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'Hunger Games' - Glimpse of post-decline America?

Published:Sunday | January 13, 2013 | 12:00 AM
In this image released by Lionsgate, Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen (left) and Liam Hemsworth portrays Gale Hawthorne in a scene from 'The Hunger Games'. - AP

Lawrence Alfred Powell, Contributor

The Hunger Games, an engaging saga about what life could be like in post-decline America, appears to be on its way to becoming a cult classic. Suzanne Collins' original book version of the story proved extraordinarily popular among teenagers and young adults, receiving praise from a host of reviewers, including author Steven King. This, in turn, inspired Gary Ross to film a movie/DVD adaptation of the story, released last year to much critical acclaim.

The underlying 'human nature and society' themes woven into the storyline and characters certainly remind you of some of the classic dystopias. At various points, there are echoes of Orwell's 1984, Golding's Lord of the Flies, Huxley's Brave New World, Lang's The Metropolis, Vonnegut's Player Piano, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Nolan & Johnson's Logan's Run, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Moore's V for Vendetta. All of these were, of course, the opposite of utopias; painting a grim portrait of a world gone terribly wrong, of a dystopian future.

As a current expression of that dystopian genre, this movie (and the book it came from) speaks with special resonance to the Millennial and Occupy generations. The stoic persistence of HG's young characters through difficult times faithfully mirrors the real-world struggles that teens and early adults of this generation are now experiencing. How can they somehow construct meaningful lives for themselves in the midst of a cynical, jobless, post-democratic, post-opportunity, ecologically-deteriorating, corporate-feudalist world of banker lords ruling over indebted consumer serfs - a world that international political economists like John Rapley have begun to refer to as "the new medievalism"? (See Rapley's essay The New Middle Ages, which describes how this plays out in Jamaica.)


Set in a decadent future, The Hunger Games revolves around 16-year-old peasant heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a sort of postmodern Joan of Arc. She and her family live in the nation of Panem, where the United States had once existed before the apocalypse. This future country is made up of the Capital, a corrupt, wealthy metropolis located somewhere in the Rockies and presided over by President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), as well as 12 underdeveloped surrounding districts which are kept under strict colonial control through a reign of fear.

As an intimidation ritual to remind them of the Capital's absolute authority (and to commemorate crushing an earlier rebellion), each year the Capital hosts the 'hunger games'. In these, two young people, one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18, are selected randomly from each of the 12 districts to participate in a ruthless televised battle for survival, a sporting event that pits every district against the others. The 24 participants in this gladiatorial fight-to-the-finish are then forced to kill each other for the amusement of a national audience, until only one is left standing.

Panem's mixture of totalitarian control, ruthless inequality and sadistic media diversion seems inescapable to its inhabitants, who have long since resigned themselves to it. Yet Katniss somehow musters the emotional courage to think beyond the various distractions, and overcome all obstacles placed in her path, playing this pervasive system of control against itself to expose it for what it truly is.

When her little sister is selected to be a tribute (fighter), Katniss volunteers in her place, to save her, then relies on her advanced hunting skills to survive the ordeal.

Although HG is ostensibly an action film, it operates on multiple narrative and thematic levels (which are much easier to discern in the book version.) The storyline appears to have been adapted from the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

According to that ancient myth, as a punishment to Athens for his son's death, King Minos of Crete demanded that Aegeus sacrifice seven of his best warriors and seven of his most beautiful maidens, drawn by lot, to Minos' Minotaur, a horrible beast that lived at the centre of the Labyrinth.

In the Greek myth, Theseus volunteers to be a tribute and slay the Minotaur. Thus, Katniss can be said to be the equivalent of Theseus, and President Coriolanus Snow the equivalent of King Minos, in Suzanne Collins' post-apocalyptic world.


Dystopias like The Hunger Games hark back to Greek myth in one other important sense, the 'tragic flaw' - that our greatest strength, paradoxically, could also become our undoing. These tragic tales remind us to be careful what we wish for. Carried to extremes, and extended into the future, any of these seemingly desirable things - like wealth, advanced technology, ambition, consumerism, individual gratification, group solidarity, long life - might someday become absurdly unbalanced, and proceed to oppress us. It's an ironic fate that can happen to individual characters, or to whole empires.

In the case of the HG, it's implied throughout that what was once a healthy US capitalist consumer-oriented democracy (say, as of the 20th century) has since degenerated into predatory, dysfunctional inequality.

In contrast to the lavish opulence on display in the Capital, young Katniss relates that, "Starvation's not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn't seen the victims? Older people who can't work. Children from a family with too many to feed. Those injured in the mines. Straggling through the streets. And one day, you come upon them sitting motionless against the wall ... you hear the wails from a house, and the peacekeepers are called in to retrieve the body. Starvation is never the cause of death officially. It's always the flu, or exposure, or pneumonia."

By setting the plot far into the future, Collins is able to paint a convincing portrait of what a post-decline American empire might look like as a cruelly absurd dystopia, centuries later. In the HG, today's unequal class differences in life opportunity have solidified into rigid castes - looking more like a feudal than a modern society.

There are also obvious historical analogies to the Roman Empire, with democracy giving way to harsh oligarchic rule over time, complete with patrician and proletarian castes and bread-and-circus gladiatorial events to entertain the masses.


And clearly, Collins uses this novel to lambast what she sees as the cultural degeneracy and shallow voyeurism of today's hypercompetitive 'reality TV' spectacles, like Survivor and Gordon Ramsay's sadistic cooking competitions - which humiliate and force their contestants to grovel for prizes, in the process promoting survival-of-the-fittest rationales for why the privileged deserve the lion's share of society's rewards, and inferior have-nots don't.

Beneath the surface characters that dominate the film version, then, this work is really intended as a critique of social Darwinism and monopoly capitalism gone mad, in a future cyber era. These deeper themes are easier to glean from the book than from Gary Ross's film - which focuses more on violent action scenes to ensure box-office success, ironically reflecting the same commercialisation and trivialisation of human substance that the book tries to get across as being Panem's tragic flaw.

The performances of Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss, and Donald Sutherland, as President Snow, are definitely worth seeing the film for, but to get the full multilayered experience, it's best to go directly to the source and savour Suzanne Collins' thought-provoking novel.

Lawrence Alfred Powell is honorary research fellow at the Centre of Methods and Policy Application in the Social Sciences at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Email feedback to and