Adapting Trauma from Novel to Screen
by Anna Froula — East Carolina University
March 27, 2012 – 00:00
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.