What ‘Mockingjay–Part 1′ Misses by Glossing Over Katniss’ Trauma

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Throughout much of Mockingjay, the third novel in the Hunger Games series, the unraveling of Katniss Everdeen’s mind takes over the page. Even from the beginning, she strokes a pearl that Peeta found in the arena in Catching Fire and often repeats variations of her mantra: “My name is Katniss Everdeen. I am seventeen years old. My home is District 12. I was in The Hunger Games. I escaped. The Capitol hates me. Peeta was taken prisoner. He is thought to be dead. Most likely is dead. It is probably best if he is dead.” Later in the book, she plays a game with the recovered but mentally unstable Peeta, “real or not real?,” as his mind comes back from the brink.

For the reader, Collins’ seesawing from another deeply violent or traumatic event for Katniss to still more pages of Katniss tweaking out as result of that event, can be enervating, even irritating. Yet this authorial choice is also troubling in a way that really matters: Collins obviously made a deliberate decision to not only show the social consequences of violence and the killing of children, but also their deleterious effects on the minds of those who have witnessed or been forced to participate in that violence. Katniss tells us through her own narration that she is fraying far beyond her edges, and she’s not alone. “I drag myself out of nightmares each morning and find there’s no relief in waking,” Finnick Odair (who we later learn is also a sexual abuse survivor) tells Katniss as he urges her, essentially, to not completely lose her shit.

Finnick utters these words in the new film adaptation, too (Mockingjay–Part 1), but his statement has lost a little of its impact for the audience, mostly because onscreen we’ve seen less of Katniss’ messed-up mind. Yes, we witness her touching her pebble and follow her mouth moving, and we see her waking from nightmares, but this serves more as a signal of her mental state to fans of the books than to casual viewers of the films. On a practical level, these quick scenes mostly serve to break up the pacing of the more on-the-nose humor and action scenes.

In the book, the slightly maddening quality of such scenes may have been less artfully placed between moments of great excitement, but again, that narrative quality served its purpose: showing what it was like to experience the horrors Katniss had endured. “The pain over my heart returns, and from it I imagine tiny fissures spreading out into my body,” Katniss tells us, in a chapter where the nagging question of what will finally “break” her “devours my waking hours.” The shift in focus from Katniss’s interiority is mostly a product of the different demands of the storytelling media. Plot point for plot point, Mockingjay–Part 1 is overall quite faithful to Collins’ source material. A casual consideration of their main differences reveals only its longer, more drawn-out action sequences in some places, which liven up the viewing experience, and a few omissions that match up with omissions in previous films.

It’s a good adaptation. Fans will be riveted by the suspense and horrified by the new depths of darkness the film plumbs, particularly the aftermath of the destruction of District 12, which we learned about in the last few moments of Catching Fire. It’s the first time in my memory that the film franchises’ camera has lingered on corpses in a non-glorifying, non-sanitized way.

But because of its focus on action to break up the tense tedium of daily life underground in District 13, and because of the lens’ necessary zooming away from Katniss’ back-and-forth dance with sanity and cooperation with the District’s authority, the film medium alters the nature of the story. It morphs subtly from a story centered around the competing demands of PTSD, love, and revolution to a more simple dual choice: Katniss’ vacillating between her fears about Peeta and her duty to the revolution.

So, yes, seeing the story unfold onscreen improves the pacing of the book, adds more nail-biting suspense, and avoids getting mired in the minutiae of recovery from trauma. Yet in terms of the impact and aims of Collins’ storytelling, the film also suffers in comparison to the book. Perhaps with the final installment, which will feature both Katniss and Peeta experiencing a more violent, noticeable break with reality, the filmmakers will find it easier to dramatize the characters’ residual trauma.