The second installment of the Hunger Games trilogy, “Catching Fire,” opened last weekend to popular and critical acclaim, and the film adaptation certainly does not disappoint. It is generally a faithful and gripping translation of Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic vision of the origins of revolution in a tyrannical world. Much has been made of the religious, and even specifically Christian, themes of the series. But amidst the varied reception of the trilogy by Christian commentators, it is worth pondering what is perhaps the dominant message of the second film, captured in Haymitch Abernathy’s warning: “Remember who the real enemy is.”
Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic at Christianity Today, explores this warning in her review, which in large part focuses on the contemporary setting of the film phenomenon. Pointing to the plethora of tie-in merchandising surrounding the film, including Subway’s “Fiery Footlong” sandwiches and related “Victory Tour” promotion, Wilkinson writes that she is “appalled.” This promotion “declaws” the message of the trilogy, by replacing the substance of the books with the flashiness of marketing and the superficiality of consumerism. The books themselves, she writes, “are a biting critique and giant flashing warning sign that says that this kind of substitution of appearances for reality puts us on the fast track to tyranny.” Fast-food giveaways, licensed action figures, and red carpets “are mere symbols of a story that criticizes those who would look to symbols and surfaces to cover over what's really going on beneath.”
So, these corporations like Subway “give us what we ask for. Bread and circuses. Chocolate and theme parks.” As Wilkinson concludes, invoking Haymitch’s warning, the market would seemingly be the enemy.
And yet this isn’t the message of Collins’ book at all. The problem with Panem is not that corporations like Subway have taken over the world and are pushing their products everywhere and always. The people of District 12 would no doubt love to have an institution like Subway where they could reliably enjoy fresh and delicious food at affordable prices. The problem with Panem is, rather, that the conspicuous consumption of a few elites has conspired together with brutal political power to exclude the majority of citizens from the marketplace. One of the key actions that foments the incipient revolt against the Capitol’s tyranny is the closing down of black markets in the districts, which were one of the few ways that the people could get staple goods. The closest Katniss ever gets to a "Fiery Footlong" in District 12 is a burned loaf of bread from Peeta’s bakery.
Wilkinson is right to point to hedonism as a seedbed for tyranny. As Gamemaker Heavensbee puts it memorably in the film, the parties characteristic of Capitol socialites are enjoyable only to the extent that one’s moral faculties are inured to the decadence. Wilkinson cogently collates a series of consumption patterns that Capitol citizens pursue, which ought to arouse our horror and disgust.
But the specific way this connection between materialistic sensuality and tyranny works out in Panem is that the hedonistic consumerism of the Capitol elites is enabled by extraction of the economic power of the districts. Panem isn’t anything like a functioning market economy, certainly not a free market. It is, instead, what economists like Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson rightly identify as an “extractive” economy. The tyranny of President Snow and the Capitol’s ruling class comes in the exclusion of the vast majority of the people of Panem from the economic institutions that are so necessary for flourishing – things like property rights, the right to associate and to trade freely, and the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s own labor.
Apart from the specific and horrifying brutality of the Hunger Games charade itself, Panem ends up in a state of revolution precisely because the oppressed are no longer willing to remain at the margins, forcibly excluded from enjoying the goods and services they themselves produce. The brutality and violence of the Hunger Games system is just one variation on a much longer theme in the human history of tyranny: the use of political power to take wealth from the many and redistribute it at the whim and pleasure of the elite. Collins’ imagery evocative of the ancient world, especially Rome, is instructive in this way. Just like the coercively redistributive polities of ancient Aegean societies, particularly those dependent on forms of bonded or slave labor, Panem provides for the wants of the few out of the needs of the many.
In this way, the most salient warning of the Hunger Games trilogy for us today lies not in the ill-conceived marketing schemes of businesses, which must be admitted are legion (consider, for instance, Denny’s Hobbit Menu), but rather in the threat represented by the elite capture of political power, whether cronyist or socialist, including what economists call corporatism, rent seeking, and regulatory capture. The closer contemporary analogs to Panem’s system would then be phenomena like energy and farm subsidies, as well as other corporate welfare policies rather than tacky and tasteless Subway merchandising and brand tie-ins.
Wilkinson is right to decry the materialistic hedonism characteristic of the Capitol, and to the extent that our culture of consumerism distracts us from the deeper political and more significant spiritual problems facing us today, then the real enemy has been forgotten. But in the end, the real enemy of freedom and prosperity today is the despotism represented by the Capitol elites, or what has been called “America’s ruling class.” As Haymitch would no doubt put it, the true tyrant is President Snow, not the Subway CEO.