Style note: for the purposes of this article, where “The Hunger Games” appears italicized, I’m referring to the series of books and movies. Where it appears capitalized but in plain text, i.e. “The Hunger Games” or just “the Games,” I’m referring to the in-story, diagetic version of the games.
Aside from having an extraordinarily compelling and complex protagonist in Katniss Everdeen, what makes The Hunger Games (books and movies) stand out is the central conceit—The Hunger Games (the in-story televised fight to the death).
As the OTI Podcast crew discussed in our Catching Fire episode, The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games have an interesting relationship to one another. As the audience of the books/movies, we’re meant to empathize with Katniss, and despise the callous Capitol-ites (Capitolers? Capitolians?) who watch The Hunger Games with glee as children kill each other for their amusement. In tension with this is the recognition that we, the audience of The Hunger Games, are also watching with glee as children (simulate) killing each other for amusement.
But of course, this as at least in part the point. Susan Collins clearly has a message about the nature of violence, and the intersection of violence and celebrity culture. The Hunger Games works, because it expresses these ideas well, while providing entertainment at the same time. Of course, at also accomplishes the other goal of a work like The Hunger Games, by making lots of money. Like, all of the money.
So The Hunger Games (the story) accomplishes its objective. What I want to ask here is this: Does the Hunger Games (the deathmatch) accomplish its objective? Is forcing children to do battle to the death an effective tool of social control? Or does it do more harm than good?
What are the goals of the Hunger Games?
Before we can decide if the Games accomplish their objectives, we need to know what they’re actual trying to accomplish. And this is made quite clear—to maintain dominance of the Capitol over the Districts.
One of the things that has always stood out to me about the Games is that they are a fairly blunt tool of social control and oppression. Most real-life propaganda and social control methods are at least given a fig-leaf of legitimacy or external purpose. You can make the argument that modern mass culture is just a tool used to keep the masses fat, dumb, and happy, but you at least have to work at it. No one is going to come out and just say that The Jersey Shore is a tool meant to promote consumerism and channel social rage.
But that’s not the world of Panem. The Capitol is quite explicit in the justification for the Games. They are a reminder to the Districts that the Capitol is in charge, they make the rules, and that Resistance is Futile against the power of the Capitol. There’s no subtext involved—that’s just text. The Games are evil, and the Districts will just have to deal with that.
So that’s clearly the over-arching goal: keep the Capitol on top and the Districts on bottom. But that invites a more detailed inquiry of exactly why the Games look the way they do.
The first question is simple. Why children? Why are the Games focused on the young, instead of culling from the ranks of the adults? Surely, the Capitol isn’t worried about the children of the Capitol revolting. I think there are at least two reasons why.
One, taking children just has a more powerful psychological effect. There is perhaps no mental signal more powerful than “child in danger,” and by forcing the Districts to give up their children, they remind the Districts just how powerless they are. Look what we can make you do. We can make you give up your children.
Two, a Games that featured adult participants might encourage exactly the sort of behavior that the Capitol is seeking to avoid. If the Games culled from the ranks of the young, say 18-45 year olds, you’d be encouraging every man and woman in the Districts to be constantly training for combat, lest they be the next one reaped for the Games. With children, you encourage only a handful to train for the Games, and they won’t even be fully grown at that.
The next question is a little more complicated. Why go through the trouble of the Games? Why not just pick two kids and execute them directly, instead of the elaborate expense of the Games?
This question is actually addressed in the book. President Snow explains that the Hunger Games give the idea of hope. Not too much, nothing to give the Districts any ideas, but the Capitol recognizes that a trapped animal will do anything to escape, so there has to be some sort of relief valve, some sign that the Games are something other than a death sentence.
There are likely other reasons as well. As far as social control tools go, you want yours to be a spectacle. You get a lot more psychological and existential horror from a days long contest than you do from a single minute of murder. You want people to watch what’s happening.
Even better, the Games function as a wedge to keep the Districts at odds with one another. Tyrants throughout the world and throughout history have recognized the power of dividing and conquering the populace. It might not be great to live in District 5, but at least you don’t live like those ANIMALS in District 6….
While these sorts of class divisions are enforced in innumerable ways in the world of Panem, the Games put these divisions on display, rubbing it in the district’s faces. This is particularly evident in the different way that the richer districts like 1 and 2 treat the Games (as an opportunity) than the way that they’re treated in the poorer districts like 12 treat them (as a death sentence).
So the theory behind the Games isn’t a bad one—divide the districts, and remind them every year that the Capitol has all the power.
Did the Hunger Games ever work?
We know that ultimately the Games fail in their objective: After 75 years of the Games, the Districts revolt against the Capitol again.
But that’s too harsh a standard to judge the Games by. At may be that the revolution would have happened much sooner had it not been for the Games. We know that there are 75 years that pass between the end of the First Revolt against the Capitol and the Second. Two or three generations is actually a pretty good track record for keeping the Districts in the kind of abject poverty and oppression that we see in Panem.
Keep in mind, the Hunger Games were direct result of that prior revolt. They are a form of pennance, reperations to remind the Districts of their previous failure. In that sense, we might compare the performance of the Games to the sanctions and reparations foisted on the Central Powers after World War I, which only forestalled the next war by a couple generations. Ultimately, we just don’t have enough information about the history of Panem to know for sure whether or not the revolt would have come sooner had it not been for the Games.
It’s also possible, of course, that the Games actually made things worse for the Capitol. By the time of the 75th Games, the Games are no longer the key to the District’s oppression. Instead, they’re the straw that breaks the camel’s back, the spark that lights the flames of revolt.
The problem with any tool like the Games is that they can have unintended consequences. For every person cowed by the power of the Games and the Capitol, you might be creating ten revolutionaries. Again, we just don’t know enough about the pre-Katniss era of Panem to know how this calculus plays out. All we know is that the Games aren’t enough. The Revolution was televised, and the Games ended where they began, with bloody revolution.
Why do the Games ultimately fail?
What went wrong? Why did such a powerful tool of propaganda and oppression fail so spectacularly?
To me, the answer is possibly illuminated by the following thought experiment: What did the 1st Annual Hunger Games look like? Just 1 year after the end of a massive civil war, who were the first Tributes, and what was different from the 74th and 75th Games that we see in The Hunger Games novels?
Of course, there’s no textual evidence that tells us for sure, but it’s hard to imagine that they were the same spectacle of celebrity and excess seen after seven decades of the games. We’re lead to believe that the First Revolt against Panem nearly destroyed the society, and so it’s likely that the first Games were a spartan affair—no Caesar Flickerman, no expensive dresses and lavish parties.
So we can surmise that what happened to the Games is that they were undermined by the very excess that they contrived to create. The Capitol, obsessed with the Games as a tool of celebrity and excess, turned them into something else. While it’s unclear to what extent even the Capitol’s citizen’s participate in government, even the most dictatorial regimes have to respond to public opinion in at least some way.
And we see this in the way that Katniss and Peeta manage to outsmart the Games, and the Capitol in the first novel. As a tool of social control, for oppressing the Districts, there’s no justification whatsoever for allowing anyone to subvert or beat the odds in the Games. The whole “berry” stunt would never have worked in the 1st Hunger Games; as President Snow suggests in the second book, they should have killed both Katniss and Peeta on the spot.
The point of the Games is to tell one story and one story only: The Capitol is in Charge. But the Games became about something else—about telling new stories, about True Love and celebrity, and ratings. And so Katniss and Peeta are spared, and the Capitol falls.
Doomed to Failure
All of that said, the Games were almost certainly doomed to fail in the end. Even if Katniss and Peeta had been killed on the spot, the revolution would not have ended there. The Capitol had oppressed the Districts too much, and for too long, to last forever. Instead of living beacons of defiance, they would have been martyrs, immortal symbols of that cruel and heartless Capitol oppressing the innocent Districts.
Because truth will out—oppression is oppression, and dictators will inevitably be undone by their own attempts to control the populace. In a competition like the Games, it was inevitable that things would get out of the Capitol’s control. Katniss Everdeen is not the first competitor to take a dictator’s showcase and turn it into a weapon against him.
One of the things that’s most interesting about Katniss’ story arc is that she is mostly an unwilling participant in the revolutionary narrative that grows up around her. We know that, given her druthers, she would just disappear into the woods with her family, never to be seen again.
All of the forces that turn Katniss into the Mockingjay are already there. District 13 is always out there, waiting for the right moment to restart the war that had begun 75 years before. Katniss is interesting because of the interesting and complex relationship she has with the revolution that’s building in the Districts, and the failure of the Hunger Games as a tool of social control.
Ultimately, The Hunger Games work because The Hunger Games fail.
The Hunger Games are almost exactly perfect for encouraging rebellion. They’re unambiguously evil, and the whole of the population is exposed to the risk. The very first one would have led to revolt, even if they’d been done to disarmed rebels under armed guards. What fraction of parents would try to beat the soldiers taking away their child to death, even with handcuffs vs firearms? What fraction of their comrades-in-arms would stand idly by while the soldiers fought the parents off? Consider the things that have started uprisings in the real world, and it becomes immediately clear that the Hunger Games are riot generators.
Encouraging after a few decades of peace, yes. Encouraging after the rebellion – definitely not, after the rebellion there’re always repressions, in most cases aimed towards the young (because they fought in the rebellion) and the civilians, so nobody would be surprised. And not much parents would try to beat the soldiers IMMEDIATELY after the rebellion (after the decades of peace, that’s more possible), simply because they would be exhausted, defeated, hopeless – besides, The Capitol took one child, not every children, it’s in itself kind of safety net, one would not risk the lives of other children, not AFTER the rebellion, when there’s no much youngsters (they died. in most cases the rebellions attract the youngest part of adult population, >15/16, the most crucial to the survival of the society) and the nation/district/society must focus on rebuilding – in the most biological sense, rebuilding the population.
The failed uprising is not, I don’t know, a little, trivial thing. It’s a devastation, a disaster. Rebellions are not cheap – the society has to sacrifice their young/children (for the cause. it’s still the sacrifice), their money, their food (rebels would forcefully take the food from the villages. the oppressors would do the same. the villages would end with almost nothing), their resources, their faith, their hope and their strength. Failed uprising can kill a nation/society, biologically even. Or at least hibernate it for one-two generations. People/nation/society simply /cannot/ start one right after another, it’s like a cooldown in games. Which means – it could be, in very specific situations, quite useful for the oppressors to trigger the rebellion*. Triggering it an a convenient moment means an almost sure victory and the peace within the borders for next few decades. In that time the oppressor might want to take part in, for example, a war. And rebellion during the war would be the most inconvenient.
Defeat is a powerful device. It breaks the society for a time. So no, people would not fight for their children, they wouldn’t have strength for that. For a while. Continuing The Hunger Games so long was not very clever, probably; but they became a too good business to stop them. The mistake, indeed.
But I think the most crucial mistake in the whole HG business is that there is no mechanism for rewarding those who are loyal to the system (the rest of the problem, e.g. the sympathy growing in the Capitol population, as time – and memories of the war – goes by, is rather inevitable). That’s silly mistake. The mechanisms of hunger are somewhat… foggy or not much realistic, too. Sending the winners back to their district is a mistake, too.
* One of the side-effects of the rebellion is, by the way, honing the hate and the difference between the oppressors and oppressed, because it forces the first one to start repressions (so yes, there’s the place for manipulation by the victims, too). And it’s easier to hate and differ himself from somebody who hurts you/your family. So, in some cases, even starting an hopeless rebellion in a relatively good political situation, though seemingly useless/stupid (the political situation will surely turn to worse after the uprising) is rational – yes, there will be repressions, but repressions means that the oppressed group will not blend/mix with the oppressors, will not admire them, will not take their customs etc. So, the sacrificing of thousands of people can ensure the survival of the culture. Which is rather cynical reasoning and I doubt that anybody consciously thinks this way while participating in rebellion – but it’s strong, very strong subconscious message and reason, visible from historical perspective.
I just don’t see that sort of vague population-level concern entering the head of a parent seeing their child taken away to very likely death.
I could see some utility behind triggering regular ill-prepared rebellions to reduce the chance of a successful one, though. If that was the intent, the Hunger Games clearly failed to execute it correctly.
Perhaps the first hunger games chose against the war orphans, and sold it as “a chance to avenge your parents” or “prove your parents memory proud.”
The first 5 hunger games could have likely be done like this. Then you guilt people by asking, “why is it only the children of the dead that must pay? Many of you fought beside these parents. It could just as easily be your child there. Why. Or help these orphans the only way you can — add to the pool to decrease the odds of being chosen.”
I do not agree that the purpose of the Hunger Games is communicated to the citizens of Panem as clearly as you suggest it is.
The stated purpose for the Hunger Games is, I believe, a nationalistic holiday; that is, the Fourth of July with gladiatorial games instead of fireworks. While a bit more blatant in its attempt at social control than most national holidays, the biggest difference is that it is celebrated with human sacrifice, not that it serves as social control.
While the audience gets to see President Snow explaining explicitly the social function that the Hunger Games serve, the public speeches that are given to the citizens are, I believe, not so straightforward.
I think the Hunger Games reinforce a message for the Capitol citizens, too, although whether that was the case right from the start I couldn’t say. But not only are the districts reminded every year that they live on the Capitol’s forbearance and they’re totally outclassed so rebellion is useless – the people of the Capitol are also trained year by year to see the Districts as quaint, and there for their entertainment. District industries and cultures are caricatured and put on display for consumption, through costumes and personal stories. Meanwhile, the district kids smile and wave and don’t dissuade them of their impressions because they personally can’t afford to offend this public. This leads to a Capitol who don’t see their position as evil. As the film version of Catching Fire showed quite well I think (e.g. Effie), if really confronted with that reality, a lot of them aren’t ok with it.
The other thing I’d point out is that the districts really are outclassed. Not everywhere is like 12 – some have more access to and understanding of technology – but the resources, technologies and knowledge that the Capitol have at their disposal make district rebellion a pretty weak prospect. The Mockingjay rebellion works because of a number of Capitol defectors, people who don’t buy into the Capitol side of the Games’ message.
I see it more like 1984 Lite. Both governments are manipulating the population in order to reinforce their social ideology, which in The Hunger Games is presented at the basic level as the Capitol is in charge. And I think its this level of manipulation which is why the Hunger Games failed.
You had the constant control and the spectacle showing who’s in charge but there was no ideology to back it up. Ingsoc had its problems but without it Big Brother didn’t have a shred of hope. There was no ideology being pursued in Panem more complex then the Capitol is in charge. No why other then ‘well we have the guns’. Even the division between the Districts was not truly exploited as it was the Districts and the Capital, even the naming is unifier. For the games to work there had to be some sort of reason the Capitol gives saying ‘see, this is why YOU WANT us to stay in charge’. If its the fear angle they use, they could have contrasted the few dead children to the masses dead in the first revolt, rhetorically ask what would you rather and pursue that point as hard as possible.
So I think the games were doomed to fail because the agenda wasn’t pushed hard enough. The citizens weren’t left with a sense of fear or love for the Capitol to any degree that an event like this should generate. There is room there for the pageantry and celebrity which occurred but things were doomed by the 74th games because the Capitolians should have wanted Katniss and Peeta to die with the berries.
Also, my first comment here so hi :)
Caveat that I haven’t read Mockingjay.
I didn’t get the sense that the Hunger Games were supposed to prevent revolt exactly, since I didn’t really get the sense that revolt in and of itself is a significant threat to the Capital. In the second book, three districts–a quarter of those that officially exist–are in open revolt and we get the sense that the Capital experiences little more than disrupted dinner party menus. Even granting that the Capital is keeping a tight lid on the information of any of the revolt’s consequences the fact that they are able to do so suggests that the revolts aren’t that significant of a threat if they don’t last or spread.
The power of the Capital is so much greater than that of the Districts technologically it seems like the only existential threats to the Capital would be A) a revolt (or general strike?) by all 12 districts simultaneously such that the Capital becomes legitimately starved of resources or B) significant dissent within the Capital itself. As Hosni Mubarak learned the hard way, all the shiny American-made military technology in the world won’t save you if the army is not willing to gun down the protesters.
As the article notes, the Hunger Games have at least some value against A, because they divide the districts against each other. But I think their main functionality would be against B. First off, there the panem et circences point of just keeping people occupied and not getting bored and entertaining themselves with nonsense about civil rights and equality and suchwhat.
But you could do that with a lot of entertainments. The Hunger Games, though, go deeper than that. There’s a certain psychological brilliance to it. You need your young Capitalists to grow up to be the kind of people who will firebomb an entire region of their ostensible fellow-countryfolk into oblivion. So you raise them watching the children of those regions fighting each other to the death. This desensitizes them to violence and death generally and the death of District folk in particular.
More profoundly, it exploits cognitive dissonance. In the mind of the young Capitalist: no good person could watch people die for entertainment. I watch the children of the district die for entertainment. I am a good person. These logically inconsistent thoughts create intense tension. The only way the tension can be resolved is with a feeling–subconciously at least–that the people of the districts aren’t *really* people. So when the orders come, bombs away.
I think this point is exactly right. After all, the circenses weren’t meant to distract the gladiators, or even the barbarian and criminals from whence they were taken. They were there to detracts the plebes of Rome from their lack of political agency. I’m not sure it’s ever stated, but I’m pretty sure not even the citizens of the capital get to vote for President Snow. Tha capital citizens had to be distracted from the fact that though they had plenty of food and plenty of entertainment, they had zero say in how they were ruled.
I would also go further than you in how the games change the Capitalians’ perceptions of the districts, I think it’s actually turning the districts into a wild and savage enemy. The Hunger Games, in essence, constantly remind people of the Capital that the Districts once rebelled and that they must continue to be taught the dominance of the Capital. The Games are a war, albeit an enjoyable one, that the Capital must constantly wage against the possible rebels in all the districts. If it weren’t for President Snow and his people, the districts would become wild and once again threaten the capital. But the games also serve to present these enemies as weak and pitiable. There is no fear of actual defeatt to the Capital, that is why District 13 is always brought up, but there is fear of mayhem, scarcity, and loss of life if these poor deluded savages are not kept in control. The districts must be subjugated for their own good. They must be feared, but also pitied. They must be tuaght and civilized. That is the message the games send to the Capital. The addition of sponsorships, and the celebrations for victors and mourning the dead reinforces this notion and adds a touch of magnanimity to the whole thing.
The Hunger Games, in my view, ultimately fail because they end up being run by the people they were meant to control. Snow, having presumably grown up in the Capital, believes that the point of them is to oppress the Districts, and seeing them as the true enemy, ignores his real enemies: the Capitaline conspirators and the hidden district 13 (and if the capital hadn’t so thouroughly bought the message that the districts were the enemy hadn’t been so thoroughly bought, they might have spent more time and resources into finding out whether or not 13 still existed.). Plutarch, and the other conspirators, understand the Games’ true purpose and uses Snow’s own ignorance to manipulate him. The districts rebellions are a distraction from what the real rebels are planning. If Snow had realized that and had just killed Katniss and Peeta, instead of trying to use them to mollify and cow the savages, he might have been immune to the manipulations of the gamemaker.
The thing is, real life cases of oppressive governments that survive generations don’t work in the “We are powerful and can make you do whatever we want, including sending your children to die” obvious villain style as Snow presents.
The Soviet Union, and countries inspired by it worked by convincing the populace that they *weren’t* being oppressed but were in fact fortunate to live in the most advanced country in the world (aided by an inability for the common citizens to go see for themselves of course). The dissidents who would get arrested for speaking out against the regime were explained as being agents in the service of jealous enemy states or were claimed to be mentally ill.
It is worth noting that the myth that inspires the Hunger Games — the story of Theseus and the 7 boys and 7 girls paid in tribute by Athens to Crete every few years to be eaten by the Minotaur — is a nationalistic story _for Athens_, not for Crete.
And Athens was also a tribute empire — though it generally collected money and goods rather than people. So the story of Theseus probably isn’t bashing tribute in general as an institution.
Plus, tribute empires historically tend to work the opposite way from how Panem works — requiring tribute of the other places you subjugate is generally associated with being kinds of hands-off about running them. The ritual of submission keeps the relationship clear without having to overcommit additional resources to it.
If you rule this other place with boots on the ground in a totalitarian way, regular tribute becomes absurd. There’s no incentive to pay it, because there is nothing to be gained from doing so. And the ritual is meaningless, because it is backed by overwhelming force, and thus not exerting, on its own, meaningful power.
And it’s not like the people of Panem even have a frame of reference for how other countries work, or that there are other countries that see how Panem works. Nobody around cares what paying a tribute says about the relationship between one country and another. That sort of theater and its role in diplomacy is a big reason for tribute to exist in the first place — so other countries can see how many people supplicate to you, or so you can see what it means for one country to pay tribute to another and thus understand why you are doing it.
On one level, this is another topic for “Dockingjay II: Catching Tire” — how Panem is ridiculously expensively and inefficiently run, and how you could accrue the benefits that the Capitol enjoys at a fraction of the cost if you just stopped wasting unfathomable resources being huge dicks to everyone.
On another, it’s kind of a perverse indictment of Confucianism and similar worldviews that particularly favor “peaceful” tributary relationships, where what might seem as a rightful order between the master and servant in line with nature is in actuality this abominable, unholy mess of useless child murder.
On a third, it places the story of the Hunger Games firmly in the realm of “the story of the rebels.” This is not a story that the Capitol would tell — I won’t post spoilers, but consider that if history is written by the rebels, whose values are truly being communicated by the lurid descritions of juvenile bloodsport?
Two really interesting things in your comment there.
First, I like that you bring up that tribute is typically a more hands-off way of ruling someone. As you say, it’s much cheaper for the Empire-builder to collect tributes than to directly administer everywhere. It’s also, generally speaking, cheaper (in a material sense) for the Tribute-giver – instead of having to give up substantial wealth, a more symbolic and public form of subjugation suffices. Of course, the Capitol takes both – they take all the material wealth from the Districts AND the youth of the districts, so it’s not really filling that roll here.
Second, the idea that the Hunger Games is the rebel’s story, not the Capitol’s story. If we take “The Hunger Games” stories to be a history of the war in Panem, as told by the rebels, then that explains why the Hunger Games don’t make a lot of sense – whatever the Hunger Games really stood for, or however they actually worked, has been twisted by time to tell a story that means Capitol = Bad; Districts = Good.
Makes me wonder what capitol-subjugating rituals are instituted after the end of the third book.
There was a very similar problem I explored for my senior thesis. A major question posed by the Hungarian revolution was whether Communist indoctrination under Soviet rule had given Hungarians the tools necessary to fight back against them. In essence, because my adviser was obsessed with the idea of agency, I ended up exploring a bunch of different sides of the revolution. Largely labor unions and student unions and the different ways life under Soviet rule influenced the revolution. Students had been given the rhetoric and the tools to fight capitalist subversion and workers had been exploited because of Stakhanovism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stakhanovite_movement) which basically forced other workers to work more because of inflated statistics and basically thought that the socialist model imposed by the USSR was total BS and they could do better themselves. Eventually the revolution happened in 56′, thousands and thousands were killed by the Russian army, but after the revolution Khruschev actually started implementing new economic reforms.
The big difference between reality and fiction is that in reality, an oppressing force like the USSR or the Capital doesn’t need to remind people they’re being oppressed; they know it. It kind of makes the whole Hunger games redundant and makes me wonder why a revolution doesn’t happen every year the games are held. Logistically speaking, the HG should not work. The capital’s method of keeping the populace calm is antithetical to the point whole of having a working society. I mean the wealth disparity between the capitol and the districts is the main point to give incentive to revolt, as well as the whole modern incarnation of gladiator games. However the difference being that a central controlling power like the Capital can never really hold onto power if its state is already divided. By dividing up the districts into numbers, it has already established a segmented societal structure which cannot be maintained. Generally speaking empires don’t really work in a modern, industrialized era. Rome fell because of bad leaders and thinned resources, the USSR fell because of bad economics.
I’m beginning to suspect that the underlying theme is that the power of the capital is already a diminishing force, and that Katniss and crew are really just in the middle of something that’s out of their control, but not having scene the films or read the books I can’t verify that.