Power and Wealth in The Hunger Games by Lisa Galek
Unless you have been living in grim, dystopian world for the past few months, you’ve no doubt seen or heard something about The Hunger Games. The movie, which is based on the first in a best-selling trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, debuted several weeks ago to mass acclaim. It has already had the biggest opening weekend ever for a non-sequel and its advanced ticket sales eclipsed that of the most recent installment in the Twilight Saga.
Feminists can rejoice a little in the fact that this movie, which tells the story of strong, female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, has surpassed the Twilight movies in ticket sales. Unlike the Twilight movies, the plot of The Hunger Games does not revolve entirely around a romantic love triangle. Though two suitors do vie for Katniss’s attentions, the heroine has much more pressing concerns – like whether or not she will be able to survive until morning.
But, aside from the good news that tough, well-drawn female characters can perform well at the box office, the movie has also spawned some interesting discussions about government and politics. In fact, both liberal and conservative commentators have claimed The Hunger Games supports their personal viewpoints (See “Liberal, conservatives embrace ‘Hunger Games’ for very different reasons”). For me, the books and movie fall more squarely onto the liberal side of the fence for one reason – they call into question wealth and power and those who are unwilling to change existing structures of oppression.
Suzanne Collins has said that her inspiration for The Hunger Games came while she was watching television. As she browsed through the channels, going past news coverage of the Iraq War and reality TV shows, the two began to blur together. She imagined a future where war and death would serve as the new reality television and The Hunger Games was born.
She took inspiration from Greek mythology and from ancient Rome. The name of the nation of Panem is a nod to the ancient Latin phrase “panem et circenses” or “bread and games.” The phrase referenced the practice in the latter part of the Roman empire of keeping the populace appeased by dispensing cheap food and entertainment, namely watching gladiators and criminals fight to the death in the arena.
This is the main focus of the books and movie. In a distant, dystopian future in the nation of Panem, the citizens in the wealthy Capitol hold an annual competition called the Hunger Games. The televised games are supplied with victims or “tributes,” through a lottery in each of the twelve impoverished districts surrounding the Capitol. Each year, at a ”reaping” ceremony, the names of one boy and one girl, aged 12-18 are drawn at random. Those selected are then whisked away to the Capitol to be wined and dined, receive lavish makeovers, and appear on talk shows, only to be delivered weeks later into an arena where they will fight the other tributes to the death until only one victor remains.
The games were instituted 74 years before the movie begins as a punishment for a rebellion against the Capitol by the districts. The reaping ceremony opens with a propaganda video, which explains why, in the Capitol’s view, the Hunger Games are actually a sign of the government’s goodness and mercy:
War, terrible war. Widows. Orphans. A motherless child. This was the uprising that rocked our land. Thirteen districts rebelled against the country that fed, loved, and protected them. Brother turned on brother, until nothing remained. And then came the peace. Hard fought, sorely won. People rose up from the ashes. A new era was born. But freedom has a cost. When the traitor was defeated, we swore as a nation we would never know this treason again. And so it was decreed that each year the various districts of Panem would offer up in tribute one young man and woman to fight to the death in a pageant of honor, courage, and sacrifice. The lone victor bathed in riches would serve as a reminder of our generosity and forgiveness.
In the movie itself, as in ancient Rome, the games serve as a reminder of the government’s absolute power. The Capitol citizens are the 1% who, themselves excused from participating in the games, delight in watching the children of the poor murder each other on live television. They are wealthy, vain, and, largely unconcerned with the plight of those in the poverty-stricken districts.
It was under similar conditions that Jesus was born and died. In Matthew chapter 2, the Magi visit the powerful King Herod and announce that the King of the Jews has been born. But, “when King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.” Herod and his court knew that the status quo was about to be disturbed. Power would be changing hands and they would likely be on the losing end of the deal. Like the citizens of the Capitol, Herod quickly realized the best course of action was to execute children, so he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and under.
Public crucifixions in first-century Palestine also served the same purpose as the televising of the Hunger Games. They were a visible reminder of the authority of the government. After all, if the Romans simply wanted to execute convicted criminals, there would have been quicker and easier ways to achieve this. These punishments, however, were about tormenting and shaming the victims and sending a terrifying message to the populace about the penalties for disobedience to Rome.
And just like the Romans, the Capitol also held elaborate and costly games to demonstrate their majesty and wealth. For the early Christians and others who were executed in the arena, this would have meant being publicly tortured, thrown to wild beasts, flogged, burned with hot oil, and even raped, before eventually succumbing to death. For the contestants in the Hunger Games, this means being hunted and murdered by your fellow tributes or else dispensed by the game makers who can unleash swarms of deadly bees, forest fires, or ravenous wild dogs.
Though Collins based her novel on ancient Rome, the parallels are just as easily drawn to today. In some of the poorest nations in the world, government officials live in wealth and grandeur, while the majority of citizens have no access to basic necessities such as food, clothing, schools, and clean drinking water. Brutal punishments are doled out for offenses against society and the ruling class. What better way to keep the masses down than to give them nothing with which to oppose you?
While the popularity of The Hunger Games is sure to get some people thinking about these issues, I also worry that part of what is drawing the audiences to the movie is the promise of the horrific games themselves. As I left the theater after seeing the movie on its opening weekend, I overheard a group of fellow movie-goers discussing the film: ”I thought it would be more about the games and fighting,” one man told his friends. “Yeah,” another agreed, “it was kind of slow at times.”
To imagine this story is about the violence and thrill of the games is to miss its point entirely. The movie does not invite us to become citizens of the Capitol, safely watching from our comfortable chairs as children die for our amusement. It begs us to be disgusted by the spectacle of the games and, like Katniss, to determine what is the best response to those who would go to any lengths to maintain power and wealth for themselves.
Lisa Galek is a professional writer and editor who earned her master’s degree Religious Studies from John Carroll University. In her spare time, she loves to read and write young adult fiction. She currently lives in Ohio with her husband and two beautiful daughters.