Gaming the System: The Relevance of The Hunger Games

Hunger Games.(Photo: Matthew Allard / Flickr)As “The Hunger Games” trilogy gains popularity in bookstores and the box office, its themes of extreme class inequality, poverty, class warfare, and oppression gain prominence in reality across the globe.

With the release of Catching Fire, the film based on the second novel in The Hunger Games trilogy, it seems like a good time to discuss the relevance of this “young adult” series to real life. For anyone who hasn’t read the books, they center on Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who inspires a revolutionary uprising among the 12 districts of Panem (a future dystopic North America), where rural people are oppressed and kept in poverty while an elite section of the population live in “The Capitol” and lead pampered lives fueled by the labor and resources of the outlying districts.

Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins has indicated that she wanted to write “an updated version of the Roman gladiator games.” Her inspiration came from watching television that seemed to blur the differences between young people competing in reality TV shows and fighting in actual war. Her own father fought in Vietnam.

Opinions about The Hunger Games abound. It is accused of being unrealistic, frivolous, just for teens, etc. Others hope that its revolutionary nature will have a positive social impact. Actor Donald Sutherland, who plays the dictatorial President Snow in Catching Fire, said he hopes The Hunger Games stirs up a real revolution. In an interview for British newspaper The Guardian (currently embroiled in a scandal regarding its publication of articles about US spying via the NSA), Sutherland says, “It just puts things out in the light and lets you have a look at it. And if you take from it what I hope you will take from it, it will make you think a little more pungently about the political environment you live in and not be complacent.”

I wish more people were talking about how the novels reflect our present reality. The series so closely mirrors our current authoritarian government and economic disparities that it can be difficult to read. Three themes of the trilogy are a working class kept in poverty and producing resources, a wealthy elite that lacks empathy and an oppressive police state.

In the first novel, Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place as tribute in the annual “hunger games,” a brutal exhibition in which one male and one female under 18 years of age from each district are selected by lottery to compete in a televised battle to the death. The games are a spectacle to commemorate The Capitol’s victory over a rebellion that occurred over 70 years prior.

The poverty of the districts is contrasted with the opulent excesses of The Capitol. People in the districts work to produce resources that are shipped to The Capitol, and in return they are kept in abject poverty. Katniss doesn’t let herself think about a future with any boy because she knows they have no way to create a life for themselves. She hunts game with a bow and arrow to provide food for her mother and sister. Her father died working in the coal mines. Within the United States today, we have similar situations where people (such as migrant workers) spend all their time harvesting and producing resources yet remain poor.

In his book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges describes the plight of farmworkers in Florida (p.180):

The average annual income for farmworkers is between $10,000 and $12,499 … about a third of the national average. A laborer must pick almost two-and-a-quarter tons of tomatoes a day to earn minimum wage … twice what they had to pick thirty years ago for the same amount of money. Half the people in Immokalee live below the poverty line. Two-thirds of the children who enter kindergarten never graduate from high school. … The food supply chain reaches from the squalid trailer parks and fields upward to the lavish suites of a handful of global corporations, such as Walmart, which buys tens of millions of pounds of tomatoes a year.

In The Hunger Games, food is scarce and is rationed in the districts. In some cities in the United States, it is illegal to feed homeless people. In The Hunger Games, hunting for game is illegal.

Not everyone struggles. In Catching Fire, there is a scene where Katniss and fellow tribute Peeta are at a party in The Capitol in their honor. They are offered a special drink that makes you sick so you can vomit and then taste more food. Katniss and Peeta find this to be very disturbing: they have first-hand knowledge of people starving to death in their district, while people in The Capitol have so much food they are puking it up. Food disparity is a real, global issue. As the web site of hunger relief and animal protection organization A Well Fed World describes, countries “with greater financial resources bid food away from those who have less because they’re able to pay higher prices. It’s hard to believe, but exporting large quantities of food is a common practice that continues today in Ethiopia, Kenya and other countries with large populations of hungry, malnourished, and food-insecure people.”

In Catching Fire, the elite get to celebrate with the victors of the hunger games, once the latter are cleaned and dressed up. In the early days of Occupy Wall Street, Wall Street workers were observed clinking champagne glasses and laughing while observing the protesters from a balcony, as if the protesters were a new form of entertainment for the elite, eager to indulge themselves from a distance in their privilege. In The Hunger Games, people in The Capitol are encouraged to place bets on who they think will win the games. They watch the games from the comfort of their homes.

In Catching Fire, members of Katniss’ team look forward to the next games, a special “Quarter Quell” that occurs every 25 years. “Isn’t it thrilling?” “Don’t you feel so lucky?” “In your very first year of being a victor, you get to be a mentor in the Quarter Quell!” These residents of The Capitol clearly lack empathy. The hunger games are not “thrilling” for a participant; they are horrifying and deadly. And being a mentor means guiding another young person through the ordeal and probably seeing them get killed.

As Collins states, “If you’re watching a sitcom, that’s fine. But if there’s a real-life tragedy unfolding, you should not be thinking of yourself as an audience member. Because those are real people on the screen. … “

In Catching Fire, Katniss’ friend Gale is brutally whipped by a “Peacekeeper.” As Katniss and Peeta tour the districts, they find a heavily militarized presence wherever they go. When they arrive at the first district on their tour, they are escorted by (as Katniss describes) “a squad of eight Peacekeepers who direct us into the back of an armored truck.” Effie sniffs as the door clanks closed behind us. “Really, you’d think we were all criminals,” she says. “Not all of us, Effie. Just me, I think.” When Katniss elicits a “public salute” conveying support for the resistance, and an old man whistles to her. Katniss sees a pair of peacekeepers “dragging the old man who whistled to the top of the steps. Forcing him to his knees before the crowd. And putting a bullet through his head.”

Journalists have been writing for years about how the United States is becoming a police state. David Lindorff, a former correspondent for Business Week, writes about the false arrest of an art teacher in his suburban town. “What happened … was an example of a police state at work. A courageous woman who dared to speak out against subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle racism in the school where she worked, and someone who dares to speak her mind on any topic, was threatened with jail by a school superintendent who felt he had absolute power and who in fact had the power to have her arrested on his say so on trumped-up charges.”

Police in the United States are becoming increasingly militarized with acquisitions of tanks, drones and storm trooper gear. In October, The Guardian reported that “a little-known Pentagon program has been quietly militarizing American police forces for years. A total of $4.2bn worth of equipment has been distributed by the Defense Department to municipal law enforcement agencies, with a record $546m in 2012 alone. … The results of such over-militarized law enforcement are apparent from the dispersion of Occupy protesters in Oakland to the city-wide lockdown in Boston.”

In some disturbing ways, The Hunger Games is happening now and not in some dystopic future. Cover Girl has come out with “the Capitol collection,” a new line of makeup based on The Hunger Games to help women look as frivolous as the inhabitants of The Capitol. A couple recently held a Hunger Games-themed wedding.

As French writer Guy Debord states in The Society of the Spectacle, “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.” The Hunger Games provide images intended to maintain the power balance between The Capitol and the districts, to prevent an uprising and keep the classes intact. Katniss and Peeta find a way to force the hand of the authorities when they elect to eat poison berries rather than allow one of them to emerge as the victor. The authorities quickly end the games and make them both victors at that point. In the words of Katniss, the system “must be very fragile, if a handful of berries can bring it down.”

One of the lessons of The Hunger Games books is the power of images and of symbolic, seemingly small, gestures. So long as there are unjust societies, we should be mindful of the power within us all to challenge the spectacle that keeps us from recognizing the crimes against humanity and realizing a more just world.