(NB: The following article was written before the release of the latest instalment in the series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes)
“Remember who the real enemy is” – Haymitch Abernathy, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
While recently re-watching The Hunger Games film series, this particular line stood out to me. When it’s uttered by Haymitch Abernathy (and later repeated by other characters) there is a look of confusion on the face of protagonist Katniss Everdeen, as she is unaware of the coming rebellion.
To the audience it is apparent that the story’s antagonist, President Coriolanus Snow, is the enemy being referred to; however there is something dissatisfying with the simplicity of this answer. Rebellion leader Alma Coin, who gains power towards the end of the trilogy, barely appears to be an improvement on Snow – in fact, there are striking and intentional similarities between the governing style and economic policies of both the deposed despot and his revolutionary successor.
Then I realised. I saw that our protagonist is merely a support character, that both the “good-guys” of the Second Rebellion and the “bad-guys” of the Capitol are two sides of the same coin (pun intended), and that the real enemy to which our true hero Haymitch refers… is communism.
I will argue here that Panem is a late-stage communist dictatorship with the trappings of Stalinist Russia, that District 13 is a rebellious outpost of Trotsky-esque figures seeking a more pure version of the same ideology, and that the true protagonist of the story is the noble, nihilistic, individualist Haymitch Abernathy.
Before I begin I will first address the intentions of Suzanne Collins in writing The Hunger Games. She designed the political system of Panem modelled on that of pre-existing dystopian fiction, bringing in elements that could be used to criticise the American political system. Her representation of the lavish wealth of the Capitol in contrast to the abject poverty of District 12 is intended as an allegory for the inequality fostered by neoliberal capitalism.
She has also described the Capitol as being fascist. This idea is backed by the aesthetics of red banners and flags on the Avenue of Tributes which make all Avenue scenes resemble the Nuremberg rallies; then there are the constant parallels drawn with the Roman Empire (see character names such as Coriolanus, Seneca and Plutarch); finally there is the absolute power of President Snow, representing the fascist principle of nothing but the state; investing total authority over that state in one man.
However, an indispensable aspect of fascism is palingenetic ultranationalism. Only in the allusions to Rome and rebuilding civilization from the ashes can we see palingenesis, but considering the distinct lack of other nations there is no ultranationalism in the ideology of the Capitol or President Snow. Given the visual similarities between the Capitol and Nazi Germany, we are left with a form of National Socialism minus the nationalism. In fact, even the Nazis’ most famous ideological element, racism, is totally absent: the Capitol is shown in the films to be ethnically diverse, and the largely black population of District 11 is even shown to be significantly better off than the largely white population of District 12. Without the nationalism and the racism we mostly associate with fascism, the only real fascist elements we are left with are the state-run economy and militarism – also incredibly prevalent features of communist nations.
Let us return to our real protagonist, Haymitch Abernathy. We see from early on that Haymitch despises Snow, the Capitol, and most crucially the Games themselves; yet rather than forming alliances from the beginning, he is hostile to others and rarely trusts anyone other than himself, especially not those who desire power. Haymitch is a radical individualist of almost Randian proportions. Admittedly, his self-destructive habits and lack of ambition would have precluded him from being cast into a heroic lead role by Rand. Towards the beginning of the trilogy, his disposition might be more comparable to that of The Fountainhead’s Henry Cameron, Howard Roark’s mentor – a would-be hero driven to drink by a world that crushes heroes.
However, Haymitch’s total commitment to his own self-interest and his rejection of collectivism and authority make him quite the individualist. Haymitch may not be a gunslinging, flag waving revolutionary, but his individualism and atomism stand out starkly in contrast to most in Panem.
But what of our villain? Coriolanus Snow is the power-obsessed supreme leader of Panem, whose sheer brutality and immorality knows no bounds. Yet, despite his unabashed desire for total control, President Snow sits with his ministers at a round table providing an aesthetic of equality amongst his inner circle. It recalls the notion propagated through the USSR that Stalin was as much a ‘comrade’ as the regular factory worker. The parallels between Snow and Stalin extend further. One of the president’s senior ministers meets a fatal end not for treason, but due to Snow’s waning confidence in his competence. Likewise, when Snow appoints Romulus Thread to head the Peacekeepers in District 12, the predecessor swiftly faces execution. It’s safe to assume that this was a recurring pattern whenever Snow introduced a new guard of more brutal and loyal officers to enforce his will.
Such purges are immediately familiar to anyone with a vague knowledge of communist states. Snow’s direct messages to the people of Panem never include overt threats; instead he insists that he is the force for stability, peace and security in the nation. However, this is contested by his policy of fear which sees young people taken from their homes and transported to remote locations to face almost certain death in the annual Hunger Games (see: gulags). While there’s no doubt about Snow being a dictator, the aforementioned characteristics are common across totalitarians and thus at this stage he could just as easily be Hitler or Pinochet rather than Stalin. This means we must look outside of individual leaders and at the system as a whole, beginning with District 12.
District 12 is incredibly poor; its people starve, often dying as a result. Collins, through her allegory for neoliberal America, wants us to see this as due to the corporate greed of the Capitol. Yet, whilst no district is as wealthy as the Capitol, none are as poor as District 12. The reason? Central planning. District 12 is the coal producing district of Panem and thus the men have the most dangerous career in the entire nation; many die prematurely, unable to provide for their families. Katniss’ father is one such example, perishing in a mine explosion and leaving the Everdeen family destitute and starving.
As there is no agricultural sector in District 12, it is implied that the food must come from other districts such as 11 (for example: the grain needed for Peeta’s family bakery) and we can deduce by the presence of Peacekeepers at grain stores as well as the words Capitol Coal spread across a container in District 12 that the major resources of Panem are centrally managed, collected and distributed according to the needs of the people. Since the Everdeen family no longer provide coal, they receive minimal food allocation and minimal pay. This illustrates Hayek’s knowledge problem of central planning: when a miner’s wages stop being paid, there is no market to provide for their family who are now forced to hunt, barter and beg for food.
We do see a market system in District 12 through the barter system, and we learn that Katniss trades squirrels she has poached for bread from Peeta’s bakery. This could be seen as a form of counter-economics or agorism, and is not unexpected in a socialised economy. In North Korea, women often produce goods at home to sell at unregulated markets whilst their husbands work the centrally owned farms in order to secure extra income for the family. These markets are incredibly important in rural life in the DPRK, and in The Hunger Games they are arguably the reason for District 12’s ongoing survival. When Snow sends Peacekeepers to quash potential uprisings through show executions and floggings, the organically-developed marketplaces are the first things destroyed.
So District 12 is a victim of central planning, dependent on a free, black market based on bartering, but what of the rest of Panem?
The rest of Panem is just as much a victim of central planning, although the districts with the least dangerous industries appear to be wealthier, as the primary breadwinners have longer careers (this is apparent in District 2, the most fiercely loyal to the Capitol, where most arms production and military training takes place). Each district is allocated a primary industry based on its natural, human and geographical resources and as these resources serve to enrich the Capitol, they are managed and distributed by Capitol operatives.
As well as the economic factors, there is again a distinct aesthetic to Panem which needs to be assessed. Firstly I will address the trains. While the highly advanced and luxurious train network seems to be a sign of some sort of decadent technological capitalism, one only has to look at Moscow to see that communist dictators took great pride in their rail networks, with the Moscow underground having the most ornate and visually stunning train stations known to man. Adorned with chandeliers, great pillars, and painted walls, these stations are purely extravagant and served as a useful propaganda tool to illustrate the USSR’s wealth (meanwhile, the average person lived in a brutalist high rise with barely enough food to survive).
Then there are the Peacekeepers, the jackbooted thugs enforcing the will of the regime. Despite their place above civilians in the hierarchy, they are part of a remarkably egalitarian organisation with no visible signs of rank in either formation or insignia. Only a few regional commanders stand out as they are essential to a military chain of command, however despite not wearing masks their uniform is identical to that of their comrades in arms. The only figure in the force who truly stands out is Minister Antonius, who is seen wearing a uniform reminiscent of that of General Georgy Zhukov, Stalin’s Marshal of the Soviet Union. The difference between Antonius and Zhukov is that the former lacks any sort of medal that we have come to associate with the over-decorated generals of communist nations, perhaps making him an equal to his Peacekeeper forces.
Another interesting aspect of Panem’s culture is a distinct absence of religion, something which strikingly resembles the USSR or DPRK where religion is discouraged or banned in favour of unwavering commitment to the state and the revolution.
The next place to look is the Capitol itself: the smoking gun for those who claim The Hunger Games is a biting polemic against capitalism with its wealth, decadence and inequality. Yet the prime example of these features of the Capitol is President Snow’s mansion – a clear allusion to the White House of course – however it is not a stretch to compare his extravagant, palatial estate to Stalin’s Kuntsevo Dacha or Fidel Castro’s paradisiacal Havana villa. In the film we see that most of the buildings in the Capitol are grey, blocky and as shockingly unimaginative as those of other districts, only taller, as befits Panem’s only real city.
The Capitol’s wealth is mainly seen in Snow’s mansion, the fashion, and the extravagant amounts of food. The fashion, I believe, is an allusion to America’s runway culture and self-aggrandising events such as the Met Gala and the practise of Pageantry (the Games themselves are referred to as a “pageant”) much like the white, symmetrical nature of Snow’s house represents the White House. Through the food, we see the contrast between District 12, where people starve to death, and the Capitol, where people intentionally throw up so they can eat more (a reference to Rome) – or, if you will, a contrast between the wider USSR where people starved to death and the pampered fatness of the dictators in Moscow. One thing is certain however: the Capitol is the home of the oligarchs. Late-stage communist nations are no strangers to oligarchy, with the longer-lasting regimes becoming increasingly corrupt.
With Snow as our Stalin, Alma Coin is our Trotsky. She maintains the principles of equality with at least some consistency while preaching revolution to her followers. But it is not the planned economy and centralised power that she rails against; merely who is holding that power.
Much like Haymitch, I hated Coin from her first minute on screen and was suddenly left recalling our beloved protagonist’s reminder to “remember who the real enemy is”. When Katniss asserts her individual sovereignty and makes some perfectly reasonable requests, Coin responds with a cold “no” and proudly states that “individuals don’t make demands” in District 13. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Alma Coin negates the individual at every opportunity: the people of District 13 are confined to completely equal and identical living quarters resembling prison cells, their outfits black and identical as though the plot has brought us to the Khmer Rouge. Labour duties are centrally managed and assigned and meals eaten are together, provided by the central power.
The faceless masses of District 13 have their Two Minutes Hate booing and shouting at Peeta through the TV screen when he speaks against their rebellion. To rebel against President Snow and the Capitol was simple; Katniss did it time and time again. To rebel against the authoritarian regime in District 13 is near impossible due to the iron grip of collectivism that holds the people to one cause.
Coin makes Katniss her Mockingjay, her Che Guevara, her symbol of a noble fight against brutality and tyranny. Yet behind her distinctly collectivist rallying cry of “one people, one army, one voice” Alma Coin uses the people of the other districts as cannon fodder for her revolution. Come the end, she chooses to bomb civilians, including her own medics and Katniss’ sister, as part of her propaganda mission. Once in control of the Capitol, Coin pursues a continuation of the same structures of domination, reinstating the Hunger Games but with the children of the Capitol rather than the Districts. She maintains a central hold on power and the only true change she makes is who sits in the presidential seat. Coin’s self-serving behaviour, detestation of competition and tendency towards a close inner circle shows us that given a couple of decades the very system she fought against would be back in full force.
As a final point, I would like to analyse a group of characters that I call the artists. These figures, I believe, represent the role of creatives and academics in both supporting and resisting communist regimes. The first two are Seneca Crane and Caesar Flickerman, whose respective creative outlets of game-making and television broadcasting serve to protect and perpetuate the established regime. When the former fails in his purpose he is purged by President Snow. Then comes Plutarch Heavensbee, a wealthy beneficiary of the regime with a close connection to Snow, whose game-making skills and propagandistic vision make him indispensable to the revolution. Heavensbee is deeply ideological, fully committing to Coin’s rebellion despite the risks, and despite his comfortable life as an important citizen of the Capitol. Yet in the end, Heavensbee’s loyalty to Coin is seen as transitional and a slight smile breaks his face when Katniss assassinates her; he retains his power and security and sees a true change in the system, both an ideological revolutionary and a self-serving anti-hero in one. He also established the organisation known as “Plutarch’s Underground” which involves the stylists Tigress and Cinna as well as the film maker Cressida who all enjoy the comfort of the Capitol but use their creative outlets to help bring the system down. As in any dictatorship, there are those who use their creative abilities to produce state propaganda that favours the regime; then there are those who write novels and poetry, produce films and author polemics against the regime, all in the hope of creating a better world.
So there you have it. Panem is communist, Snow is Stalin and Haymitch is the true hero in all of this. Perhaps you could say this is all cherry-picked and I am reaching for evidence to come to a preconceived conclusion; perhaps I am. But I encourage you to watch the films and read the books with this analysis in mind, as for me it fundamentally altered my experience of the story that I uncritically absorbed as a child.
I will leave you with a reminder from our dear friend Haymitch for when you are assessing the deeper meaning of other works of fiction: remember who the real enemy is.