The Hunger Games and a Cannibalistic Government
By McKinliegh Kiel
Written during one of America’s worst economic crises since the Great Depression, The Hunger Games (2008) time travels to a dystopian future — or utopian, depending on where you’re from in this future — when an impoverished girl puts her life on the line just to protect her younger sister who is selected for execution. When the film was released in 2012, amidst protests and civil unrest, it became popular for its portrayal of government corruption and the televised gladiatorial-esque battle royales. Set in the country of Panem, North America’s soon-to-be reincarnation, Katniss Everdeen’s fight for survival isn’t anything new to her as people are sucking on bones just to survive. However, in this world, under the rule of an uncaring, totalitarian government, food is not just an everyday necessity but a form of submission in order to force viewership and participation in the Capitol’s favorite pastime.
There is little when it comes to representation in The Hunger Games when it comes to race and ability. The majority of the cast is white aside from characters that are explicitly stated as being black like Rue, Thresh, and Cinna. The book describes Katniss as having black hair, olive skin, and gray eyes common among District 12’s working class. Professor Natalie Wilson, who teaches contemporary literature and popular culture at California State University, writes in their article “A Whitewashed Hunger Games” that District 12’s working class is “divided by race [from] the merchant class having ‘light hair and blue eyes’“. They continue on by explaining that instead of portraying the book’s racial differences between characters, the film utilizes stereotypes of black individuals with its casting and portrayal of POC characters. The book also mentions a loss of hearing with Katniss and Peeta receiving a prosthetic after the games, but both changes in ability are glossed over in the film and magically fixed after the games. The only true disability shown in the film is with the Avoxes, individuals who tried to rebel against the Capitol and were caught, and subsequently had their tongues cut out. In comparison, that’s only a minor punishment for going against the Capitol’s status quo.
The entire premise of The Hunger Games is a fight-to-the-death annual event that the film is named after — these Hunger Games were a punishment for the 12 Districts that make up Panem outside of the Capitol. At the Reaping — a lottery-like ceremony that decides that year’s teenage participants, or Tributes — a film plays (12:19) and describes the Capitol’s reasoning for the games as a ‘reminder’ to the remaining districts, of which there were originally 13. The games were the solution to how “[Panem] swore as a nation [they] would never know this treason again. . . This is how we safeguard [their] future.” During the Reaping Katniss’sister, Prim is chosen and instead of letting her get killed Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place. The other tribute is chosen, a boy named Peeta Mellark. The Capitol’s representative whisks them away to the Capitol for training, advice from prior years’ winners and interviews before the games begin. During said time, Peeta confesses his love for Katniss, which later becomes a survival strategy for the two in the arena. After a week, all 24 Tributes are thrown into an arena designed by the Gamemakers, or the individuals who design each year’s games and control the arena during said games. There they are expected to fight against the other 23 and survive threats from the arena’s flora and fauna. The fighting is meant to keep going until one Tribute, or Victor is left alive, but the 74th Games have dual winners with Katniss and Peeta. They both planned on eating poisonous berries and leaving the Capitol with no Victor for that year. Two star-crossed lovers who would rather die than let the other kill themselves were able to bring together a nation with their heartwarming love story. In all actuality though, the country is more divided than ever.
Despite being one country, Panem is separated by difference – it’s defined by the fact that it’s separated into parts. There’s the Capitol and the Districts, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the 1% and the 99%. We receive the first example of the disconnect and difference between the Capitol and District at the Reaping. Even though it feels like a minute detail, the costuming decisions are a major part of defining the difference in how each group is favored by the government of Panem. It also helps to set up part of the film’s diegesis. The residents of District 12 are dressed in a fashion similar to what people would have worn in the United States, just prior to World War II. It’s all simple and humble styled clothing, nothing calls too much attention to one person. The film’s costume designer, Judianna Makovsky said in an interview with Vogue that they wanted to “keep it mostly gray or blue. . . very cold [environment] because coal leaves a black dust everywhere.” This costuming decision of old and tacky clothing reflects how the government doesn’t consider District 12 as important other than what they provide.
In comparison, we have someone like Effie Trinket. Against District 12’s dull color palette, Effie stands out like a sore thumb with her magenta-pink-colored, 1930s, and 18th-century hybrid clothing, hair, and accessories — it dominates your vision in an all but subtle way. She’s an imposing figure, who looks almost ghostly or sickly with her lack of eyebrows and stark white makeup. There are more examples of this over-the-top and decadent fashion sense when we move into the Capitol. Makovsky wanted to make the Capitol residents look striking, but not exactly scary, more like something you would see come off of a high fashion runway. They’re covered in ruffles, flowers, sequins, and furs in varying bright colors and broken up by spots of black. They’re spoiled by the government, being kept closer to itself than extremities like the outer Districts of 10, 11, and 12. When Katniss and Peeta’s chariot starts rolling out during the Games’ opening ceremony, the crowd goes wild to see that the pair appears to be on fire (32:32). It’s indicative of Capitol residents, and the debauched society they live in, vicious streak, fascination with violence, but also their childlike perception of reality.
This whimsy and excess carry over to the Capitol’s perception of food. Contrasting the lack of food in District 12 where people are dying from starvation, the Capitol residents live in abundance thanks to the hard work that the Districts are subjected to. Almost every scene that takes place on the train going from District 12 to the Capitol has food or drink in the shot. When Katniss and Peeta are boarding the train that will take them to the Capitol, a non-diegetic, angelic soundtrack dominates the film’s audio (20:45). There’s one shot where the camera has a change in its depth of field, going from a shallow focused and moving shot on the food set out to focus on Katniss’ and Peeta’s surprised facial expressions. Coming onto this train, seeing all this food involved in the room’s decor is like heaven — there’s no one else to share it with, it’s all for them. It’s easily available and plentiful, so much so that they can afford to just leave food out (38:36). In comparison to the malnutrition and starvation taking place in the outer Districts, the Capitol can eat to its heart’s content, or discontent, and then die of obesity. In the Districts, reapable children are required to enter their names into the reaping pool more times in order to receive tessera. The Hunger Games Wiki describes the tesserae system as a “form of voluntary food rationing, offered by the government of Panem. . . [for] a family [or families] struggling for food”. The amount of tesserae, which is equal to a year’s worth of grain and oil, an individual can claim is based on how many family members they have but for each family member, the claiming individual’s name will be entered into the reaping pool. Even though tessera may not be enough to sustain a person, the system serves as another token reminder of how much the Districts rely on the Capitol in order to survive. How much control and power the Capitol holds over the Districts.
The tessera is just one example of the Capitol keeping a hold on the Districts. Peter Suderman, a film critic, in his review, titled “ ‘The Hunger Games’ offers a feast for sci-fi fans” questions how the games don’t spark more unrest and instead control the outer Districts. By keeping Districts hungry, the Capitol incentivizes participation in the games in order to feed themselves and distract from more complicated matters like their lack of human rights. How can you think about rebelling when your stomach is almost constantly rumbling? How can you think about rebelling when you or someone you know is selected annually in a Survivor-type reality show where kids fight and are sent home in coffins when the proceedings are done? But it’s not only the Districts that the Capitol is keeping a leash on as well. Suderman also questions if the Capitol’s residents are active participants in the decisions of the Games and aren’t faced with any moral dilemma when they happen? They really aren’t, they’re being manipulated just as much as the Districts. As the audience of the film, we know about the tesserae system, but do the Capitol residents?
What other footage of the Districts aside from that on Reaping Day are they shown? Or are they like the Districts where communication between Capitol residents and District residents is prohibited like it is from District to District? How do we know that the footage being shown to us is the same being shown to them? Just because we think what we’re watching tells one story, doesn’t mean there isn’t another one behind it. That’s the thing with propaganda, stories are edited to tell a certain narrative to the point that the viewer can’t tell if they’re lied to by footage that may or may not be genuine. We already know that the Capitol has a habit of meddling. During the Games, Seneca Crane, the Head Gamemaker for that year, has fire be introduced in the arena to push Katniss back towards other Tributes and it appears almost out of nowhere (1:16:38). He does the same thing towards the end of the film when Katniss, Peeta, and Cato, a District 2 Tribute, are the only ones left in the Games when huge dogs materialize out of the ground (2:00:28). These, and presumably many more events before and during the Games, are all controlled by a 3D supercomputer (1:13:51). Cinna makes use of special effects to create fake flames with Katniss’ and Peeta’s Tribute parade outfits (32:42) as well as Katniss’ interview dress (55:23). If they can do all that for a special event, what’s to say the Capitol isn’t making these artificial adjustments in everyday programming? The Capitol residents aren’t being complacent because they enjoy watching kids kill each other, they just don’t know any better. They assume that things are like they are in District 1 — entering the Games is an honor and sure, life may not be great in the Districts, but here’s a bunch of food and fancy clothes! If we think about someone like Effie, it’s not that she doesn’t care about Katniss and Peeta when she says “Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!” She just doesn’t have the same perspective that the Districts do, she doesn’t see that the odds are stacked against many of the kids in the reaping pool simply because they didn’t have enough to eat. The odds are not in favor of these kids who are risking potentially being sent to their deaths for a little bread.
Many people would argue that The Hunger Games is nothing more than a young adult romance set in a dystopian world, spurring the ‘Team Peeta’ vs ‘Team Gale’, but that’s the point. It looks like just another story about two kids falling in love. It’s just another tactic used by the Capitol. Katniss ends up turning the tables with the involvement of her strategic romance with Peeta — while it does evolve into a true romance in the later films, for this film alone their relationship is nothing more than a means to an end. In the arena, snuggling means medicine and a kiss means food. Haymitch, Katniss and Peeta’s mentor says it himself before the Games, “It’s a television show, and being in love with that boy might just get you sponsors which could save your damn life” (59:50). Which he already had once — after Katniss’ father had died in a mining accident, her remaining family was starving because of the lack of funds coming in. Peeta saw this and intentionally burnt some bread at his family’s bakery so he would have reason to throw out the bread to Katniss in her time of need. Without that bread, she would have died. Of course, the Capitol doesn’t know this — all they know is that Peeta got unlucky enough to be sent to the Games with his long-time crush. A fact that greatly upsets the Capitol residents’ audience. The Gamemakers were all for this narrative as well and played into this — they changed the rules to say that a pair from a District could be considered co-Victors so long as they were the only ones standing (1:46:20). Then Cato dies. Katniss and Peeta climb off of the Cornucopia and instead of being congratulated, the Gamemakers revoke their original rule change (2:07:07). In that moment, they give Katniss two choices: kill or be killed. She chooses neither. She chooses sacrifice. Katniss and Peeta already knew when they were reaped that they were destined for death, Katniss more so by receiving the tesserae and volunteering to save her sister. By pulling out the nightlock berries, Peeta understands what katniss means and the possible consequences that would surmount if they both committed suicide.
What would be the point of the Games if there was no winner, what District would the proceedings go to? Without a Victor, the games would be rendered useless. As President Snow says to Crane earlier in the film, it may be more efficient to just grab 24 kids and kill them on the spot (50:03), but the point of the Games for the Capitol isn’t about saying “look how we can just take your children and all you can do is sit there as we make them fight one another. If you try to fight back if you try to make it stop then you’ll just end the same as District 13”. It’s about giving them just enough hope that they keep holding out for the Capitol to show them more mercy. It’s the whole schtick behind the Capitol – they’re the ones who decided to stop the fighting during the original rebellion, they’re the ones who decided to be merciful and forgiving. How merciful would they look if they didn’t let Katniss and Peeta win together? How much control would they lose? Katniss’s sacrifice would have shown the Districts that they don’t have to play by the Capitol’s rules anymore. They can make their own decisions, not just pick and choose from the ones provided by the Capitol. The Capitol tries to play it off as two kids in love as some wannabe Romeo and Juliet, they were so in love that being alive without the other would be unbearable, they felt that they had no other choice. Katniss is just a love-struck tribute whose actions reflect her romantic feelings for Peeta rather than a desire to rebel. The seed had already been sown, protests breaking out in District 11 after Katniss took the time, put herself in danger, to honor Rue when the little girl from District 11 died. The problem had grown beyond the lack of food — people were starting to see this and were showing the Capitol that they’re not going to put up with being treated as just another television program.
With recent events in mind, I think The Hunger Games has become more relevant than ever. Just like with the residents of the Capitol, we’re almost constantly being bombarded with all types of media. Some of which, we don’t even notice we’re partaking of and take for granted. Who had an affair with who? Look at this person’s fashion fail! The hottest new looks for your hair in 2022! Lose 40 pounds with this one weird trick! Among all the media is footage from other countries about how bad things are and how we can help. How often do we just close the ad or skip the commercial? It’s because we have become so desensitized to violence and suffering, especially through film and television that we don’t seem to care when people are actually suffering. We don’t care when we see it in our present lives, we just keep walking past the homeless person on the street. We don’t need to watch The Hunger Games because we’re already in it. People around the world and in our communities are going hungry while the privileged sit back and watch like it’s just another over-dramatized reality television show.
There’s no way for us to know the full story. How bad life truly is in the Districts or how much the Capitol residents know — all we can know is that what we are seeing has been edited like many things in our lives. How many times have you heard someone say, “don’t trust what you read on the Internet”? We need to take a step back from our lives and our privileges, from everything that we’re intaking and think, ‘what can I do to help’? Things aren’t going to get better if we just ignore them, but you don’t need to be a Katniss Everdeen, the spark to a revolution because of a handful of berries. It’s about making sense of a world whose sense of morality has become blurred and how you define yourself based on the acceptance of that fact. As Edmund Hillary said, “People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.” That extraordinary thing may just be something as simple as giving someone a loaf of bread.
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Creeden, Molly. “Dressing The Hunger Games: Costume Designer Judianna Makovsky.” Vogue. Condé Nast; March 19th, 2012. https://www.vogue.com/article/dressing-the-hunger-games-costume-designer-judia nna-makovsky. Accessed November 29th, 2021.
Suderman, Peter. “MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Hunger Games’ offers a feast for sci-fi fans.” The Washington Times. The Washington Times Inc.; March 21st, 2012. https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/mar/21/moviereview-the-hunger-games. Accessed 11 November 2021.
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Wilson, Natalie. “A Whitewashed Hunger Games.” Ms Magazine. Feminist Majority Foundation; April 3rd, 2012. https://msmagazine.com/2012/04/03/a-whitewashed-hunger-games/. Accessed November 29th, 2021.