When Heroes Go To Hollywood

Josh Hutcherson, Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games



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.


7 thoughts on “When Heroes Go To Hollywood

  1. Sometimes Hollywood does keep in the injuries, Like in Starwars Luke gets a new robotic arm after Vader chops it off. I think the thing with the Hunger Games is they are working with the formula of “short and snappy”, an example would be that Tom Bombadil is cut from the LOTR’s movies because having him in although nice, doesn’t progress the “Main” story. Hollywood are not bothered with having too many sub-plots. I would argue that Peter losing a leg and the other injuries are what makes the Capital more barbaric and also adds but a brokeness and added resolve to the characters. They also cut out Katniss losing her hearing in one ear.

    Its crazy really because the biggest heroes are also the most broken, usually suffering to save another life (which is what Peter does) and yet that act of courage and love is glossed over so we don’t have to be shocked for a second.

    From a release view, not having his leg chopped off might have been the difference between a 12 (or PG13) and a 15 (or R) cert, with so much money to be made from the younger audience it makes sense to tone down the violence. This has disadvantages as well as advantages, an advantage I would imagine for Catching Fire is that joanna will not be naked in the movie [which is good].

    I think the main thing is this fear of offence, people seem to be so frightened to do anything to offend someone else. Sadly as you point out not being “normal” whatever that is scares people, seeing things that are different or seeing that you can be admirable with a leg missing or dispite the brokeness of the past is not a concept most people understand let alone the made up fancies that write for hollywood.

    • You’re right, Tim, about Star Wars, and about the idea of keeping the film short and snappy. (It’s already a little too long in some areas.) And I hadn’t thought about the rating issue–wasn’t it in your own England that the film came under a lot of pressure to cut the violence down in order to keep available to a younger audience?

      (Yes, I too am glad that Joanna will most likely not be naked.)

      I hadn’t expected them to have Katniss lose her hearing because I thought that might be hard to convey in the film, but Peeta losing his leg–that’s such a profound change to his character. Collins has said that part of THG stemmed from her own childhood memories of the Vietnam War, and I always felt that the loss of Peeta’s leg was to emphasize the reality of that war (as amputees and Vietnam are forever connected in my mind) and its consequences. I know we probably shouldn’t compare THG to the Harry Potter franchise, but one reason Rowling killed off the characters Lupin and Tonks was so she could have Teddy represent those children orphaned by war. (Or so I heard once.) Their deaths were kept in the final HP film, but Teddy was eliminated. I think that is a case where the franchise knew that deleting that subplot altogether would anger fans, but they should have probably done it anyway. (The relationship was so downplayed, too, in the films that it was almost “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it.)

      “The biggest heroes are also the most broken” <– Very true, and I think you see that in the Peeta's story arc. His physical "change" at the end of THG is foreshadowing of how the Capitol will force him to change and alter him by the end of Mockingjay.
      "Seeing that you can be admirable with a leg missing or dispite the brokeness of the past is not a concept most people understand" <–Agreed. I don't pretend to be an expert on the disabled, but I did volunteer a few times at a special needs orphanage in Kazakhstan. The treatment of the children there, although it is getting better, is so backwards it hurts. I suppose I've idealized America by believing it would be ready to truly embrace these people and accept them. Even though I think Americans (and Westerners) do, as a whole we still have a long way to go if it's easier to just write out a difference for a movie.

  2. I agree. In fact, I think the best possible thing would be for more people who experience life with such challenges to write about it. It comes down to “people are people,” I think, and as authors, we too often look at our characters as characters and not people. It’s tough to write what you, yourself, have not experienced, but it can be done with effort.

    My main protagonist in the infuriatingly-untitled-story I am writing (I hate not having a title… hate hate hate it!) faces physical and social challenges that I do not, and one that I do. Like me, she has a visual impairment. I am quite near-sighted and so is she, but she has no glasses. How she deals with this handicap is part of her personal and spiritual journey. It is certainly not going to be magically or miraculously cured, and they don’t have LASIK surgery where she’s from. 😉

    This post has made me think about my other characters as well. I have one amputee, but he’s no role-model. There’s plenty of writing left to be done, though, and much that may happen in the weaving. I will just have to see what crops up.

    • I agree. I had not thought about any of my characters being disabled in my story, yet I do so many faced with violence and war that it seems silly to think that they come away with just a few scratches at best and broken bones at worst. It’s suddenly a very realistic possibility, not just for my heroine and hero, but for all my characters. I’m tempted to experiment with this, although I want to only write it in if it helps the story. Not for shock and melodrama.

      Now that I think about it, even as I’m (finally) responding to these comments, I wonder… my heroine comes from a very battered and hurting community. It does not seem unlikely to me that she would have met or known amputees and other disabled. It would add a little more depth, not just to her, but to the supporting characters as well, and to the setting. Hmmm…..

      (I know what you mean about not having a title. Mine had been titled with my heroine’s name, but then I discovered that there is already a book out there with the same title, so now I just have a working title, and I hate it. I also have a few characters for whom I just haven’t been able to think of good names. Today I managed to finally make a decision about two of them, so that’s good.)

      • Indeed. The happenings ought to be believable, and ought to serve the story. My one amputee became an amputee quite recently when I realized that it made sense. \

        Perhaps she would even have them among her family and close friends.

        Naming the book after the main characters just doesn’t work for this, and nothing else is coming. *beats head slowly on desk*

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