The Politics of THE HUNGER GAMES
By Bob Burnett
“The Hunger Games” movie had a multimillion-dollar weekend opening and seems destined to be the most successful film of the year. Which is remarkable because it’s a political movie set in a not-too-distant America and expresses themes that are familiar and disturbing.
“The Hunger Games” was published in 2008, the first book of a trilogy written by Suzanne Collins. It imagines a post-apocalyptic America, “Panem,” with an authoritarian central government set in “The Capitol.” Inhabitants of the Capitol live a life of luxury while the rest of the citizens of Panem live in twelve slave colonies, “Districts,” scattered across North America. Once a year the Capitol televises a great spectacle where two teenagers are selected by lottery from each district, brought to the Capitol, trained and groomed, and then transported to an arena for a battle where only one teenager can survive — the games’ slogan is, “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
“The Hunger Games” heroine is sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen who represents District 12. She supplements her family’s diet by (illegal) bow hunting. Her archery talents protect her when the games begin.
“The Hunger Games” novel was targeted for young-adult readers — there’s violence but no sex — and then crossed over to a larger audience. The “Hunger Games” movie grossed more than $155 million in its first weekend: 61 percent of moviegoers were women and 56 percent of ticketholders were over 25.
Unlike other recent blockbuster movies — “Harry Potter,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Spiderman” — “The Hunger Games” is set in a recognizable America and expresses themes from the contemporary zeitgeist.
The first is that things aren’t going well. “The Hunger Games” is part of a wave of dystopian novels — other examples are “Pure” and “Divergent” — that are favorites with young-adult readers. The books assume an America that has been ravaged by nuclear war or an environmental calamity. This builds upon fear that the US is headed in the wrong direction — in the most recent Gallup Poll 72 percent of respondents felt this way.
The second theme is that the central government cannot be trusted. In “The Hunger Games,” President Coriolanus Snow, an autocrat, governs the Capitol, which controls the twelve districts by means of a ruthless police force. In addition to forced-labor camps, Panem utilizes extensive electronic surveillance, and during the period of the games, compulsory television viewing. This reflects the belief the US government cannot be trusted. Those on the right believe the Federal government has been usurped by “socialists” and gotten too big. Those on the left believe the Federal government has been bought by plutocrats and isn’t doing anything to protect workers. Many Americans believe there is too much government intrusion into our private lives.
The third “Hunger Games” theme is that government no longer works for all the people. There’s a small group that lives a life of privilege while most people struggle to fend off starvation. Collins doesn’t use the terms 1 percent and 99 percent, but it’s clear that those in the Capitol are members of the 1 percent and everyone in the Panem districts is part of the 99 percent.
The fourth theme is ubiquitous surveillance. There are cameras and listening devices planted everywhere in Panem. Even before Katniss enters the games, she’s aware that most of the time her movements are being observed. After she enters the games she has no privacy; a tracking device is implanted in her arm and every move Katniss makes is broadcast on TV.
The fifth theme is young adults dying as “entertainment.” This is the aspect of “the Hunger Games” that’s gotten the most negative attention — the notion that a battle to the death involving teenagers serves as a form of reality television for the citizens of Panem. (By the way, the movie is rated PG-13.) But the fact is the US has an unusually high rate of teenage violent deaths. Car crashes are the leading cause of death among all teenagers, but homicide is the leader for black male teens. If you couple these facts with the ubiquitous American culture of violence — the prevalence of handguns, violent imagery in books, films, games, and music — most contemporary teenagers accept the violence in “the Hunger Games” as near reality. Note that at the end of Harry Potter, Harry and the teenage students at Hogwarts School engaged in a battle to the death with Lord Voldemort and his allies.
The sixth theme in “the Hunger Games” is revolution. This is only hinted at in the movie — there are scenes of fighting in District 11 after Rue is killed. But in ” Mockingjay,” the final book of the trilogy, Katniss leads a rebellion against the rulers of Panem. We’re beginning to hear muttering about revolution in the US: states seceding from the union, Americans withdrawing to survivalist enclaves in the deep woods, Tea-Party radicals eliminating of the federal government, and so forth.
Sixty-three years ago, Orwell’s dystopian novel, “Nineteen Eighty-four,” turned out to be prophetic. Will that be true of “The Hunger Games?” Decide for yourself and “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.