In Defense of the Middle (Middle) Child: ‘Mockingjay – Part One’ Review


Trilogies are already hard enough. The first part sets up the story, the third part concludes it. The second part exists only to take what was created in the first movie and transition it to set up the climax of the third movie. And that sucks for the second part. It is sort of like middle child syndrome, isn’t it? It’s not the fresh, new, trailblazer of the first part and it’s not the exultant, emotional finale of the third part. The second part of a trilogy is the overlooked, often ignored sibling of the story world.

The problem with the film industry in 2014 is that trilogies aren’t made anymore. Rather, film trilogies made from existing book trilogies aren’t made anymore. Production companies that have the rights to film the adaptations of book series have begun splitting the last part into two movies and it’s not hard to see why they do it. Here we have existing intellectual property with a strong fan base. Those fans are going to go see the movies, usually several times, buy the merch and the ensuing DVDs. They’re going to spend that money whether there are three parts or four, so why not make four? Makes fiscal sense, even if it is frustrating for audiences to have to wait an extra year for the conclusion of a series. The latest victim of this trend is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One.

Popular opinion for the first Mockingjay movie, even among fans of the book series, has been a resounding, “Meh.” The rating for Mockingjay on Rotten Tomatoes is 65%, and the site’s critical consensus for the movie is:

 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 sets up the franchise finale with a penultimate chapter loaded with solid performances and smart political subtext, though it comes up short on the action front.

Let’s look at some of those key words. Sets up the franchise finale. Penultimate chapter. I’m even going to go so far to point out: Comes up short on the action front. 

The truth of the matter is that Mockingjay – Part One is a fine movie. It furthers Katniss’ struggle to fulfill her destiny as the symbol of the remaining Districts’ rebellion, and explores the new struggles she’s facing being in District 13. It continues to examine  the love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta. It has great pacing and there’s nothing about the movie that feels forced or out of place. It has some action, though certainly not as much as the first two Hunger Games installments, which is what most people are looking for. But this is not the movie’s fault.

The Hunger Games series as a whole has a plot structure that may up set the third part for failure. The first part introduces us to the Games themselves, which becomes sort of like a formula. We watch the tributes get selected, we watch them train for the Games and participate in televised interviews at the Capitol. We watch them get dolled up by stylists and released into the arena where they fight in hand-to-hand combat with fellow tributes. We understand that what happens in the process of the Hunger Games has happened for 73 years prior to when this story begins, and our protagonists are part of the cycle. Catching Fire perpetuates that formula, by featuring an additional Games, with the same training, interviews, styling sessions and arena fighting. The third part proceeds to break this formula. Since the rebellion against the Capitol has begun and the Games were a device of the Capitol, there are no Games present in Mockingjay. And since this movie doesn’t adhere to the formula that we know and love (is love the right word? Kinda morbid, huh?) our expectations are completely thrown off.

I’m not saying this is an active thought for audiences of Mockingjay, but I do think there is an unconscious predetermination of what the movie is supposed to be based on the previous installments’ pattern, and we are slightly disappointed that it isn’t what we expected. Because there is less action in Mockingjay – Part One as compared to The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, “lack of action” is now a criticism of the third movie.

Alright, before we go any further I must confess something. I read The Hunger Games series earlier this year. I read all three books in a week. On a snow day during said week, I read Catching Fire in a day. A DAY. These are solidly good books. And listen, they’re YA so they’re easy to read and the story is compelling, obviously, or the films wouldn’t be so successful.

Now that I have confessed, as a confirmed fan of the book series watching the films now I can tell you that they are so damn close to the books it’s downright impressive. And to date, Mockingjay –  Part One is the most faithful book to movie translation. With the exception of a few very small changes, the film is almost exactly like the book.

That being said, we have a question to ask: Would the movie have been better if it had strayed further from its source material? Would an added action sequence given it the push it needed to bump the film from a “meh” rating to a “pretty good!” rating? My take is that it wouldn’t, and it certainly doesn’t need it.

I think what needs to be understood is that the middle, and second middle, films of a series serve a purpose. But what’s happened in the efforts of making money is that Mockingjay – Part One is suffering because it’s been separated from its defining moments, moments that it had inherently in Mockingjay the book.  I guarantee that if it been made into one movie, popular consensus for the film would have been, “It was really good, but the first part kinda dragged.” Added sequences to amp up the action of the movie would have been misguided and taken away from the plot development, and the whole series would have been worse for it. (Case in point: The Hobbit films.)

So let’s enjoy Mockingjay – Part One for the function it serves to set up the finale, and let’s look forward to Mockingjay – Part Two. I think a year from now, hindsight will prove that we were all satisfied with The Hunger Games’ Middle Middle Child.

– AH

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