Mockingjay: Are You Uncomfortable?

Things are only going to get more uncomfortable from here on out

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One, directed by Francis Lawrence, 2014.

Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay, Scholastic Press, 2010.

Mockingjay - Part One is an uncomfortable movie. I suspect this is why it has not been greeted with the praise that was heaped on The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. But I’m glad this first part of Mockingjay isn’t comfortable. It’s not supposed to be.

As Mockingjay opens, Katniss Everdeen has been rescued from her second appearance in the vicious Hunger Games — where the children of formerly rebellious districts battle to the death to entertain the pampered citizens of the tyrannical Capitol — and is being sheltered by the residents of District 13. Formerly an area that specialized in nuclear technology and military weaponry, District 13 is the only district in Katniss’s country of Panem that can hope to have the wherewithal to overthrow the Capitol’s control.

Katniss, as the winner of one Hunger Games and the destroyer of the arena where the even more vicious “Quarter Quell” Hunger Games took place, is a potent symbol of survival and resistance. Peeta Mellark — her friend and co-competitor — is another.

Much of the plot of this first of two Mockingjay movies focuses on the machinations the two sides in the battle for Panem engage in to use Katniss and Peeta as symbols for their sides. Katniss, who had been forced to do endless public appearances as part of the publicity for the Hunger Games, is blunt about her lack of enthusiasm for this role.

What they want is for me to truly take on the role they designed for me. The symbol of the revolution. The Mockingjay. It isn’t enough, what I’ve done in the past, defying the Capitol in the Games, providing a rallying point. I must now become the actual leader, the fact, the voice, the embodiment of the revolution.…They have a whole team of people to make me over, dress me, write my speeches, orchestrate my appearances — as if that doesn’t sound horribly familiar — and all I have to do is play my part.

Katniss is, quite simply, tired of being used.

That exhaustion runs through the novel and was, for me, convincingly portrayed in the film. Watching Katniss be primped and dressed, yet again, to appear before the public and mouth unconvincing sentiments written for her by others; watching Katniss, yet again, realize that the survival of her family and her friends turns on her ability to persuade the people in charge of her that she is really trying her best to sell herself — we’re exhausted just watching.

But I think Mockingjay should make us more than just worn out. I think that if we’re watching carefully, it should make us very, very nervous as well.

I want to avoid potentially spoiling the second Mockingjay movie for those who haven’t read all the novels. So I shall just mention a few things that struck me, watching the film this week.

Did you notice how the leader of District 13, President Coin, first appeared as an administrator, reluctant to “use up all the air in the room” by giving long and flashy speeches? Did you notice that by the end of the film, she appeared to thoroughly enjoy her time on the balcony, to extend it, and to lengthen and elaborate her speeches? Did you notice her insistence on bringing Katniss out onto the balcony with her? Did you think, then, about Lord Acton’s warnings about the inevitable corruption that comes with power?

Did you notice that during the air raid, Plutarch Heavensbee — former game designer of the Hunger Games — sat beside President Coin while she ordered the oxygen in the District 13 bunkers to be cut to 14  percent? Did you remember, then, the way that Heavensbee ordered various torments added to the Hunger Games — poison gases, dangerous predators, fires, and floods — in order to produce a more interesting spectacle?

Did you notice how awkward it was, knowing Katniss’s whole history, to applaud and cheer for what should be a very sympathetic Hollywood-style band of brave rebels as they held up Katniss and her fellow shell-shocked competitors as little more than battle flags?

Did Mockingjay make you a little uncomfortable?

It should have.

And if the second film follows the plot of the novel, things are only going to get more uncomfortable from here on out.

When the lives of individuals are used as symbols for the purposes of politics, no one wins but the politicians. For those waiting to see the second half of Mockingjay, the question is whether everything that is human in Katniss — her love for her sister, her confused affections for Peeta and Gale Hawthorne, her complex friendships with people like Effie Trinket and Haymitch Abernathy — will be subsumed into the contested symbol of the Mockingjay. Or will Katniss be able to find a way, for one last time, to thwart those who want to use her as part of a bloody spectacle? 

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