A lot of people die in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Unfortunately, Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne are not among them.
OK, that was mean. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the seething distaste for the two bumbling boobs vying for the attention of Katniss Everdeen in the latest Hunger Games film (based on Suzanne Collins’s book, of course) is a valid enough argument that the otherwise solid, entertaining, and surprisingly mature film would be better off if the two maddening characters were excised—by death, or otherwise.
There’s a major flaw in the Hunger Games that’s been burning slowly over the course of its first two films but erupts into an inescapable inferno in Mockingjay – Part 1. The films’ narratives, taking a cue from the books they are based on, are equal parts gripping action-adventure and schmaltzy romance. And the romance parts really, really suck.
To bring the clueless tributes out there up to speed, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a strong-willed teenager from the dystopian country Panem. She lives in District 12 and has this swashbuckling pal named Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), with whom she has the kind of relationship that she always has to tell people, “No, REALLY, we’re just friends,” and no one believes them.
In a disturbing twist of tragedy, Katniss is selected to compete in the Hunger Games, a competition where teenagers from different districts fight each other to the death, alongside fellow District 12 resident Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son who in the book is supposed to be sort of strong and brooding but in the movies is just a straight-up pansy.
Katniss and Peeta manufacture a romantic relationship while competing in the Hunger Games in order to ingratiate themselves to those watching at home and increase their chances at survival. Quickly, the lines between their pretend feelings for each other and their real ones are blurred. Gale gets a little jealous, watching it all take place. Katniss doesn’t know how she feels. It’s all very angsty.
Perhaps because we’re culturally conditioned to it after weathering eons of the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob nonsense from the Twilight franchise—or perhaps it’s what author Suzanne Collins intended—Hunger Games fans immediately seized on the love-triangle subplot in the books, and then the movies, playing it up to the point that it became as integral as the far more serious not-getting-murdered-in-the-Hunger-Games-and-then-lead-a-deadly-rebellion-to-overthrow-the-corrupt-government thing.
When the books were being adapted into movies, that romantic element turned the casting of Peeta and Gale into its own Hollywood Hunger Games, with every young actor in Tinseltown clamoring to be the next Robert Pattinson and every fan of the franchise ready to set tracker jackers on any casting that wasn’t up to snuff.
The excitement over the casting and the cinematic depiction of this apparently riveting love triangle should have created the potential for a gripping romantic respite from the onslaught of action in the Hunger Games films. And because of the way Collins cleverly wrote her narrative, we should have been in store for a satisfyingly torturous internal battle as we swing back and forth between which guy we think Katniss should end up with (and feeling sorry for the other one).
But the performances of Hutcherson and Hemsworth and the complexity-void way that this so-called love triangle has been depicted in the films has made pledging allegiance to Team Peeta or Team Gale akin to having an absurdly strong preference for dry wheat toast over dry multigrain toast. Both are stale and boring, and whichever one you end up having in the end is still unpleasant.
At first, there was something very progressive about the way the Hunger Games films handled these love stories. Not only, in the rarest of cases, where there a female lead in a blockbuster action movie, but the damsel in distress was a dude. Man, Peeta Mellark: that 170-pound sack of potatoes Katniss has to cart around everywhere, who can’t do anything right, and keeps getting into trouble. Even in Mockingjay – Part 1, it’s Peeta who needs rescuing, and it’s Katniss who orchestrates the mission.
There would be something very cool about all that…if you liked Peeta. In the books there was always something a little sad and empathetic about him. He always seemed to love Katniss more than she loved him. His haplessness was endearing. He was more sweet than weak, and always still manly.
But maybe it’s the over-earnestness with which he’s characterized in the films, or maybe it’s because there is this whiplash-inducing way the movies introduce the love elements, but you can’t help but just generally be annoyed at Peeta. So in Mockingjay, when he’s brainwashed to be the mouthpiece of the Capitol, you’re just really freaking irritated that he’s ruining everything for Katniss and the rebels. You don’t want him to be saved. You want him to shut up.
Mockingjay – Part 1’s biggest misstep in this whole “you should be invested in which of these godforsaken goobs Katniss chooses” thing, however, is its total miffing of Gale’s storyline. You see, this is the part of the love arc when you’re supposed to really start rooting for him to win Katniss’s heart.
In the first few films, Gale, and Hemsworth, is reduced to a handful of wistful stares, the narrative equivalent of twiddling his thumbs until he reenters the main storyline again in Mockingjay. He’s part of the team of rebels who rescues Katniss. He’s there to comfort her when she wakes up in District 13, support her as she grows into her role as the face of the revolution, and steal kisses from her at scattered opportunities. But the two of them together? You just don’t buy it.
Vulture’s Lindsey Weber goes deep on the ways The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 betrayed Team Gale, referencing specific lines and, more importantly, emotions that the book conjures. (Movie Gale fails to conjure emotions more complicated than “oooh, what pretty eyes he has.”) This is where the sporadic and hectic handling of the romance in the movies fails. In the book, there are long, intense stares described, days spent together bonding with no one else around, and handholding and support.
In the movie, there’s one WTF scene where they go hunting together. You’re supposed to swoon at their chemistry, apparently. Your real reaction: why the hell is this scene even in here?
Mockingjay – Part 1 comes to a screeching halt every time it gives service to the romantic subplots. More than the books, and they are greatly so, this is an action franchise. As Weber writes, the film “would rather Katniss be a conflicted hero instead of a romantic lead.” And that is great. Wonderful, even. This girl is kicking ass and taking names. No one cares whether one of those names is going to be Mrs. Mellark or Mrs. Hawthorne.
But in a movie that’s more than two hours and only part one of a two-part franchise finale, maybe then it would be more prudent to put these two other romantic leads, and therefore us, out of their misery.