With 4.3 million copies sold in 2010, The Hunger Games rapidly became a cultural phenomenon. Its popularity tripled after the first film was released in 2012, with an astounding 27.7 million copies sold worldwide. Suzanne Collins wanted to write a book to educate young people about the realities of war. “I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war. For adolescents.” By doing so, she outlines the factors that spur war and offers a wider reflection on the world. War in The Hunger Games ties in with political, social, racial, gender, cultural, and environmental questions. Collins asks her readers to reflect upon wider issues, and shows how the intersectionality of these issues can fuel war and destruction.
Katniss Everdeen saves her family, but in doing so she also frees a whole nation from tyrannical oppression. For those who don’t know the plot, it is set in a near future where countries have been destroyed and replaced by 12 Districts under the control of the Capitol. To strengthen its tight control over the districts, the Capitol organises games each year where 24 children and teenagers called ‘tributes’ have to fight to death in an arena. They confront dangerous animals and cruel tactics implemented in the games with the sole purpose of destroying the teenagers both physically and psychologically, and entertain/control the crowds. The winner, after killing all the other tributes in order to survive, has to deal with the pain and the nightmares. Forced to appear on camera constantly, physically changed and shaped for entertainment purposes, the tributes remain under the Capitol’s control. Katniss is one of these tributes. She volunteers instead of her sister to protect her, and takes her place in the arena. As the books go on, Katniss gets more actively involved in dismantling the system and the Capitol. Whether she chooses to or not, she ultimately becomes an embodiment of rebellion, a ‘weapon’ against the tyrannical system.
Collins creates a dystopian state called Panem, a successor state to the USA. She traces back its historical roots, drawing an interesting parallel with Romans and their arena games, linking past and future and showing how humanity always had, and still has, an impulse for war and destruction. Yet one can say that Collins offers far more that an anti-war commentary in her books. She portrays very complex mechanisms like the use of entertainment games to assert power over people; the overuse of media in culture; the social divides within the districts, with undertones of class-colour divides which opens up her story to racial interpretation; the danger of tyranny; the danger of rebellion; the destructive force of individual desire for power; the destruction of habitat. By reflecting on Panem’s political system, its socio-economic and racial divides, its media industry and its environmental impact, Collins shows the anti-war commentary is embedded in wider reflections that her readers must take into account. Readers must reflect on these in their own present context in order to understand what made war and Panem possible, and how we must avoid Panem and the Capitol becoming a reality.
I. The Political Reflection
The political commentary of The Hunger Games is open to contextualisation, but it clearly depicts a tyrannical government, The Capitol, and its opposition movement, The Rebellion. In that sense, we can recognise this clear division of political camps in our own history, looking at past and present dictatorships and their opposition groups. The world of The Hunger Games is frighteningly similar to our world. While some elements seem a little fantastical like the weapons, the fire costumes, the structure of the arena, the machines etc… they are all developed through technology which makes them potentially more attainable. Hence the dystopian feel – strangely possible in a near-future reality.
These weapons are used to instil fear in the crowds, while also developing a weird fascination in people for violence. Through fear, destruction and fascination, the Capitol is able to assert its control over its people. It limits its citizens’ freedoms, categorises them in different districts with unequal opportunities, bombards them with brainwashing images on TV, kills them publicly… with these familiar tropes, the reader can identify the Capitol as a dictatorship. President Snow’s political structure is based on supreme authority, government overreach and sadistic entertainment to satisfy the Capitol’s and his own thirst for violence. Control is the key word, whether it is through the repression of any rebellious movement – even peaceful protests – by the state police (ironically called the ‘PeaceKeepers’) or through constant TV recording. His tight control of everything that happens in Panem gives him exclusive authority and security. Snow embodies the tyrant figure in its most extreme brutality.
Collins asks how this tyranny was able to take place, how Panem became a reality in The Hunger Games. We get glimpses of the past and understand that there was a democratic republic before – that actually, our real world was the predecessor to Panem. By doing so, Collins reflects on the limits of our current political system – what failures in our system have led to building Panem and for the Capitol to take over? To think that Collins is simply telling us that democracy needs to eradicate tyranny and take over is a little too simplistic, and fails to consider all aspects of Collins’s subtle piece. Democracy is never presented in the book as a perfect model. Look at this dialogue for instance:
“Everyone,” Plutarch tells him. “We’re going to form a republic where the people of each district and the Capitol can elect their own representatives to be their voice in a centralized government. Don’t look so suspicious; it’s worked before.”
“In books,” Haymitch mutters.
“In history books,” says Plutarch. “And if our ancestors could do it, then we can, too.”
Frankly, our ancestors don’t seem much to brag about. I mean, look at the state they left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly, they didn’t care about what would happen to the people who came after them. But this republic idea sounds like an improvement over our current government.
The ancestors are actually us, and as Collins says, we don’t have much to brag about between the wars going on right now, the remaining racial, gender, sexual and social inequalities and the environmental crisis. Here, she shows the future repercussions of our current politics and asks the reader to reconsider his/her own actions and mindset to help prevent the extinction of our planet, and to prevent a future dictatorship. That said, she doesn’t dismiss the idea of a republic, but registers it only as an ‘improvement’ over tyrannical power and dictatorship. By doing so, Collins doesn’t simply offer a democratic republic as an easy solution, washing over its limitations and failures, but makes us actively reflect on the limits of our political democratic thinking and establishments, and what we can do to improve them.
The Rebellion doesn’t always inspire trust in The Hunger Games, and Katniss is very aware of the rebellion’s own manipulations. Their leader, Coin, seems uncannily similar to the Capitol’s president, Snow. Snow himself warns Katniss against the rebellion’s intentions. Is this just blind faith in his own authority and the strength of his political system, or is he suggesting that whether he lives or dies, nothing will change? That someone as thirsty for power and abusive will replace him, and that the whole system is inescapable? Collins perceives a recurring flaw in every political system – the individualistic thirst for power and the temptation to abuse of it.
Plutarch also seems to believe in this inescapable destructive spiral, but he centres it more around war than the political system in place. For him war is something humans carry within themselves, nurtured by this self-destructive impulse and this constant need to unleash violence, thus it is doomed to be repeated.
“Are you preparing for another war, Plutarch?” I ask.
“Oh, not now. Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated,” he says. “But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss.”
Plutarch voices Collins’ concerns here – history can repeat itself regardless of what political system is established because of this egoistical thirst for power and violence, and because our collective thinking and memory is short-lived. Still, Plutarch holds on to a bit of hope that it might end. Hope is needed to shake people and is feared by president Snow: “A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. Hope is fine, as long as it’s contained.” By Catching Fire, he’s modified his stance: “Fear does not work when there is hope.” The idea of hope and the collective are presented as the baby steps towards freedom from oppression.
Some actors from the film have expressed their own political understanding of the books, and through it have expressed hope for change, just like Plutarch. Donald Sutherland (President Snow) believes in its power to change our politics today and sees in the films the same potential as The Battle of Algiers, a film about the organisation of a rebellious movement during the Algerian War in 1966 and that has been source of inspiration for insurgent groups:
“Hopefully they will see this film and the next film and the next film and then maybe organize,” Sutherland said. “Stand up. They might create a third party. They might change the electoral process, they might be able to take over the government, change the tax system.”
Jeffrey Rights, who plays Betee in the films, praises the series’ openness to interpretations. “It’s welcoming of the entire political spectrum,” he told the website Hypable.
“Some people look at these stories and take a 1% versus the 99% perspective, which can be read something as a left-leaning perspective. I think others look at this and they view it from a more right-leaning perspective as a condemnation of government. Others may look at is as a validation of a need for strong allegiance to the 2nd Amendment. So it’s non-discriminatory, it’s non partisan.”
This is the strength of Collins’ work – she doesn’t tie her work to any political camp or alliance. As Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University states: ‘The Hunger Games’ has this feeling of being contemporary and political but without being really clear what its politics are”. Collins doesn’t give a political solution because it is impossible to create the perfect system. It is an utopia. Rather, Collins perceives a recurring flaw in every political system – the individualistic thirst for power and the temptation to abuse of it.
II. The Socio-Economic Reflection
The Hunger Games, as its name indicates, is all about hunger. Not only metaphorical hunger for political freedom, social ascendance or self-realisation, but actual hunger. The districts are hungry and Katniss’s main preoccupation is to keep her family fed. Her father died in a mining accident, working to feed his wife and daughters. Katniss hunts in the woods illegally to earn money. Poverty is everywhere, in each corner of streets. Her first meeting with Peeta was a product of hunger. He threw her a piece of bread when she was starving on the pavement. Hunger is a reflection of poverty and of social inequalities. And hunger often signals uprising and revolution (the French Revolution started mainly due to exasperation at the king who let his people starve).
The entire trilogy is founded on the gap between wealthy and poor districts. The people in the Capitol are portrayed as lazy, overly self-indulgent people, who benefit from the works of those in the industrious, poor, worker districts. Extravagant, all-consuming party-goers, they don’t care about what’s going on outside their golden-gated-community. They believe in Snow’s lies and have no notion of waste. After banquets, they drink little concoctions to make themselves sick and then eat some more while others die from starvation. They are never hungry. Never yearning. They are completely out of reality. The only reality they follow is TV reality, fashion, trends. Can we recognise in Collins’ text a criticism of our own socioeconomic system, perhaps of capitalism? With on one hand, an overlooked class of workers/slave-labourers unable to ascend, violently oppressed and with no voice? And on the other hand an oblivious group of wealthy people who over-consume, turn a blind eye on the condition of the people who give them their food and produces, but who also have no voice as their behaviour is dictated by media, entertainment and tight political control?
It’s interesting to see how this portrayal relates to our own socioeconomic context. James Pinkerton, contributor for Fox News, relates Collins’ depiction of class divide to our political and social system, where a central political core grows rich from the toil of the masses. It’s also interesting to see how actions have been taken in response to Collins’ books. The books have led to a whole campaign launched by the activist group the Harry Potter Alliance, with a campaign called ‘The Odds In Our Favour’ (article on the Guardian’s website by Liz Bury). Inspired by Collins’ work which they believe is a reflection of contemporary America, the movement encourages fiction readers and fans to act on the issues Collins is making them reflect upon, and promote access to health-care, voting , food security, houses for the homeless and employment. It’s interesting to see readers taking such a political and social reading from the books, and actively creating alliances and launching new projects to fight for social and economic justice. Of course, actions were already taken beforehand and a dystopian book is not needed to strive for social equality. But the books have managed to raise consciousness among the younger population and led to concrete actions. Collins has succeeded in educating teenagers and adults about what elements lead to war, including how to tackle socioeconomic issues to avoid war.
III. The Feminist Reflection
Many see in Collins’ work a feminist argument. Katniss, a woman, embodies the fight for change, justice and rebellion. She revolts against the patriarchal society represented by Snow, an over-powerful man. Katniss’ social role, her condition in the district, her role within her family and her symbolic representation of rebellion is undoubtedly tied to her condition as a woman, and to the gender politics of Panem.
Katniss seems to defy the expected role of womanhood and daughtership in her district. She possesses strength, athleticism and prowess at hunting, a traditionally male-oriented activity. After her father’s death, she takes on the role of feeder and money provider, a traditionally male role. Her traits are associated with power and heroism, traits previously associated with men in many literary works of the past. Volunteering for her sister is a way to fulfil her role of protector, again often associated with men in the past. After the reaping, when she warns her mother to take care of Prim and not to cry, her position is somehow more ‘husband‘ like than ‘daughter’ like. We can see that the first part of the first book emphasises on Katniss’s masculinity, on her male-oriented language, activities and ability to kill. By doing so, Collins deconstructs Katniss’s gender identity, and shows how Katniss defies the traditional female role in the district by embracing roles and qualities traditionally defined as more masculine. To see a female hero embody these qualities is a breath of fresh air, and reaffirms the feminist reading of Collins’ work.
At the Capitol, Katniss is brought back to the more traditional representation of women as sexualised objects, almost as a way to lower her, make her less of a danger to the patriarchal tyrannical rule. Her outfits highlight her body in sexualised ways, and there is a huge media focus on her romantic relationships. She is shaped to be seen, to serve the voyeuristic needs of the people living in the Capitol. She is referred to as the ‘girl on fire’. She is given a name and a role by the Capitol’s patriarchal rule and she is brought back to the social role she has to adopt as a woman – seduction and representation. Being cut off from her family and friends, far from the woods, kept in isolation, can be also be viewed as a form of social castration.
Yet Katniss proves to be more as she constantly has to prove her worth to others. To the Gamemakers when she shoots an arrow in an apple to prove her talents. In the arena. Saving Peeta. In TV shows. During the Victor’s Tour and even in the fights during war as the Mockingjay. She shows a woman’s strength and determination. She also uses the Capitol’s own tactics against them with the help of Cinna – her costumes also represent change, danger, power, rebellion. Cinna fits them for her, around her personality, the ‘fire’ she has inside her. Through them she builds an image of confidence, determination and strength which impresses people at the Capitol but also threatens Snow’s authority. Through Cinna’s costumes she embraces her feminine side without subjecting to the female condition in Panem, and without having to let go of her more traditionally ‘male’ traits like courage and physical strength. She truly shapes herself and subverts traditional gender discourses and imagery – which makes her an incredibly powerful feminist figure.
IV. The Racial Reflection
While race is not a major theme in Collins’ trilogy, there is plenty of space for a racial interpretation of The Hunger Games. It is unclear if Panem is a post-racial society, but we know it is built on what used to be North America, a multi-cultural continent. Our present society, and the readers’ society, is not post-racial, and in that sense there are very interesting reflections to be taken from Collins’ text, and the films, if one pays attention to how race and ethnicity is portrayed, and how it ties in with political, cultural, socioeconomic and environmental issues.
Elements in the book point towards some racial and ethnic distinctions among the people of Panem. As Monika Kothari explains:
When writing characters, it’s almost impossible not to take race into consideration. Even if race is not significant in Panem, Collins made conscious decisions to make some characters white (e.g. Peeta), some characters black (e.g. Rue), and some characters ambiguous (e.g. Katniss).
In the book, Katniss and Gale are described as having ‘straight, black hair’, ‘grey eyes’ and ‘olive skin’. Rue and Thresh are described as having ‘dark brown skin and eyes’ and ‘dark hair’. Katniss’ sister Prim and her mother are described as having a ‘merchant look’ with pale skin, blue eyes and blond hair. Peeta is described as having ‘ashy blond hair’ and ‘blue eyes’.
Collins said in an interview that her characters:
…Were not particularly intended to be biracial. It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing. But I think I describe them as having dark hair, grey eyes, and sort of olive skin .…But then there are some characters in the book who are more specifically described.
[About Thresh and Rue, and most of District 11, Collins said] “They’re African-American.”
Therefore race and ethnicity do exist among the people of Panem, although they may no longer be defined in relation to a specific region of the world, since continents like Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America no longer exist in Collins’ dystopian universe. Yet Collins has specifically referred to Thresh and Rue as African-Americans, and has confirmed that the district they live in, District 11, is located in what was before ‘the Deep South’.
District 11 is the agricultural district, with orchard, fields grains and cotton. It’s established as one of the poorer districts, with its residents working hard day and night over the fields. Katniss describes the houses as ‘poor’. Residents cannot eat their crops, reserved for the Capitol, or they will be publicly whipped. There is a large presence of Peacekeepers who keep tight control over the district and over the food supplies, and the whole district is fenced. It seems the residents are the most oppressed, and riots are violently repressed by the police force. When Katniss and Peeta visit the district after their victory, a man stands in solidarity with them by saluting them with the mockingjay hand gesture. This causes the people to uprise in a rebellious spirit, against their oppression. The man is shot dead by a Peacekeeper.
It is significant that District 11 is mostly populated by black people, which we see in the books, the films and in Collin’s interviews when she affirms that Rue, Thresh and most of District 11 are African-Americans. When reading the description of how District 11 operates, and how its residents live under constant repression and violence, it is difficult not to draw parallels to the historical treatment of black people in the United States over the centuries, in our own reality. It is significant that District 11 is located in what used to be known as ‘The Deep South’ – Collins does not only place it there because the weather is better suited to agriculture. By placing it there, she calls upon the historical past of the region and its treatment of black communities. Readers will draw parallels with the times of plantation and slavery, with the people of District 11 being whipped and working day and night over crops, singing along for motivation, to feed the Capitol. Quoting Monika again:
This whole setup has, from my point of view, colonial undertones that parallel historical imperialism, which usually had racial implications of white Europeans occupying and claiming the resources of non-white peoples. Again, this doesn’t explicitly bring race into the equation, and indeed you can ignore the race/ethnicity all together without losing an appreciation for the series, but it’s yet another aspect to think about among the other themes.
It is also significant that in the film, the man who is shot by the Peacekeeper is black – viewers can draw parallels to the current images they see of police brutality on black communities. Do we think that the filmmakers and Collins did this coincidentally? Perhaps, but hard to believe. It is also significant that District 11 is the poorer district, drawing parallels to our current socioeconomic context where non-white people have higher poverty rates, linking race with socioeconomic questions. What this tells us is that Collins’ complex work gives us the scope to think about these issues in our current time, and allows young readers to connect the universe of Panem to history, present, draw parallels, and learn.
We don’t really know if people of different ethnicity and colour are being treated differently within each district. In each district, we see people of all ethnicity and colour operating in the same conditions, including in the Capitol. Whether or not race matters in Panem is maybe a less important question than whether race matters to the audience when determining whether or not it plays a role in Collins’ work, and therefore offers room for further racial reflections on our own society. Just like Collins has invited the reader to understand war in the lenses of our current politics, socioeconomic divides, relationship to culture and the current climate crisis we are facing, (all important issues to think about when thinking about what fuels war) she invites us to look into our history and understand our relationship to racial questions. The fact that the casting of certain roles in the film ‘shocked’ a number of fans, for example Lenny Kravitz to play Cinna, just shows how people have read race within Collins text, even though it may not be a major explicit theme. This tells us even more about the readers and our current context, than the work itself.
V. The Cultural Reflection
Social inequality and political authority are strengthened by the constant presence of the media and television clips, controlled by the state and carefully edited by the Capitol. Each information is filtered and modified to serve the Capitol’s best interest. The Capitol also establishes a voyeuristic need in its people to watch the annual Games, where children get killed in arenas for so called ‘entertainment,’ and families have to watch without a word of protest. Television becomes the centre of Panem’s world and reality. A highly composed, edited and fake reality, which people are forced to believe in and accept. Collins shows the abuses of authoritarian governments which infiltrate people’s privacies and bombards them with propagandist images as a means to brainwash them and tighten their power.
Collins directly questions our relationship to the media, and the place of the media within our society. To what extent do we feed on media? How much do we rely on them, believe them? Are we still able of independent thinking and criticism, or do we absorb all kinds of entertainment without a certain healthy and necessary distance? Media and TV seem to have its own control over people, a control that is linked to consumption. Katniss, Peeta and the victors are all turned into products – fashioned, moulded, embellished, costumed, made-up to look as extravagant and sensational as possible to arouse audiences, especially within the Capitol. Their private lives are put on display, their love story commercialised and the Mockingjay becomes a franchise especially in the rebellion’s hands. Jennifer Lawrence, playing Katniss in the films, sees in the trilogy a warning against the obsession with entertainment and reality shows:
“I was watching the Kardashian girl getting divorced, and that’s a tragedy for anyone,” she said. “But they’re using it for entertainment, and we’re watching it. The books hold up a terrible kind of mirror: This is what our society could be like if we became desensitized to trauma and to each other’s pain.”
Katniss has some difficulty dealing with the cameras and is forced to lie about her life and her feelings for the public’s content, but also to save her skin. The more she looks ‘appealing’, ‘sympathetic’, ‘beautiful’, ‘charming’, ‘funny’ and ‘willing’ to participate in the Games, then the more sponsors she will have. She depends on economic strategies and wealthy sponsors attracted by what she has to offer as a product, a brand, a commodity. Here, Collins denounces the extremity of our consumerist society and our star-system, with values based on image, appearance and selling yourself.
VI. The Environmental Reflection
The environmental message is subtle in Collins’ work, perhaps more present in the books than in the films. Katniss has a love for forests, and she is aware of the destruction of the districts and the amount of wastes provoked by the Capitol. Like people, the environment is just a tool used by the Capitol to create fear and expand its control, like the staged environmental changes in the arenas. Nature is created virtually, animals turned into mutts (in other words, killing machines). They are used and then thrown away, left to damage, waste and pain. Destroyed. Interesting parallels can be drawn with the ecological crisis we are currently living in, the extinction of some species and the destruction of natural habitats.
We already know that nations of the past have been destroyed and that Panem is situated in what was North America before. In the description of the Capitol and the districts, everything is very industrial and modern: skyscrapers in the Capitol, mines and factories in the districts. Yet some natural landscape persists, like the woods that are so dear to Katniss where mockingjays sing to support her. But the woods are forbidden. Nature that is not controlled by the Capitol is forbidden.
What has provoked the end of the planet before Panem, and the creation of the Capitol and 12 Districts? It is never clear, but a lot of hypotheses tend to indicate it would be due to catastrophic climate changes, and Panem was built by its survivors. It’s not a far-fetched idea, and even Collins agrees:
“It’s crucial that young readers are considering scenarios about humanity’s future, because the challenges are about to land in their laps…I hope they question how elements of the books might be relevant to their own lives. About global warming, about our mistreatment of the environment, but also questions like: How do you feel about the fact that some people take their next meal for granted when so many other people are starving in the world?”
And we come back to hunger. What sparked the fire. Collins seems to hint that hunger is the main cause for the previous world’s destruction and the emergence of Panem. As Joe Romm writes in ThinkProgress.com, “feeding some 9 billion people by mid-century in the face of a rapidly worsening climate may well be the greatest challenge the human race has ever faced. The Hunger Games makes that challenge a literal and hyper-violent one.” Hunger would be a direct consequence of the ecological crisis we are currently facing, and we already witness it in parts of our world. And a direct consequence of war. Thus Collins’s concerns are anchored in actuality, in our everyday reality, and her futuristic universe is not so distant. As she imagines what might happen to humanity, we relate it to our current political, socioeconomic, racial, gender, cultural and ecological systems. Collins wanted to warn young people about the ravages of war, but she has extended the reflection far beyond it. As it is impossible to understand war without understanding the impacts of political and power abuse; of social, economic, gender and racial injustices; of voyeuristic controlling media; of the lack of opposition and expression against authority; and of human damages to the natural world.
Works Cited and Further Readings
Bond, Paul ‘The politics of the Hunger Games’, The Hollywood Reporter
Burnett, Bob ‘The politics of the Hunger games’, The Huffington Post
Bury, Liz ‘The Hunger Games fan campaign against real inequality’, The Guardian
Kothari, Monika, responding to Does race or ethnicity play a role in The Hunger Games series? If so, how?
Schwarzbaum Lisa, ‘The Hunger Games, Action-film feminism is catching fire’, BBC News
What do you think? Leave a comment.