The Tragedy of ‘Mockingjay’
Religion & Liberty Online

The Tragedy of ‘Mockingjay’

“Mockingjay — Part 2,” the last film based on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling Hunger Games trilogy, opened this past weekend to high sales that, nevertheless, fell short of the other films in the series and industry expectations. In addition, with a thematically confused ending, the story itself doesn’t live up to the quality of previous installments.

Regarding sales, Brent Lang reported for Variety,

The final film in the “Hunger Games” series debuted to numbers that few pictures in history have ever enjoyed, but not everyone seems impressed.

Indeed, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2” is a victim of the franchise’s success. The film’s $101 million bow ranks as the lowest of the four installments and is off 17% from the previous film in the series. Globally, the picture also struggled to attract as big crowds. The $247 million it made worldwide fell short of the roughly $300 million that many analysts expected the picture would generate.

Lang offers an interesting bit of speculation for what the “problem” may have been with this second “Mockingjay”:

Compounding issues, “Mockingjay — Part 2” ends on a relatively downbeat note. Although a series built around children fighting to the death always had dark undercurrents, the film ended with political maneuvering and betrayals that prevented it from concluding on a triumphal note. Moreover, some of the novelty of the concept had worn off by the fourth and final installment.

I’m not sure that it would have improved ticket sales, but I actually think the problem was the source material. Specifically, I don’t think the ending was downbeat enough, because Collins tried to have it both ways between tragedy and victory. Let me explain. (Spoiler alert!)

The rebels beat Snow, and Katniss preemptively saves the people of Panem from another dictatorship under Coin, who proposes to reinstate the Hunger Games one last time to teach the Capitol citizens a lesson. Instead of executing Snow, as she requested, Katniss takes aim at Coin, ending her tyranny before it could begin and making democratic elections possible.

That would have been a great twist, if the story hadn’t already shifted to tragedy. I’m no fan of tyranny, after all. While I liked all the films better than the books, and this was no exception, even slowing the pace by splitting Mockingjay into two movies didn’t allow for the right pacing, because the problem wasn’t just the book’s rushed pacing but the content of the book.

Kurt Vonnegut once said in an interview with the Paris Review,

I try to keep deep love out of my stories because, once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. Readers don’t want to hear about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War III is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers.

The problem with “Mockingjay” is that the love story ends in tragedy and Collins tries to smooth it over with a big victory against the Hunger Games equivalent of a sky “black with flying saucers.” Call me sentimental, but even if I have the end of tyranny and the best of all political worlds, “but have not love, I am nothing” (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:2).

But wait! Surely I must have misspoken, right? The love story turns out fine. Katniss and Peeta live happily ever after, don’t they?

That too, however, is part of the problem. Simply put: Katniss was bad at loving Peeta. The whole time, as readers of the novels especially know, she cannot make up her mind between Peeta and Gale. Collins fills three books with Katniss’s mixed signals and infuriating inner-discord about them.

No, Katniss ending up with Peeta in the end doesn’t fix Mockingjay’s problem, because “Katniss and Peeta” isn’t the true love story of the books. It may not have been romantic—in fact, it was purer for being unromantic—but there was a real love story to the Hunger Games: Katniss’s true love was Prim.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Katniss. “How could I leave Prim,” she asks in the first book, “who is the only person in the world I’m certain I love?” She even confesses to Caesar Flickerman on live TV, “I love her more than anything.” It was her love for Prim that led her to volunteer as tribute in her place. The whole trilogy develops from that one act of selfless love.

But as readers and viewers know, that love story doesn’t turn out happily ever after. After the bombing of Capitol children that surrounded President Snow’s mansion, Prim, now a medic for the rebels, shows up to tend to the wounded. The first attack, however, turns out to have been meant to lure more people into the carnage and another explosive detonates right as Katniss recognizes her sister.

This event also ends what turns out to have been a completely pointless mission to assassinate Snow. That would have been fine, if the story had shifted to tragedy at this point. But Collins only halfway commits. The closest the story comes is Katniss having a breakdown and throwing things at Prim’s cat, who finds its way back to her house in the Victors’ Village at the end of Mockingjay:

“Get out!” He dodges the pillow I throw at him. “Go away! There’s nothing left for you here!” I start to shake, furious with him. “She’s not coming back! She’s never ever coming back here again!” I grab another pillow and get to my feet to improve my aim. Out of nowhere, the tears begin to pour down my cheeks. “She’s dead.” I clutch my middle to dull the pain. Sink down on my heels, rocking the pillow, crying. “She’s dead, you stupid cat. She’s dead.”

If the words “THE END” had followed this, maybe the story would have worked. It would have been better, at least. But instead, the “Katniss and Peeta” love story takes over to try to save the day, ending with Peeta and Katniss living happily ever after (except for recurrent nightmares).

Of course, people do get over grief. There’s nothing wrong with writing stories about that. But that kind of grief—the grief of star-crossed love—can’t be gotten over with so little time to process from the perspective of readers and viewers. Romeo and Juliet wouldn’t have been any less of a tragedy if Romeo had lived and ended up, in one final scene set years later, with Rosaline. The whole story would have come undone if something like that had happened.

So, how was the movie? As I said, better than the book. In fact, it’s still a fun action flick, with great performances from Jennifer Lawrence et al. But it isn’t anything more than that. For a series that so consistently delivered depth beyond the surface in previous installments, that’s a tragedy.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.