG-13 in the US), meaning that, considering the subject matter, the filmmakers had to find clever ways to get round the violence of the story. That might actually have made it feel even more shocking, in some cases – hearing Gale’s screams as Katniss runs towards him was harrowing enough, even without seeing the whip connect with his flesh – but Mockingjay has a massive body count. How do you do the scene where children and medics, including Katniss’s sister, are killed by rebel bombs, for instance? It seems likely that it’ll be done using Katniss’s POV, keeping her view obscured and cutting away to avoid any blood spatter, but even so, that’s a pretty nasty scene for a kids’ film.

It’s not like there are just a few gory scenes in Mockingjay that can be worked around; the whole thing is incredibly bleak, permeated with death and despair. (I mean, it opens with Katniss walking through the ashes of her former home and nearly tripping over a skull, it’s not a fun book.) It’s in Mockingjay that we find out what happens to Victors after the Games, too – they are, essentially, forced into prostitution, hired out to anyone in the Capitol who can pay for their services, and if they refuse, their loved ones are murdered. That’s a pretty big deal, and a pretty significant piece of both Finnick and Johanna’s backstory. But it’s not gonna fly in a 12A, is it? It’ll be interesting to see how screenwriter Danny Strong (Buffy’s Jonathan) decides to get round that.

The biggest issue, though, might be the titular Mockingjay. In the books, it’s explained fairly early on that the mockingjay is a symbol of the Capitol’s failure; during the last uprising, the government of Panem had created a genetically modified bird called a jabberjay which could repeat anything it heard. The idea was that the jabberjays (which made a brief appearance in Catching Fire) would eavesdrop on the rebels’ plans and report back to the Capitol, but the rebels soon caught on and started feeding nonsense back to the Capitol.

More embarrassingly, the jabberjays mated with wild mockingbirds, creating a species that can’t repeat words, but can copy songs – the mockingjays that Katniss and Rue used to send signals to one another in the first arena. The mockingjay became a sort of symbol of the Capitol’s failure, which is why it’s important that Katniss wears her mockingjay badge as a symbol of rebellion, and also explains why she, as a figurehead of the revolution, becomes known as the Mockingjay. And it’s also why Cinna got murdered for making Katniss a mockingjay dress.

So much of the Hunger Games story is about symbols and what they represent, with the mockingjay being the most potent symbol of all, but in the movies, that hasn’t really come across. Katniss’s pin has been around since the first movie, and we’ve seen it replicated in graffiti, and in Katniss’s amazing dress, but it hasn’t really been explained, or given much significance. Plutarch’s tell-tale watch, for instance, didn’t make an appearance. To anyone who’d just seen the movies and not read the books, the mockingjay probably doesn’t mean much of anything right now – beyond maybe reminding them of Rue? – and that is gonna be difficult to smooth away in the Mockingjay movies, as District 13 presses Katniss into assuming the mantle of the Mockingjay in their propaganda videos.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things that will undoubtedly be great in the movie. The first two films have been great adaptations, and with Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence returning for both the final films, there’s no real reason to suspect the ball will be dropped now. And the movies have already set up a couple of things that weren’t in the books, but which will pay off brilliantly in Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2 – we’ve already seen President Snow’s rose garden, for instance, and already been introduced to his granddaughter, which should make that all-important vote at the end of Mockingjay seem particularly dramatic. And the shooting of President Coin is such a wonderfully cinematic sequence that I can’t wait to see it on screen.

I’ll be there on opening night for both movies, no matter what, because I love this story and have faith in these movies to do it justice. All the same, though, I don’t think I’d fancy Danny Strong’s job.

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