But then, the genius of “The Hunger Games” isn’t really that Collins found a novel scenario for the demise of the United States, but the ways she finds to explain the methods of social control that prevent upheaval in so many societies, and the fault lines that threaten so many movements for social change. And her treatment of reality television, an object of fixation for many post-apocalyptic stories from the mid-oughts, feels uneasily resonant today not because Collins treated reality programming as a diversion from more important things, but because she recognized the extent to which reality TV would capture our politics and become the means by which we make our most important decisions as a society.
The Hunger Games — an annual reality series in which two young people from each of the 12 districts fight to the death from which Collins’ series and the movie adaptations take their name — are, as narrator Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence in the movies) explains to us, “the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy.”
But the games are also, in their own twisted way, a limited meritocracy that act as a pressure valve for social discontent that might otherwise build into a revolutionary fervor against the dictatorial government based in the Capitol. Districts like Katniss’s, the impoverished District 12, where people work in mines and hunt to keep a black market alive, may not have the strongest, best-trained candidates to send into the arena. Even despite those odds, though they do win occasionally. And as a result, the games give the impression that there are parts of life in Panem (as America is now known) that aren’t entirely rigged and that every district has the opportunity to claim the bounties that follow a winner back home.
That’s not to say that these tiny promises of temporary comfort make the grinding immiseration of life under the control of Panem’s central government consistently bearable. But Collins is astute enough to make sure that the fictional dictatorship she’s created isn’t ruled by fools. The Hunger Games work not merely because they’re brutal, but because they offer tiny glimmers of joy, pride, temporary relief and hope.
These narratives are so effective, of course, because the Hunger Games are produced for and broadcast on television, and just as fans of competition reality shows can vote for their favorites and help them advance, spectators, known as sponsors in Collins’s books, can send material objects to participants in the Hunger Games, giving them critically important supplies and influencing the events Panem residents are watching on-screen.
Much has been written about “The Hunger Games” franchise as a critique of reality television, and while it’s absolutely true that the genre was well-established by the time Collins’s first novel in the series was published in 2008, I actually feel like reducing “The Hunger Games” to a critique of entertainment sells the books short.
Instead, “The Hunger Games” feels chillingly relevant for the way it captures the reality gamification of politics itself, and the way politics operates when its participants are under constant surveillance even as politicians have authorized greater and greater scrutiny of their own citizenry. If we’re constantly under observation, how can we hold onto the memory of our private selves? And if we’re always being watched, what choices will we make? What lies will we tell about what people think they’ve seen?
The greatest innovation in “The Hunger Games” series is the let-down Katniss experiences when she’s rescued from the Capitol by the forces of the rebellious District 13 and discovers not a principled liberation movement, but another ruthless organization that wants her to give a very different performance. Where the Capitol asked Katniss to perform the role of a happy winner, besotted with her fellow District 12 competitor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson in the movie) and preparing a lavish wedding with him, District 13 asks her to play a leadership role in the so-called Star Squad, a commando group that’s built around the presence of a camera crew.
This isn’t merely a problem of entertainment that diverts the audiences in the districts from the vicious inequalities that rule their lives. It’s the cancer of a politics that’s governed by nothing but public perception, a theme that’s particularly unsettling given the contours of the 2016 election. District 13, like the Capitol, ultimately proves capable of nearly anything that will make for good footage, including a massacre of the rebellion’s own troops, among them Katniss’s sister Prim.
Ultimately, the only true political rebellion that’s possible is not action on behalf of District 13, but action that deviates from both sides’ political scripts.
When Katniss fights in her first Hunger Games, she breaks from the established story by showing the audience she would rather commit suicide than win the game if winning means following the rules the Capitol has determined, which state that there can only be one survivor. And when District 13 is victorious in the civil war against the Capitol, Katniss refuses to punctuate that win with an action of sanctioned political violence: instead, she kills President Coin (Julianne Moore in the movie), the leader of the rebellion for which Katniss has been such an effective, media-friendly face. At the end of the novels, Katniss finds a measure of freedom by withdrawing entirely from politics, creating a private memorial book far removed from the mass spectacles she starred in, and having children who learn about the Hunger Games rather than starring in them.
It’s possible to read “The Hunger Games” as a reactionary story, a cautionary tale about the costs politics exact from the people who become movement symbols. But for all Katniss suffers terribly for playing by the rules of first the Capitol and then District 13, Collins — and Katniss — show us that the rebellion was necessary.
“I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years,” Katniss tells us at the end of “Mockingjay.” “But there are much worse games to play.”