Recently I went to watch the movie adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy. (The image left is h/t Natalie). Centuries into the post-apocalyptic future, the US – now known as the nation of Panem (or “bread”, in Latin; presumably an allusion to the interplay of panem et circenses that is its dominant theme), is ruled over by a privileged elite based in the Capitol, a hi-tech, glitzy metropolis situated in the Rockies. Surrounding it are twelve Districts, places of poverty and squalor that are obliged to send tributes to the Capitol as the blood price for a rebellion 74 years in the past. These tributes are both material in-kind (individual Districts specialize in fishing, agriculture, coal, electronics, luxury goods, etc) – and human. Every year, the subjected Districts have to send a male and female child, drawn by lot or a volunteer, to compete in national televised blood games.
Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the trilogy, is a teenage girl living in District 12, one of the poorest and most underprivileged. They specialize in mining coal, which is burnt in another district to produce power for the Capitol. While some reviewers see the books as a critique of capitalist exploitation, it is pretty clear that the dominant economic system is command economy geared to the goals of extracting superprofits from the peripheries and funneling them towards the citizens of the Capitol to buy their quiescence. (As Eric Kain points out, “Arbitrarily picking Districts to supply only one type of good to the Capitol means that human capital is badly mismanaged… a flourishing market economy likely would have meant a far more wealthy populace in the Capitol as well.”)
WARNING: The rest of this review will contain major spoilers.
Collins, Suzanne – The Hunger Games (2008).
Category: dystopia; Rating: 5/5
Collins, Suzanne – Catching Fire (2009).
Category: dystopia; Rating: 5/5
Collins, Suzanne – Mockingjay (2010).
Category: dystopia; war; Rating: 3/5
The Movie – The Hunger Games (2012).
Category: dystopia; Rating: 3/5
Evidently, President Snow and his cronies appreciate that their system is non-productive and fragile, and relies on pervasive propaganda and coercion for its sustenance. The propaganda element revolves around the Hunger Games: “Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous,” Snow declares. Brett Keller has a good economics explanation of how this works: “… The odds that any given child will be selected are relatively low – and even lower in districts with large populations – but it is the fear that really controls the population… The Capitol regime also knows that once children are selected from each district, Prospect Theory predicts that citizens will have a new “reference point” (they assume their tributes will be killed) and thus see victory in the Games as a gain to be celebrated, rather than merely the maintenance of the status quo (the tribute being alive) that existed before the annual lottery.”
The other crutch of the regime is outright coercion. In the Districts, it is direct and brutal, consisting of “Peacekeepers” who keep the citizenry in line and put down any revolts. They are drawn from the Capitol itself and two of the more privileged districts. Citizens of the Capitol seem to have more freedom but this is illusory; there is a secret police apparatus to deal with true dissent. The only difference is that their cage is golden, not iron. The closest real world equivalent to Panem is probably North Korea: Residents of Pyongyang (the Capitol) and the military (Districts 1 and 2) are privileged but oppressed nonetheless; other Districts and social groups suffer from varying degrees of dearth. Nonetheless, because of the system’s inefficiency there exist black markets for food, shoes, etc. much as is the case in Panem. Katniss and Gale are hunters, which is forbidden, but they get around the restrictions by bribing off the Peacekeepers, who also want their meat.
Could a state like Panem ever emerge in real life? North Korea realizes some of its dystopian visions, but nowhere near to the same extent; obviously, it doesn’t have blood games. They seem to have gone out of fashion by the late Roman period and never resurfaced. That said, there is plenty of other science fiction positing a return of public Deadly Games in technologically advanced but socially and politically wrecked societies: Most famously in Battle Royale and The Running Man (various books and movie adaptations), Lukyanenko’s Knights of the Forty Islands, etc. Typically, they are social commentaries on particular trends, real or perceived, in society – social breakdown, growing authoritarianism (as a response to the former), the numbing and dumbing down effects of TV infotainment and “reality shows”, growing poverty as the middle class slips into penury, etc.
Two main criticisms of the film is that (1) it lacks social commentary and (2) it is politicized anti-capitalism. Obviously, the two cannot exist. Anyone who has actually read it will know that the anti-capitalism element is only a mere interpretation, with Katniss as narrator describing the world as-is throughout; and if anything, as I argue above, the more proper analogy is to a command economy ruled by a narrow elite. But this is only a mere interpretation on my part. To the extent that it exists, any social commentary by Collins is very much implied rather than existent. And I think that that is a GOOD THING, because movies that go overboard on superimposing social critiques on the narrative tend to be rather bad because they become artificial. Case exhibits: Battle Royale 2, Land of the Dead, 28 Months Later, etc.
I feel that the third book slipped into this trope: What Collins intended to be an exploration of the ills of war flopped because it was a theme that (1) had no obvious connection with the Deadly Game element of the first two books, i.e. the very element that attracted readers in the first place; and (2) gave off a rather banal impression because this particular trope is a major leitmotif of literature and has already been done far, far better than Collins could ever hope to do by countless novelists and poets down the centuries. That is why I gave it a 3, while the first two books got 5.
Some particularly stupid people criticized it for making Rue a black character, or claiming Katniss’ “victory” is unrealistic because she is a girl. Erm, Rue is described as being black in the books. And clearly, a skilled archer has far better chances than any amount of brawn if said brawn only has access to a melee weapon.
Another commonly aired criticism is that it is a mere rip-off of Battle Royale, or Running Man, or whatever. Get real. There are now precisely zero original ideas in fiction. Let’s cite Cracked on this, that indispensable scholarly resource: “Originality is actually pretty overrated when it comes to movies, at least when it comes to basic story lines. There’s really only so many basic stories that can exist…. The basic plot is like a mannequin. You’re pretty limited in the number of shapes you can come up with – curvy or straight, thin or fat. The rest of the movie – the subplots, the personalities, the atmosphere, the pace, the number of explosions you add – that’s like the costume you put on the mannequin. Someone pointing out that a plot is “basically the same” is pointing out that two designers are using the same fat mannequin. One could be wearing a bloodied Viking costume and one could be wearing a flowery muumuu, but they’re both size 40, so they’re “basically the same.”"
I like to imagine Panem as it is, how it evolved to be that way, what I would do if I was chosen as a tribute from my district… Far more fun than making smart-ass comments about how stupid or unoriginal the idea is. That’s what trolls do. I for one think originality is overrated (see above), nor do I think it stupid, to the contrary it is very fun – well, that’s probably not the appropriate word – to imagine what one would do if selected as tribute for one’s District.
So what would I do if the day after tomorrow, the Feds rename Washington DC into Panem and demand annual tributes from the states to participate in blood games for the amusement of the bankster elites? I’m stronger than average, but have next to no outdoor smarts; regrettably, I’ve never been out hiking or camping more than one day at a time. I don’t have the first clue about how to build a fire or recognize plants. Nor do I have experience in fencing or archery. So to stand a chance, I would really hope there are guns, as opposed to medieval weapons; and that the Career Pack would accept me as one of their own (so that I stand a chance of surviving the initial bloodbath around the Cornucopia; as I can’t live off the land, I will have to participate in it to get my supplies). The location would hopefully be an urban area or a ski resort. Realistically speaking I would not except to survive. One out of 24 are steep odds, no matter how good you are, and its likely there would be good woodsmen and marksmen among the other tributes. I think Peeta captured my own attitude best: “Only keep wishing I could show the Capitol that they don’t own me. That I am more than just a piece in there game. If I am going to die I still want to be me… No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight.”
The concept itself is not as implausible as one may imagine. Panem clearly arose in the aftermath of a global warming cataclysm, probably also involving lots of biowars, etc for the population to be so much reduced (Panem has less than a million people). Why are the normal laws of economic rationality inverted? Because, presumably, the Panem elites realized that economic or population growth per se was not desirable – that was, after all, what led to the Great Cataclysm (AGW-induced collapse) in the first place. However, the Capitol elites not only want to maintain the strict political control necessary to prevent sustained growth in the outlying Districts, but want to live a life of indolent luxury themselves. Panem’s technological level, with its hovercraft, crazy bio-engineering, virtual reality environments, etc, is clearly far higher than today’s, but the very low population (not to mention political environment) is not conductive to further technological growth. So it appears that they continue harnessing legacy technologies from the late (pre-apocalypse) industrial age but directed towards strictly controlled not to mention deeply perverse ends. This is an Equilibrium society: Hi-tech but static, frozen politically and temporally.