MHAM: ‘It’s Always Personal’: Humanising Dystopia and Trauma in ‘The Hunger Games’ Films

In the boom of young adult franchise adaptations, The Hunger Games films stand out as perhaps the last great series, one of the most consistent and faithful adaptations in this late noughties/early 2010s era. Suzanne Collins’ dystopian books, published between 2008 and 2011, became the basis for four films that solidified Jennifer Lawrence’s career, formed cultural touchpoints, and started new conversations through heavy-handed yet apt allegories for American imperialism and exploitation. 

No matter how often the series is revisited, it does not lose its humanity in either allegory or spectacle. These films offer something closer to grim catharsis than entertainment, a message driven home by two key features of the adaptation. The first is that each film is long – the shortest, Mockingjay Part 1, stands at 127 minutes, and that is only half of the final story. The second is how they allocate this expansive time to the characters, especially reluctant protagonist Katniss Everdeen. The translation from page to screen is fairly faithful and skillful, notably in its excellent ‘show, not tell’ worldbuilding; cuts between the Capitol’s garish stage and District 12’s abject poverty establish Katniss’ reality with minimal expository dialogue. There are, of course, some abbreviations and excisions which have been the subject of criticism: the Capitol’s mutilation and enslavement of dissenters is not touched on until the third film, and Katniss’ and Peeta’s physical disabilities after the first Games are ignored. If some of Panem’s darkest elements are barely touched on, are the films any better than the Games themselves, wringing bloodshed for entertainment value? 

This, however, ignores a deliberate focus on the wrenching human toll that is given surprising time to grow, reflect, and breathe. The franchise may be relentlessly dark and wholly fictional, but the writers and actors never lose sight of the humanity in imperfections, coping mechanisms, and the unreality of living normally during the fight and after the ‘victory’. The full scope of Collins’ scathing satire and social commentary may be lost, but letting its central characters show their nightmares and coping mechanisms at length on-screen makes the films one of young adult film’s most honest and brutal look at trauma, PTSD, and the occasional impossibility of moving on. The exploration is most fully realised in the characterisation of Katniss Everdeen, from her framing within the narrative to Jennifer Lawrence’s raw performance.

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The films mirrors Katniss’ first-person present tense narration in the books by sticking remarkably close to her perspective at almost all times (cuts away from her viewpoint serve the sole purpose of advancing the world, a strong move that eliminates the need for voiceover narration). The camera thus never loses Katniss’ reactions and realisations, letting viewers get to know her as she deals with the unthinkable at every turn. The result is almost too much: we, like Katniss, are completely at the mercy of what the Capitol and the camera throws our way, and there is rarely a cut away from the worst atrocities and the mental damage inflicted down the line. 

We see her wordless flashbacks to her father’s death, where her mother’s grief left her unable to care for her family. We cut abruptly from a calmer world outside the Games to a sobbing panic attack following the death of her friend and fellow tribute Rue. We cannot look away when her stylist Cinna is brutally attacked as she is sent towards the dizzying sunlight of her second Games. We feel the rage when she wakes up on a hovercraft at the end of Catching Fire to be told that she is part of a plan she knew nothing about, that Peeta has been captured and District 12 has been bombed to obsolescence. And we see what she sees when she is reminded that – regardless of what her friend Gale has told her – hunting animals for food will never be the same as killing fellow teenagers for survival. When Gale tells her in Mockingjay Part 2 that the new offensive against Capitol loyalists in District 2 is not personal, she replies with “I, of all people, know that it’s always personal.” After watching violence and its repercussions play out on her for the preceding seven hours, nothing feels more honest.

Even today, Katniss remains an iconic heroine and a remarkable, uncomfortable young woman. She is often cutting, cruel, and understandably unlikeable, refusing to behave the way victims – or heroines – should. She jumps to angry words or physical violence when caught by surprise or excluded from the decisions of those above her – regardless of which side of the war they happen to be on. The framing of the distress she faces – both in her past and then inflicted almost hourly from the moment her sister is chosen at the Reaping – make these ferocious reactions seem the only way to maintain some semblance of control. It remains a stunning look at the normalcy of trauma and the fact that being ‘okay’ would be entirely at odds with reality.

Viewers are (hopefully) never going to have to fight to death in a rigged arena for mass televised entertainment or storm a heavily booby-trapped city to avoid a certain, violent death. But the world has always been frightening, overwhelming, and – seemingly even more so in the years since Mockingjay Part 2 premiered – unpredictable. The lens on Katniss as she breaks down from the nightmares and flashbacks, sometimes finding a way forward from them and sometimes moving only through the inertia of those around her, is unfailingly sympathetic and respectful. Despite the unmistakable fiction, it reminds viewers that it is okay not to be okay.  

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Image courtesy of Lionsgate

In this respect, perhaps the strongest choice in adaptation is splitting the final book Mockingjay into two films, allowing an originally rushed final chapter more space for its characters to reckon with its conclusion and providing some of the franchise’s most circumspect moments. These conversation-heavy, static scenes are not conducive to good cinematic storytelling, but they facilitate growth, release, and a chance for Katniss, Peeta, Finnick, Haymitch, and everyone who has a stake in the future of Panem a chance to express themselves. It is also the film that sees Katniss and her fellow survivors learn more about the community they have been forced into;  none of them are alone in dealing with a reality they did not sign up for, and each cope with their new normal differently. In many ways, the battle with the Capitol becomes far less important as the human toll of super-human resistance is thrown into sharp relief. 

And yet, even with this extra time and care taken throughout the franchise, the denouement is flattened. We never hear and barely see Katniss’ reaction to her sister’s death as it is instead silenced in a stylised battle sequence. Barely ten minutes later, after the new President Coin tells Katniss that she would absolutely put the unwilling heroine through “through this again for the same outcome,” Katniss kills President Coin rather than President Snow, knowing the former is an equal evil and the latter will die anyway. She is shipped off back to District 12, protected by her status as a national hero, and – aside from a cathartic scream at Prim’s cat – neither she nor the viewers is given time to realise that the fight, for now, is over. “It takes ten times longer to put yourself back together than it does to fall apart,” Finnick tells Katniss in the finale’s first half. When the characters find the opportunity to self-reconstruct, however, the film seems unable to deal with the magnitude of this realisation. Instead, we flash forward to Katniss’ and Peeta’s happy family, feeling relieved that they have found each other and some peace. But still, the emphasis on this eventual domestic bliss does the survivors’ stories a clear disservice.

The Hunger Games films work best when they stay far from comfort, centralising the internal and external ways Katniss processes each unspeakable horror she is living through. This approach provides a refreshing change from actions and reactions portrayed in many other fantasy, adventure, and young adult fiction narratives – if you are fighting the good fight and end with the ‘bad guy’ defeated, you should be able to sleep easy, right? Katniss shows that this reality is never so simple, and always personal. By allowing its central characters space to fall apart and come back together, the Hunger Games films show that genre fiction can still present an excruciating, clear-eyed look at the mental after-effects of trauma. The odds are never in their favour.