The Hunger Games franchise has become a runaway hit, with the release of the Hollywood adaptation reviving interest in Suzanne Collins’ book trilogy.
The series is set in what we imagine to be North America in the future. This cruel society is strictly divided into a wealthy Capitol and 12 poverty-stricken districts, each of which represents an essential industry (such as mining or food production). The Capitol maintains the status quo by selecting two children from each district every year and pitting them against each other in a reality TV show that resembles a gladiator arena.
Katniss Everdeen is a streetwise teen who volunteers to play in the Hunger Games when her younger sister is chosen by lottery to compete. Throughout the series Katniss – by no means a born revolutionary – must constantly weigh up what she is willing to do in order to survive and how much she is willing to challenge the system that keeps her district hungry and poor. Her preference for self-sacrifice or self-preservation becomes central to the future of her society.
Much has been made of the violence in The Hunger Games and its appropriateness for teen audiences. Some reviewers have argued it is primarily an environmentalist series, with future food shortages and so on representing our current lack of attention to climate change and the environment.
Few reviewers have pointed out that The Hunger Games is very much a series for our time – an era of rampant capitalism, biting austerity cuts, sweeping man-made famines and signs of collective resistance. The central premise, that a wealthy minority prosper from and even revel in the unrewarded labour of the majority, is today becoming a mainstream idea. It is perhaps no coincidence that its initial release coincided with the sharp turn in the global financial crisis in 2008.
Both the film and the books highlight the absurdity of poor people labouring and bloodthirstily competing for the benefit of a wealthy few. A particularly chilling scene in the film – in which Katniss and an ally murder a vicious competitor in the Games – has the viewer initially cheering, then cringing, as it becomes clear that this now-screaming competitor is just another poor teenage girl from the districts.
It also condemns the logic of a society tiered into classes. In a revealing scene, the President of the Capitol (played by Donald Sutherland) asks a fellow citizen if he likes underdogs. When the citizen replies that he does, the President declares that he himself doesn’t like underdogs, that the districts are filled with them, and if the Capitol residents could see them, they wouldn’t like underdogs either. In interviews about the film, actor Donald Sutherland has made connections between the class warfare in the film and Occupy Wall Street.
The Hunger Games does not romanticise poverty or simplify inequality. It goes to great lengths to demonstrate that class divides are unstable, destructive and complicated things. The 12 districts entirely sustain the wealth of the Capitol, but organising to challenge this situation proves more difficult than imagined.
Whether you read The Hunger Games as a warning for the future or a metaphor for today’s capitalism, the series does an excellent job of condemning a world in which a ruling class lives like a parasite off the labour of the majority, and of highlighting both the pressing need for the majority of these workers to join together to challenge the system.
By Chris Dite