11/24/2014 03:55 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2015

Mockingjay and the Price of Violence in Popular Fiction

This Friday, Mockingjay: Part 1 -- the third film in the cinematic tetralogy based on Suzanne Collins' trio of dystopian Young Adult novels, and the first based on that trilogy's concluding chapter -- premiered in theaters around the United States. It's a film that brings with it quite a bit of anticipation and conversation, be it about the subject matter, the fidelity of the adaptation, or the decision to divide the book upon which it is based into two installments. Already, the film is being greeted with mixed opinions. Some admire it as a smart and graceful take on a complicated concluding chapter, others have called it dull or aimless, the division of the text robbing the film of any real tangible through line. I, for one, fall into the former group. For me, Mockingjay: Part 1 (which I will call only Mockingjay from here on out, for the sake of brevity) is a sharp and affecting adaptation -- the best of its series, thus far, and a vast improvement over what seemed like an overstuffed conclusion to Collins' books. It's a film that is, in turn, both contemplative and thrilling, and one that unostentatiously demonstrates the gifts of its cast from the always magnificent Jennifer Lawrence to the understated and authoritarian Julianne Moore. It's also a film that, unlike any other book or film in its genre, seems genuinely interested with the cost of its violence: a film committed to the implication of its scope in opposition to easy gestures of heroism or martyrdom.

In discussing these questions of cost and implication, the easiest point of comparison for Mockingjay is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, another two-part adaptation of the concluding chapter to a well-lauded series of popular (potentially Young Adult) fiction. Of course, being that the final film of The Hunger Games series has yet to be released the comparison is not perfect. That being said, it does serve to examine the fundamentals of the topic in which I am interested. I think, right away, it is worth nothing that I am an immense fan of J.K. Rowling's work on the Harry Potter series. Speaking of only the books, I believe that Rowling -- for whatever reason -- managed to accomplish slightly more in scope than Collins. That is not to diminish Collins' work, but only to give credit where credit is due. That being said, I left both of the final two Potter films fantastically disappointed. At the time, I could not articulate exactly why, though now I think I understand.

Harry Potter and The Hunger Games take place in to vastly different worlds, designed to explore vastly different fictional tropes. The Hunger Games is, of course, speculative fiction used as an allegory for violence in the media, while Harry Potter is far more interested in questions of responsibility, friendship, and sacrifice. At the same time, both of these series -- possibly based on their rooting in the mechanisms of the Hero's Journey and the trappings of fantasy and science fiction -- find themselves orbiting similar concepts of heroism and victory. On the page, the conclusions to these stories feel immensely divorced from one another. On the screen, however, where the physicality of the action must be demonstrated, they seem to follow similar beats with one exception: the final Potter films never seem to understand their own stakes.

What do I mean by this? Let's look at the world presented in the final two Potter films. We are told that the films' antagonist Voldemort has all but seized control of the institutions of government and that he and his servants are committing violence all over the country. In the past two films, two major characters have been killed in a dramatic style. Over the course of the concluding two, many others will fall as well. We are led from the execution of an educator, to news of the death of the Minister of Magic, on a journey besieged by a number of bloodthirsty villains. After a string of sacrifices and close-calls, we come to our climax: one great big battle for the fate of the world. And none of it ever feels like it matters.

Part of this may simply be a result of the sheer volume of the Potter books, and the way in which they were adapted. At times, it feels as though the resulting films have more of an interest in recreating scenes from the pages without concern for implication or importance. We see the what but never feel the why. But it seems to be something more than that.

Perhaps this is because of the way in which Harry Potter is fashioned--as an, arguably, old-fashioned story of heroism. The tropes of sacrifice and destiny are consistently at play in the Potter world, and--thus--the action must revolve around a central point: Harry and Ron and Hermione and Hogwarts. This is inevitably a much smaller scale than the conflict in the Hunger Games' closing chapter, which involves a war raging throughout an entire nation as opposed to the campus of one boarding school. Still, this seems insufficient. Or, at least too general.

Looking at Mockingjay, one of the scenes that struck me most came early on, when Lawrence's Katniss returns to her home in District 12, which the totalitarian Capitol has bombed as punishment for her resistance and escape from the latest Hunger Games contest. She wanders disoriented through the tumult of smoldering broken stone, gazing at the ruins around her while the score swells along the typical sort of mournful ooo-aaa-ing choral arrangement. After a few moments, however, something crunches beneath her boot and she looks down. Beneath the rubble, she sees a shattered skull. It's a shocking image for a movie such a this: the skull not as a general token of death (such as in the woefully desensitized Man of Steel, in which Superman envisions himself swallowed up in an almost comical deluge of bones), but as physical, personal remains. In shock, Katniss stumbles forward over a ridge, and the camera follows her gaze. Down the road, the earth is littered with bodies. Some have been frozen and preserved as ash, their limbs greyed and petrified like the victims of Vesuvius at Pompeii. Others have been reduced to simple collections of bones. Still others are are gruesome mix of the two--charred flesh receding along ribs so that the bones protrude like shrapnel from the flaking viscera.

The whole scene is unfussy and disturbing. As a narrative moment, the reveal works for the audience in the same way it does for the character: a morbid rallying cry that asserts the ugliness of the enemy and the necessity of action. On a deeper level, it signifies something else, however: that death here is not always heroic or specific. None of the bodies we see are named. None of them are buried. They are the bodies of civilians swept up in unanticipated violence rained down with impunity. They are not protagonists and they are not martyrs. They are casualties.

For Harry Potter, this never seems to be the case. In those final two films, we witness the deaths of named characters who fall heroically in defense of an ideal. They are mourned and martyred. Their bodies are buried and sanctified. Certainly, Rowling's books made reference to the sort of senseless evil done in the same of the series' antagonist--the torture and subsequent madness of Neville Longbottom's parents being the premier example--but those sorts of moments are excluded from the films. The war on the screen feels shockingly small, considering how much the audience is told hangs in the balance. When nameless soldiers die in the climax, they are made of stone. In Harry Potter, war is Classical--full of great men and women dying great deaths for a great cause. Their murders are certainly sad, but they are couched in a sort of grandeur. There is purpose and there is meaning. Remus Lupin dies alongside his wife, Fred Weasley alongside his brother. When Harry himself must make the ultimate sacrifice to his enemy, he is comforted by the ghosts of his loved ones, all of whom assure him that there is solace and peace in death.

On the other hand, Mockingjay presents a distinctly unromantic vision of war and death. The masses of District 12 are reduced to cinder in a surprise attack. Those caught in possession of treasonous symbols are executed with bags over their heads, faceless as well as nameless in their sacrifice: indistinct bodies that may never be mourned. Even those who are slain in pursuit of the ideals towards which the film's revolution strives do so in complicated mass. When a rush of rebels move to destroy a dam, dozens are gunned down in the rain, trampled by the others still pushing forward. Those who do survive the gunfire will then be blown aside by the resulting explosion, or drowned in the subsequent flood. They will be named as heroes only in the sweeping general.

Of course, this is deeply tied in to what the Hunger Games franchise has been discussing from the beginning: violence as undignified spectacle. In the first film, the death of the young Tribute Rue comes at the hands of a briefly named participant, who is immediately slain himself. He falls, just as Rue fell, another just trying to survive. To the vast majority of spectators within Panem, their deaths will remain indistinct. They are just two more unsanctified bodies.

Mockingjay is dedicated to taking the complexities further. It's depiction of rebellion is complicated and pragmatic: the pursuit of the ideal by two practical leaders. Julianne Moore is stern and cold as President Coin, the overseer of the revolution. When she delivers news of Katniss' participation to her troops, her strategist Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) reminds her to potentially show some life. If the first two films were about violence as a means of suppression, this third chapter is about violence as a means of invigoration. For the revolution, Katniss is the ultimate means of propaganda, and the most powerful images available to them are conjured in the battlefield, where their anointed heroine can express anguish and demonstrate victory. For Katniss, this presents a problem. She understands the difference between fighter and figurehead, and the film brings this home when she makes a visit to the makeshift hospital of the beleaguered District 8. For the purposes of the revolution, her sacrifice will always be much different than those of the men and women and children who will be shoddily bandaged beneath bombed out ceilings. If she dies, she will be a martyr. When they die, they will be forgotten by all but those closest to them.

These themes are only further explored in the second half of the Mockingjay text, which will comprise the final film in the series. Certainly, there are a number of major characters who die, but their deaths are brutal and shocking. They die gruesomely in tunnels, bodies unrecovered. They die at the hands of the ideas they meant to endorse. When Mockingjay concludes--albeit, messily--the final words are haunted. The confusion and violence of the book lingers, and their toll hangs in the air.

Perhaps, then, there is no greater example of the difference I'm trying to explore than in those conclusions. For Katniss, the psychological and emotional strain of war is ever present, while in the wizarding world "All is well." This is not a knock on Rowling's choices as a writer (though, I will be the last to defend her goofily sappy epilogue), but an illustration of two immensely different representations of large-scale conflict. For Collins, whose books were intentionally infused with the confusion and arguable senselessness of the Iraq War, the trials of battle are inescapable. They stain the mass consciousness and the personal experience. They leave lasting scars and taint the most well-meaning endeavors. For Rowling, on the other hand, war is restricted. It is a period over which bad things happen until they stop happening. For Rowling, wars are things to be won, and evil something to be triumphed over. This is, of course, not a new or inherently ugly approach. It is a staple of literature and storytelling the world over. However, in the wake of the last decade, in which violence and war have so aggressively moved through all aspects of society, its hard to find this especially valid. Villainy is more complicated and victory less assured. It seems almost dishonest to refuse to acknowledge that things that Mockingjay seems dedicated to exploring. It seems unfair and unrealistic to believe that violence is a mess that can be cleaned up.