Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hunger Games: how immoral does society need to be to justify revolution?

Hunger Games are a metaphor for any tool of social control that leaves young people worse off.

While the Hunger Games are the central concept of the book and trilogy (Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins, one concept does not a (good) book make.


For those of you that have avoided the book and movie, Hunger Games is set in a future version of North America where the current governing structures have been replaced. The whole is called Panem (which is linked to the Latin for “bread and circuses” in the book, but sounds like “Pan America” contracted to me). The Capitol in the Rockies rules over twelve districts using a colonial system. Each district is required to specialize in a sector of the economy, but everything is distributed by the Capitol. Even people in the agriculture sector live hungry. The people in the district live in grinding poverty while the people in the Capitol live opulent lives focused on fashion and gluttony (minus the twenty years many of them have to serve as “Peacekeepers” who are the occupying military/police forces).

At some point about 75 years in the past the districts rebelled and were crushed by the Capitol. To atone for this rebellion, the Capitol created the Hunger Games. Each year one boy and one girl (both 12-18 years old) are selected to participate in a ritual that works like the TV show Survivor. Only the contestants are killed by the dangers in the game or more often by other “tributes”.

The protagonist

Katniss Everdean is 16 years old and the head of her family after her father was killed in a mining accident. She's from District 12, producer of coal and the poorest district (Appalachia), but also one laxly regulated. Katniss supports her mother and sister, Prim, by hunting with a bow while her hunting partner, Gale, specializes in setting snares.

Being a professional hunter turns out to be useful in a game where moving and hiding in the woods is a big part of the game and killing people is how one eliminates opponents.

A Modern Robin Hood

But there's a bit more to Katniss' skill with a bow, if you're part of Anglo-American culture. Every child knows the legend of Robin Hood, a hero and protector of the people who stood against an unjust king. And whether it was true or not, the story Americans tell about the Revolutionary War Minutemen was that their prowess with aiming weapons far exceeded the British occupiers. This iconography carried over to TV Westerns where good guys were able to shoot the gun out of the hand of bad guys while inflicting minimal physical damage.

Right/Left Appeal of Katniss

Collins is able to make Katniss appealing to adherents of both Right Wing and Left Wing fears about society.

Ethnicity. The people of District 12 live in Appalachia, but Collins (through Katniss) describes Gale thus: “Straight black hair, olive skin, we even have the same gray eyes.... Most families who work the mines resemble one another this way.” The shopkeepers, who are only marginally better off, tend to have “light hair” and “blue eyes”.

I suspect that people who ascribed to Right Wing politics see the people of District 12 as oppressed “White” folk. (They were portrayed this way in the movie where the decadent citizens of the Capitol included a large number of Blacks.) People of the Left probably see District 12 as pan-ethnic and economically oppressed.

The pro-gun crowd probably see Panem's bans on citizens having weapons as validation that government not only wants a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, but on the weapons too.

The anti-United Nations crowd probably like that Collins named the police force “Peacekeepers”.

And the anti-government people (libertarians) probably feel validated that government is doing the oppressing.

The Left probably sees the books as being anti-war, anti-fascism and a critique of corporate culture marketed through television. Also, religion does not seem to exist in the world of Hunger Games. It is not a moral force; it is not a tool of social control; it does not exist, not even derelict churches.

Moral Question Posed By Hunger Games

At what point does society become so predatory it no longer deserves our support?

The system of social control is so offensive that no one from the outside could support it.

But television legitimizes the Hunger Games. The audience gets to participate by pooling money and “sponsoring” tributes with gifts that help them survive. For some reason these felt like campaign contributions in politics to me.

The winners of the Hunger Games then go on tour, like finalists from American Idol.

There's a multi-layered system for making the Hunger Games seem normal. It seems likely the Collins is posing the question to readers, “What in your society is fundamentally immoral but propped-up by television and other forms of propaganda and social control?”


One of the things that I caught is that Katniss understands loyalty and indebtedness, but that she struggles with empathy. “Empathy” doesn't exist as a word or even an idea. When Katniss and her family were starving, Peeta Mellark, the baker's son, burned two loaves of bread so that they would need to be discarded. Peeta got the burned bread to Katniss.

Katniss says of Peeta, “I couldn't explain his actions.”

In a world where the people in power are ruling unjustly, it would be useful to reduce the feelings of connectedness and empathy between the citizens being ruled.

I suspect that this is part of Collins message. We have to break the psychological traps created by people in power to create the solidarity among regular people to address injustice.

Technology & Steam Punk

I suspect that Collins' handling of technology is a key reason Hunger Games resonates.

She's tapped into the appeal of SteamPunk, a category of science fiction and fantasy that operates without most of the technology of the Twentieth Century. There are no airplanes or automobiles in the trilogy, although the Capitol has a limited number of hovercraft.

But Collins has done something more clever than tapping into Steam Punk. She's created a world where the differential in access to technology is exaggerated. The people of District 12, and most of the other districts, live lives with little access to technology and medical science. The people of the Capitol, and especially the people running the Hunger Games, have advanced technology and medical science.

The Capitol's technology advancements are mostly biotech and medical. And they are mostly either to create weapons, creatures for the Hunger Games and cosmetic surgery.

I suspect there are huge anxieties about technology in the modern world. People have a hard time with technology they don't understand. And technological advancements have largely served to consolidate wealth and power in fewer hands.

Because of the anxieties people already feel about technology, Hunger Games feels like it understands our current problems.

I'll stop writing about Hunger Games now. Consider the this blog entry opening the door to a conversation about the book, the movie and the trilogy.

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