Many of you have seen the movie or read the book, The Hunger Games, so you know that the story takes place in some future North America after some cataclysmic set of events has led to the breakdown of society and a new world order has been imposed over the resultant chaos by a cruel and despotic central government known as the Capitol (yes, spelled with an “o”). Author Suzanne Collins has given us an exciting, page-turning tale, which I extolled here.
But what sets this story above the average good young adult story are the larger points that Collins makes about: (1) the evils of tyrannical central government, and (2) the banalities, foibles, and sins of our own society.
Throughout the story, centered on the main character, Katniss Everdeen of District 12 (individual states no longer existing), Collins uses fiction to demonstrate the all-too-real policies of despotism that have been honed over millennia of oppression.
One of the ways in which domineering central governments keep down the people is to keep them divided from one another. This can be done by: the time honored method of playing up race or religious prejudices, by encouraging the formations of factions, by fomenting class warfare, or by pitting one region against another– to name but a few traditional methods of oppression.
The “divided, they stay fallen” method of tyrannical government is demonstrated in The Hunger Games by the games themselves, from whence the book gets its title. The Hunger Games pit representatives from each of the twelve Districts against each other in an arena of combat to the death. This artificially created competition of the yearly game keeps constantly stirred in the people a sense of “us against them”– as opposed to “we the people.” This plays right into the Capitol’s hands. District inhabitants who see other Districts inhabitants as enemies will be less likely to join up as accomplices united for freedom. For this reason, the central government in The Hunger Games, like any similar oppressive regime, does not encourage people from the different areas to learn about each other. Additionally, even within Districts, informers are undercover everywhere, so that one cannot trust one’s own neighbors– a typical form of dividing the people in any time or place.
These same oppressive techniques are used today by power-craven politicians and entrenched privileged groups the world over, perpetuating the division of humanity into warring nations locked in a seemingly eternal struggle to dominate their brothers and sisters or else be dominated. Fear, mistrust, and even hatred are the main crops grown in this fetidly fertile soil.
One of the most striking symbols in The Hunger Games is a genetically modified creature known as the Tracker Jacker. Tracker Jackers, swarming hornet-like insects that kill with their stings, have had their venom, as Katniss puts it, “carefully created to target the place where fear lives in your brain.” Alas, just like Tracker Jacker venom are the fear-mongering policies of central governments in our own world endeavoring to keep the people in their subjugated place.
In the world of The Hunger Games, where hatred and fear are sown upon the wind, no one escapes without infection. Our story’s protagonist, Katniss (one of the best heroines drawn so far in the nascent 21st century), begins with the central government’s injected venom– its cocktail of fear, ignorance, and prejudice– embedded deep inside her like the stinger of a Tracker Jacker– though for our heroine, for the most part , these ill feelings remain dormant; teenaged Katniss hasn’t had much time to think one way or the other about the other Districts or the people in them; her short life has been consumed with just trying to keep food on the table for her fatherless family in one of the poorest of the poor Districts.
When one is forced to spend nearly every waking hour toiling for survival, the development of the full potential of the Self is all but impossible. In a moment of reflection during a lull in the arena’s mayhem, Katniss realizes that most of her life has been spent in pursuit of food, clothing, and shelter for her family; “take that away,” she thinks, “and I’m not really sure who I am, what my identity is.” This is the most violent form of identity theft, and it is done not by a purse thief or computer hacker, but by the institutions of a corrupt society.
“How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance,” Katniss asks herself, “if it were so easy to come by” as it is for the people of the Capitol? The answer is that—like most anyone whose spirit has not been too-far stunted by a despotic government and a doltifying society— Katniss would develop the Self— the Self being something a totalitarian government anywhere never encourages since the beginning of Self is the end of tyranny.
When Katniss arrives at the Hunger Games as District 12’s representative and is forced into mortal combat with the others, she at first falls into the trap, as most anyone would, of seeing the people trying to kill her as her enemies. But slowly, over the course of the Games, she realizes that her true enemy is not this or that child or young adult trying to murder her, but the government and society which has set-up and allowed to continue this heinous yearly crime against humanity.
Looking down on the body of one recently slain competitor, she realizes the cycle of weakness perpetuated by personal hatred, thinking: “to hate the boy from District One, who also appears so vulnerable in death, seems inadequate.” [I cherish the word “inadequate” as used here!] “It’s the Capitol I hate, for doing this to all of us.” Katniss realizes that her witnessing first hand the killing fields of the arena “has forced me to confront my own fury against the cruelty they [the rulers] inflict upon us.”
In an act symbolic of the transference of her odium from her fellow sufferers to the instigator and perpetuator of that suffering, the central government, Katniss places flowers around one of her “enemies” killed in battle— an act of humanity in the face of inhumanity.
One last piece of poignancy I’ll bring up about the content of The Hunger Games is the author’s deft demonstration of the sickness of a society permeated by the sense of spectatorship and voyeurism. The obvious representation of this in the story is the Hunger Games, themselves, which are the biggest spectator sport of the year.
The benefits are myriad and manifold for any tyrannical regime once it can instill in the people this insipid sense of spectatorship. Once the people feel on the sideline of their own lives instead of in the game, they become non-threatening non-entities as far as the central government is concerned, for no one makes a dashing defensive play or scores a single point from the sidelines. All those who have adopted the lifestyle of the spectator are “out of the game” entirely, and they will only idly watch as their own lives are pummeled, mutilated, and stolen from them right in front of their eyes.
They may even cheer.
If you liked this post, you may like my V for Vendetta, A for Anarchism post :)
Other posts from Hammering Shield on The Hunger Games: