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The World is Watching The Hunger Games

2012 March 16

In one week the world will be watching as the The Hunger Games movie hits the large screen. Some are heralding this film as the most important movie of our time. Why? Because it tackles deep political and ethical issues while still remaining a popular film. In other words, its reach is far wider than any other medium addressing issues like oppression, poverty, and social injustice. Yes, it is a tale of adventure and survival against all odds, but it is the only popular medium in recent years to tackle the tough questions about economic oppression and not be dismissed immediately as socialist. On the contrary, the film is being embraced and is posed to be one of the largest blockbusters ever.

Granted, not everyone is embracing the film for its political message. The stars of the show have graced the covers of numerous magazines, the red-carpet premiere was broadcast live on television, and tumblr and Pinterest sites are flooded with images of fans’ favorite celebrities from the film. I recently picked up a copy of Glamour magazine to see Jennifer Lawrence (who plays Katniss) not only on the cover but in a multiple page spread in a variety of stylish dresses and hair-dos. In short, Jennifer has had done to her what the Capitol does to Katniss – beautify her for the public’s consumption. And just like the Capitol with the Hunger Games Tributes, we are devouring the celebrity hype.

The process of glamourizing a person to appeal to a cultural idea of beauty in The Hunger Games book was an indictment of the shallowness of the Capitol. It was a sign of their frivolity and excess that is juxtaposed against the dire poverty of the surrounding districts. The people in the Capitol threw their money at body modifications and lavish parties while the districts starved. Not much different than us in the United States who have no problem buying cheap clothing and luxury goods produced by oppressed and underpaid workers in the districts developing countries that surround us.

I appreciate the ironic gesture that the marketers of the film developed. They know that the United States is Panem, but that even as the viewing audiences cheer on the poor girl from District 12, they will consume her as if they were Capitol citizens. So they developed the Capitol Couture website, highlighting the very fashions the book indicts. China Glaze issued a line of Hunger Games inspired nail polish. The actors playing the Tributes are treated just like Tributes as they are done-up and paraded around to premieres and photo shoots. It’s ironic in that the average viewer does not grasp the irony or the message of the story that such circuses distract from the fact that children are sent to be slaughtered in the arena for entertainment. In fact many will watch the film for simply the entertainment of seeing the Hunger Games visually portrayed.

But even as we, like the Capitol, allow ourselves to be distracted by the hype – we are still encountering a story that calls for the undermining of systems that placate the masses with bread and circuses so that they are too distracted to care about justice. Katniss and Peeta strive to not just be pieces in the Capitol’s games. They see through the façade of the Capitol and its shallow ways. They want to hold the Capitol responsible for the ways it oppresses the districts, allows the masses to starve while the few live in luxury, and treats even children as if they were things to be used instead of people deserving of dignity.

The United States may be the Capitol of Panem, and some may be treating The Hunger Games as just another circus, but that message of subversive living is being heard even if just subconsciously. This is an important film because of that. Katniss Everdeen is more than just another beautiful celebrity – she is a voice calling for us to put an end to injustice and oppression. And the world is watching.

To read more on the connections between Panem and the United States today, check out my book The Hunger Games and the Gospel: Bread, Circuses, and the Kingdom of God.

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26 Responses leave one →
  1. March 16, 2012

    I wrote just this in an article this week. You develop the idea so much more fully than I did, though. Thank you for saying these things. I’ve been thinking that the power of story is amazing. I know about justice issues, and try to make choices that don’t hurt others. But something about SEEING myself and my family as Capitol citizens has really made it real to me.

    Anyway, thanks.

  2. Christian Tuininga permalink
    March 16, 2012

    Did the author say Panem was the United States? Because that seems kind of judgmental to single out the US. Any wealthy excessive western country…ALL, in fact, could represent Panem. As a Canadian I see just as much excess here as in the US.

    • Chris Spillers permalink
      March 17, 2012

      Yes…….Suzanne Collins did say that Panem was the United States. Page 18-“…..the history of Panem, the country that rose up from the ashes of a place that was once called North America.”

      I would also like to add to your comment by saying that western countries are NOT the only ones that are awash in excess while many go hungry and live below poverty level. Eastern and Middle East countries share in the same dichotomy. Although the percentage difference between the haves and have nots may be higher in the east, there are still those living a lavish and obscenely rich lifestyle while others are starving to death all around them.

      Great article by Julie Clawson. She said a lot of things a was thinking as I was reading the books. These are great books for Book Clubs of all ages to read and discuss.

      Awesome books……can’t wait to see the movie and hopefully Catching Fire and Mockingjay will be right behind it!

      • March 17, 2012

        The United States is not the only country in North America. Christian was talking about Canada which is just as much a part of NA as the U.S. However, I don’t think he was talking in a literal sense, but in what the stories represent and condemn.

    • March 17, 2012

      While the country of Panem is located in what was the United States, you are right that the excesses of the Capitol could apply to various other countries. Since I am writing within the the US context, I wrote for that demographic. The US is also the most powerful economically (i.e. consumes more than it’s share of the world’s resources), so that statistic influenced my article as well. But the history of colonialism created numerous countries that got wealthy by oppressing other countries that they then ruled through fear and might.

      • Chris Spillers permalink
        March 19, 2012

        Julie…..Is your book only available for Kindle? Can I purchase a hard copy? I’ve only found it online for Kindle.

        As much as I’m anxiously awaiting the movie, I am trying to avoid the marketing and the hype. Hollywood is the epitome of excess, and as much as I appreciate the entertainment that it creates, I loathe the lavish and garish lifestyle of so many in the entertainment world.

        Thanks again for a great article. I plan on sharing it with my book club this week.

        • March 19, 2012

          Right now it is only available for Kindle (which anyone can download a free Kindle reading app for smartphones, tablets, Mac, or PC). It should be available soon on the Nook as well. I know Patheos is exploring the possibility of a hard copy, but there is no decision on that as of yet.

          • Chris Spillers permalink
            March 21, 2012

            Thanks for the info Julie. Only option right now for me would be to download app for PC and since it’s a desktop, reading in my office would not be my first preference. I might have to consider a Kindle……but I’m just not reading to give up the feel of a good book in my hands. The pros and cons of technology….yet another topic that conjures up some great discussion. I’m starting to feel about current day gadgets the way my parents did about VCR’s in the 80’s, technologically challenged!

            Thanks again.

  3. March 18, 2012

    Julie,

    I saw the Hunger Games nail polish the other day and could not believe it. The irony is too much. I really do hope the marketers did this knowing how it echoes the circus of the book itself- do you really think they do? I’m not so sure.

    Either way, though, I do hope the subversive messages get communicated. And here’s hoping they become conscious ones at some point!

    • March 19, 2012

      What I hope is that Suzanne Collins didn’t get to have a say over some of these marketing decisions. (I’m guessing she probably abdicated those rights when she sold the movie rights.) Surely she gets the irony. If she does have some say, I hope she did it for the sake of the irony and not just for money or success. If it was the latter, that would be really disappointing.

      • March 19, 2012

        The marketers are smart, they know what they’re doing. I just read something about how they choose to not show any images of the Hunger Games themselves in the pre-marketing. They wanted people to have to buy a ticket to see the Games, just as if we were spectators in the Roman arenas hungry for our circuses. Brilliant and twisted at the same time.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy permalink
    March 18, 2012

    Just back from reading the initial description and summary on Wikipedia. Three sentences in, two things came to mind:

    “Panem” is Latin for “bread”. “Circus” was Latin for gladiatorial games.

    S.P.Q.R.

  5. Chris permalink
    March 19, 2012

    Well written. I agree with most of it. I also see an alternate metaphor that you touched on but didn’t expand: Panem IS Hollywood, et al. I’ll just quote Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedy’s song “Kill the Poor” : “Jane Fonda on the screen today, Convinced the liberals it’s okay, So let’s get dressed and dance away the night.” :)

  6. March 25, 2012

    Incredibly well written! We love a good story because we love to imagine ourselves as political dissenters without ever actually examining our own lives or having to put our convictions into action. The one difference I can see between Katniss and the other Hollywood starlets that grace the covers of our magazine is that, although she too was dolled up and accessorized, she rose to her position of noteriety because of her depth and strength of character-a far cry from the celebrities our society has chosen.

  7. March 27, 2012

    Well said! Thank you for pointing out the irony that might otherwise escape us if we are captivated by the “Caesar Flickerman” style presentations of our culture.

    It troubles me that reality television fuels water cooler talk and check-out line tabloids and we are consumed with style, strategies, and personalities rather than the ethics.

  8. April 3, 2012

    I have mixed feelings about indicting the United States as representative of the Capitol of Panem. While I’m 100% against the rampant consumerism (read: economic Keynesianism) that threatens true social vitality, the relationship between the Capitol and the Districts in The Hunger Games differs so dramatically from the relationship between the U.S. and the rest of the world, it strains credibility as a viable comparison. Panem is a planned economy where the Capitol rations for the purpose of oppression. The Districts are under the thumb of a police state. While the U.S. is not without its share of rigged trade agreements, to declare that buying products from overseas is oppression in a similar was is a bit of a stretch. Using emotionally triggering words like “underpaid” and “fair share” add little value to the purported allegory.

    I’m not denying that developing countries have oppressed people, or even underpaid workers. Maybe the United States is at fault for some (or much) of it. But to liken the U.S. to the Capitol makes little sense to me.

    To the extent that the U.S. is involved in (non-military) oppressive actions against other people groups or nations, it is in large part due to the lack of freedom people in those countries have within the trade agreements the United States government has crafted (or refused to agree to). Yet even the alternative for workers in developing countries is often much worse than the supposed “underpaid” labor they are doing for those in the United States.

    Julie, your critique of consumerism is dead-on. But don’t stretch this too far.

    • April 4, 2012

      Things don’t have to be one to one allegories for there to be aspects of truth and comparison in them. The US has in fact occupied other countries with our military in order to control them economically (think Haiti in the 1910s and 1990s). But beyond those facts, when over-consumption leads to exploitation of workers it is still injustice that we often look over just because it isn’t as extreme as in situations like the Capitol. The only options in our world should not be between people having underpaid oppressive jobs and no jobs. Would you argue that the oppressive and dangerous jobs in the districts are better than no jobs? Unless we recognize all forms of oppression (not just typical movie military oppression) then freedom will never arrive for some and the option of dignified and fairly paid work will remain impossible.

      • April 4, 2012

        Whatever form or method the US government has used to keep people in developing nations under its thumb, I’ll outright reject (one example is our immigration restrictions, but that’s a side issue).

        Maybe you make this case in your book, but the case has to be proven that overconsumption in the US (or any affluent society) has actually led to unjust exploitation of workers. I agree it need not be an extreme case to be worthy of notice. Yet I hardly consider it unjust exploitation when workers in a country average $1/day, and Company X offers them $3/day. Nor do I think it’s evil that children who would otherwise be working in the fields in China the entire day or exploited as child prostitutes are now working in a factory with room and board paid for to earn twice the amount they would have in the fields (not to speak of future productive opportunities many of them would otherwise not have).

        I’m unfamiliar with the details, but most of the causation for this is going to be laid at the feet of the governments who “rig” the trade agreements in their favor. Sugar farmers here in the US who pressure Congress to keep sugar tariffs unusually high keep sugar farmers in other countries poorer (and distorts the market for high fructose corn syrup). Other governments use trade agreements to pad their own wallets and keep their people poorer and disadvantaged. When people are free to trade on their own agreements, both parties win. Governments get in the way in order to privilege one group over another.

        You write, “The only options in our world should not be between people having underpaid oppressive jobs and no jobs.” First, who defines “underpaid” and “oppressive”? For the entire span of human history, people have labored hard in conditions that could only be described as burdening. A segment of humanity has been able to produce itself out of those working conditions through trade, and now the fingers are pointed at them for creating a problem that otherwise would be considered “normal life.” If by “oppressive” you mean a company offers workers a wage higher than they otherwise could have, then I reject your definition. If by “oppressive” you mean fraud and deceit has been used to keep them employed against their will, then we can start agreeing on things.

        Nobody, even the most rabid libertarian, would not want the only two options facing a person are underpaid wages or no wages. Yet we live in flesh and blood, and that is the reality. The question is, “What do we do about it?” It’s a dilemma because if we decide to stop consuming, they are in poorer conditions. If we establish the so-called “living wage,'” those whose productive abilities are below that wage will either lose their jobs or those businesses will close (and then they’ll lose their jobs!).

        For the sake of being clear, I am against consumerism, by which I mean I’m against the personal attitude that what we own or can own defines us or contributes to our worth as individuals. I’m also against an economic system that encourages consumption over and above production. In a very real way, Julie, we could agree on the premise, but for very different reasons. The current economic system the United States runs on is the fallacious notion that consumption drives an economy. Supporting (funding?) this notion is fiat currency with arbitrary value run by the wealthiest among us.

        Near the end of your comment you mentioned the need for all to have freedom in order to have dignified work, and while I’m sure there’s more to what you mean by “freedom,” in this aspect we probably agree fairly strongly.

        You can get to my email and respond privately if you wish. Or publicly.

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  10. September 26, 2016

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