By Editor in Chief Alex Madaras
If you haven’t read the series, this blog may not be for you. If you’ve only seen the movies…good luck. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Did you read The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins when you were younger? Last week, having stumbled across a random YouTube video explaining the various districts in the fictional world of The Hunger Games, I didn’t expect to end up where I am now: rereading three full books in five days and being touched deeply by a story I first experienced as a child.
It’s been years since I picked up the series, enough time for me to remember only vague plot points and forget any real meaning behind the writing. I was pleasantly surprised by a critical analysis of state oppression, revolution, propaganda, institutional violence, grey morality, trauma, and even some class theory. It’s clear to me that growing up has changed the way I now approach the books; not only do I have a different mindset, but my dramatically changed worldview has allowed me to understand an entirely new meaning in the series. Collins’ messages about violence, changing the social order, and the role of young people are vital and resonant as we reflect upon this turbulent time in our history.
From the beginning, it’s clear that Panem is a surveillance state. Katniss is painfully aware of being watched and monitored, even in the furthest district from the Capitol. In District 12, which Katniss reveals used to be the coal-mining towns of Appalachia, the Capitol’s rules are less enforced but just as hated. An ever-present police force of Peacekeepers ignores trespassing, hunting, and black market trade when it benefits them and cracks down when it doesn’t. Although the Capitol’s institutions are corrupt to the core, it’s clear that it maintains some sort of authoritarian control over all citizens.
The districts themselves are organized by geography and specialization. Everything about their organization and purpose screams conformity and efficiency. Panem is a capitalist’s dream. Each district functions as a stop on an assembly line that works toward sustaining only the few thousand citizens at the top: those in the Capitol. Just as in our society, there are people who accept their place and even glorify their oppressors (see District 2). But there are also those who were born neglected by the elite and die neglected. It’s only natural that Collins begins and ends her story in District 12. Only in the most exploited, downtrodden of communities do we really see the true impact of Panem’s cruelty: the broken spirit of those in society who work the hardest only to be handed the least. Had Katniss been from District 2, things surely wouldn’t have ended in revolution. Just as those privileged in a malfunctioning society are less likely to see something wrong with it, the richer districts find perverse pleasure in the exploitative practices of the Capitol and always manage to pull through.
Whether Collins intended it or not, the dystopia of Panem’s districts seems not far off from the socioeconomic stratification that has progressively become more severe in America today. While drug companies whose CEOs are Capitol material pump opioids into Appalachia, the elites running Wall Street, Hollywood, and Washington get rich. It doesn’t take too much storytelling magic to draw the same conclusions as Collins about our future under late-stage capitalism.
In Panem, the culture of fear is perpetuated by a never-ending cycle of manicured, televised death games. The Games explicitly prey on children— but not just any children, poor ones specifically. In order to survive in the starving outer districts, teens add their names more times to the reaping pool in exchange for grain and oil. The Hunger Games are therefore intrinsically about state and class power. Their main intent is to keep the districts in line by flexing the Capitol’s muscles, but they also punish those who are poor and starving by placing their children at higher risk. Of course, the poorer districts rarely end up with victors either. But every district is required to watch as their children slaughter each other; nearly all activity is shut off as screens throughout all of Panem light up with death after death after death.
But the worst part about the Games is not the deaths of children, gruesome though that is. The worst aspect of Collins’ construction is the disgusting exploitation of death as “glory” for the victims and carefree, exciting entertainment for the masses. The Games are, fundamentally, a gory reality show for the Capitol. Since their children will never be at risk of entering, the privileged Capitolites treat the events as an opportunity to place bets and brag about their favorites. Tributes in the arena must play up their courage, romance, or looks to get the special sponsored gifts they need to survive— but everyone knows they will eventually die. Katniss and Peeta themselves, as young teenagers, are forced into a romantic love story in order to keep their families alive.
The consumption of this exploitation is a clear criticism of our entertainment industry. The tragedy and pain of young people, especially those oppressed by the privileged, are constantly on display in our society. Because of our rapid technological expansion and capitalist culture, that trauma becomes monetized and exploited. While imperialist wars rage in the Middle East driven by the profits of arms dealers, documentaries about the suffering of their victims make Sundance. Video after video of police brutality against young black Americans goes viral, sharing someone’s traumatic moments without consent and with few repercussions for the perpetrators, exposing a culture of sensationalism rather than honest accountability. Even in the mainstream of the entertainment industry, a frenzy of reality TV shows depicting a twisted version of love and romance has taken over, pressuring participants to enter swift, 4-week engagements or take on a dramatic persona that often leaves them hated in the real world. Usually, no one stops to ask who is behind the creation and dissemination of violent or sensationalized or who profits off of it.
The Games show how the powerful will not only demean those beneath them to assert dominance; they will condition them to believe it is an honor, do hair and makeup on children as they’re sent to their deaths, film their trauma, and sell it for profit. It’s this connection that resonated with me the most deeply while reading the text— not just the inevitability of death and powerlessness that the Games represent, but the way that the most basic values of humanity, dignity, and innocence are desecrated by an entertainment-obsessed ruling class. Although we haven’t quite reached the point of televising death games, our own entertainment culture gladly puts ratings above respect.
This brings us to the ultimate representation of the bourgeoisie: the Capitol. In probably the most relevant criticism of capitalist consumer culture and self-modification, Collins perfectly paints the ruling class for what it is: pitiful, complicit, and dangerous all the same. The ridiculous beauty trends of skin-dyeing and teeth-filing permeate a culture that is dead-set on competition and perfection. But even as the books paint a gaudy, self-obsessed society, they also humanize some of its members. Katniss’ Capitol prep team is brushed over in Book One but is circled back to in Mockingjay as a reminder that those brainwashed by false ideals are, in some ways, victims too. Even though the team’s job was to beautify Katniss for certain death, they felt for her and feared for her life just as any friends would. However, when the team is imprisoned in frugal District 13 and struggles to adjust to a life without opulence, we see how the old habits of privilege die hard. In this way, Collins illustrates the balance between the hatred we feel for those who benefit from an unfair system and the pity we harbor for those who have been so brainwashed, they lose touch with their own humanity.
Still, the behavior of the Capitolites is hardly excusable. The Capitol’s obsession with Katniss and Peeta’s love story is what drives them to endure public emotional trauma and lose much of their agency and independence. Capitolites’ betting money and their fascination with the death and trauma of young children is what sustains the Games, even if no one is born naturally appreciating violence. Inevitably, the Capitol had to fall— it was too oppressive to hold its own weight for very long. But how it did teaches us a lesson in a different type of tyranny.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of The Hunger Games is Collins’ examination of power and politics. Put simply, the “rebels” against the Capitol are not purely the spunky underdogs we usually see in dystopian novels. District 13 is a strictly-run pseudo-state that left starving districts to fend for themselves as they hid behind the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction. Just as much a controlling, power-hungry politician as many in the Capitol, rebel leader Alma Coin does not hesitate to cooperate with Capitol insiders and manipulate Katniss into a propaganda symbol at every turn. This is what I most appreciate about Collins’ writing: even as Katniss becomes the Mockingjay, the rallying figure for the districts as they riot, she is painfully aware of the puppet strings that hold her— half in President Snow’s hands and half in Coin’s. She does her best to fight for the people she grew up with and to end the exploitation she endured as a girl in District 12, but she knows that ultimately, she is not in control.
In The Hunger Games, the revolution starts from the boiling anger of the masses, but it’s carefully orchestrated by a military and propaganda apparatus totally separate from those truly suffering at the bottom. Using children as symbols and manipulating them for political ends is far from fictional. Collins provides clear commentary on the inevitable corruption in hierarchical regimes and the lines both sides will cross for a political win. Even though the rebels win, it is clear that they did not represent the righteous anger and the thirst for justice of the people in the districts; Katniss did. When Katniss shoots Coin instead of Snow, we get an argument that seems groundbreaking in the world of dystopian rebellion novels: one politically-calculating, authoritarian regime replacing another is not a revolution. The people rising up to take back their dignity and humanity is.
In the end, the overwhelming death and tragedy that result from the rebellion are staggering. Nearly all of Katniss’ district is decimated, her sister is blown to shreds (likely by a rebel’s bomb), and the mental toll the events of the Games and war loom large in her psyche. What Collins gets right about young protagonists going through hell and back is the weight of trauma that may never leave them.
From the start of the second book, Katniss begins to show signs of depression and trauma-related behaviors from the horrors she endured in the first Games. By the end of Mockingjay, having seen countless friends, soldiers, and citizens die for her and her message, Katniss is changed forever. It takes years of slow, deliberate mental practice to feel safe, normal, and loved. Even though she ends up with Peeta, she’ll never be able to erase the fact that they were forced together by some of the worst events a human can endure. But, ever in the business of chilling accuracy, Collins gives them an imperfect resolution. No, the scars, both physical and mental, of their incredible trauma will never fade. But progress is possible, children are possible, a home is possible, a future is possible.
In the end, The Hunger Games gives us something most books as gory, uncomfortable, and gut-wrenching as these never do: the hope that after we throw our passions and our lives behind fighting for a better world to live in, that world is actually possible. It’s real. In the moments when a Capitolistic/capitalistic culture feels suffocating, in the moments we endure tragedy at the hands of an unjust system, and in the moments we are struggling just to keep our humanity alive, The Hunger Games reminds us just how much we are capable of.