The Hunger Games and decisions made in a time of want and war


“May the odds be ever in your favor.”

This salutation is from the Hunger Games, the first of three books by Suzanne Collins about a young girl, Katniss Everdeen who lives Panem, an imagined country/world where Northern America used to be.

Katniss and the rest of the children of Panem are forced to be pawns in the Hunger Games, an infamous competition to the death set by the Capitol, Panem’s seat of government. All children aged 12 to 18, risk becoming contestants or Tributes in the Hunger Games — their names are raffled off as soon as they reach the age of 12, and every District has to send two Tributes, one boy, one girl.

The Hunger Games was created almost a century previous to Katniss’ turn to be become a Tribute as a means to control the Districts and prevent the citizens from staging uprisings or even small protests against the cruelty of the Capitol. The lives of their very own children are sacrificed to make up for the rebellion District 13 once staged before it was defeated and obliterated from existence. This is why the contestants to the Games are called “Tributes.”

In the Hunger Games, there can only be one winner. All 23 other Tributes must die so there can only be one Victor: the girl or boy who managed to escape being killed by the others; a boy or a girl who also had to kill to survive. The prize? The Victor lives, and is rewarded food. His or her District also benefits, as the Capitol gives food packages to every family in the District which the Victor represents.

The Hunger Games are also televised, in much the same reality shows are, but none of the brutality is edited out. If anything, the Gamekeepers, the Capitol’s organizers of the Game, manipulate circumstances that ever force them to defend themselves, to kill. The young Tributes to ignore any and all ideas they might have had of justice, of fairness, of their individual, unique humanity is so they can provide the Capitol grisly, bloody entertainment. The people of the Districts are required to watch the Games on pain of being arrested and even killed.

The reality of violence

It’s a violent novel, and so are the two novels that follow it, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Collin’s books are supposedly meant for the Young Adult audience, but the message in them, the themes carried are for more “mature” (not necessarily older) individuals.

The books carry the themes of war and survival; brutality and compassion; loyalty and betrayal. They speak about the human condition and the impossibility of happiness under a system of oppression. They describe how power corrupts and easy it is for the powerful to rid themselves of compassion and humanity just so they can remain so.

The necessity of justice is also an important theme that runs through the books. One may be able to get through the harshness of poverty through sheer resourcefulness and determination to keep one’s self and one’s family fed; but there is no way to ignore or be indifferent to the cruelties that come with living in a society where injustice is prevalent. Through Katniss’ eyes, we see human monsters: government officials who cling to their positions by wielding iron fists that never hesitate to crush even the innocent: in the Hunger Games, even 12-year olds are forced to handle weapons — spears, knives, deeply personal instruments of killing that require determined, directed physical force and proximity between the target and the killer.

Katniss, her mother and sister Prim live in the poorest District, District 12 where coal mining is the main livelihood. After the death of her father in a mining accident and her mother falls into deep depression, a 12-year old Katniss was forced to step up. She hones hunting skills her father taught her and becomes a highly capable hunter, a sharp-shooter with a bow and arrow. She risks capture and punishment by the Capitol’s Peacekeepers, the policemen of Panem, by hunting in the forests and other areas closed off to the citizenry. Forests, lakes, mountain ranges, the resources of the earth and its waters are owned by the government: what is the government’s can never be enjoyed by the people. The people of Panem — excepting those who live in the Capitol– live on the government’s sufferance.

As she begins her training as a Tribute in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss moves from one discovery to another: all the Districts are forced to produce goods and services for the Capitol while their own people are kept in miserable poverty. Farmers toil in the fields from dawn to after dark; workers run the factories for almost no pay; and miners labor in the deep mine shafts where sometimes explosions or cave-ins occur and lives are easily lost and no bodies are found. Children are not children — that is, they are denied their childhood because the moment they are able to walk and are able to take instruction, they are immediately sent to work. Food is plentiful, but with no money, people live half-starved. Diseases are treated with herbs despite the great advances in technology and science in the Capitol.

Katniss begins to questions the inequality, the harshness of the social circumstances the poor people of District 1-12 are forced to confront on a daily basis when she witnesses for herself how those living in the Capitol live in comfort and luxury. Her anger and outrage grows over the indifference of those who have regarding the poverty and suffering of those who have not; but her fury is reserved for the government led by President Snow and its Hunger Games.

The descriptions of how Katniss survives the Hunger Games are, again, very violent. It’s like watching the reality show “Survivor” except the contest is to the death. What is more violent than the confrontations between the Tributes is the unwritten, the unspoken:children coming to terms with the necessity of killing for no other reason than to save one’s self.

At the same time the Tributes know that outside the Games’ arena, they also exist in a state of war: a war of daily existence where there is no food to be had; where to fall ill is to automatically have one foot in the grave because there is no money for medicine or for consultations with a health professional; where there are often no options for the poor but to either steal or starve or go insane from hunger and desperation. It is because of this that the Tributes, including Katniss, justify wanting to win: it will provide some escape from the war of hunger and want. There is an awareness that grows that it is much easier for one to accept the possibility of one’s own death than to admit the necessity of having to kill others, but kill they must.

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  1. It is also worth noting how the opposition organized and mobilized first the outlying districts, up to the richest ones, through media and education (the “Airtime Assault” which exposed the atrocious crimes and policies of the government) before they can finally lay siege in the Capitol.

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