Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The Hunger Games are reality television squared. With rippling walls of fire and swarms of deadly mutant hornets, the trials in the arena are kind of like Panem's version of Survivor – but deadlier. Contestants are forced to fight each other to the death in front of the cameras while the events are televised all over the country of Panem as sport.
From the moment Katniss takes her sister's place as tribute for District 12, then, she is forced to play the part of a reality television star. Cameras are on her at every moment of the hoopla, as we come to find out that in these Games image is everything. The difficulty of such a surreal world, we learn, is that it becomes very hard to tell what's real and what's not.
On a basic human level, Katniss has a rough time knowing how she actually feels about Peeta. While we might think it's kind of crappy of her to kiss him when she doesn't really mean it, Katniss doesn't have a choice if she wants to survive. As she says, she's "got to give the audience something more to care about. Star-crossed lovers desperate to get home together. Two hearts beating as one. Romance" (19.93).
The reality television angle is also significant in a broader sense. Because these deadly games are framed as a reality television spectacle, the novel asks us to think about the difference between televised entertainment and brutal human sacrifice. As we find out, those lines blur in The Hunger Games. For example, the citizens of the rich Capitol, along with the wealthier districts, view the Games either as a celebrated sporting event or a form of mass entertainment. Despite the fact that tributes are dying left and right, the Hunger Games are something that young men and women train for, like the Olympics.
As Katniss tells us, however, the poorer districts reject the Hunger Games as a form of entertainment. They lack the skills and resources to produce winning tributes, so for districts like Katniss's, the Games become about suffering and sacrifice. The Hunger Games are a constant reminder of the outlying districts' weakness, poverty, and subordination to the Capitol.