I saw the film adapation of The Hunger Games over the weekend, and like everyone else on the Internet it seems, I have a lot of Thoughts. So many that I cannot even confine them to one website. The flowering of discussion over The Hunger Games is kind of awesome, because people are really engaging critically with their pop culture, having fun doing it, and tying the narratives in the books and film to real-world issues.
As Alyssa Rosenberg has pointed out, the series is a bit of a canvas against which you can project a lot of different things; discussions about media and spectacle, hunger and deprivation, race and social attitudes, class and revolution. There are all sorts of lenses through which you can view the series, and it’s a mark of accomplishment on Collins’ part that all of these are credible and interesting readings, and that so much material is being produced by people interested in further exploration.
This is a text that can be richly mined, for those who want to, and there’s always a new angle to explore when discussing narratives in The Hunger Games. I’m particularly fascinated by the race and class issues in the series, as well as the metacommentary on media, pop culture, and consumer culture, because Collins really took the pulse of the society around her and came up with a sharp, critical assessment of it. And I was really curious to see how the movies would do, with such high expectations from viewers.
Below the line lie spoilers for the film! And the books.
One narrative in The Hunger Games that intrigues me is the disability-focused one. This is a world where people are engaged in hard manual labour that is physically demanding and very dangerous. People incur injuries and die. In the arena, people die of infections and survivors are often disabled, and this is discussed frankly, though not always well, in the books. I wasn’t always delighted with the way Collins handled disability, but at least she confronted it. In a dystopian world, disability is going to be present, and people are going to have to deal with it.
So when we watched the film, I was interested to see how they handled Peeta’s leg injury. In the book, he’s severely injured and Katniss applies a tourniquet which he later tears off. When he’s retrieved at the end of the games, the leg is too badly damaged to salvage and the doctors are forced to amputate. This becomes an important thematic element for me as a reader in the text; Peeta is being forced to parade on the Victory Tour and play the game and look nice while he’s reminded every day of the price he paid for his involuntary participation in the Hunger Games.
And I was not pleased with how they decided to handle it in the movie, at all, where his injury was miraculously much less severe, thanks to those rather impressive curative medications the characters got with their silver parachutes; another reminder of the powers of Capital technology, but also a neat way to ensure that none of our characters experienced scarring and serious injuries, let alone amputations. Peeta’s leg wound went from life-threatening to a thin line more like a papercut; there’s no way he’s losing that leg unless the filmmakers are doing some fancy footwork, which I very much doubt they are.
One of the people in my group beat me to the punch with the ‘so, Peeta gets to keep his leg?’ comment when the credits started rolling.
So look. Plots change in film adaptations of books. Utterly faithful and perfect adaptations done for fan service are usually not very good, and I already have some problems with the attempt to shoehorn in as much content as possible; C. pointed out after the movie when we tore it apart in the lobby of the movie theatre that people who hadn’t read the books probably wouldn’t have gotten as much out of the film and I tend to agree. A lot of content was implied or assumed rather than stated, suggesting that the filmmakers thought audiences would know, or that it wasn’t important. If it wasn’t important, why would it have been included?
But the decision to alter the storyline with Peeta’s leg really troubles me because of what it symbolises. Peeta becomes a prominently disabled character in the series, and his disability becomes part of his experiences. At the same time though, he’s not defined by the disability, consumed by it, and placed in the narrative for the sole purpose of constantly reminding everyone that he’s disabled. Peeta, like other characters, is scarred by the world he lives in, and he bears a visible mark of the cruelty and brutality of Panem, but more importantly, he’s another person trying to survive and build a better world. By neatly cutting that entire plotline away, the filmmakers avoided some tangled and thorny issues.
Like the fact that Peeta is supposed to be a love interest. I can’t help but feel one of the reasons the amputation storyline was taken out was because the filmmakers don’t think amputees can be love interests, or think that the reality of the amputation might be offputting to audiences who wouldn’t be able to identify with the characters if Katniss fell in love with a disabled Peeta, because that sort of thing Isn’t Done. Furthermore, obviously no amputees engage with media and pop culture and certainly don’t want to see versions of themselves on screen, so that angle didn’t need to be considered when preparing the film adaptation.
They probably also feared the idea of a character who happens to be disabled; they couldn’t let him get fitted for a prosthesis and get on with his life. They would have felt compelled to wrap up some kind of special story in it, even though that’s not necessary. Riding right over that storyline can be justified by saying they don’t have time to do it, with all the other things that need to be included. Just like they didn’t have time to view actresses of colour and nonwhite actresses while they were making decisions about the casting of Katniss. Making movies is very busy work, people.
And, of course, Peeta doesn’t comply with narratives above disability. His withdrawal and depression at the beginning of the second book are more about his emotional state over Katniss, rather than his leg. As a character, he’s physically active as well as politically defiant, once he begins to grow into himself. This isn’t what amputees are ‘supposed’ to do in pop culture, and thus it’s a narrative that makes people uncomfortable, and one that the filmmakers evidently simply didn’t want to deal with.
I could be wrong; perhaps in the next film we will learn that infection set in and they took the leg. But I doubt it, highly, because this doesn’t seem to be in character with way Hollywood works, where disability is erased when it doesn’t serve a greater narrative or actively defies tropes. Peeta cannot be allowed to be disabled.
The books are fundamentally challenging for viewers in a lot of ways. They demand that people rethink the world around them and consider social attitudes and the impact media has on how they perceive other people and their environment. Many of these messages were diluted in the film adaptation, which is a real shame, because I was excited to see so many people getting so involved with a book series that probes so many social justice topics, talking about the series, and taking action as fans. The same kind of motivation isn’t going to be as present among movie fans, I suspect, because the films have been defanged; plucked, bathed, and garbed for the arena.