by Bill Stamets

Saga of a Surrogate: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2”

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on November 22, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Directed by Francis Lawrence.
Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong, from an adaptation by Suzanne Collins.
Produced by Nina Jacobson and Jon Kilik.
Acted by Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci.
Distributed by Lionsgate.
Running time: 136 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and for some thematic material.


by Bill Stamets

After an act of self-sacrifice to save the life of her younger sister and then surviving a civic blood rite, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is recruited to serve as an icon of insurrection in “The Hunger Games,” a four-film series (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) adapted from three novels (2008, 2009, 2010) by Suzanne Collins. “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay– Part 2” concludes a dystopic saga preoccupied with statecraft conducted by spectacle.

For a primer on political ethics, Katniss figures as a stand-in and standard-bearer. Caught in the apparatus of appearances, she will fake looks that turn into the real things.

Much blood is shed, mostly off-camera, in this young-adult franchise that’s rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. Teen-on-teen killing and tyrannicide share the screen with a chaste wartime romance. Francis Lawrence, who also directed the second and third Hunger Games films, now resolves these plot lines in a disquieting civics lesson and, for a coda, a domestic idyll from the madding crowd. A polis is redeemed and a new family begins.

Downplayed in this installment: satirizing the eccentrically coiffed and coutured elite found in the earlier films, where an oleaginous TV host, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), preens as a regime toady. Screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong prolong the running time to 136 minutes, thanks to superfluous action sequences. Like that chase in a sewer wherein naked mutant amphibian-faced flesh-eating albino bipeds pursue Katniss and comrades.

The four films comprising this serial link chronologically, free of cliff-hanger endings to bridge episodes. Flashbacks are limited to incidents within the storyline and lifetimes of characters. They live in a society using a calendar with no days, months, years or centuries identified. Geographically, viewers get no bearings, as if the action occurs in terra incognita. Historically, there is one national anniversary.  No ancestors are named. Nor are any books, creeds, myths or faiths ever mentioned.

Seventy-five years ago in the English-speaking nation of Panem, the 13 Districts rebelled against the Capitol. Parallels to the 13 colonies once in transatlantic revolt against King George III are nonexistent. The word “existant,” however, appears on an edict glimpsed in the first Hunger Games film. The Latin blog Pathetic Mistranslations mocks the semi-literate Latinate legalese penned on that parchment. Imperial Rome seems to inspire the naming of characters in Panem. Chariots play a ceremonial role in this country named after panem et circenses (Latin for bread and circuses), as Roman satirist Juvenal termed governance by mass distraction. When the one-percent over-indulge, waiters serve a blue beverage to induce vomiting and permit more fine dining.

Panem’s defining `circus’ is the legacy of the quashed revolt, as recounted in an official video narrated by President Snow (Donald Sutherland): “When the traitors were defeated, we swore as a nation we would never know this treason again. And so it was decreed that each year the various districts of Panem would offer up, in tribute, one young man and woman to fight to the death in a pageant of honor, courage and sacrifice. The lone victor, bathed in riches, would serve as a reminder of our generosity and our forgiveness. This is how we remember our past. This is how we safeguard our future.”

The Treaty of the Treason adds: “In penance for their uprising, each district shall offer up a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 at a public `Reaping.’ These Tributes shall be delivered to the custody of The Capitol. And then transferred to a public arena where they will Fight to the Death, until a lone victor remains. Henceforth and forevermore this pageant shall be know as The Hunger Games.”

The first film, titled “The Hunger Games” and directed by Gary Ross, begins with Katniss from District 12 dutifully attending the Reaping with her 12-year-old sister Prim (Willow Shields). Prim is picked in the lottery. Katniss volunteers to take her place, as the rules permit. This is just the first brave move by Katniss to protect Prim. In “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay– Part 2” Prim disobeys an emergency evacuation order prior to a bombardment in order to rescue her cat. Katniss redoubles her original efforts and rescues both Prim and her cat too. Prim’s cats always hiss at Katniss, who trash talks back. Yet throughout the series she is saving them.

The Hunger Games air live every year. Without commercial interruption, it would appear. In this one-channel country, must-see TV from the Capitol comes with onscreen alerts stating “Mandatory Viewing.” Indeed, the tagline for the latest film commands “The world will be watching.” “What if everyone just stopped watching?” wonders Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’s hunting pal and prospective love interest, in the 2012 film. “No one watches and they don’t have a game. It’s as simple as that.” Not really. It will take more than a hypothetical viewer boycott to unplug the grotesque broadcast.

“The Hunger Games” DVD contains an interview with David Leviathan, co-author of the novel “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” and an editor at Scholastics Inc., who relates how Suzanne Collins first got the idea for her story: “One night she was flipping channels on TV, flipping between war coverage and reality TV.”

As for the screen adaptation, Leviathan continues: “We knew that the violence was there as a critique of violence… This is a book that could so easily be made the wrong way, and you really had to be careful to find the right people who would make it exactly the right way, in that it would not become the thing that it’s criticizing.”

Lionsgate president of production Alli Shearmur assumes the risk of depicting adolescent slaughter: “They are forced to compete in this manner, so if we’re celebrating them killing one another, we’re doing exactly what the Capitol is doing. So as a movie, if we shot it that way, we’d be shooting it very cynically and we’d not be shooting it or telling the story that in any way conveys we understand Suzanne Collins’ novel.”

Director Gary Ross, interviewed on a “The Hunger Games” making-of featurette, deals with the quandary of manipulating imagery about image manipulation: “I could never let you feel that this was staged in any way… if you shoot it like a slick glossy Hollywood movie with like very groovily choreographed camera moves… if you loose that sense of verite then you really loose the feeling of reality… You’re turning into the Capitol; you’re not examining the Capitol anymore.”

“The phrase I always had on the set was `this feels too much like a movie,’ `I don’t want this to feel like a movie,’ ‘It’s too much like a movie,'” recalls Ross. “But that was my mantra.” He says he aimed to distance his “verite shooting style” from the seamlessly designed showcase of sacrificial murder as packaged for Panem audiences in the Capitol and the surrounding Districts.

“The games don’t mean anything,” claims Katniss in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” “They only mean to scare us.” She fearlessly outwits the Capitol. In the first film, she and her fellow Tribute from District 12, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), threaten to commit suicide together by swallowing poison berries on camera, instead of one killing the other. For tactical reasons and authentic feelings, their alliance segues into a romance. The next time they find themselves in the giant domed arena, new allies help her escape to the subterranean rebel stronghold.

Omnipresent cameras throughout Panem let President Snow monitor Katniss’s public appearances on the traditional post-game tour. Victors travel to each District to greet increasingly resistive citizens. “Fear does not work as long as they have hope, and Katniss Everdeen is giving them hope,” Snow notices. “She’s become a beacon of hope for the rebellion, and she has to be eliminated.”

Rebels hack into Panem’s signal to air their own propaganda videos called “propos” by their creator, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Formerly the Head Gamemaker for Snow, this turncoat now manages the image of the insurgency. My favorite scenes in the third and fourth films show Katniss learning how to play a mascot uniting “the masses” of the Districts.

Going off script, she inadvertently generates the best footage yet. “I couldn’t have staged it better myself,” marvels Plutarch. “And whatever she’s doing, we conceived it,” says rebellion President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore). “It was our plan all along… I want everyone to know whatever game she’s playing, she’s playing for us.” Katniss will ultimately outplay Snow’s would-be successor.

A Hunger Games survivor with PTSD tells Katniss: “You’re… a little hard to swallow. The whole tacky romance drama. And the defender of the hopeless act. Even though it’s not an act, which makes it even more unbearable.” Once the invasion of the Capitol starts, Plutarch will deploy a Star Squad to upload video of Katniss in action. She schemes to assassinate Snow on her own: “No more cameras, no more propos, no more games.”

Back in the second film, Katniss is coached: “From now on, your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.” Politics by distraction is deconstructed by the fourth film. “If we die, let it be for a cause and not a spectacle,” urges a rebel commander. Once Snow is deposed, the interim leader proclaims: “Welcome to the new Panem… our free Panem… more than a mere spectacle.”

Staging the public execution of a tyrant looks right and righteous for the last reel, but  Kandiss the archer thwarts that populist payoff. A few scenes earlier, before rebel forces overtake the Capitol, Snow instructs its privileged residents: “Our enemy is not like us. They do not share our values. They have never known our comfort and our sophistication. And they despise us for it.”

Snow’s rhetoric for demonizing citizens of the outlying Districts sounds like certain diagnoses of Islamicist resentment of Western secular democracy and urbanity. Two days after Islamic State issued its communique regarding “the Blessed Paris Invasion on the French Crusaders,” French president François Hollande declared: “France is at war… The barbarians attacking it want to disfigure it.” Targeted are “our values, our youth and our way of life.”

The global entertainment known as The Hunger Games imagines grassroots guerrilla freedom-fighters. Toss in a few unprincipled Machiavellian players to boo. Unsaid or unclear are “our values.” What freedoms do all the martyrs in the series foresee?

Plebeian citizens of the thirteen districts are uniformly garbed in drab homespun browns, greys and blues. In the Capitol individualism is trivialized as idiosyncratic ornamentation. Manifested in outlandish hairstyles, makeup, clothing and jewelry. As if self-fashioning evidences self-governing. We see these over-served people do little– other than watch their Hunger Games on unbelievably big screens.

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