The Hunger Games’ Peeta Mellark could have been a much more valuable character, but something didn’t translate right from the novel to the screen.
The Hunger Games movies give audiences many memorable characters, but while some were and still are the face of a franchise, one main character remains sadly underappreciated: Peeta Mellark. In the movies, Peeta is a foil for Katniss, allowing her to play out her role as the savior of Panem. In the novels, Peeta is much more than her prop. He’s selfless and strong, and he genuinely loves Katniss. So how did he get lost in translation?
Katniss came blazing into the social consciousness as a fierce female protagonist when The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was published in 2008. Gale is her male counterpoint, bucking the Games and the government from the outside while she fights from within. But even though Peeta fights through and survives the Games twice, just like Katniss, the other characters overshadow him, particularly in the movies.
Book fans frequently complain about shortcomings in the movie version of their favorite story. It’s understandable. Only so many details from a novel can make it onto the screen. Tertiary characters disappear. Side arcs that provide tasty plot nuggets get cut for time. Even with three-plus hours of running time, The Lord of the Rings movies still didn’t manage to keep all the best parts of the books. The Hunger Games got the same treatment, sadly at Peeta’s expense in many places.
What got lost is a different sort of male lead who is refreshingly real and caring in a way that contrasts beautifully with Katniss’ personality and makes them both richer. Through Katniss’ uncomprehending eyes, readers see Peeta save Katniss by giving her bread when they are children, then stay quietly in the shadows like a guardian angel from there on out. What the audience can see that Katniss cannot is that Peeta does all of this out of love.
Perhaps that element of selfless love, which is significantly abridged in the movies, ended up shoved out of the way for the juicy love triangle of Katniss, Peeta, and Gale because of the timing of the movie’s release. Anyone familiar with teen entertainment during the ’00s decade knows 2005 and on was dominated by Stephanie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga, the way Harry Potter had dominated from 1998 to 2006. The Hunger Games rode in on the crest of that wave by being published the same year the first of the Twilight movies hit the box office.
One of the major topics hotly contested among Twilight fans was whether to be on Team Jacob or Team Edward. This base of eager readers, who had cut their teeth on Potter and then grew up voting for who Bella should choose, flowed into consuming The Hunger Games. Their rabid devotion to picking a side in the love triangle doubtlessly influenced how to bring Katniss, Peeta, and Gale to the screen.
While Collins legitimately did write the three characters into a love triangle, it played out nothing like the testosterone-fueled posturing over Bella in Twilight. Peeta and Gale offer Katniss two valid choices for a partner. Both young men have cared for Katniss for years by the time she enters the Games and even share a level of mutual respect. But here, the movies do Peeta probably the greatest disservice. On-screen, Peeta becomes a bit of a burden. And while it makes Katniss seem all the more admirable for saving him, he struggles to redeem himself, and his shortcomings drag him down throughout Catching Fire. By the time Peeta is rescued from the government and suffering from the fallout of his time in captivity, it’s kind of hard to care as much as he deserves.
In the novel, where adequate page-time is devoted to his character development, the version of Peeta that accompanies Katniss is a quiet master of PR. While Katniss is an attention-garnering woman of action, Peeta has the advice on how to play the game. He spends just as much time saving Katniss as she spends saving him. With proper symbiosis between the two characters, it’s much easier for the audience to connect with Peeta and truly sympathize when hardships befall him.
Why does Peeta matter so much? Aside from adding depth to Katniss’ character, losing connection with Peeta means fans who only watch the film version lose a significant chunk of the story’s meaning. After all, Mockingjay has a whole arc about Katniss’ need to rescue Peeta, rehabilitate him, and settle her feelings for him. Without Peeta’s strong presence as a foundational character, her motivation to put in so much effort ends up flat or forced or both.
In the end, the two mediums must be enjoyed for the benefits they bring to the table. The Hunger Games novels can give all the characters the depth they deserve. Likewise, the movies excel at putting chair-gripping action in the audience’s face. Like stereo headphones feeding the novels to the left and the movies to the right, to get the richest outcome, one should experience them both.