“The Hunger Games” Totalitarian Future Strikes Conservative Chord

March 29, 2012

"The Hunger Games" was published in 2008.

Hollywood bigwigs would sooner vote for Rick Santorum than make a movie promoting conservative themes, but whether they realize it or not, that’s exactly what they’ve done with The Hunger Games.

Released March 23, The Hunger Games notched the third-highest grossing opening in U.S. box-office history, earning $155 million in its first weekend. The movie is in many ways standard action-adventure fare–plenty of violence, a love triangle, attractive stars–but at its core is a message of individual resistance to an all-powerful government.

The story takes place in a dystopian society in North America, where the United States has been replaced by a totalitarian regime called Panem. Instead of 50 states, the country is divided into 12 districts, and the Capitol has been moved from Washington, D.C., to somewhere in the Rockies.

The heroine, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, lives in District 12, the poorest of the districts, a mining community that appears to be located in the Appalachian Mountains. She volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games, a duel-to-the-death reality TV show staged each year by the Capitol, to replace her younger sister, one of two dozen teenagers selected at random.

The purpose of the Hunger Games is both to entertain the people of Panem and to remind them that resistance is futile. Any government that can remove 24 children from their families each year and force them to fight each other until only one is left can do just about anything, as the characters learn.

That’s a theme bound to find a receptive audience among Republicans, Libertarians and Tea Partiers railing against the ballooning size and scope of the federal government. The unchecked power of Panem serves as a reminder about governments big enough to give you everything you want also being big enough to take everything you have.

Conservatives will spot other examples of government overreach that mirror the current political debate. District 12 suffers from chronic food shortages, so Katniss hunts for wild game by sneaking into the nearby woods, which have been fenced off by the government. Anyone living in the rural West will recognize the parallel to the federal trend toward limiting access to public land.

Nobody is allowed to possess weapons. Katniss keeps her bow and arrow hidden in the forest, so it’s safe to assume that the worst fears of Second Amendment advocates have been realized.

The Capitol keeps order in the districts by use of white-armored soldiers, who look a lot like the stormtroopers of Star Wars but are called–hello, United Nations!–peacekeepers. Then there are the semi-black helicopters that appear out of nowhere to keep tabs on the citizenry.

The night before the Hunger Games begin, the other District 12 contestant, Peeta Mellark, tells Katniss that he doesn’t want to lose himself in order to win; he wants to “show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their games.”

It soon becomes clear that Katniss and Peeta are playing by different rules. Katniss only kills in self-defense, while Peeta cares more about saving her life than his. Katniss touches off an uprising in District 11 when she tenderly places wildflowers around the dead body of a young girl. Their refusal to bend to the savagery of the games place them in the tradition of dissidents who faced down twentieth-century totalitarian regimes from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union.

Katniss and Peeta ultimately foil the Capitol by refusing to kill each other when they are the last contestants left, forcing the game master to declare two winners for the first time in the games’ history. They return home as champions, but they’re being watched by the government.

Occupiers are likely to argue that the movie supports a class warfare theme by illustrating the gap between the 1% and everyone else. Residents of the Capitol have plenty of food and money for frivolous pursuits like outre fashions and over-the-top hairstyles, while their district counterparts live below the poverty line.

But the Occupiers miss the point. For all their wealth, Capitol residents are every bit as vulnerable to the whims of the government as anyone else. That reality becomes clear when game master disappoints the president and is locked in a room with a bowl of poison berries. It’s not the rich who are the truly in charge; it’s the government.

The Hunger Games was a hot property in Hollywood, thanks to the bestselling book trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The series is aimed at young adults, but it has been compared to the Twilight and Harry Potter books for its ability to transcend its teenage readership and appeal to adults.

Collins wrote children’s books and for children’s television shows before The Hunger Games was published in 2008. She tends to avoid interviews, and a web search reveals nothing about her political leanings.

Maybe she really does tilt to the right. Or maybe one day she’ll announce that she donates to Greenpeace and holds fundraisers for Nancy Pelosi. Whatever the case, conservative moviegoers owe Collins a debt of gratitude for writing a novel about the evils of big government that was simply too profitable for Hollywood to ignore.

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