“The Hunger Games” occupies a unique spot in our collective cultural memory, and with the announcement of a film adaptation of the prequel novel “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” it’s unlikely to move from that spot anytime soon. But, given that much of the franchise’s audience was relatively young at the time of the book’s release, we may not remember it for all the right reasons.
Suzanne Collins’ novels and the subsequent film adaptations pioneered the young adult genre as it exists today, but public reception to the novels hasn’t always honored the books for what they are: stunning works of sophisticated political commentary. With the book’s target demographic now reaching the age of active civic participation, it’s worth revisiting the novels for the striking political commentary they offer.
The books are artfully woven through with critiques of everything from industrial society to the media’s exploitation of violence. Collins draws parallels between the panoptic technological cruelty of Panem and the archaic gladiator games of the Romans, in between which lie striking truths about our present. Each seems a far cry from our current reality, but the connections Collins draws between the two echo the present in chilling, prophetic ways.
Every corner of the Hunger Games universe is imbued with biting political commentary, even aspects that aren’t explicitly addressed. The name of the book’s setting, Panem, is an allusion to the Latin phrase panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses.” According to the Roman poet Juvenal, if a government provides its people with bread and circuses — if it appeases its people with food and entertainment — the people will not revolt.
Collins’ distorted interpretation of that entertainment takes the form of the Hunger Games. The Games serve as a metaphor for state violence, but its significance goes even deeper than that. Many of the Games’ victors win because of skills they learned by practicing their district’s trade, a fact that reduces people in Panem to the labor they perform. The flashy opulence of the Capitol’s news outlets bears striking resemblance to the United States’ sensationalization of politics, and Collins warns of the potential consequences. The depiction of the District 13 rebels provides a deeply nuanced commentary on militarism and opportunism in activist circles as well.
Despite the series’ uniquely potent political themes, the presence of tropes like a love triangle and the obligatory child-sorting algorithm get it grouped in with its low-brow counterparts in young adult fiction — they’re dismissed as “kid’s books.” In reality, “The Hunger Games” invented and popularized many of the tropes of the young adult genre that it’s criticized for falling into.
“The Hunger Games” is also one of the more tragic victims of the misogyny-driven tendency of popular culture to turn on anything enjoyed by young female readers. The attitude of critics and academics towards the genre is generally one of disdain. As a result, the nuance of books like “The Hunger Games” and John Green’s “Paper Towns” has gone largely unrecognized by mainstream literary criticism.
“The revolutionary messaging of the books was diluted and written over in favor of a fixation on the story’s love triangle.” —Caelan Reeves CM ’24
Beyond simply being unfair, public reception to the franchise serves as yet another layer of the commentary offered up by the series. In the first novel, the horrors of the Games are written over by Capitol media in favor of flaunting Katniss and Peeta’s tumultuous love story. And, as if to prove Collins’ point, popular media did the exact same thing. The revolutionary messaging of the books was diluted and written over in favor of a fixation on the story’s love triangle.
“The Hunger Games” is one of the most effectual and accessible works of political fiction released in the 21st century, and it’s not difficult to see the books being regarded as classics in the future. The franchise is not underrated by any stretch of the imagination, but as issues like the sensationalization of violence and state propaganda remain ever-prevalent, it’s worth giving a work so prophetic its laurels.
As musician Paul Simon sings, the words of the prophets aren’t in libraries or temples, but “written on the subway walls.” Their visions will be somewhere accessible — like in the world-building of a high school-level chapter book.
Caelan Reeves CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. They are a history and literature dual major from Chicago, Illinois, and love everything to do with movies, music and books.