Warning: The Hunger Games Spoilers
Shades of gray are a rare thing to find in young adult literature and film. Usually there is a clearly defined good and evil, often embodied in a single individual such as Voldemort of the Harry Potter series. In this schema of Good vs. Evil, the young hero or heroine must fight against forces of darkness to protect or enforce a new order of goodness and light.
The ubiquity of this story-telling frame makes it all the more striking that one of the most runaway successes in the genre does away with it entirely. The Hunger Games, which tells the story of a dystopian future in which a small power elite viciously exploits the helpless mass of society, is a powerful indictment of the simplistic good vs. evil narrative, as well as searing attack on the ideas underpinning government itself.
The protagonist, Katniss, spends the balance of the first two books simply trying to survive the murderous blood-sport (the eponymous Hunger Games) inflicted on the citizens of the poor districts by the ruling caste of the Capitol. It is not hard to despise the Capitol from the start. It is an extreme portrayal of a sort of aristocratic corporatism, where wealth is expropriated from working people at gunpoint. The tyranny does not end there, as a well-oiled police state within the Capitol itself produces a climate of fear and paranoia of the tiny clique that wields unfettered power at the top of the pyramid. It could be thought of as a caricature, or perhaps the final flowering, of a fascist system.
By publicly defying the will of the government and triumphing in her first Games, Katniss becomes a symbol of rebellion. At the end of the second book Katniss is rescued from her second round in the arena by a group of dissidents, whose stated goal is to use her fame as a rallying point around an open rebellion to topple the tyranny of the Capitol regime. So far, standard teen literature.
But then the story takes a radical turn. In a brilliant conceit, it is only in the third book that the reader realizes the series’ philosophical outlook differs radically from its peers in the genre. This sleight of hand technique leads the reader to expect a somewhat traditional retelling of the good defeating the evil, the weak besting the mighty, justice overcoming tyranny, only to shift gears entirely.
The reader’s understanding changes as they are exposed to the nature of the rebel government. As it turns out, this state apparatus is just as, if not more, centralized than the Capitol’s. There is more equality, with even the government officials wearing the same drab and colorless clothes and subsisting on the same simple diet. Yet the power is clearly still wielded by an elite that, while wearing the trappings of the people around them, act as they see fit. These leaders could be seen as analogous to a Leninist-style revolutionary vanguard organization, using power only to achieve the end of justice with a stated aim of relinquishing it when the job is done.
It is the reader’s, and Katniss’, growing realization that this system is no different in any meaningful respect from the fascistic Capitol regime that it seeks to supplant. The color scheme and the rhetorical vernacular has changed, but the nakedness of state control and force are very much the same.
Ultimately Katniss is moved to individual action, assassinating the president of the new regime and retreating from the public eye, to live on her own terms without the interference of an oppressive state apparatus governing her fate.
That is the real and enduring lesson of The Hunger Games: Totalitarianism is totalitarianism. Statism is statism. It is an easy conclusion for someone of a libertarian mindset to reach on their own. But to see it stated so clearly in the pages of a best-selling young adult series is rare, and important. It is a powerful message that supporters of the libertarian movement should tap into while the cultural relevance iron is still hot!
* John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, his first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.
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