The fourth installment of the most influential Young Adult dystopia of the 21st century showed up right on time. The original Hunger Games trilogy, written by Suzanne Collins, has sold tens of millions of copies and spawned a blockbuster quadrology that grossed over $29.7 billion worldwide. The prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, arrived at the end of May — released into a world where economic collapse, global pandemic, and unprecedented uprising against state oppression loomed large.
The release of the prequel moved me to revisit The Hunger Games for the first time in several years. The books hold up incredibly well to a reread — in hindsight, it’s no surprise that they left such a considerable stamp on the landscape of Young Adult literature. The original trilogy is rich and grounded, and the trajectories Collins may have seized on in 2009, when the first book was published, remain distressingly relevant now.
Readers of the original trilogy already know that Panem is a place where the government propagates inequality. Readers know that the nation relies on a system in which working-class laborers prop up a cultural elite, and that the system is reinforced by a combination of state-sanctioned violence and oppressive violent entertainment. Readers know that Panem is a bad place to live. But readers may not be aware of how easy it is to become a place like that.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place years after the oppressed people of the Districts first rose up against The Capitol to demand radical change in an event called the First Rebellion. Ballad follows the path of the young man who will become the tyrannical President Coriolanus Snow.
It also tracks the ways in which trauma and fear can be strategically leveraged to secure power and control — over a person, over a city, over an entire nation.
The original Hunger Games trilogy was captivating in no small part because of the uncanny relevance of its world-building. Collins drew on dynamics in existing societies, and on evident patterns in world history, to construct her dystopia. These patterns become even clearer the longer the United States remains in its current state of economic, social, and catastrophic crisis. Readers can mine a clear caution out of these books: It is vital that we monitor the way our government responds to moments of crisis. It is vital that we pay attention to how those moments of crisis can be used against us.
See, Panem is a nation born out of global ecological and economic collapse. It’s never made explicit what caused the crisis, but many observers have argued that it sure looks fueled by climate change. Regardless of the precise reasons for the collapse, it’s evident that the world that came before Panem faced so much sudden catastrophe that normal was no longer possible. It’s easy for a contemporary reader to imagine the events that would drive such a collapse: rising sea levels, raging wildfires, pandemic, war, famine, mass death.
Some combination of these events crystallized a nation — Panem, which formed as a brutally oppressive police-state with limitless authority and near-limitless involvement in the lives of the people.
While it’s never made explicit that Panem is in fact the only surviving nation on Earth, it functions as if that’s the case. There’s no trade or communication with outside nations. In the original trilogy and in the prequel, citizens make attempts at escape, fleeing to a rumored safe haven in the North — but fleeing Panem is illegal, and as such, there’s no way to verify that such a place even exists. There can be no goods but domestic goods, no politics but domestic politics, and all power and control are centralized in The Capitol.
In the books as in life, the infliction of trauma is no accident; it’s a show of force, calculated to remind citizens that they are powerless.
This isolation is crucial to the development of Panem’s social structure because isolation is a form of control. If the government of a nation wants to keep a grip on power even after a natural moment of crisis is over — for instance, once most of the world has figured out how to limit the spread of a devastating pandemic — then that government has to keep its citizens in a state of need, fear, and stress.
With adequate control, this state of perpetual strain can be accomplished, through the careful application of manufactured crises.
In The Hunger Games, Panem accomplishes this by manufacturing a crisis of scarcity: The Capitol withholds food, medicine, and necessary supplies from the citizens of the Districts, keeping them hungry, tired, and fully aware of their dependence on the benevolence of the state. It demands their labor, but it doesn’t offer material support to sustain the workers. As one Capitol citizen in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes observes: “We pour money into our industries, not into the districts themselves […] The people are on their own.”
By the time the events of the original trilogy begin, the state has criminalized access to resources that are not under the control of the government — hence, hunting and foraging are illegal. The people still are on their own, and now, for added stress, any attempt at survival can be met with state-sanctioned violence.
That sense of powerlessness enables Panem’s authoritarianism. When combined with and reinforced by the annual violent spasm inflicted on each district by the titular Hunger Games, it serves as a potent leash to keep the districts in line. This is made explicit in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, as a young Coriolanus Snow solidifies his perspective on what’s necessary to maintain control of the population: “[The Hunger Games are] not just to punish the districts, they’re part of the eternal war. Each one is its own battle. One we can hold in the palm of our hand, instead of waging a real war that could get out of our control.”
Here and throughout the text, Ballad explicitly outlines the underpinnings of the original trilogy: the Hunger Games are a spectacle, a gaudy expression of the ongoing conflict between the government of Panem and the people it claims to serve. The nation is at war with its own citizens, and it must force the crisis moment of battle onto those citizens to keep them under control.
Panem makes the experience of that battle mandatory by forcing citizens to view it — forcing them to endure the pain of war and grief and loss. Even just seeing violence is itself traumatic, as anyone who has borne witness to the brutal nationwide state-sanctioned violence of June 2020 can attest.
In the books as in life, the infliction of that trauma is no accident; it’s a show of force, calculated to remind citizens that they are powerless. To watch the consequence-free abuse and murder of fellow citizens at the hands of the state is to have self-protective pathways carved directly into one’s brain: This could be you.
So why don’t the citizens of Panem try to shrug off the oppression of The Capitol right away? Why would they allow themselves to be traumatized and starved and murdered? What’s stopping them from storming The Capitol and taking it for themselves?
Nationalist and fascist governments use the threat of military and state violence and the promise of glory to galvanize, unite, and control the people. The role of the military is often framed as crucial and protective; the purpose of the people is the unconditional support of the troops. But in Panem, there is no external conflict to leverage. Thus, any potential threats must necessarily arise from within Panem, rather than from outside of it. The military power of the nation supports the structure of society not by motivating or uniting the citizens, but instead, by regulating them.
This type of military force — one that is solely dedicated to enforcing the interests of the state among citizens — is known as a gendarmerie. It’s a well-funded, well-appointed paramilitary force, with access to advanced weaponry, full ranks, and, in this case, absolute power. Spain has the Civil Guard, Italy has the Carabinieri, and the United States has a heavily militarized police force including formally paramilitary SWAT teams.
In The Hunger Games, there are The Peacekeepers. They’re framed as the thin line that stands between order and chaos — but of course, their true function is not the protection of the citizens. Rather, it is the protection of the status quo. The Peacekeepers exist to reinforce the sense that power is wholly concentrated in the hands of The Capitol, and not in the hands of the citizens.
American citizens bear witness to police violence and are reminded at every turn: This could be you.
In Ballad, young Peacekeeper recruits are informed that attending a hanging is part of their duties. They’re told that “Commander wants more bodies there for the show.” The “show” is an execution of a citizen; the audience is composed of that citizen’s friends, family, colleagues and neighbors. This, like The Hunger Games, is a reminder to the citizens of their trauma and powerlessness. Such a reminder can easily galvanize into anger and rebellion, and that’s where the Peacekeepers come in: They attend the execution to underline the powerlessness of the citizens, and to ensure that any rage those citizens feel remains impotent.
None of this should feel surprising to anyone who has ever witnessed a phalanx of armed police officers, a SWAT team in full gear, a line of riot cops with helmets and shields and tear gas at the ready. The mere presence of these forces is a reminder of the power of the state and the strength of the law. American citizens bear witness to police violence and are reminded at every turn: This could be you.
In the world of The Hunger Games — which, as we’ve seen, is an awful lot like ours — all it takes is one big collapse, a scramble to regain stability, a period of unchecked absolute centralization of power — and a government that is interested in protecting the needs of those at the top.
A crisis is a moment of opportunity. And if authoritarians are going to keep the power that opportunity offers them, then the crisis can never end. The people can never rest. The war, as young Coriolanus Snow observes, must be endless. As long as those without power are hungry, sick, tired, and afraid, they’ll continue trying to keep The Capitol happy because the consequences of The Capitol’s unhappiness feel too grave to bear.
That is the calculation the citizens of Panem must make. They live under the regime of an authoritarian police-state, but that doesn’t mean they don’t understand their circumstances. They can see that their resources are being controlled, that their needs aren’t being met, that their government is unconcerned with their well-being.
They can see the reality of their situation — but they can’t see each other, and they can’t see a way out.
Maintaining that isolation — that is the final trick a government like Panem must pull off in order to survive. A failure to convince the citizens that they are helpless spells death for an authoritarian government. Once the citizens of Panem start to talk to each other — once they start to share information and exchange perspectives — everything changes. They realize that the scarcity they experience was never necessary. They realize that the endless war has been manufactured to control them. They realize that they outnumber the Peacekeepers.
They realize that they have more power than they ever knew.
The people of Panem take control of the resources the country relies on. They subvert the dominant media platform and use it to undermine the very message it was designed to spread. They unite in their opposition to a government that exists to serve the interests of the few, instead of to provide for the needs of the many.
This is what allows oppressed people to imagine a society that serves them. This is what brings people out onto the streets in record numbers to demand systemic reform. This is what causes seismic shifts in the way a country responds to the needs of its citizens. Mass organization, mass resistance, mass power in the hands of the people. This is what transforms a resistance into a rebellion.
This is the message that lies at the heart of The Hunger Games. The books are a warning that we must pay close attention to our leaders, in times of peace and in times of crisis. The books also give a very clear warning to those in positions of power: Rebellion is the natural response of a people who are oppressed, exploited, and abandoned by their government.
America is currently poised at the cusp of just such a moment. We are aware that our basic needs aren’t going to be met by our elected leaders. We are aware that the police state does not exist to protect the safety and welfare of the people. We are aware that the government has a vested interest in controlling media narratives as much as possible, to keep us feeling powerless and confused.
We are aware that we are in a time of acute, awful crisis, and we are aware that the people who are in charge of our well-being aren’t serving their functions.
The question The Hunger Games asks — the question we must all ask ourselves — is what we will do next.