The Hunger Games and Real World Parallels: Can Kids 'All Become Katniss Everdeen?'

Young heroes rebel against a fascist government that controls its citizenry through institutionalized terror and reality television, igniting a revolution that spreads across an isolated land via broadcast images and word of mouth. The Arab Spring? Nope. Try The Hunger Games, set in a dystopian sci-fi future that parallels current global unrest, which stars Jennifer Lawrence, Elizabeth Banks, and Donald Sutherland say they hope could spur a generation of YA-consuming youths into political action.

“We live in a world where in the past, present, and possibly future governments and certain countries are controlling their people by keeping them separate, weak and hungry so that they’re not strong enough to fight back,” said Lawrence, who stars in the adaptation as teenage coal miner’s daughter/District 12 tribute Katniss Everdeen. “I think that there are a lot of messages [in The Hunger Games] about history repeating itself and how something is wrong when you stay quiet, how we are the new generation.”

Elizabeth Banks, who plays Capitol-assigned chaperone Effie Trinket, echoed the sentiment. “There are oppressive regimes all over the world that are being toppled by young people using YouTube to start revolutions,” she said. “There is no greater connection. This book is happening right now.”

It can certainly be argued that Collins’ book series and the Gary Ross-directed feature adaptation has the potential to influence a generation of youngsters who’ll come for the sci-fi escapism and leave the theater appreciating its personal messages of personal accountability and standing up for what’s right in the face of impossible odds. More subtle are the franchise’s critiques of capitalism, celebrity, and media exploitation; if The Hunger Games succeeds in teaching kids to think critically about reality television alone that will be some sort of cultural coup.

(Of course, there’s the tricky contradiction of getting such message from a heavily-marketed $70+ million studio production whose elaborate campaign has tapped social, online, and mainstream media in the pursuit of a huge box office, not to mention the issue of selling “Capitol Couture” as a merchandising tie-in.)

Thankfully, here’s Donald Sutherland to put the Hunger Games potential for real world translation into relatable terms: “This has the possibility to change everything – to motivate, to catalyze, to activate, whatever revolutionary instincts there are in what is, essentially, from my point of view, a dormant generation.”

“I just hope that they see from this allegory that the future is unacceptable. But more than that, it’s unimaginable. If you look at the weather, if you look at fossil fuels, if you look at a political party that just says no only because they want to get elected – they have no concern for four years for the people… those people are our business managers!

"We own this country; they’re supposed to administer it for us. It’s not for them. They’re not supposed to be profiting from it! You don’t profit from it in Canada. You don’t profit from it in France. You don’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get elected! Nobody in their right mind would spend that much money in Canada, it’s just a bad investment! But it’s a good investment here, and that’s a problem."

“And you’ve got a Supreme Court that says a corporation is a citizen? Sorry, no. They don’t file the same tax forms I file… if they do, I’d like to know what it is. Because General Electric can make $4 billion in profit and they don’t pay any tax? I’m sorry. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, ‘Taxes are what you pay for a civilized society.’ If you carry that all the way backwards, we’re not civilized."

Of course, while older viewers may be prompted into critical political thinking by The Hunger Games, 12-year-olds clutching Mockingjay pins may not quite grasp the world as Sutherland sees it... yet. Then again, maybe all that needs to be planted is the seed of awareness. “It could make them stand up and become aware through this allegory of the political structure that they live in and what needs to be changed," insisted Sutherland. "They could all become Katniss Everdeen.”

Read more on The Hunger Games, which arrives in theaters March 23.

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  • Max Renn says:

    They put so much meaning into something that looks like a tween version of The Running Man.

  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    The basic message of the book is that in a competitive system, the cream rises to the top. More than this: that an unsparing competitive system emblodens life stories so vivid, so perfect, there's nothing their equal in possessing. Withdraw societal life supports, and though many may die, you'll finally have the chance to know what it is to live! Very pro-capitalist. The other lesson is: if someone in authority gives a girl the highest grade and it makes a rival male very angry, it's because he's jealous; not, rather, because the girl was eager to please and a suck-up and so of course was the one who got the A+.

    • tryfan says:

      Seriously - have you read the books? Because that's certainly not what they're about. I may not be as optimistic as Sutherland, but to call the "Hunger Games" series "pro-capitalistic", and about "cream rising to the top" is just plain wrong.

    • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

      Overtly, totalitarianism is criticized in Hunger Games (I’ve only read the first book), but if you mean to show how brutal a society is primarily by having it pit young people in battle royales to the death, you don’t (1) show these battle royales as events which out people’s true worth, which (2) suggest you could go through it and still come out of it looking like a prince or princess, where (3) people, where kids who die often overtly deserve it, have had it coming for a long time, in fact, or find their status enhanced owing to it, and (4) that you’ll come out of it several steps further along the way of knowing who you really are and what you may most want out of life.

      This contest begins with Katniss appraised highest by authorities, and though this must feel good (the book never has Katniss admit to being flattered by it, but boy do we feel how important it must have been to the author to be graded high and how many readers out there experiencing her as an avatar enjoyed and savored it! – “look mom, I got an A!”; “look mom, Harvard accepted me!”), the unforgiving contest demonstrates how much better it feels to prove you’re really worth it in the outside world. (It also does zero to suggest we really want the authorities outed – their worth is proved in their rightful discernment of Katniss’s: unlike most mundanes, she’s near class enough, distinctive enough, to count amongst aristocratic them; would mere mundanes recognize this fact as instantly, even if it risked discounting them -- inspiring jealousy and the like?) The contest could have been efficiently criticized by showing how it degrades its participants, but Katniss, though involved in a contest which in order to win should have her killing kid after kid after kid, isn’t involved in even a single one which sullies her. She kills the brutal boy who dispatches holy Rue, she innocently ends the life of the Fox, and with mercy, even, closes things out on the worst sort of raging jealous bully in the world. She ends things for one or two others, but they’re of the favored, mean and unsparing sort too … and this is another problem: if you want to criticize a society by showing it one which enables sports which kill kids, you don’t depict the contests as ones which produces teams of people so mean they deserve their deaths, and of others so innocent you just have to root for them. What is just and unjust looses all fix on the contest itself, and focuses on who, exactly, are the ones who die, and who, exactly, ends up being spared. Further, you don’t have the most innocent – Rue – dispatched, but in a way which makes it seem as if this was the only way for her to become of mythic and lasting meaning, cement an understanding of her as heavenly grace once briefly visited upon earth before having it ended by what is most banal and coarse in man: You’re stay was brief, but we will never forget you, our lovely Rue; may we one day deserve your lasting stay! Lastly, you don’t make the contest one which loosens people to develop as human beings: Peeta, through the contest, gets to know a relationship with the one he always coveted but never otherwise would have moved himself to get to know; Katniss finally begins along the path of becoming a sexual human being, of doing all the various sorting outs that will lead her to be an adult. Without the contest, they would have remained fundamentally undeveloped the whole of their lives. They never would have known the beauty of loving cooperation, even, spared participation in this sort of brutal but ultimately uplifting and just competition. Capitalism, of the Spenserian sort, even, has found its new love-child with this book. Maybe everything gets righted in the second and third without requiring a lobotomy before undertaking them, but I’m not holding my breath.

      • Bread & circus says:

        Of course, a lot of the brutality is set up to allow Gale to argue that anything goes in the war against the capital. Unlike most stories about a hero fighting against a totalitarian regime, Katniss never takes charge, and never takes over the movement except as a symbol.

        I thought the critique of capitalism was in the relationship between the Capital and the Districts; resources flow into the Capital and prices are kept artificially low by starving the workers in the districts. When the districts protest, they are brutally repressed. This is a bit like when a company (like Shell, for example) supports a government (like Nigeria) while producing oil for export. The government benefits from the profits and represses the people who say that it isn't a good deal for the country's citizens. Meanwhile, the company is able to keep costs low because it isn't asked to conform to environmental or labour standards. Nigerians get paid crap for working for the company, have to deal with oil spills and government repression, and we (citizens in developed countries) get cheaper oil.

        The unequal and violent relationship between Panem's capital and districts helps us reflect on how violence and repression can create unequal relationships in our "free" market global economy.

        • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

          You can and should find major critiques of capitalism and totalitariansim in these novels -- just not any a leading capitalist or tyrant totalitarian would be spooked by. If having dignity is unambiguously associated with being dispossessed, and at major risk if starting to middle or even prosper, totalitarians will know you have a comfort level with being amongst the "losers" you'll never find courage to really shake off: denied everything, you are noble; start accruing, start really living it with the future fully open, you're no longer free from not being assessed a selfish, a guilty, aspirer. What totalitarians will do is give you the leave to love Hunger Games while still sort of accepting the status quo (complaints about upper-class neglect are actually mostly okay: our self-narratives don't quite work right if they don't at least sneer at us every once in a while): they'll do this merely by cosmetic changes, not requiring any more 'cause you're too greedy for anything so to not have to stop actually facilitating a world of indifferent-to-you "haves" and fundamentally worthy and united, "have-nots." A world of the 99& is a world of their creation, sadly.

  • The Winchester says:

    If it keeps teens off vampire romance and into battle royales to the death for my amusement, then I'm all for it.

    • j'accuse! says:

      Teenagers fighting to the death? That's why there's a Twitter, and a Facebook wall. You won't believe what Suzie said about Zoey, who was totally making out w/ Jack even though he's still dating Sarah, and then it was like...

  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    Re: More subtle are the franchise’s critiques of capitalism, celebrity, and media exploitation.

    Super subtle, or they don't in fact exist? Katniss is the opening ceremony's sensation; she is the darling of the selection process, gathering the highest score and the most focussed attention of the scorers; she is the prime focus of the contest's otherwise most worthy participant -- Cato -- and of its most self-sacrificial and virtuous -- Peeta; the cameras that are everywhere can't help but fixate on innovative, winsome, deadly her.

    This is what kids will take from it, because it's evidently most important to the author. There's nothing better than being the star! -- but though it's what you covet, you can never admit this to yourself: to do so would make you selfish, crass, and a for-sure climber, not the superior princess of the ball who only gets lofted owing to superior qualities you can do nothing to disown yourself of. The author is experiencing her dream self through Katniss, which involves being the star at everyone else's expense, but to eliminate the guilt her subconscious makes sure to pretend as primary, as the implied take, that Katniss really isn't interested in all the attention and high judgments she gets and nor should you be. Katniss is an exercise in developing a false consciousness; you get to pretend to be the saint while nurturing the kind of stuff that would have you knife in the back anyone who would steal or share even one photon of your greedily clung-to limelight.

    • Bread & circus says:

      Except that the kids in the districts don't really have a choice about being a star. Someone is going to be. Also the poorest kids have to increase their odds of being chosen if they want to feed their families. Then after it's all over, the tribute who won is in the control of the president forever because of threats to their families. I don't know if the movie will focus on this, but all the star treatment and circus surrounding the tributes is really just to pretty up and cover up the control and force used to maintain the status quo in Panem.

      What I like most about the Hunger Games is you can argue and think about it for ages.

      • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

        The novel is crafted to give kids (and authors) who want to live themselves through it, reason to do so without accruing any guilt. If I sensed that the author wanted most for people to simply live authentically, regardless of whether or not they're appreciated, I would have praised it for it. What I sensed, was a novel that registered that its readers wanted to believe themselves authentic, but in truth really most wanted to be attended to and feel the rush of being superior to every dispossed one of miniscule you. As such my criticism. The author so felt the guilt in being annointed, special, she gave everyone aplenty "truths" they as a chorus could unite behind to abash demons popping up and saying the quite deadly ... nay.

    • Aly says:

      They totally exist and I suspect you'd be more willing to see it if the lead was a male...or did you have similar cynicism toward Fight Club, The Running Man, etc?

      As much as I hate Twilight, this trend toward criticizing ANYthing with a female lead character for wish fulfillment has got to stop.

      You'd have to be intentionally obstinate to pretend that the greater sociopolitical themes are non-existent in a dystopian novel of all things. And it's not like they were all that subtle. It was impossible for me to read without drawing parallels whether it was the irony of the careers teaming up compared to "allianes" in reality TV or the excesses of the Capital at the expense of everyone else, and violence as a spectator sport.

      At its most basic, this is the story of a girl who gets caught up in a revolution all because she wanted to save her sister (perhaps the single most important plot point throughout the books.) Without giving anything away, the series also comes to a very bittersweet conclusion and nobody gets through unscathed.

      • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

        Aly, if you saw that this book was prepared neat for a high school teacher to point at for "smart" sociopolitical critiques, you'd be my hero. Some of us are fearing that someone increasingly relevant has wagered truth is irrelevant, for deeper meaning being soundly owned by mere "stewarts only."

        SInce people are linking away, here's some padding for my view from another source: (please note, read review after commenting here -- my view is mine own!)

  • Arden Cole says:

    You guys need to stop arguing, obviously it's not going to change America nor the way it works.
    Just shut up.

    As for kids turning into Katniss Everdeen, we'd need alot more fire extinguishers.

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