The Political Message of The Hunger Games
This article contains spoilers for The Hunger Games.
Unless you were kept out of any news on cinema, literature and the latest cultural releases, you must have heard of The Hunger Games. Even if you don’t know anything about it, the name rings a bell for sure in a far corner of your mind. With 4.3 million copies sold in 2010, its popularity tripled after the first film hit the theatres in 2012, an astounding 27.7 million copies having been sold worldwide. The Hunger Games might be just a passing phenomenon doomed to fade away. It probably will be replaced by the next series of adolescent dystopian books revolving around a triangular love affair and portraying the story of a ‘one of a kind’ teenage girl who will have to save her people. Yet The Hunger Games has something more, something explicitly outlined throughout the books that was probably Collins’s main reason to write them – a political message.
The Hunger Games is far more political than any teenage drama written in the 21st century. Katniss Everdeen is not just saving her folks but she must free a whole nation from tyrannical oppression and poverty. 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 helpless children, 2 from each district, have to fight to the death in a wild arena filled with dangerous animals and cruel tactics to destroy the teenagers, both physically and psychologically. The winner, after killing all the others to survive, has to deal with the pain, the nightmares and the Capitol’s control. Forced to appear on camera constantly, physically changed and shaped for entertainment, the tributes remain all their lives tied to the Capitol and its murderous president. Katniss is one of the tributes. She volunteers for her sister and takes her place in the arena. Since that first step, she starts embodying rebellion.
Many have read between the lines (though the message is pretty obvious and explicitly crafted) and interpreted this message in different ways, depending on which political side they stand for or how the issue relates to them personally. Even actors themselves do not always agree on what this message is. But all in all, Collins warns against the destructive force of humans, the unjust social hierarchy and the danger of abusive powers. Not very modern, true. Issues that have always concerned intellectuals, politicians and artists.
Yet her handling of the story is innovative. She creates an imaginary futuristic city, Panem, while at the same time tracing 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, this violent impulse, this thirst for destruction. She gets inspiration from 1984, Metropolis and A clockwork’s Orange while modernising them at the same time. Like these classics, she pushes the boundaries of violence to the extreme. But unlike them, she addresses it specifically to adolescents and has political violence penetrate their literature. A book for teenagers and where teenagers die, so young people can understand the dangers of extremist power and imagine what a world like this would be like. And do everything to prevent it from happening. Of course, the book is 90% exaggerated, but it still manages to illustrate a point and deliver a political, social, cultural and environmental message – we must be careful not to ruin this Earth and not to make it an uninhabitable place. Avoid Panem and the Capitol at all cost.
I. The Political Message
The political commentary of The Hunger Games is made even more accessible to us as it links future, past and present in one big bowl. It is open to contextualisation. The world of The Hunger Games is much more like ours than any other young-adult literary sensational books or films, like Harry Potter or Twilight. In those, you always had a touch of surreal, of magic and of fantasy. In The Hunger Games, while some elements are a little fantastical, they are all developed through technology and can find believable explanations that can make them potentially real. The conception of the arena and its dangers, the weapons, the different machines…all are very futuristic but not too unreal. Thus we can see a direct relationship with the real world, which makes the story even scarier and the criticism fiercer.
Democracy needs to eradicate tyranny and take over: this is a very easy and very simplistic interpretation of the plot, definitely lacking in reflection and failing to consider all aspects of the work. Democracy is never presented in the book as a model to follow. Collins goes beyond the simplistic and is not afraid to show the limits of that thinking. She addresses today’s people, those in power right now and the present population. In fact, she addresses the readers directly when she completely discredits our democratic system. 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 social inequalities and the environmental crisis. Here, she shows the future repercussions of our present actions and asks the reader to reconsider his own actions and help prevent the extinction of our planet. Through the fact that they don’t even trust the republic system to be efficient, Collins points out the limits of our political thinking and of the measures taken so far. That said, she doesn’t completely dismiss the idea either, but registers it only as an ‘improvement’ over tyrannical power and dictatorship. Even the rebellion doesn’t inspire trust and Katniss is very aware of their own manipulations. Their leader, Coin, seems too much like the Capitol’s president, Snow. If rebellion is also limited, then what is the solution? Collins doesn’t give one as every system has its flaws. 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”.
So the author doesn’t give much of a political solution, yet she encourages the human side to take over. To be and to think more like a human to protect those you love and share among a community. Not much to build a new political system in Panem, true, and the trilogy doesn’t really finish on a happy ending note where the new president is actually the best leader the districts ever had and everyone lives happily ever after. Collins doesn’t give a political solution because it is impossible to create the perfect system. It is an utopia. Her message is more plausible and, even if it will take a lot of time and work, achievable because it concentrates on a global human effort. We need to deal with our flaws one by one, on the political, social and environmental sides.
Some actors in the film have expressed their own political understanding of the book. 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, is more neutral and 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 nonpartisan.”
President Snow’s political structure is all 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, the Stormtroopers, or through constant TV recording. His tight control of everything that happens in Panem gives him exclusive authority and security. He made himself the strongest and forced people to bow to his games and enjoy his form of entertainment. Thus he embodies all the tyrants and dictators that have lived in their most extreme brutality. Yet he also stands for more. He believes that ‘even the strongest cannot overcome the Capitol’ and 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? Probably a bit of both.
War is on everyone’s lips, especially in the third book where a civil war takes place, a rebellion from the people against the Capitol’s tyrannical authority. Collins said herself : “I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war. For adolescents.” She specifies the major theme of her books and the target she wants to reach – teenagers, to prepare them for their coming of age. In Plutarch’s words, 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 repeat.
“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’s words are not very comforting or encouraging but they are true. Still, he holds on to the little hope that it might end because hope springs eternal. Because Collins doesn’t want to make everything bleak. 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.” So again the idea of hope and the collective are presented as the baby steps towards freedom. Free from fear and oppression. At least for a while.
II. The Social Message
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 well-fed. Her father died in a mine accident, working to feed his wife and daughters. She 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 (and fell in love with her) when she was starving on the pavement. Hunger is a reflection of poverty and of social inequalities, and the entire trilogy is founded on the gap between wealthy classes and poor workers. The people in the Capitol are portrayed as lazy, overly indulged people, taking benefit from the works of those in the districts, the industrious ones. Extravagant, conspicuously consuming, partygoers, they never care about what’s going on elsewhere, believe in Snow’s lies and have no notion of wastage. They drink little concoctions to make themselves sick and then eat some more while others die from starvation. They are completely out of reality and responsibility while hunger persists. And hunger always signals uprising and near revolution (the French Revolution started mainly due to exasperation at the king who let his people starve).
Paul Bond reports on The Hollywood Reporter that Occupy Wall Street focus on Collins’ portrayal of the extreme gap between rich and poor in the most black-and-white way, with no allowance that the rich might have earned their wealth. They all depend on the modest ones which makes them so vulnerable in the face of Snow and unable to understand the horror behind the system. James Pinkerton, contributor for Fox News, relates it to our political and social system, where a central political core grows rich from the toil of the masses. The books have led to a whole campaign launched by the socially activist group, the Harry Potter Alliance, 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 promotes health-care access, voting access, food security, houses for the homeless and employment. Thus Collins’s message has been heard – people address each problem together by creating more alliances and launching new projects. Of course, actions were already taken and a dystopian book is not needed to strive for social equality but it helps. If the books raise consciousness and lead to concrete actions, then art has fulfilled its job and Collins has succeeded in establishing her message.
Many see in Collins’ work a feminist argument which is undeniable. A girl with equal opportunities as men revolts against the patriarchal society represented by Snow (although she also kills Coin at the end, the female leader of the rebellion, suggesting that her revolt is more political and less gender-based). She adopts masculine traits associated with power and heroism . She possesses strength, athleticism and prowess at hunting. At the death of her father, she takes on the role of feeder and money provider through hunting, associated so far to masculinity. Volunteering for her sister is a way to fulfil the role of the father. After the reaping, when she warns her mother to take care of Prim and not to cry, her position is far more husbandly than daughterly. Thus the first part of the first book emphasises on Katniss’s masculinity, on her male-oriented language, activities and ability to kill, to a point that if Katniss were a boy the basic storyline wouldn’t be that different. But her feminine side appears when she is at the hand of the Capitol, her sexuality emphasised by her gorgeous and sexy outfits but also by Peeta’s declaration of love. Being cut off her family and friends, far from the woods, kept in isolation, can be viewed as a form of social castration. 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. 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. Collins also takes sisterhood as a major theme, not only through Prim and Katniss but also through Katniss and Rue and their feminine alliance in the arena, based on trust and intuition rather than strength. It seems feminine qualities are praised alongside masculine ones, Katniss possessing both high makes her strong enough to carry her burden but also strong enough to defeat anyone on her way to Snow…
III. The Cultural Message
Social inequality and political authority are strengthened by the constant presence of the media and television clips, controlled by the state and carefully edited to transmit the Capitol’s decisions. Each information is filtered and modified to serve the Capitol’s best interest. Each day, the population is presented with a series of lies, lies on their situation and on the destruction of District 13. They ignore the people’s plights, celebrate their suffering and force children to get killed in arenas for so called ‘entertainment’. And families have to watch without a word of protest. Actually, everyone has to watch. Television becomes the centre of their world, their reality. A highly composed, edited and fake reality, but they are forced to believe in it. And if they don’t believe it, they still have to accept it. So Collins denounces the abuses of authoritarian governments which infiltrate people’s privacies and bombards them with propagandist images as a mean to brainwash them and tighten their power. Freedom of expression has disappeared, such as creativity, arts and literature: they are too dangerous.
And this is a direct result from our relationship to the media. We all know that governments and the media often work together, the latter being corrupted by the former (take House of Cards for instance, it explains it all very well. In fact, many parallels can be drawn between The Hunger Games and House of Cards, and it would be interesting to explore these similarities). Media has also its own control over people, a control that is not linked to politics but 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. The Hunger Games is live action or reality television. 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 based on image, appearance and selling yourself. Even to save your own life…
IV. The Environmental Message
The environmental message is more present in the books than in the films, but you can still get the idea through Katniss’s love for forests, 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, the extinction of certain species and the destruction of natural habitats. Here, it is the people who are destroyed, their houses bombed and their children killed. Soon, it will be the humans that will be extinct. We know already that nations have been destroyed and that the Capitol is situated in what was before North America. 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 our world and the creation of the Capitol and 12 Districts? It is never clear, but a lot of hypotheses tend to indicate it is due to catastrophic climate changes that we experience since a few decades. 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,” Collins said. “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 sparkled the fire. A problem that is not specific to the books. A problem that is probably the cause of our world’s destruction and the emergence of the Capitol. 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.” Thus Collins’s concerns are anchored in actuality, in our everyday reality, and her futuristic universe is not as distant to ours. And as she imagines what might happen to humanity – which is really the main interest of the series, not the love story or the writing style – we relate it to our current political, social, cultural and ecological issues, with this constant thought at the back of our heads: if we don’t get past them, then we might end up like Panem. A bit extreme, yes, but plausible in some ways. Collins has demonstrated through the whole series that the idea is not completely delusional or impossible, and we must be careful. And although she doesn’t give any concrete solution, her books have already inspired movements to take action. She emphasises the idea of togetherness, of a change of moral values and a reinstitution of human qualities. Let’s not forget our human side, not the destructive one but the better one. The one that pushes Katniss to act to protect her loved ones. Solidarity, love, family.
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
Schwarzbaum Lisa, ‘The Hunger Games, Action-film feminism is catching fire’, BBC News
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