The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 marks a major departure from the first two films in both setting and tone. Finally out of the arena and into a full-blown rebellion against the Capitol and President Snow (Donald Sutherland), heroine Katniss Everdeen, played with constant authenticity and just the right amount of gravity and humor by reigning Hollywood prom queen Jennifer Lawrence, faces a new battle in her reluctant role as the face of the uprising. More importantly, the series has evolved from its first installment, when no amount of blood and guts could stop the declarations of Team Gale and Team Peeta in the fight for Katniss' heart. While the core of the story has always been Team Katniss, she is no longer the central character in the Hunger Games, even as she is the central character in the war effort. Josh Hutcherson is finally able to shine as his own character: gaunt, tortured Peeta Mellark continues to fight for his survival and protect Katniss while being held captive by Snow; Gale (Liam Hemsworth), having escaped to District 13, struggles to reconcile his rage towards the Capitol with his own humanity. Both young men still carry a torch for Katniss -- as she holds one for both of them -- but this is arguably the best installment in the franchise because the love triangle is put on the back burner in favor of deeper themes.
The movie succeeds where many other adaptations (including its own predecessors) have faltered. In the books, readers glean subtleties through internal dialogue and the narrator's inferences; in the film, director Francis Lawrence offers viewers sly asides and subtle glances that pay off later. Although President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), a woman of few words, appears to ignore the advice of expert propagandist Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) when he tells her to reevaluate her "salesmanship," her subsequent speeches to District 13 become increasingly verbose -- and a final, rousing cry for justice is offset by a shot of Heavensbee lip-synching the statement he had clearly penned. While it's unclear whether Coin is selling something for the greater good, her own benefit, or a combination of the two, her oration is a stark contrast from Katniss' speeches for the war effort. In a rare display of (purposefully) bad acting from Lawrence, Katniss reveals herself incapable of delivering prewritten dialogue of any kind; on the other hand, she musters a spontaneous battle cry outside of a bombed-out refugee hospital within the ruins of District 12 that inspires the rebel forces throughout the other districts.
The overarching themes of the book shine as well. No longer obligated to fabricate an epic love affair between herself and Peeta Mellark, Katniss begins to realize that her need to rescue Peeta is nonetheless born out of a very real love -- a conclusion that she would have never reached were it not for the constant battle for survival within District 12 and two consecutive Hunger Games. As Katniss' worldview expands to include normal questions about relationships and young adulthood, Finnick (Sam Claflin), Gale, and Peeta must come to grips with the long-term effects of how the Capitol has exploited them. Similarly, Katniss' sister Prim (Willow Shields) is no longer a 12-year-old terrified of being reaped for the Games, but a doctor-in-training with her own brand of toughness, and an awareness of her sibling's power and potential (which Katniss herself hasn't quite discovered). Even Effie (Elizabeth Banks), now a political refugee, fosters a growing spark of rebellion as she mourns the loss of access to fabulous wigs and couture duds.
Mockingjay, Part 1 is in many ways the bleakest offering of the series to date. Yet Lawrence has managed to infuse this piece of author Suzanne Collins' trilogy with enough humor and hope to offset the despair and devastation of war, all without playing down the danger. He also allows the supporting actors to shine enough to demonstrate that this is a story about the many faces of Panem, but without diminishing the importance of Katniss, the Mockingjay herself, as the face of Panem.