Debate Over Political Messages in "The Hunger Games"

By Ilya Somin

Today is the premier of the Hunger Games movie, and debate continues over the political message of the book series by Suzanne Collins on which the movie is based. Last week, I commented on conservative blogger James Delingpole’s claim that the the series promotes a pro-Tea Party, antigovernment ideology. In my view, there are multiple plausible interpretations of the series’ politics, including left-wing ones. I think Delingpole may have been reading his own views into the book, just as more left-wing readers could plausibly do the same with theirs.

However, it’s worth noting that Delingpole is not the only one who thinks that The Hunger Games promotes a Tea Party-like ideology. Liberal Slate commentators Emily Bazelon and David Plotz advanced the same interpretation back in 2010. So does Bernie Quigley at The Hill. This Tea Party-aligned site describes both left-wing and conservative interpretations of the series.

For now, I’m sticking to the view I outlined in my last post on the subject:

Collins does indeed convey a very skeptical view of government. Not only the Capitol but even the government promoted by its opponents turns out to be tyrannical, which suggests that the flaws of government are institutional and not merely the result of the wrong leaders being in power. However, it is far from clear that Collins promotes libertarianism or Tea Party-like conservatism as the solution to this problem.

Moreover, a left-wing interpretation of the series’ politics is at least as plausible as Delingpole’s is. The “sybarite class” of the Capitol and their oppression of the twelve districts can be seen as a classic leftist parable of the oppression of the poor by the rich. The game show-like nature of the Hunger Games can be interpreted as an indictment of commercialism. And perhaps the true way forward for Panem is a government that cracks down on commercialism, redistributes wealth to the poor, and gives everyone free food and health care.

The series is subject to such widely disparate interpretations in part because Collins’ world-building is relatively weak. We don’t learn very much about the political and economic system of Panem, and some of what we do learn is internally inconsistent. We don’t even know whether Panem’s economy is primarily capitalist or socialist.

However, it’s interesting that commentators on different sides of the political spectrum have all discerned an anti-government and anti-centralization message in The Hunger Games. As a libertarian decentralizer myself, part of me hopes that the series’ millions of young fans came away with the same impression, even if it is not the most accurate possible interpretation of the text.

Obviously, politics is not the only or even the most important interesting element of The Hunger Games. In my view, the series’ real strength is in its drama and characterization. But it’s still interesting to consider the political themes of such a popular series, one that may have at least some effect on the worldviews of millions of readers.

All of the above analyses of the politics of The Hunger Games are based on the books. Perhaps the movie has a different – or at least clearer – political message. If time permits, I hope to write a review sometime in the next few days, after I see it.