Although they may not offer much in the way of comfort, an essential read for these unstable and troubling times is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy of speculative adventure fiction novels. The series reached mainstream popularity with the four film adaptations (the final book was divided into two films) which made Jennifer Lawrence a star, but the books delve into the fictional world of Panem – a deeply divided future America – in greater, grittier detail than their Hollywood screen versions.
Although published over a decade ago, and are set in some unspecified future time, the books have a painfully familiar resonance. While the Hollywood pitch line might be “desperate teenagers fight to the death in a human-made arena for the entertainment of the hedonistic and out-of-touch citizens of the Capitol”, the novels and their subsidiary themes seem shockingly pertinent today.
As now, The Hunger Games series shows us a country of grinding poverty and social division, with Panem split into 13 districts that are markedly different, isolated from each other and almost ghettoised, with the poorest and most hard-worked citizens in overwhelmingly non-white or racially mixed districts. While there are many more citizens than authority figures, the general populace is so tired, beaten-down, hungry and poor that despite occasional and brutally put-down rebellions there is initially little real will to fight. Resistance occurs at the individual level, through small instances of subterfuge or satire and petty sabotage, which are heavily outweighed by paranoia and self-censorship.
The people in the districts grow used to the increasing militarisation of their society, in which the use of armed police officers and security patrols, abuse of due legal process, universal surveillance and the targeting of rebels becomes increasingly normalised. As the political leaders in the Capitol increase their social control, they test what they can get away with, until corporal punishment and the public torture of detractors becomes the norm.
Three books to explain the Summer of Populism
The evil President Snow controls, censors and manipulates the media in a number of subtle ways. Most obviously, the games themselves, and their popularity amongst viewers despite the real violence and harm they depict, demonstrate the pacifying and distracting power of entertainment. Millions across the country tune in to watch young, photogenic, real people fight, fall in love and struggle to survive.
Just as real-world viewers of Love Island, The X Factor, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and The Apprentice do, those who watch the Hunger Games sublimate their hopes, wishes and pain, even their desire to strive or fight or rebel, through the actions of the young people on the screen – all without having to get off the sofa and do anything themselves. The games serve as a cathartic release of tension (which would be better directed against their oppressors) and a doping mechanism at the same time.
When things begin to go wrong for Snow, and the traumatised participants in the games join together, organise and fight back, the media takes on a new dimension. Snow – not unlike Trump – begins to twist language into its opposite. He claims that the rebels are trouble-makers, not freedom fighters; they don’t want to cure the Capitol of its ills but destabilise it; they are not fighting for truth and justice but are in fact corrupt liars themselves.
Through slander, derailment, diversion and straight-up falsehood, Snow uses the screens beamed into every home in Panem to peddle his own take on events. Most people, sitting at home far away from the wealth and influence of the Capitol, are not in a position to know to truth or to question the propagandistic version of events which they are presented with, and as a result of these manipulations society becomes ever more divided and mistrustful. The rebels too, are not immune from these dynamics, and the books show us that dictatorial behaviour, personal ambition, moral corruption, inhumane methods and thuggery can be just as prevalent among revolutionaries as autocrats.
As a reader, I get lost in The Hunger Games books for their action, characterisation and spare, beautiful writing. As a political person of the 21stcentury, however, the books are less an escape, more of a wake-up call about what’s happening right now.