In the run up to the release of Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games movie, the director sat down with io9 to discuss some of the changes they made to the second film. For instance, they bowed to fan outcry and swapped Prim’s cat so it looks more like the book one. An exchange at the end of the interview caught my eye. (Spoilers if you’re unclear on the premise of the new movie, I guess):
One of the things I really enjoyed about Catching Fire was a change you made. In the first movie Peeta doesn’t kill anybody because, I don’t know why. The first thing you have Peeta do in the Quarter Quell is drown another one of the victors. Was that intentional?
It was intentional. It was intentional. Yeah we made an effort to change Peeta a little bit. We just felt that he was a little too helpless. At times he can feel like a piece of baggage. We wanted to make sure that he was a little more vital. He can’t injured all the time, he can’t be getting carried around all the time, he can’t be getting saved all the time. It was the thing that we worked on. It took a little while to figure out the right balance. It really changes your point of view on him when you come in and he’s in a fight and he ends up killing somebody.
This comment makes me very grumpy. It seems like the shorthand for “strong character” in Hollywood is “engages in violence.” This usually happens to female characters, where a quick, lighthearted punch or pistol-shot is a way of signalling “This chick is tough!” in lieu of other character development.
Despite io9’s headline “How Catching Fire transformed Peeta from Wuss to Blood Covered Bad Ass,” Peeta was already formidable in the first movie. While Katniss struggles to be patient with or pander to others, Peeta buys her safety with his warmth and good humor. First, he helps win her sympathy when he reveals he is in love with her, and then, in the arena, he joins up with the brutal Careers to lead them away from Katniss. Both of their kinds of strength are needed to survive the Hunger Games, and the political aftermath.
I’m less worried about Catching Fire muddling this message, despite the director’s comments, than I’m nervous about the second Hobbit movie, which kept making this mistake in its first installment. Peter Jackson kept giving Bilbo “Took a Level in Badass” moments that were not in the books (e.g. when he faced off a warg to defend Thorin). Instead of the dwarfs learning that courage comes in many forms, and growing to respect their little thief, Jackson had Bilbo become a warrior, so that Thorin only came to respect Bilbo when he resembled himself.
This is a needlessly narrow idea of heroism, and one that’s a good deal less relevant to day to day life. I like the way the books admired Peeta for his goodness and selflessness, but also left Katniss to wonder if she could afford those particular virtues. The brutality and callousness that Katniss draws upon limits her ability to share Peeta’s feelings, and it’s a bit glib to show Peeta taking on Katniss’s ruthlessness without showing how it costs him his own strengths and that his empathy is a superpower, too.