Katniss gets by with a little help from her friends.
Okay, a lot of help.
It comes not only in the arena, but in the Capitol too, where people like Haymitch and Cinna have her back. In fact, friendship separates the film's good guys from the bad guys. Bad guys, from the Careers to President Snow, don't have friends, only allies who they get rid of when it's convenient. But Katniss has real buddies: people who she's willing to make sacrifices for. In the end, that gives her an edge against the people who are only interested in themselves and their survival.
In The Hunger Games, Collins's message seems to be that we should find friends when we can; our survival depends on it.
Friendships in the arena only matter because of what you can get out of them.
The moral bonds of friendship transcend self-interest and help Katniss to survive.
If Katniss Everdeen thought her life's road was laid out for her before the Games, once she gets to the Capitol it's paved over in concrete. She's going to fight and probably die, or else survive by killing other equally helpless kids. That's about the extent of her choices.
But, in The Hunger Games, there are points where she can change the game, not only in terms of what the Capitol wants, but what everyone in this future world expects. The story's in part a parable about fate vs. free will. Fate sends Katniss to the Hunger Games, but Katniss has a few things to say about the exact direction her road will take.
The Reaping is the ultimate symbol of fate in the film.
Katniss's choices defy or at least defer the inevitable.
At the end of the day, The Hunger Games is about, um, the Hunger Games, and the Hunger Games are all about survival. You'll have to fight off psychotic rivals, VR wildfires, poisonous insects, genetically engineered dogs, and other fun stuff that the Capitol dreams up to try to kill the contestants. With the deck stacked that high against you, how can you possibly come out alive? Unless you're a Career, professionally trained and insanely confident, you can't like your odds.
Even outside of the Games, there's a battle for survival going on. The Games are just an extreme version of the daily struggle in the poor Districts of Panem, where death by starvation or mine explosion is always a distinct possibility. And it's just not physical survival that's at stake. As Peeta suggests, he'd rather die on his feet than live on his knees. When the two of them finally make it out alive, it's their psychological and spiritual survival that's almost more thrilling than the fact that they're both still in one piece.
Meanwhile, even the last, strongest Career has been voted off the island by a pack of mutant dogmonsters. Even Jeff Probst couldn't think up a challenge like that.
Survival here is literal life-or-death.
The film's really about psychological survival in the face of oppression.
The Capitol would like you to know that they're in charge. Period. Full stop.
How to maintain that power? Here's an idea: pick two kids from each District and have them all fight to the death during an annual television special. And let's see—we'll make it mandatory viewing for every citizen. That oughta keep 'em in line.
The life-or-death implications of the power differentials in Panem are blatantly obvious. The Capitol holds all the cards; the Districts are helpless. It's a malevolent totalitarian government. But power comes in many forms, and as Katniss learns, becoming a celebrity gives her a chip in their game that even President Snow may not be able to handle.
As Shmoop brilliantly illustrated in our "Why Should I Care" section, some literary critics have seen in The Hunger Games novels and films a parable of the adolescent experience, where adults run the show and powerless teens are forced to conform to sometimes arbitrary rules and social expectations heavily influenced by a media-obsessed culture. And sometimes, it seems like a fight to the death. In this view, Panem is a lot like your high school.
Of course, volunteering for human sacrifice isn't quite the same as protesting the removal of pizza from the cafeteria menu. Still, there's a strong class struggle dynamic in the film. The powerless have-nots in regions like District 12 produce the stuff that the elites need, but they get no benefits for themselves. They're ground down by a totalitarian government that keeps them in their place by intimidation and deprivation. So—Marxist class struggle or senior-class struggle? We report, you decide.
The Careers may look powerful and threatening, but they're powerless, too— just the result of being programmed by the Capitol to become elite fighters.
The Capitol cracks down hard on the citizens because they know the oppressed masses could rise up against them at any moment.
We hate to break it to ya, folks: The Hills was totally scripted. The Dance Moms just pretend to fights. Survivor has used body doubles. Worst of all, Tori Spelling has never been a struggling single mom. There's always been a thin line between truth and artifice in our media saturated world.
Our reality TV shows manipulate the drama to increase ratings and ad revenue for the networks. TV is basically selling stuff, plus producing some content to show in between the commercials. In the totalitarian country of Panem, they're only selling one thing: their version of reality.
In The Hunger Games, there are two totally separate realities in Panem: the things that actually happen and the version that people see on television. Manipulating what people see, whether true or not, is the biggest tool the Capitol has for controlling its population. As Katniss and Peeta learn, they can use television to influence events in their favor as well.
We're all aware that reality TV can distort—we have access to tons of debunking sites like this one to set the record straight. But even Facebook can't prevent fake news from showing up on its site. Imagine living in a closed society like Panem or North Korea where all media are controlled by the government and nobody knows anything different.
By the way, did you hear that the government dropped two inches of poisonous chemical "snow" on Atlanta?
It's true—Shmoop read it on the internet.
The movie is one giant advertisement for the need for a free press and an independent media.
Panem citizens' obsession with the reality-TV Hunger Games show isn't as much as an exaggeration as we'd like to think. We're just as apt to buy into television's depiction of reality.
Panem's supposed to be an advanced civilization, and yet their most popular yearly event involves watching 24 teenagers murder each other. There's an ancient Rome vibe to the proceedings—think gladiators—and President Snow even takes the name of a Roman general and traitor, Coriolanus. Violence lies below the advanced, civilized veneer of the Capitol, and comes bubbling out both in the way they do business (eat up, Seneca) and in the way they treat the outlying Districts. Violence is a part of this world even though they don't always acknowledge it: and poor Katniss gets to deal with it up close and personal.
In The Hunger Games, it's disturbing how much ordinary citizens (the ones whose kids aren't Tributes) enjoy the bloodbath. The film points a finger at the media for getting everyone into a frenzy about it; it seems to be one giant indictment of the constant desensitizing violence we're exposed to every time we turn on the TV.
We're feeling a little guilty for enjoying the film so much.
Violence is a part of human nature and even future societies must acknowledge it in some way other than hockey.
Violence can be transcended by the civilizing forces of society; Panem has simply failed to do so.