In the first post of a two-part series, Sarah Michele Ford examines uses The Hunger Games to examine the implications of totalitarian governments and the concept of social control. In the interests of full disclosure, this post is being written based on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books, not the movies. Oh, and in case you haven’t picked up on this yet, SPOILER ALERT.
In order for society to work properly, its members must adhere to the accepted norms of behavior. In many cases, norms are enforced informally and the ones that the society has agreed are really important are codified into laws and are enforced by the government. In totalitarian political systems, however, the government itself decides the norms and maintains control by any means necessary.
This, of course, brings us to the Hunger Games trilogy. In the dystopian future imagined in Suzanne Collins’ books, the country of Panem is divided into twelve Districts which are ruled by a totalitarian government located in The Capitol. Every year, each of the districts (but not the Capitol) is required to send one randomly selected boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the media spectacle that is the Hunger Games. After a short training period and a fanfare-filled televised introduction to the rest of the country, all twenty-four “tributes” are placed together in an arena, and in the first book the winner of the Hunger Games is the teenager who outlives all the others. It goes without saying that the games, which had their origin in the aftermath of a rebellion against the Capitol, are required viewing for all citizens of Panem, and are an explicit reminder of the Capitol’s power over the Districts.
The Hunger Games as a concept serve as a means of social control on several levels. Most obviously are those reminders of the Capitol’s power. “Taking kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch – this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion” (The Hunger Games, p. 22). Not only are the Games a continuing punishment for a rebellion that happened three generations ago; they are also a reward, to the winning district, at least. The winner’s district “will be showered with prizes, largely consisting of food. All year, the Capitol will show the winning district gifts of grain and oil and even delicacies like sugar while the rest of us battle starvation” (The Hunger Games, p. 22). So in addition to punishing the population, the Hunger Games create and reinforce inequalities among Panem’s districts; tributes from wealthier districts are healthier and more likely to win the Games, which in turn maintains those districts’ wealth. At the same time, the Games are specifically designed to disproportionately punish Panem’s poorest citizens – in addition to the “regular” entries into the reaping, young people can buy “tesserae” – grain and fuel for one person for one year – for the price of one more slip with their name on it in the reaping. Thus, the poorest residents of the poorest districts are also the most likely to die for the entertainment of those in the Capitol.
In the seventy-fourth Hunger Games (which is featured in the first book), though, things change. At the reaping in District Twelve, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her twelve-year-old sister’s place, something that is allowed but unheard of in District Twelve, whose tributes virtually never survive the Games. The boy chosen in that reaping is Peeta Mellark, the son of the town’s baker. During their televised introductions, Peeta reveals that he has “had a crush on [Katniss] ever since [he] can remember” (The Hunger Games, p. 157). In the Games themselves, when Peeta and Katniss are still alive (along with both tributes from District One), the Gamemakers institute a rule change, declaring that if the last two tributes alive are from the same district, both will be declared victors. Suddenly it’s in both Katinss’ and Peeta’s interest to team up and attempt to survive together, and that’s just what they do. When it comes to the end, though, and they are the last two alive, the rule change is revoked. Peeta is prepared to die and let Katniss be the victor, but she has another plan: a double-suicide via eating poisonous berries. Needless to say, the Capitol can’t let that happen – they need a victor.
In order to understand why this is a problem, we have to think about the Hunger Games from the point of view of the Capitol as well as the Districts. For the residents of poor Districts, the Games have always been a symbol of the power that the Capitol has over them. But in showing that they were willing to die rather than play the game, Katniss and Peeta have undermined that social control. They have shown the Districts, possibly for the first time, that there is another way. The Capitol, on the other hand, cannot let any such acts of resistance stand, or their power will crumble. And that is precisely what happens. After her “stunt” with the berries, Katniss becomes an unwitting symbol of resistance to the Capitol. She first becomes aware of this when, shortly before she and Peeta are to depart on their “Victory Tour”, President Snow surprises her at home. During that visit, he tells her in no uncertain terms that it it her responsibility to quell this uprising, or he will have her family killed. He tells her that the only way she can achieve that is to use the Victory Tour to show the rest of the country that she acted, not out of resistance to the Capitol’s power, but out of blind teenage love.
It is clear that the Capitol fears that it will lose control over the districts, that the government itself will fall. President Snow says as much to Katniss. “[I]f a girl from District Twelve of all places can defy the Capitol and walk away unharmed what is to stop them from doing the same? … What is to prevent, say, an uprising?” (Catching Fire, p. 21). The Capitol, like any totalitarian regime, fears the poorest and most disadvantaged members of its population – people like Katniss – the most because they are the ones most hurt by the status quo, and therefore the most likely to rebel.
Katniss does not succeed in quelling the rebellion. If anything, the Victory Tour makes things worse.
By the time the next year’s reaping rolls around, there are significant rebellions going on in several of the districts. That year, the seventy-fifth anniversary, the Games take on a different flavor. “On the seventy-fifth anniversary, as a reminder to the rebels that even the strongest among them cannot overcome the power of the Capitol, the male and female tributes will be reaped from their existing pool of victors” (Catching Fire, p. 172). Katniss, as the only female victor from District Twelve, will be back in the Hunger Games. The Capitol has upped the ante in the Games as a means of keeping the population under its thumb by showing that it still has power even over the face of that rebellion.
In the next post, we will examine the continuing implications of the rebellion as well as the ways that the Capitol continues to struggle to maintain power over Panem.
- How does the government under which you live (local, state, national) exert social control over its population?
- What other forms of social control are you subject to in your day-to-day life?
- Do you think that the Hunger Games are an effective way for the Capitol to keep the Districts under its control? If so, why? If not, why not?
- Can you think of any examples of real governments, past or present, that have gone to extremes in order to maintain social control? How do those extremes compare to the Hunger Games?
Collins, Suzanne.  2009. The Hunger Games. London: Scholastic.
Collins, Suzanne. 2009. Catching Fire. New York: Scholastic.
Collins, Suzanne. 2010. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic.