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.
11 thoughts on “Power and Wealth in The Hunger Games by Lisa Galek”
I did not see the film and probably won’t. Can you explain: does the film or book make the Christian connection or is that a connection that you and Xochitl in an earlier blog are making?
Also what is your understanding of the “historicity” of the New Testament’s claims about Herod: this is from Wikepedia:
Regarding the Massacre of the Innocents, although Herod was certainly guilty of many brutal acts, including the killing of his wife and two of his sons, no other known source from the period makes any reference to such a massacre. Since Bethlehem was a small village, the number of male children under the age of two might not exceed 20. This may be the reason for the lack of other sources for this history, although Herod’s order in Matthew 2:16 includes those children in Bethlehem’s vicinity making the massacre larger numerically and geographically. Modern biographers of Herod tend to doubt the event took place.
I am not saying Herod was a “great guy” but I don’t think the authors of the NT are either. Theirs was a tale with a pont of view, framed in terms of good guys (themselves) and bad guys (the others) and certainly not told by women.
I’ve never read the novels and don’t plan to see the movie, but I know enough about Roman history for the dystopia to make sense. Like Carol, I’m not sure I understand the connection you’re making with the New Testament, most of which is probably myth. We’ve all got our myths.
Sorry, I should have clarified – I only meant the comparison to Herod’s actions to be in the context of the Bible story. I am aware that there is significant doubt as to whether the massacre of the innocents ever took place.
I read the books and enjoyed the movie, but I don’t think any of them are making explicit Christian connections. The author certainly based her creation on a time in the Roman empire’s history when Christians (along with others) were being killed for sport in the arena, but her work isn’t explicitly Christian. Interestingly, while I was researching info for this post, I came across this (also from Wikipedia):
Donald Brake from The Washington Times, as well as Jessica Groover from the Independent Tribune, states that the story has Christian themes, such as that of self-sacrifice, which is found in Katniss’ substitution for her younger sister, analogous to the sacrifice of Jesus as a substitute for the atonement of sins. Brake, as well as another reviewer, Amy Simpson, both find that the story also revolves around the theme of hope, which is exemplified in the “incorruptible goodness of Katniss’ sister, Primrose.” She also states that Peeta Mellark is “a Christ figure” in the story. Similar to the events in Passion of Jesus, in the Games, Peeta is stabbed and left for dead after saving Katniss’ life—taking the wound that was initially meant for her—and is then buried in the ground and placed in a cave for three days before emerging with a new lease on life. Moreover, the Christian image of the Bread of Life is used throughout The Hunger Games; in the story Peeta shows up “bearing a warm loaf of bread,” and Katniss slowly comes “back to life.” A news video starring Jonathan Morris aired on Fox News discussed the religious themes in the story further. In addition, many pastors have written Bible studies discussing the Christian allegories in the story.
So other commentators are making the Christian connections (pretty common when you’re dealing with an author and audience influenced by Judeo-Christian culture). My interest is primarily in Christianity and the early church, so that’s why I see the parallels.
The good news is that a female character was powerful, the bad news is I think I’ve outgrown these dystopian horror stories. I too didn’t see much connection to the new testament, but I think we are dealing largely with patriarchal myths. I don’t even think Moses was a real person either. Men just make stuff up. Whatever male faction is writing the story, they portray themselves as the winners or the virtuous, and women are completely ignored… that is, no women that we know of actually wrote any parts of the bible at all. Still, the connection to this movie and the massacre of boys in the New Testament was weak at best. The bread and circuses comparison is much more germaine.
We do have to be careful of ahistorical comparisons to the Roman Empire and the U.S. Right wing christian groups have been doing this for ages.
I think any movie that highlights the abuse of wealth and power is useful, if nothing else for the next generation that might not relate to “1984” or “Animal Farm.” And I do applaud strong women who take up weapons and fight back! I know I would have loved the movie as a kid, and somehow, I think I just got sick of being terrorized by nuclear war, the Russians, the communists… all the childhood terrors of air raid drills etc. Farenheit 451— another terror story.
I wouldn’t use the word “terror” to describe this, but what frustrates me beyond belief is that women are still supporting obvious patriarchal hate institutions, and still believing the male lies of 2000 years ago. And I really don’t see as much change here as we could be having, but then again, patriarchy itself hasn’t been around for 5000 years without being awfully crafty and good at conning women. And face it, freedom for women take real guts, and slaves very rarely rebel throughout all of human history.
The bad news also TW is that the books present her as this woman “who doesn’t want to have children,” but the moment she finalyl chooses her male mate, the character completely changes and we see this in the epilogue where she has like, 1 or 2 kids (I cannot remember) and is happily married but will “never forget” the horror of the Hunger Games, the rebellion, etc. She falls into the same cultural trope that all these other powerful girls do within YA literature. It is very sad.
I think the main reason that Katniss does not want to have children in the beginning of the novels is that she could not bear the thought of them being subjected to the Hunger Games. Once the games are stopped, it appears she reconsiders this. I think the epilogue is rather bittersweet because, while she does find some happiness with a partner and children, she also lives in the aftermath of what she and others have been through.
I do not know if I agree. I think it goes against the character that is set up in books one and two just to satisfy this “Team Peeta”/”Team Gale” notion that recoded the books as a sequel to Twilight.
The books set up her as this forced feminist leader/icon but then just fail Katniss (and the girl/boy readers) by marrying her off and setting her up in a newly constructed heteronormative society that she may have helped shape but nevertheless, she remains a passive wife who now can gather food (and possibly hunt but why bother when food is more widely available now and her husband can) and take care of her husband and children.
I haven’t read the end of the series since the last book came out, so it’s possible I’m misremembering it. I wasn’t thrilled with the ending (or the entire last book for that matter), but I did not think that anything in the books indicated that marriage and family were impossible for Katniss. I think the ending served to offer a hopeful view for the future. The begining sets Katniss up as a very hard-edged person who is practical and bent on survival in this oppressive society. When her conditions improve, she seems to soften a bit and is more open to love and to bringing a family into the world.
I also have to say that, as a wife and mom, I don’t believe marriage and motherhood are incompatible with being a strong woman or a feminist. There is nothing wrong with sharing your life with someone who loves and appreciates you in return. I liked that the books were not focused solely on romance, but that it was an element that Katniss dealt with throughout (her confusion about her feelings for Peeta and Gale contending with the more immediate threats to her life and family). Except for the fact that two guys like her, I don’t think this book is anything at all like Twilight.
I get what you’re saying about the fact that the Team Peeta/Gale rivalry was played up by fans and others who wanted to promote the book as the next Twilight. But books are an important place for young people to explore their feelings about romance and romantic relationships. The Hunger Games handles it’s romantic subplots in a far superior way to Twilight and I think the author allows Katniss, Gale, and Peeta to really grow and change throughout the books. And they’re all being forced to sort out their feelings against the backdrop of war.
I’m curious though… what do you think would have been a better ending to the book?
What you detect as a possible Christian them is really a westernized agnostic position ascribing God like power to everything else but the main character: deus ex machina. The ethical struggle, fight against tyranny, etc, is always a smokescreen: the system allows the appearance of struggle to avoid true conflict.