There’s a point in Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy, where Suzanne Collins drops all pretense and has Plutarch spell out one of the series’ major themes: that the pampered citizens of Panem have given away their “political responsibility”—one might also say their basic humanity—in exchange for “panem et circenses,” bread and circuses, as the people of the ancient Roman Empire did. The more I learned about Panem throughout the trilogy, the more I got the sense that the Hunger Games weren’t just a means to keep the descendants of the once-rebellious Districts in line; they were also one more excuse for the bourgeoisie of the capitol to consume and ignore the reality of the world outside their city walls. The sad truth is that the more we learn about the post-apocalyptic world of The Hunger Games, the more it looks like the modern West, and I doubt Collins pulled that off by accident.
For those who haven’t seen the movie or read the books, the eponymous Games are an annual battle to the death on live TV starring 12-18 year olds selected by lottery. Each of the twelve Districts outside the capitol city is required to give two tributes to the Games every year as punishment for their rebellion seven decades ago. Once selected, these youths become instant reality TV stars, followed almost 24/7 by cameras as audiences speculate and bet on which contestant will be the survivor of this year’s contest. Think Big Brother meets Celebrity Deathmatch. This being twenty-first century America, you’d think the senseless violence inherent in such a story would be enough to make it a hit, and the movie certainly emphasized that factor. The lethal love triangle doesn’t hurt either; star-crossed lovers Katniss and Peeta are repeatedly put in situations that supposedly require one to die so the other might live, while Katniss’ friend-zoned hunting partner Gale smolders on the sidelines. Much as I hate to say this, seeing as the Hunger Games trilogy is of infinitely higher quality, I’m reminded of the marketing gold that is the godawful Twilight series. But it’s the treatment of celebrity that sets Katniss and Peeta’s story apart and brings it back home to modern America.
Though the series is named for the Hunger Games, those Games take a back seat to the politics of the world outside the arena. The first book of the series is 374 pages long, but the Games don’t begin until page 148. A good chunk of the ten chapters preceding Katniss’ entrance into the arena involve attempts to win the favor of the audience and support from sponsors. When Katniss arrives in Panem, she’s stripped of her body hair, slathered in soap and make-up; we’re told that it’s only at the insistence of Cinna, her personal stylist, that she isn’t subjected to cosmetic surgery. She’s paraded around in a flaming suit, becoming “the girl on fire,” an instant media darling—Jennifer Aniston with a bow and arrow. Her handlers coach her on appealing to crowds while towing the line politically, her popularity being a major factor in how much support she can expect from the outside world once the killing begins. Even Katniss’ relationship with Peeta begins as a public relations move, something Tom Cruise could probably tell you about in detail, though we’re fortunately never treated to the sort of couple nicknames (say, “Kateeta” or “Peetniss”) that rise from the sludge of American celebrity news.
Despite the lethal Games and her participation in the eventual rebellion against the capitol, Katniss’ major obstacle throughout the series isn’t staying alive, but keeping up appearances for the cameras. The first chunk of book two involves Katniss, under threat of violence against her family, pretending she’s in love with Peeta at her post-Games public appearances so the populace won’t interpret her actions at the end of book one as revolutionary and follow her example. Book three sees her as the Mockingjay, a figurehead of the rebellion who stars in their “propo” (short for “propaganda”) broadcasts. It’s clear her abilities as a warrior or leader are irrelevant compared to her usefulness as a celebrity. The rebels are more interested in hearing her sing and visit injured children than letting her fight—after all, who needs Joan of Arc when you have Kelly Clarkston? And for the majority of the series, Katniss bows to the demands of her celebrity despite her frustration with both the Capitol and the rebellion, and in the process she comes to view many of those closest to the process of her own dehumanization as inhuman themselves; the prep team who pretties her up for the cameras are “pets,” the rebellion cameramen who follow her around are “insects.”
Only at the end of the third book does Katniss finally break rank and pursue her own goal against orders, and she almost loses everything for it. In the third book, Katniss learns the rebellion thinks her “weakness” is her unwillingness to follow orders; they miss entirely that the reason she’s exceptional, the reason the people love her, is she’s true to herself, a survivor willing to throw out the rules when they pointlessly limit her freedom or threaten her best interests. I’m reminded of the hullabaloo over Michael Phelps smoking cannabis a few years back. Any kid from the 80’s will remember the old propaganda slogan that used to pop up in the arcades, “Winners Don’t Do Drugs,” and there’s nothing the self-styled authorities hate more than having the lie put decisively to their propaganda—yet the most decorated Olympic athlete in history is a stoner. Winners, it would seem, tell the government to go fuck itself.
Speaking of the Olympics, they’re really not functionally too different from the Hunger Games. We’ve probably all heard about China effectively kidnapping children from their families and forcing them to train as future Olympians by now, right? Why would a country stoop to that level to participate in what’s supposed to be a friendly competition between nations in the name of peace? Simple: the Olympics have evolved into an international penis-wagging contest. Where the Hunger Games are about the government keeping the citizens in line, the Olympics are about the governments of the more powerful nations tacitly threatening each other. “Look how much spare time and how many resources we can put into engineering these teams of superhero-level athletes. Think about what that says about our military.” That’s the message each major nation is sending to the others through the Olympics; in short: “Mess with us and we will fuck you up good.” Commentators may wax on about sportsmanship or patriotism or any number of bullshit themes, but at its heart, the Olympics is an orgy of jingoistic propaganda (and that’s before we get into the actual orgies in the Olympic Village; it’s too bad they don’t show the real XXX Olympics on TV because I’d probably actually watch those events).
And of course, the American people eat up the Olympics just as the people of Panem fall over themselves for the Hunger Games. Collins portrays the majority of the people of Panem as shallow, materialistic, ignorant consumers, and… well, guess what, America, you’re on stage. About the only part of the description missing is an epidemic of morbid obesity—but that’s okay, the Olympics here in the real world are sponsored by McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, which is the kind of thing no author could make up. Because like it or not, the Hunger Games trilogy isn’t really about a future post-apocalyptic America; it’s about America in the present, the America obsessed with celebrity and consumption, the America that’s okay with quiet fascism and overseas atrocities so long as our bellies are full of processed sugar and we have attractive people to gossip about.
At the same time, running through the story is a subtle encouragement of the revolutionary spirit, a rejection of the corporatism that has taken root in this nation, a willingness to fight against oppression; I can imagine this trilogy becoming required reading for the children of militia members and hippies alike. There’s even a subtle jab at the two-sided nature of the American political system in Mockingjay when Katniss is forced to work with the fascist government of District 13 in order to overthrow the fascist government of Panem. Given the option of killing one president so that the other can take power, and having learned that her side’s Jack Johnson is just as ruthless and power-hungry as the enemy’s John Jackson, Katniss sees to it that both die, and new leadership has to be selected to fill the void when both parties are dead. If only destroying both the Republican and Democratic parties was as simple as sending an arrow through their hearts, the United States might finally make some progress as a just and free society again.
But for now, McDonald’s fries and Olympics for everyone! And may the odds of not getting diabetes or being targeted for extraordinary rendition be ever in your favor.