Unkind critics have commented on similarities between the Hunger Games and Battle Royale, a Japanese saga of high schoolers forced to fight to the death by a totalitarian state, a connection that Collins denies. She cites instead, as an influence, the legend of the, uh, young adults handed over to the Minotaur. Spartacus, she says, is another: “Katniss follows the same arc from slave to gladiator to rebel to face of a war.” Lest the classical analogies pass anyone by, there are other clues, from the occasional Latinate coinage (a slave with his or her tongue cut out is an Avox) to the fact that many of the Capitol’s inhabitants, not to speak of the city itself, are named with a distinctly Roman flourish: Coriolanus Snow, Seneca Crane, Caesar Flickerman — you get the point. Then there is this from a member of the Capitol’s elite who switches sides: “In the Capitol, all they’ve known is Panem et Circenses. . . . [It] translates into ‘Bread and Circuses.’ The [Roman] writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.”
Katniss connects the remaining dots. The districts are compelled to provide the Capitol’s frivolous and decadent citizenry with abundance and, through the tributes, the “ultimate” distraction of the Hunger Games. Duly sated, the frivolous and decadent citizenry then leaves the business of power to those who wield it. By now even the slowest of Collins’s readers may suspect whose reflection they have been glimpsing in this particular funhouse mirror.
That seems to have been her intent. She has said that the idea for The Hunger Games first struck her while channel-surfing between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq War, something that troubled her NPRish fastidiousness more than it should: It’s a long way from Survivor to Katniss. There are certainly viewers who have been desensitized by the tube’s manufactured conflicts, but only psychopaths or the extremely stupid could have confused the images from Iraq with entertainment, make-believe, or both.
Collins’s explanation that war is hell (a theme of her Underland Chronicles too) is unoriginal, but commendable enough, at least until the moment — sometime in the course of Mockingjay — when sermon overwhelms story. The tale of the Capitol’s fall offered an ideal opportunity for a deeper exploration of the principle of morally legitimate violence that, from Katniss’s arrival in the arena, forms one of a number of this trilogy’s more interesting subtexts. That opportunity is at first grasped but then thrown away in favor of a dull plague-on-both-your-houses world-weariness that is more evasion or tantrum than an attempt at an answer.
There are always true believers of one sort or another who see a popular phenomenon and claim it for their own. Some Christians have detected a Christian message in these books. Meanwhile, writing in The Atlantic, Nicole Allan saw Katniss as “the populist hero the Occupy movement wasn’t able to deliver.” To be fair, that’s a proposition more credible than the notion of one of Katniss’s two suitors (an admirable lad, but still) as a Christ figure. At a time when the left side of the elite is using inequality to bludgeon the right, it’s easy to see how this trilogy could be cast as a manifesto for the 99 percent. Maybe that has been some of its appeal. Perfectly, The Hunger Games came out as Lehman went down.