Note: The following post abounds with spoilers for the young adult books The Hunger Games trilogy, the YA novels Graceling and Bitterblue, and the films The Hunger Games and The Best Years of Our Lives.
I bought The Hunger Games DVD.
I watched it recently, and although I enjoy it, there are things that I don’t like about it. You know, the little changes here and there, the interpretation of scenes, the casting of characters—all the things that readers like to nitpick when books become films.
But there was one issue that has bothered me since I first saw the film in March, and the DVD didn’t change my reaction.
For those who might not know the story, The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic world that was once North America. The country of Panem is divided into twelve districts and the Capitol. Because of a rebellion decades before, the districts of Panem are forced to hand over two children every year to compete in the Hunger Games, in which they fight against each other to the death. The sole survivor is crowned victor.
The novel begins with its heroine and hero Katniss and Peeta chosen to represent District Twelve in the 74th Hunger Games. Both of these “tributes” survive and are crowned co-victors of the Games. However, Peeta is seriously injured.
The recent film does a good job of adapting the book, but it is with the changes to Peeta’s injuries that I take issue:
In the book, Peeta is hurt in an attack by another boy, Cato. Even with the medicine that Katniss fights to get for him, he’s still weak when an animal attacks him in the final confrontation, again with Cato. Katniss saves his life by creating a tourniquet for him, but it can’t save his leg.
In the book, Peeta becomes an amputee. His leg is cut off, and he is given a prosthetic, which he wears in the rest of the series.
In the film, the medicine Katniss receives miraculously heals Peeta’s first wound. He is not hurt in an animal attack. In short, he gets to keep his leg.
I’m disappointed in whoever made this decision (whether it was the director, the writers, the studio, or even the novel’s author Suzanne Collins). Granted, I don’t know the reasons behind it, but the impression it gives me is that Hollywood is afraid of being real when being real is unattractive.
Of course, everyone knows that Hollywood is shallow, judgmental, and hypocritical. It just hurts to see that a novel that was unafraid to be gritty and harsh with the truth of war change into something “pretty.” To be Disneyfied.
It makes me worry about the rest of the franchise: Peeta isn’t the only amputee or physically altered character. Chaff is missing a hand from his Games. Mags suffers from the effects of a stroke. In the final book, Katniss is so badly burned she loses most of her skin.
And there are other characters who face difficult issues: Annie is mad. Two previous victors of District Six are drug addicts. Finnick is a trafficked sex worker. Those stories will probably remain in the movies (after all, insanity, addiction, and prostitution are common elements in Hollywood films).
But none of the others are going to be in the films, are they? They’re too ugly, too uncomfortable, and too painful to see. I understand such feelings. I personally would not like to see Katniss burning. Reading it was hard enough.
But amputated limbs, strokes, and burns are real things that happen to real people. Even to children. And some people are born with missing fingers and limbs, or body parts that don’t function properly. We give them new organs and special parking places. Some are born with other features that make them different. We give their differences fancy names like “Down syndrome” and “autism.”
We even celebrate them. We have the Paralympic Games. We admire people like Bethany Hamilton, the surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack but continues to compete; and Nick Vujicic, the Australian pastor and motivational speaker who was born without limbs.
But we don’t give them many literary or cinematic heroes.
I think The Hunger Games franchise missed out on something great here. In the books, Peeta and the others might be disabled, but they can still do things. They’re still normal. They’re meant to be heroes.
Earlier this summer, I watched a film called The Best Years of Our Lives. It was released in 1946, and it tells the story of three veterans returned home from World War II. One is a double amputee, played by real-life veteran and amputee Harold Russell. Russell lost both of his hands, which were replaced by hooks.
In the film, Russell’s character, Homer, returns home to his family, who do not know that he no longer has his hands. His appearance is difficult for the family to accept, and he feels hurt and alienated by them, as they ignore what has happened. He pushes his girlfriend Wilma away, believing she deserves someone better than him.
In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, Homer shows Wilma what life is like in his condition. How at night when he removes the hooks from his arms so that he can sleep, he’s at the complete mercy of others. Without them, he can’t open the door if it closes, and he can’t dress himself in the morning. He’s stuck there until someone can help him. It’s a brutal scene, but frank and well done.
When I watched my Hunger Games DVD, I thought of that scene. Because the movie left out Peeta’s amputation, I really believe it lost a chance for the character to challenge and encourage our mainstream culture to become more open and comfortable with these very real issues and possibilities. It’s life. Art is supposed to imitate life, and entertainment should reflect a culture.
There was another Young Adult series that I read this year: the Graceling Realm books by Kristin Cashore. These books also featured a character disabled during the first novel.
Po is a Graceling, a person with an extraordinary ability. Similar to the X-Men, Gracelings are born with these unique abilities. Po’s ability is that he can read the perceptions other people have of him. It’s sort of like mind reading, but he can only understand what a person thinks of him, or how that person plans to react to him. He lies about this, though, because it doesn’t allow for people to trust him. He tells people his Grace is combat, which he excels in as his Grace allows him to always know how his enemy will attack.
In the novel Graceling, Po is badly injured. At the end of the story, it is revealed that he has lost his sight. However, because of his Grace, he is eventually able to manage his blindness and hide it from the outside world.
Po returns in Cashore’s third novel Bitterblue. It’s nine years later, and he has started telling people the truth: not just that he is blind, but what his actual Grace is. In her acknowledgements at the end of the novel, Cashore mentions,
It didn’t occur to me, until it was too late, that I had disabled Po [in Graceling], then given him a magical cure for his disability—thus implying that he couldn’t be a whole person and also be disabled. I now understand that the magical cure trope is all too common in [Fantasy and Science Fiction] writing and disrespectful to people with disabilities.
I appreciated reading this because I noticed the change in the character during the third novel. Po has accepted his disability as a part of him, and he wants others to accept him as well. Many characters counsel him to hide his blindness, for they wish to protect him, but he refuses because he does not wish to be pitied, even though pity is a clear reaction he will face.
There aren’t many disabled heroes that I know of in literature. Perhaps I just haven’t discovered them yet. However, I think we could use more. And I don’t mean for them to be used in a way that is exploitive or melodramatic. I think such characters could be written respectfully and in a dignified manner. I think they can also translate smoothly onto the silver screen. They can be accepted within their stories and by their audiences.
Like Peeta: even with a false leg, he is still accepted by Katniss and us.
Just not by Hollywood, apparently.