Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy is a media phenomenon. The three books have sold over 65 million copies in the United States alone, but what do they have to say about those who lead the revolutions and epistemic shifts in society? Nothing good, honestly.
While the first book is essentially an exercise in world-building that takes Katniss into the Hunger Games themselves, a gladiatorial contest that seems like Saw if written with a PG-13 audience in mind, the latter two books delve deeper into the political machinations of the world. And this, predictably, is where we get the most of the meat for our critical analysis. Authors don’t typically involve politics in the minutia of a story without also having something to say about politics, and Collins has a clear message about the 1% that live in affluent society and the 99% who exist in a perpetual state of fear and starvation. This might as well have been written by Bernie Sanders.
And yet despite Collins clearly having these science-fiction dystopia ideas about what the future might hold if the wealth disparity continues to grow, she doesn’t imbue those righteous aspirations onto Katniss. Katniss has personal, noble reasons for entering the first Hunger Games (to save her sister), but they are not political ones. Katniss doesn’t see the inherent flaw in the social constructs of her world and try to overturn them, she wants to save one person who is of consequence to her alone, and at the end of the first book she is happy to return to her district.
It is only when the society that watches her continues to frame her act of subversion during the end of the games as an act of heroism and begins to idolize her that, in the second book, she is brought out of her normal life again, by people with much grander political aspirations.
In her book Song of the Mockingjay, Erin Vance describes this as such: “[The teaser trailer for the final film] involves a burning mockingjay, and Katniss’s call for arms against the evils of the Capitol; it is a propaganda film at its finest. It is the flipside of the teaser trailers for the first part of the Mockingjay film, where President Snow calls for unity against the rebels of District 13. It also works in the same vein as the movie posters where, for Mockingjay, Part 1, Katniss stands in her Mockingjay outfit with fire burning behind her; where, for Catching Fire, Katniss aims an arrow at the sky; where, for The Hunger Games, Katniss stares at herself and Peeta on a dozen television screens. In all of these, Katniss is a production of other people’s agency, as they use her public image to promote the films, as opposed to the rather helpless and limited girl she is.”
So if Katniss is a well-intentioned pawn of those with more goal-driven political motives… what is Collins saying about the real-life leaders that have brought about societal change in our world?
Recent biographies and adaptations of our long-passed political heroes have had a similar message. 2014’s Selma presented a version of Dr. Martin Luthor King Jr. who was often conflicted and unsure in his portrayal by David Oyelowo, showing a more complex (and likely more real) version than the man whom history remembers largely through his speeches. The 2005 revelation of FBI Assistant Director as the true identity of Deep Throat in the Watergate trials cast a shadow on the motivations behind the bravery of that investigation, revealing it to have been move about Shakespearean agitation over being passed over for promotion than heroism. Television dramas like The Kennedy’s also show a well-rounded portrait of American political heroes, seeking to show them not as paragons of virtue but as men — men who did good things, but men like you and me all the same.
Is this the message that Collins seeks to impart in not giving Katniss agency in her fight against the Capitol? Is she, through Katniss, showing us that the heroes we hold up as the architects of societal change were really just people with their own wants and needs, swept up in circumstances larger than them and beyond their control?
I believe so, but there is a positive reading in there. If Katniss wasn’t the source of the agency to change her society… then what was? I argue that Collins is saying it was the collective will of the people, that when enough of a society has decided that change needs to happen and needs to happen now, they unconsciously elect an avatar: someone that they can impart their hopes, dreams, and strength onto. Someone they can root for, who they can look to regardless of what they did or did not to to deserve it and say: “You can make this change.” But when they say that to the avatar, on some level, they say it to themselves: because they picked Katniss to represent them, and her real sacrifice if her personhood, allowing the needs of her society and their desire for change circumvent her own identity.
This, I think, is the real message behind Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy: people don’t change societies, societies change societies. These men we idolize are great people, but they reached the heights that they reached because we lifted them up.