Any time a popular book series is adapted to film, changes are always necessary. Such changes, though, do invariably yield a different experience for the movies than their literary sources.
For Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, the single change that’s had the most effect on the movie franchise has been shifting the focus from the first-person point-of-view of the books — in the novels, the reader never sees anything Katniss Everdeen herself doesn’t — to the multiple perspectives that allow for cross-cutting to Seneca Crane’s control room or President Snow’s office or the barracks of District 13.
That alteration, however seemingly unimportant, has created a different animal than Collins depicted, for better and for worse. The stories have been more spectacular on screen, but never as intimate as the books, for that very reason.
Mockingjay, Part 2 takes a remarkably different tack than its three predecessors. For the first hour and a half, the camera (and the audience) never really leaves Katniss’ side. In so doing, though, something unexpected happens: the weakest book in the series becomes the strongest of the four movies.
The movie wastes absolutely zero time getting strangers familiarized with the world. Director Francis Lawrence knows if you’ve never seen any of the Hunger Games movies, you’re not about to start with the second half of the finale.
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is recovering from the strangling she received at the hands of the brainwashed Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who was just rescued from the hands of the evil Snow (Donald Sutherland) in the Capitol.
Katniss wants one thing and one thing only: to kill Snow. To do that, she needs to get into the Capitol, which she can only do by navigating through District 1. She’s joined by a team of rebel soldiers, including the-love-Katniss-left-behind Gale (Liam Hemsworth), to guide her through the battlefield, which has been booby-trapped to oblivion by Snow and his engineers. (“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 76th Hunger Games,” one of them coyly remarks.)
The action is as intense here as anything in the earlier movies, largely because — as riveting as the controlled environments of the arenas were in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire — there’s an unpredictability and a sense of unfamiliarity here that amps up the tension.
Moreover, by barely cutting away to Snow, President Coin (Julianne Moore), or anyone else until the final act, you truly feel you’re going on the terrifying journey with the protagonists.
The most frightening sequence of the franchise, set within the sewers under the Capitol, is all the most intense because there’s no narrative sanctuary for audiences to cut away to.
Previous films in the series have shied away from the darker threads of Collins’ dystopian tapestry about children forced to battle to the death in a dark, Orwellian future. Thankfully, Mockingjay, Part 2 really holds nothing back, daring to go in for a pound with its complex, moral ambiguities and unmerciful deaths of main characters at a moment’s notice.
Despite only being half of a book, Mockingjay, Part 2 still manages to run a little long, in the same way The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King did. The movie never lags, but one or two fewer endings could have tightened up the overlong denouement.
In 2012, movies needed a new literary hit. Harry Potter had just made his graceful exit, Twilight was waning, and every studio’s recent catalogue is littered with attempts to launch YA series to various degrees of failure. Just when it seemed futile, along came Lionsgate’s adaptations of Collins’ book trilogy, forming quite possibly the best closed-ended movie series since J.K. Rowling’s wizard flew off into the sunset.
There have been minor issues with each of the movies, but Mockingjay, Part 2 has fewer than any of the others, sticking the landing and even making the earlier movies in the series stronger in the process.