The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is one of the most iconic book trilogies in the last decade, a statement that still underscores its impact. Collins pioneered the dystopian fantasy genre in Young Adult novels; centring on strong female characters, toppling tyrants and their oppressive governments, building a revolution over a series of books and, of course, a not-so-compelling love triangle that has stakes written as high as the regime the main character is against. Published in 2008, this kickstarted the formula commonly found in the YA dystopian genre, each book focusing on the downfall and uprisings of near-future lands and the heroine that would champion it. But THG has outlasted its genre’s popularity, still being read and re-read today as it was in the early 2010s. This was soon accompanied by the four-part stellar movie series spanning from 2012 to 2015 and Jennifer Lawrence at the peak of her career. The movies drew in more fans and cemented THG in popular culture. It indeed was an era… and it hasn’t ended.
When you strip away the action-packed writing and the glamour of the Capitol costumes and the dividing thoughts of whether she should have ended up with Gale or Peeta, the world of Panem presents a timeless analogy. At its core, THG is a critique of American capitalism only being achieved through violence and how this has resulted in the people’s desensitization of said violence. The setting is a post-apocalyptic America that only stands on elitism and exploitation of the various working Districts (read: classes), and how the annual Hunger Games (read: media and entertainment industry) displays this false democracy in Panem. Through Katniss’ eyes, we see the development of class consciousness as she journeys from District 12, the last and poorest of Districts, all the way up to the Capitol, the entitled ruling class and top 1% of Panem. Each District represents a certain level of specified labour or resource, which is how the class struggle trickles down. According to Karl Marx, there are two stages of class consciousness; the first stage is known as class in itself, where class identity is passive to the person, and the second stage being a class for itself, where class identity is conscious and active to the person. Throughout the books, Katniss is able to realize her role in both stages and ultimately overcome it in the epilogue. The Communist Manifesto highlights that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” showing how Collins made classism the focus of world-building THG and Panem.
While the Districts are exploited of their labour and resources, the Games themselves serve dual-purposes in entertainment and a different form of exploitation. Again to reference Marx, exploitation is the term that refers to the extraction of surplus value from one section to another section of the society by taking the form of a subordinate class producing surplus value that a dominant ruling class appropriates with the use or threat of force. The Games threatens the lives of children and the Districts they represent whether they are chosen to take part or spared; the violence of the Games is the violence to the body. In a capitalist society such as Panem, the extraction of surplus-value is more subtle with workers selling their labour-power to the capitalists, which in this case involves their children, who then use this labour-power to generate a surplus-value which they then own. A fact that people gloss over is how the Games itself generates income through public relations and marketing tactics of the Tributes, bidding and collecting sponsors for the children participating, intensive gambling over who would survive or die, selling luxury sex work with crowned Victors, exclusive parties and the large-scale spectacle of making sure all District citizens watch the Games. A winner of the Games, a Victor, would be claiming the ultimate American Dream – starting with nothing, literally fighting for your life, and finally being surrounded by more riches and glory than you could have ever imagined. Collins takes away the Games’ gore with the rumour and subplot of Peeta’s romantic interest towards Katniss and the fabulous Capitol parties, glamorizing the Games and shifting the narrative away from children trying to kill each other like what war movie blockbusters do. This makes the readers desensitized to the violence as much as the spectators. Collins achieves her goal to show us ways that the entertainment and media industries have softened our perceptions to such vivid atrocities. While the Capitol is always depicted over-indulging – in fashion, in food, in accommodation, in really anything – and is an allegory of America’s consumerism culture that contrasts against the lower Districts’ class struggle. This dichotomy is how Collins plays around with her critique of American capitalism’s dangers, making it as clear to be understood to adolescent readers living in a very pro-capitalist world. And to fully immerse readers in this class theory, Panem’s extreme case of capitalism is ensured through controlled politics and the militarized state of President Snow’s administration. Complacent behaviour is enforced through public punishments by Peacekeepers, the Capitol’s heavily armed military, or acts of torture and mutilation meant to serve as examples.
Almost ten years since its publication and first film, THG strikes a chord on critiquing American capitalism now more than ever as people and their lives crumbled to cope during the pandemic. The American government demanded that the flow of labour and service remain as is. The pandemic has laid bare the consequences of unfettered capitalism and business’s attacks on government: hundreds of thousands of deaths and massive inequality that is threatening to destroy US democracy. The districts demand their freedom from long-lasting oppression; meanwhile, the Capitol requires their power in ruling and dominating the Districts. Marx states that for the proletariat, class consciousness means revolutionary consciousness because only through revolution and the overthrow of capitalism can the real interests of the proletariat be achieved.
In THG, this is symbolized through Katniss becoming the Mockingjay, an icon of dismantling the classist boundaries between the Districts and the oppressive regime of the Capitol. Inequality is no longer an abstract idea, in neither THG nor present-day America. It’s a sad reality that so many black and brown bodies had to die before these issues were something that couldn’t be ignored. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among countless other black unarmed people by police brutality, were symbolized for the Black Lives Matter movement. Still, the world’s collective protest was unable to spark the change it demanded.
This is the only part of THG where fiction does not meet reality. This doesn’t make it a fantasy to see the day equality and justice served, but it does capture how power is infatuated with the suffering of people for profits. American democracy masks its laws as progressive to continue its capitalist-operated priorities, even through mass attempts to rectify racial injustice and much-needed attention on how the police, essentially the state, treats its people. Capitalism cannot detach itself from the military state and only serves to protect the state’s interest, which is not necessarily the people’s interest.
The end of the Trump administration would surely break the parallels that ran between THG and present-day America, right? Like Alma Coin, the promising candidate that pushed the Mockingjay in more danger to “liberate the people of Panem,” there were signs of how hungry she was for power. Even Snow, in shackles and dim-lighting, forewarned that Coin is merely his successor with a new face. This is why Katniss assassinates Coin – she doesn’t want the glory, she wants to break the system, she wants peace. So it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see President Joe Biden ensuring that the flow of American capitalism, at the expense of the Global South and America’s people, never runs dry. Maybe it’s too soon to tell. Marx and Collins have written how such society would undoubtedly thrive off capitalism. It is neither academic nor dystopian to assume that American capitalism and its superpower grip on the world will not loosen anytime soon.
Good literature reflects society. Great literature critiques it. THG fits perfectly in both categories. But excellent literature predicts society. So while we cannot confirm that America is busy preparing a death match with kids, it definitely can be seen how American capitalism will outlive its people and even its own apocalyptic destruction.
— by Ammaarah Mookadam