Suzanne Collins has talked about her inspiration for the novel long before the movie was even a gleam in the producers' eye. She talked about the media (more on that in a bit), but she also discussed a much older inspiration: the Tributes of Athens.
You may also know it by its street name: the myth of Theseus. It goes like this: back in ancient Greece, the city of Athens was conquered by King Minos of Crete as punishment for killing his son. In return for him not burning them to the ground, they had to send him 7 young men and 7 young women to serve as Tributes. He takes them to Crete and sets them loose in a maze, where they're hunted down and eaten by a bull-headed monster called the Minotaur. That all comes to an end when the Athenian king's son, Theseus, joins the Tributes and kills the Minotaur in its lair.
"Even as a kid," Collins says in the interview. "I could appreciate how ruthless this was. Crete was sending a very clear message: 'Mess with us and we'll do something worse than kill you. We'll kill your children.'" She thought about that story, and then she thought about reality shows and similar contests on TV these days. It seemed to her that they weren't all that different, and that with one little step, we could go from NFL Sunday Night to Convicted Criminals Murder Each Other Sunday Night. It was terrifyingly plausible, though luckily, she soon developed a Theseus to slay whatever Minotaur such a system could produce.
In the movie, you can see very obvious signs of this story's influence. Crete is now the Capitol and Athens is now the Districts, but otherwise, it's the same game. The myth, for example, said that the Tributes of Athens were chosen by random lot. Enter Effie Trinket, with her excessive showmanship and her glass bowls full of names. And just like Athens, it's divided equally among girls and boys: one of each gender for each of the 12 Districts.
Finally, there's the arena, which isn't strictly a maze, but certainly provides no way out and forces the combatants to fight various threats as well as themselves. Those dogs at the end may not be Minotaurs, but they're certainly as scary as any monster can be. (And they're even scarier in the book.)
So what's the point of the comparison to ancient Greece? Why make sure we can see obvious signs of the myth they're obviously drawing from? Why show their hand? It might be that Collins is trying to show how universal the story is. It's good Hero's Journey stuff where people are saved and protected by a clever hero, and it applies as well to our world as it did to the Greeks.
And monsters? Yeah, we've got a Media-taur. It may not seem all that scary, but it's destroyed a lot more people than monsters have. If you aren't careful, our culture will happily feed it to you until you burst.
More than anything else, The Hunger Games is about the media: what it shows us, what it hides from us and how it can be used to make the most horrible things seem commonplace. In that sense, it isn't much different from our own media diet.
For instance, take the way the media in the movie creates instant celebrities: plucking them up out of nowhere and letting the world love them before tossing them into the kill zone. Granted, the penalty for getting kicked off Celebrity Housewives isn't quite that bad, but our media culture has the same way of building someone up only to brutally tear them down or totally forget about them. The Hunger Games adds just a few extreme touches to remind us how savage the whole thing can really be.
Then there's the way the media distorts what we see: showing us a piece of the puzzle and hiding the rest behind a lot of smoke and mirrors. Perfect example? Peeta's declaration of love for Katniss. It's a great hook, as Haymitch puts it:
HAYMITCH: Now, I can sell the star-crossed lovers from District 12...
KATNISS: We are not star-crossed lovers.
HAYMITCH: It's a television show! And being in love with that boy might just get you sponsors, which could save your damn life.
But that's not the whole story. Katniss doesn't really love Peeta. She's got this guy at home who may or may not be her true love, but he's got these political ideas and… it's complicated. But that's not going to help Haymitch score some medicine for Katniss in the arena. So they sell the fantasies, and the media gobbles it up to broadcast to the Capitol as the story du jour. They're turned into Brangelina or TomKat or Bennifer for the duration of the broadcast.
Manufactured love; isn't it appalling? Now excuse us while we catch up on those episodes we missed of The Bachelor.
It doesn't seem like much really, just a bow and a quiver full of arrows.
But to Katniss, it's the key to survival. She goes hunting with her bow in District 12, heading out past the electric fence to find food for her family. When she gets into the arena, it helps save her life more than once.
As the saga goes on, her bow becomes as much a part of her as her arms or legs. It comes to represent some very specific things about her: self-reliance, for example. That takes on an added importance in the arena, since she doesn't really become a threat until she scores a bow and arrow for herself.
The bow represents something else about Katniss: her defiance. Once she's a Tribute, it lets her stick it in the Capitol's eye more than once. The big moment comes before the Games, when she shoots an arrow right past her captors and through the mouth of a roast pig. That gets Snow's attention, which leads him to label her a threat which… well, spoiler alert, but the rest of the Hunger Games saga hinges a whole lot on how dangerous she becomes. All from that little bow.
Eat your heart out, Excalibur.
The mockingjay is a work of genius: a symbol not only of Katniss, but of her defiance against the government. The mockingjay represents a paradox: attempts to control something can have consequences you never quite intended. According to the novel, mockingjays were created when the genetically engineered jabber jays, designed to repeat what the rebels say in hidden places, mated with normal mockingbirds.
That doesn't sit well with the Capitol, which doesn't like admitting mistakes and yet can't seem to get rid of the darn things. That's a great way of describing Katniss herself: a thorn in their side who just won't go away.
One of the subtler points about The Hunger Games is that big things have very small beginnings: Katniss volunteering, for example, is going to literally change the course of history before it's all over.
The mockingjay symbol is similar. Katniss first gets a pin with the image of the bird as a gift from an anonymous old woman. It doesn't seem to mean much at that point, but it gets a lot of screen time when Katniss presents it to her sister as protection:
KATNISS: It's a mockingjay pin. To protect you. And as long as you have it, nothing bad will happen to you. Okay? I promise.
Her sister gives it right back to her before she leaves for the Games, and Cinna actually finds a way to sneak it to her just before she enters the arena. It never really leaves her after that. Little steps. Little gestures. But they grow and grow until, like the mockingjay itself, they've spread everywhere. (Even to the arena, where they literally help Katniss and Rue coordinate their attack on the Careers.)
Watch the birdie, President Snow. It's about to fly up and poke your eyes out.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
We see the ordinary world before the Hunger Games begin, and frankly, it stinks. There's fences and wires up everywhere, the TV's all "mandatory viewing this" and "you must comply" that, and Katniss frankly has no use for it at all. She periodically sneaks out of the fence to go hunting in the woods; it's the only time she feels at peace or contented. Both she and Panem are pretty complacent when we find them. Time to do a little shaking up.
It's not hard to see the call coming. Effie Trinket and the selection ceremony for the Hunger Games start Katniss off on her perilous adventure. In true Campbellian fashion, she's not doing it for herself but to protect the people she's leaving behind. In this case, it's her sister Prim, who's been selected as Tribute and who Katniss will do anything to keep safe.
It's also interesting to note that in many ways, this call to adventure is just business as usual: there've been 73 of these things before now, after all, and everyone's more or less become used to them. The only difference is that Katniss volunteers, something that hasn't happened in District 12 before. It's a signal that this time, things aren't going to go entirely as planned.
We can't say too much here because of spoilers for future Hunger Games adaptations, but as far as this story is concerned, ain't no refusal going on. Katniss steps up when the call is given and terrifying as the Games may be, she's not going back.
Modern girls don't have to settle for just one mentor. In the future, they get a whole team. The big kahuna is Haymitch, who may be drunk as a skunk, but certainly understands the politics involved, as well as the things Katniss needs to do to succeed in the Games. She gets a back-up mentor in Cinna, and even Effie and her team help out when they need to. Team Katniss is armed and fabulous. Believe it or not, they may give her everything she needs to survive.
You might think that crossing the threshold starts when Katniss enters the arena. But it actually takes place much earlier than that—as soon as Katniss is pulled off of the stage and starts her journey to the Capitol. It has all of the hallmarks of a classic fairy tale: a speedy means of moving (the train), magic food and goodies on the way, and even a surly drunk for entertainment.
The tests take place before the Hunger Games start. In the Capitol as Katniss has to earn attention, gain sponsors and keep from being blinded by the dazzling teeth of Caesar Flickerman. Her guides and mentors offering sound advice, and she gets a boost from allies like Peeta and her new buddy Rue. We recognize the Careers as enemies before things even get going in the arena.
The innermost cave is most definitely the Games themselves: an enclosed arena from which there's no escape.
Mutant wasps, evil Careers, poisonous berries, fire—you name it, and the arena has it, ready to push Katniss to the limit before she finally earns victory.
The reward comes when Cato is finally eaten alive, leaving Katniss and Peeta alone in the arena. They're both saved by the virtue of an eleventh-hour rules change letting them claim victory together instead of butchering each other for the pleasure of a live audience. Except….
The Capitol changes the rules again after they've won, forcing them to choose who gets to live. That's dirty pool, and it marks just one of a number of very bad tactical decisions on the Capitol's part.
Katniss and Peeta still have one trick up their sleeve. They can both eat the poison berries, denying the Capitol the sight of them killing each other; it could them into martyrs to a potential revolution. They mean it, and the Capitol backs down in the face of their self-sacrifice/blackmail.
Peeta and Katniss survive, and now get to enjoy their reward: a life of privilege and luxury for as long as they refrain from drinking themselves to death. But in truth, the elixir is a lot more than that. By defying the Capitol and earning status as a beloved celebrity in the process, Katniss now becomes an example to stir the people's hearts. Do we sense a revolution brewing? The elixir might be that thing that Snow fears is dangerous in large doses: hope.
The most interesting thing about the setting isn't the where, but the when. We're on the North American continent at some unknown point in the future. There was some kind of apocalypse—a nuclear war, an asteroid, Justin Bieber finally fulfilling his unholy purpose—we're never quite clear. Whatever arose after it was soon taken over by a quasi-fascist government vaguely resembling Imperial Rome, complete with underage gladiators.
That gives the setting a feeling that's ancient and futuristic at the same time. It recalls the grandeur that was Rome, except with holograms and reality TV. It's a clever way of showing how some things never change.
For starters, there are the haves and the have-nots, with the former totally lording it over the latter. You've got the destitute residents of District 12 acting as representatives for all of the Districts under the Capitol's thumb. Then there's the Capitol itself, where conspicuous consumption, Manic Panic, and plastic surgery make for unfortunate fashion choices.
The people in District 12 might as well be living in the 1800s: almost no electricity (even for those electric fences), simple cotton clothes, and possessions they've hoarded and maintained over a lifetime. Contrast that with the Capitol, where it's all garish fabrics, outlandish make-up, and we don't even want to know what kind of body piercings.
Extreme poverty to ridiculous decadence.
The visuals tell us everything we need to know about this world at a glance. We've got an oppressed heroine with injustice to fight against, and some easy villains to boo and hiss at when they sleaze their way onscreen.
That balance between the future and the past— high technology married to savage barbarism—shines a light on our own media-saturated society. Like Panem, we're obsessed with images onscreen, and stories of glamorous people who live lives very different from our own. Like them, we have a hard time seeing through those images to the truth; like them, our culture sometimes uses that to blind us to real poverty and other issues in the world. Seriously, know what the Oxford English Dictionary 2016 word of the year was?
That's all by design, of course. Need more proof? The very name "Panem" comes from a Latin phrase, panem et circenses. It means "bread and circuses," which was a Roman dictator's idea of using mass entertainment to distract the public from real problems. Well played, Suzanne Collins. Well played.
Here's a little more on Panem, courtesy of the Hunger Games wikia. And if you're busy congratulating yourself for not living there, consider that the Oxford English Dictionary's 2016 word of the year is "Post-truth". The future, scholars, is now.
Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games from the first-person perspective—Katniss's, natch—and the filmmakers kept that POV. So while we occasionally stray away from our girl (usually to Caesar Flickerman with some handy exposition to let us know what's happening), we keep Katniss front and center the whole time. That means more than just keeping the camera focused on her. It means that the film never tells us anything that she doesn't know, and reveals certain things (like her surprise evaluation with a final score of 11) just as she learns them herself.
That applies to characters like Haymitch, too, who we never see before Katniss does, and to situations in the Games like the giant fire that drives her from her hiding place. Every time we cut away from her, it's to things we absolutely need to know, and things which she herself would either already know or which she could probably make an educated guess at.
The filmmakers stay away from voice-over narration and other obvious signs that we're seeing things from her perspective. The movie wants to get as close as possible to looking at this world through Katniss's eyes without actually sticking the camera behind her peepers.
It's a great decision.
Not only does it keep the spirit of the book alive, but it keeps us firmly on our heroine's side from first frame to last.
The story is set in the future, so that kind of makes it science fiction by default, complete with high-tech gadgets, strange new social arrangements, and guys in white who bear a suspicious resemblance to Imperial Stormtroopers. That's the great thing about sci-fi: if it's the future, it can look like whatever the creators want. It lets them conjure up specific images and feelings and pretend like it's just another day in the 23rd Century.
Like a lot of sci-fi, it's an adventure story, too. Katniss is whisked off from her mundane home into a new, exciting and very dangerous world far beyond her imagining.
Finally, The Hunger Games wants us to think about this new story in terms of some very old ones, and that means adding a dash of myth into the mix. Author Collins said she intended her books to evoke Greek mythology, to point out how stories set in the future could have the same larger-than-life feeling as stories of gods and monsters do. Interviewing the author, the New York Times writes:
As her primary influence, Collins, who has a love of classical plays, frequently cites the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which the people of Athens are required by their Cretan adversaries to offer up seven boys and seven girls for sacrifice to the deadly Minotaur, a half-human monster who lives in a maze. "I was also heavily influenced by the historical figure Spartacus," she said. "Katniss follows the same arc from slave to gladiator to rebel to face of a war. (Source)
In the film, images evoking the gory glory of Rome are everywhere. The Tribute parade could have been pulled straight from old Roman epic films; Snow speaks to the Tributes from on high like Commodus to the gladiators; the mobs cheer the Tributes they know will be dead in 24 hours; the Capitol sends wild animals into the arena to tear the Tributes apart. Even the grand scale of the Capitol architecture has a Rome-meets-Nazi Germany thing going on. We can't wait to see this new Empire fall.
The title refers to the annual blood-sport that Katniss gets pulled into: 24 Tributes from the 12 Districts get dropped into an arena and battle to the death to prove that the Capitol is still in charge.
But there's a lot going on in this title. For starters, there's the word "Hunger," which implies suffering and starvation, and comes to mean not only what those lucky kids in the arena get to go through (knife-throwing psychopaths is only one of the amazing variety of ways they can die), but also the suffering in the various Districts. In fact, the winning Tribute's District gets extra food as a prize.
The second word in the title, "Games," demonstrates that the Capitol literally makes a sport out of that suffering, broadcasting it every year like some demented Super Bowl. It trivializes the deadly situation that the Districts are in.
Sums up the whole vibe of the movie pretty well, doesn't it?
Beyond that, the name is intended to evoke the feeling of Ancient Rome at its worst: pageantry and spectacle covering up the kind of bloodletting usually reserved for movies with the words "massacre" in the title. That's by design. Author Suzanne Collins named her country Panem, which is actually a Latin word meaning "bread." It usually starts the phrase "bread and circuses," which is the way Ancient Rome kept a lid on poverty and other social problems. Keep them entertained and they'll happily put up with whatever injustice you want to cram down their throat (source).
But that doesn't have any bearing on the world we live in today, does it?
There's a trick to franchises like The Hunger Games, whether in movie form or the somewhat quainter book form. How do you get closure with the ending while still opening the door for bigger (and higher grossing) sequels? In some ways, you can measure a franchise by how elegantly it pulls that off.
Luckily, The Hunger Games has a built-in blueprint: the book, which gives us a proper ending without closing the door on future entries. Katniss and Peeta survive the Hunger Games against all odds, then return to District 12 as champions. High-fives all around. A happy ending for our hard-working protagonists, and let the District 12 moonshine flow.
That's as good a place as any to bow out, and we can leave Katniss here satisfied that she's okay, at least for now. It covers the basics of what an ending should be and won't leave us feeling cheated or denied. Had there been no other books or movies in the series, it wouldn't feel incomplete.
Of course, not everyone gets to their happy place by the end of this. There's no high-fiving with the other Tributes, for example, and Seneca Crane's bungling earns him a locked room and bowl full of poisonous berries to eat. That's the kind of creepy, ironic death normally reserved for Edgar Allan Poe stories.
But the larger story still hasn't been told. President Snow is still running the show, after all, and next year's Hunger Games will still be going on as scheduled. District 12 is still collectively poor as dirt, and malcontents like Gale are still waiting for the moment when they can rise up and topple the regime.
Then there's the problem that Katniss and Peeta face personally. They have to keep up the charade that they're in love, even though Katniss made her feelings clear. That means pretending every time they step out of the house. Oh, and that comes on top of the trauma of almost being killed for the amusement of several million people, as they discuss quietly in the last lines of the film:
PEETA: So what happens when we get back?
KATNISS: I don't know. I guess we try to forget.
PEETA: I don't want to forget.
Clearly, it's going to be a long road to that final "happily ever after." And clearly there's going to be a few new chapters, incredibly profitable chapters, in this story, even as the credits roll.
We'd like to thank The Hunger Games for pointing out one of the inherent problems with the ratings board. The novel itself would probably be rated R. Suzanne Collins wanted to emphasize the brutality not only of the Games, but of the Capitol itself. This leads not only to messy ends for a number of Tributes, but a much more horrifying version of the hounds at the end. (In the book, they were mutated from the corpses of the other Tributes. Ick.)
Unfortunately, making the film R-rated would prevent a big chunk of the core fan base from going to the movie unless they brought their parents (and seriously, who needs that?) So the filmmakers were forced to deliver R-level intensity with PG-13 blood and guts, a harder balance to strike than you'd think.
Director Gary Ross came to the rescue on that front, using handheld cameras and sharp editing to bring the intensity to the Games themselves. You can sense the knives flying and the bodies going "splat." By and large the trick works pretty well, keeping the violence down while still implying the savagery of the government that demands it from these poor kids.
The film doesn't suffer unduly from the changes that make the story a little bit gentler in order to fill those seats at the theaters.