The Duck of Minerva

The Politics of the Hunger Games

12 October 2012

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the projects that I’m working on now is a book provisionally entitled “The Politics of the Hunger Games.” PM and I are overdue in submitting a full proposal to the press. In an earlier post I sketched out some provisional chapter titles. Here I provide a more complete list and a synopsis of the final chapter.

This is definitely a “crowdsourcing” post, so comments are appreciated. Details and spoilers below the fold.


Part I: The World of the Hunger Games

  • Capitol Rule: Panem as Empire
  • Capitol Punishment: is Panem a Totalitarian State?
  • Panem and Circuses: Economics and Resources
  • The District Sleeps Alone: Assessing the District 13-Capitol Standoff
  • The Revolution will be Televised
  • Before the Dark Days: Is Panem a Plausible Post-Apocalyptic Society?

Part II: Political Games

  • Hunger Game Theory: The Art of Winning Unfair Games
  • Role-Playing Games: Politics, Performance, and the Game of Politics
  • LOL Katniss: The Reader as Audience
  • Red Light Districts: Is the Capitol Sin City?
  • Playing Games With God: Why There Is No Religion In Panem

Part III: Messages

  • Katniss is not Bella: Class and Gender
  • Capitol and Labor: Is The Hunger Games a Marxist Fable?
  • The Tocqueville Effect: The Ambivalent Transition between Aristocracy and Democracy
  • Tribute Albums: Why the Careers Are Victims, Too
  • Unreality Television: What Speculative Fiction Says About Its Society
  • Coal Miner’s Daughter: Panem and the Limits of Production


In the conclusion, we expand upon a few of the themes that run throughout the earlier chapters. Our central point is as follows: The Hunger Games puts forth a deeply pessimistic view of human nature. We tend to exploit and manipulate others in the pursuit of power, wealth, and status. Our desire for vengeance all too easily trumps our impulse toward compassion, and those who succumb to anger often suffer less than those who hold onto their empathy. The overthrow of President Snow and the Capitol’s authoritarian regime produces a temporary respite, but Katniss, at least, is not convinced that it will last. Humanity may not survive itself.

Throughout the book we have expressed skepticism about aspects of the world of the Hunger Games. The economic system makes little sense. For example, the end of the Mockingjay makes clear that Panem does not need coal as an energy source: the new regime is rebuilding District 12 as a farming community. Indeed, the technological resources of the Capitol—particularly with respect to electronics and biological engineering—raise serious doubts about the whole architecture of Panem’s political economy. With such tremendous capabilities, why reduce most of Panem to a state of abject poverty? The whole system strikes us as gratuitously cruel.

Of course, this may be precisely the point of The Hunger Games. Panem’s economic irrationality stems from the greed of its ruling elite: their avarice, their pleasure in domination, and their will-to-power. Or perhaps simply their self-interested lack of compassion. After all, we live in a world marked by inequalities as vast as those found in Panem. Consider how the lifestyles of America’s rich and famous stack up against the poorest of the poor in Sudan, Mali, or Myanmar. The developed world devotes very little of its riches to improving the lot of those who, simply by accident of birth, lack even reliable sources of food and water. At least most citizens of the advanced industrialized world can plead “distance” and “ignorance” in their favor: the same cannot be said of elites in poor countries, who often live in luxury while their citizens scrape out a precarious existence. In this sense, one message of the Hunger Games stands out: politics is, indeed, the master science.

The narrative structure of The Hunger Games does, however, raise doubts about how far too push this pessimistic vision of human nature. We see the world through Katniss’ eyes, but she is a profoundly damaged human being. Throughout the novels, she suffers escalating traumas, including the death of her father, the terrors of the games, a loss of self so severe that she cannot make sense of her own identity, and her ultimate failure to protect her sister.

Does all of this make Katniss an unreliable chronicler of the human condition, or does it allow her to see things as they really are?  We suggest that, as with so many key aspects of the Hunger Games, Collins resists a straightforward answer. The Hunger Games provides a running debate about the implications of mankind’s penchant for inhumanity. At least some of this debate occurs on the terrain of classical republican theorists, most notably that of Machiavelli, about how to construct political institutions in light of the fragility of human goodness. Some of it takes place—as appropriate for a future imaginary that lacks religion—on the domain of secular existentialism.

Whatever interpretive tack we take, however, the Hunger Games leaves us with a basic, and terrible, truth about the human condition. Katniss asks “how can I tell” my children “about that world” of the games “without frightening them to death…. My children, who don’t know they play on graveyard.” Her way of continuing on despite the horrors she has experienced and perpetrated? “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. But there are much worse games to play.”