Panem, The Future
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.