Adapting Trauma from Novel to Screen

Curator's Note

Editor's note: Froula describes her reactions to the film, including references to departures from the book, and assumes knowledge of the first book in the series.

Suzanne Collins’ trilogy compellingly translates and narrates war trauma and PTSD for and to a YA readership. When individuals endure traumatic experiences, they cannot cognitively process them like normal events. For the pathology of trauma is structural: triggers spark intrusive and often hallucinatory flashbacks, which return the victim to the original event as if she is reliving it. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s trauma functions as both recursive and recurring. Memories of her father’s death and mother’s catatonia, her witness to and experience of the Games’ carnage, and her own killing of other youth repeatedly traumatize her. Meanwhile, Haymitch’s narrative presence emphasizes the ravages caused by PTSD over time and his lifelong struggle of forgetting against the Capitol’s brutal insistence on remembering. The Capitol gleefully orchestrates its annual theater of grotesque reality television, a literal Survivor, to keep its population in fearful submission of its totalitarian control and high-tech spectacle of violence.

Will The Hunger Games help its fan base move one step closer to assessing and treating the trauma of its culture’s own returning war veterans, whom the franchise allegorizes? My most chilling moment of premiere night was when the audience enthusiastically applauded the sympathetic Thresh killing the taunting, unsympathetic Clove. This reaction counters the novel's aim to depict militarized youth massacring each other as definitively horrific.

The film also downplays Haymitch’s trauma--from his own survival in the arena and his subsequent mentoring of District 12’s tributes to their deaths--for laughs.  His antics, rather, convey moments of comedy to balance more emotionally fraught scenes, such as the Reaping. Gone are the novel’s abject portrayals of his alcoholism, vomiting, and protective armor of his own filth. Moreover, the film’s kinetic cinematography and its Psycho-inspired editing render the arena bloodbath PG-13.

Quick montages of the tributes’ gory corpses still convey the dystopian horror of the tributes in the arena against images of the privileged Capitol citizens, who wager on the tributes for sport. One scene juxtaposes the jubilant voiceover of Caesar Flickerman, Games announcer, against one young man bludgeoning another and then raising a bloody brick in a desperate victory pose. Yet Cato’s slow, agonizing death, prolonged by the mutts in the novel, is truncated, eliminating what Katniss describes in the book as “the worst hours of [her] life thus far” and relieving viewers from one more traumatic depiction of torture that is much worse than death.


I'm so glad you are discussing this film through the lens of trauma.  One of the things I admire about the books is they are unapologetic.  No one ends well.  Everyone carries the scars forever.  Yet Katniss' greatest strength, perhaps, is her refusal to stop living--she always finds a way to move on.  That is inspirational, even with the sadness of loss that permeates the film.

Because that is what I value about the books, though, your discussion of the changes made to the Haymitch character trouble me.  I won't see the film until this weekend, but your post is making me rethink my reading of Haymitch.  He is the character that foreshadows Katniss' possible future--he continues to live but not really.  Having given up long ago, Haymitch can help another but cannot help himself.  How bleak is this portrayal when you consider the possible metaphor for our returning soldiers?  

Many people have commented on the downplaying of the violence in the film (i.e. if it can be picked up by ABC Family, it must be muted).  But it seems the shifting of Haymitch from unredeemable despair to a humorous device is the most egregious abdication of responsibility we can lay at the feet of the film's creators.  How pacifist is the book, and can American society (in the midst of a war in Afghanistan but not in the midst of a mess in Syria) handle this rather brutal display of the human costs of war?

Great post Anna--I think you captured the film's triumphs and failures--and in such a small space!

One of the biggest disappointments of the film, for me, was the depiction of Cato's death. In the books, Collins is careful in her descriptions of violence against teenage bodies--never beoing too specific. But she is very specific and detailed with Cato's death, or at least with his pain. It's a harrowing section of the novel.

Cato is the only tribute standing between Katniss/Peeta and freedom from the arena, and for that reason Collins plays with our desire to see him dead and our competing sadness over his pointless "sacrifice." We want him dead because he is our heroine's "enemy" (and he is also a bit of a jerk) but in his dying hours Collins reminds us that he is just a boy he was forced to kill "for his country." I think the director likely cut down this scene to retain a PG-13 rating, but in downplaying Cato's suffering, the film downplays the brutality of the Games (which is kind of the point of the books).

On a related point, I thought it was interesting that both Katniss and Peeta emerge from the Games relatively physically unscathed. In the books they were such a mess that they were taken away, treated, and cared for days (weeks?) before they appeared on camera. And Peeta lost his leg! This seems to be a downplaying of the physical trauma of war.

 Great post!  I agree with Amanda's point that there's a massive downplaying of the physical trauma wrought by the games that--paired with the distance provided by moving from first-person to third-person perspection in the translation of the book to the film--reduce the confrontation of trauma that is necessary in Collins' world.  Though I have not read the 2nd and 3rd books in the trilogy, from what I understand the physical (and phsyiological) effects of the trauma of the games and beyond play key roles in the character development of both Peeta and Katniss as well as standing as bodily testimony for their trauma.

Regarding the point both Anna and Karen made about Haymitch: I think that the turn to humor was telegraphed as soon as Woody Harelson was cast in the role.  In many ways, he's a wonderful casting choice, but for me, he brings a persona of affability to all of his roles.  I can't imagine Harelson as broken and pathetic to the degree Haymitch should be.  Karen's right, Haymitch should be Katniss' ghost of a possible future, and a terrifying one at that.

Thanks so much for adding these great comments to the conversation, all! When I read the series for the first time I thought, "if this next generation can understand war trauma, then maybe we'll be ok after all," so I'm particularly troubled by the film's sanitizing of it. The de-emphasis of Cato's traumatic death weakens its statement of what happens even to the warriors who are professionally militarized.  

Amanda, I didn't see why the film portrayed Peeta and Katniss as healthy and whole after the games, because it erases the immediacy of combat PTSD. Not only is the scene important because of how it forwards the love story and how under threat she is from Snow but it also makes combat trauma invisible. I appreciate how the books make it visible for a society in which it is virtually absent from our public war discourse.

I agree that Harrelson has some inherent steeliness, though he was poignantly good in The Messenger (Moverman, 2009) when he played a military captain in charge of a Casualty Notification Team who has to inform the next of kin about combat fatalities.  He pulled off the trauma, though with his trademark jocularity.  But more to Karen's and Charlotte's points, he is the traumatized warrior who points to Peeta's and Katniss' fate. "Winning" = training more fodder for combat.

Another great piece! The comments about Haymitch made me think about the ways in which alcoholism can traumatize both the alcoholic and their immediate community. To continue with the PTSD theme, families of alcoholics often exude behavior that reflects living through a huge trauma--irrational thought, abnormal responses to particular noises and environments, isolation, etc. Interesting in the film that Haymitch is a comic relief, his disease being downplayed. 

In regards to the lack of trauma care after the Games, and the trauma being displayed during: Katniss is always "beautiful" in the movie. Her physical trauma of starving as a child is hardly conveyed in the brief scenes of her staring off into the rain, watching Peeta throw bread outside. Her trauma of being in the Games was hardly conveyed, even after her run in with Clove where her forehead glistened and the blood stayed neatly in place.

Thanks for the insightful post!




Great point, Melody, and thanks for reading and commenting! Katniss' beauty is especially problematic in the context of invisible wounds - PTSD in the film and Traumatic Brain Injury in the combat veterans that the tributes allegorize.  Without the outward visible signs, even of physical trauma in the characters, we can't see it like we did in the book.  Also, Peeta survives whole in body in the film, whereas his prosthesis in the books (and his struggles with it) makes visible the costs of combat.  

 Thanks for the thoughtful post, Anna.  I'm especially appreciative that you point out that the brutal combat happens between "one young man bludgeoning another" because, if it weren't bad enough that characters of lower social status become pawns of the government, they are also in this case underaged--as if to emphasize the allegory of governments' recruitment of our young for war.

I am glad to see someone else had the same kind of reaction to the gleeful cheering of Clove's death from the audience. It was disheartening and made me want to get and yell at everyone that they were missing the point. The adaptation is good, but in trying to keep it within the bounds of PG-13 audience the horror inherent Collins' text will be lost as we focus on a "one woman overcomming horrible odds" story instead of larger story about violence, fear, oppression, and resistence.

Local theater, late showing. The crowd was pretty mixed with a few kids I thought were too small. One little girl near us was scared but no one would leave the theater with her.

Thanks for the excellent post, Anna. Waht a great conversation here! I only want to add that I, too, was quite disappointed in the character of Haymitch and had expected (hoped) that Woody Harrelson's Natural Born Killers persona to emerge. He is also far less antagonistic toward Katniss in the film, far less protective of Peeta and, as has been noted, largely exempt from the physical and emotional traces of his own trauma in a way that is quite problematic. 

It's great to read this as it was a problem I had throughout the film. The most important thing to me about the books is the rendering of PTSD and trauma in a way you so rarely get in texts which focus on killing (Buffy, maybe to some degree). The extent, the effect of the actions. The film just felt so ... clean. Part of this was obviously being removed from Katniss's first person account - a friend noted that you don't get to know any other contestants so don't feel for them, I noted that that was kind of the point in the book. Part of this was just, the real lack of blood for a film about teen murder.

I don't know if this was the UK edit, but the only RED blood we really see is the delicate smoosh of blood from Katniss's head injuring. The feeling of dread and fear is just palapable in the book, but if we don't see the violence rendered and don't see its result in Haymitch rather than Quippy Movie Haymitch - instead flash cuts and blood free glimpses of blows, even the sound edit was muted - we don't feel the desperate scramble to survive. Here it felt like a desire for victory, rather than to just get through it, to save her family, and so on. I feel strange arguing FOR violence, when usually I hate blood lust, but it felt like a competition rather than a fight to the death.

Thanks for reading and commenting, Al, Virginia, and Faye.  The turn toward "desire for victory" is disturbing. I don't want to see Katniss turned into a superhero. 

I'm reminded of something Marine veteran Anthony Swofford said in his memoir of the first gulf war, Jarhead. I'm paraphrasing, but it's something to the effect of it doesn't matter what if Kubrick or Coppola think they're making anti-war films. If a young male preparing for combat sees the films, he can get psyched up by the battle scenes and comraderie. I'm concerned that the target YA audience can see the combat as strengthening the heroine and miss the critique and costs of combat altogether.

While many posts focus on the abbreviated violence in the films and criticize Cato's short death scene, I think that it is important to acknowledge the meaning or implications of the film's lesser violence. All of the Tributes' pain is short-lived in the film, truncating the long periods of suffering present in the novel. Though the film surely minimized the amount of violence in order to appeal to a larger audience, the similar depictions of Peeta and Cato's traumas hint at a deeper social issue. The drastically abbreviated depictions of suffering in the film could indicate contemporary American society's desire for a "quick-fix" -- the belief in immediate gratification.

In the film, Peeta does not suffer for days in the cave, leg festering and fever raging. The same day Katniss finds Peeta is the same day the Gamemakers announce the fease; at the break of dawn Katniss rushes to retrieve his medicine. Neither is Cato destroyed by the Mutts over a period of hours; as soon as he slips from the Cornucopia, Katniss shoots him with an arrow, ending his misery. All problems in the Game come to a quick resolution. Though the characters may suffer, their pain is short-lived.

The quick-and-simple remedies in the film falsely reassure teens that all problems have a simple answer, leading them to believe that their own sufferings are easily mended. In the novel, Collins's descriptions of physical pain and psychological suffering clearly illustrate the difficulty of healing and recovery; no choice is simple and recovery is never immediate. Even Katniss' Capitol-made burn medicine has to be applied multiple times. Her psychological scars run deeper than her physical ones and never truly heal. Her decisions in the final two novels illustrate the complexity of all of life's situations and place her in a Catch-22 -- no choice will bring the peace she seeks.(I won't say more in case you haven't finished the books!) But in the film all wounds heal quickly, medicine is never reapplied, Peeta suffers for a few hours at most, and Cato dies within seconds. The prolonged suffering present in true life does not exist in the film's depiction of the Games. Instead, the film attempts to create a world where all problems come to a quick and simple resolution, emphasizing society's trend toward immediate gratification and reassurance.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.