Moment of Truth #321: The Hunger Games
If science fiction is a reflection of our dreams, then dystopian science fiction is a reflection of a more sober assessment of how those dreams might turn out when run through the dirty filter of modern reality, with all of its corruption, scarcity, disempowerment and heartbreak. It might also explain why we have seen dystopian science fiction such a well-populated subgenre in the last 30 years, as technological progress, socioeconomic imbalance and environmental collapse all loom large on the horizon. No one has more to fear from all this than the kids who will one day inherit problems for which there are not many ongoing solutions. So it was only a matter of time before the price children must pay for the crimes of their parents and grandparents became the driving force for a compelling tale of forced warfare, impossible survivability and the spark that turns resentment into resistance, resistance into rebellion, and rebellion into revolution. The Hunger Games.
The story takes place in the future, after some unnamed apocalypse has destroyed modern America and from its ashes has risen the tyrannical nation of Panem. Split into 13 mono-industrial districts, the constituent parts of Panem ship their signature products to the capital, as an ongoing sign of fealty. But after a rebellion resulted in the annihilation of District 13, the Districts must also send a boy and a girl each year to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised death match that ends only when there is only one child left standing. It is a tribute of blood and flesh intended to remind Panem who is in charge, but it is slowly fueling the fires of rebellion. From the impoverished Appalachian District 12, Katniss Everdeen, a skilled archer and survivor, volunteers herself as tribute so that her sickly sister Primrose can be spared. Teamed up with a long-time friend—and eventual love interest—Peeta, Katniss begins a bewildering journey to the Capital and through the sickening theatre that surrounds the Hunger Games. As she fights the battle of her lifetime, she must deal with an even greater threat: the powers behind the Games who see her survival not as a triumph to reward, but as a risk to eliminate. In these games, there can be only one winner. And it’s not meant to be Katniss.
It’s hard to discuss the Hunger Games without first acknowledging how much elements of this story resemble a certain Japanese novel (and movie) that came out years before, and which were also about a sadistic game of forced gladiatorial combat among children, overseen by a cruel and autocratic gerontocracy. But the Hunger Games establishes its own identity well enough by focusing more on the world outside the game and why the game exists at all. The more we watch the dire existence Katniss and Peeta live in District 12, the more we realize that their lives are not that unique. Life is nasty, brutal, deprived and short everywhere except for the Capital. We begin to see why somebody could possibly delude themselves into thinking that maybe the Hunger Games would be a worthwhile long shot at a better life. But more importantly, we better understand the kind of generational tyranny, cruelty and corruption that would even think of creating something like the Hunger Games, let alone rely on it as the state’s primary form of subjugation by terror.
It’s all enough to make us want to see Katniss head into the arena so she can put the hurt on those who buy into the Games, like the so-called Careers—kids specifically trained to become successful tributes. The whole thing is so wrong and so bent that you want to see somebody smash it all down. And we learn pretty early on that Katniss is that somebody—even if she doesn’t see it herself.
And yet, this role we want for her is something that a whole lot of other people want for her, too. Nobody asks Katniss if she wants to play her important role in the coming revolution. They just see in her a kind of opportunity that hasn’t come along since the Capital nuked District 13, and now that she is in play, they are going to push her as hard as possible to fulfill somebody else’s idea of a better tomorrow. For Katniss, this is all much more personal and immediate. If people see her as part of a greater strategy for something—either winning freedom for Panem or breaking the very idea of rebellion—then Katniss could be forgiven for being angry even at those who are her allies. After all, none of them have to draw first blood in this thing.
After a horrifying opening bloodbath in first moments of the Games, we see Katniss do everything she can to avoid playing the way she is expected to. But the Games are rigged so she cannot hide forever. She cannot run forever. And she cannot refuse to pick up her weapon forever. But even then, she finds ways to stay true to herself, at first showing trust and friendship to a fellow competitor who is as disinterested in hurting anyone as Katniss is. And later, she does it again by showing loyalty to Peeta, whose own motivations might not be entirely on the level. But the moment of truth comes when Katniss’s young ally finally meets her end, and in a Game where life has no value, in a world where even refusing to die is an act of defiance, Katniss shows her fallen colleague the dignity she deserves, and marks her resting place instead of simply leaving her body behind. She knows the cameras are on her, and so she salutes the District from which her colleague came, as if to say something that is the rallying cry of oppressed people everywhere, in fact and fiction, in the past, present and future:
We who are about to die resist you.