Images of Empire

by Julie Clawson

When I first read The Hunger Games series I was immediately struck by the similarities between the dystopian world of Panem as depicted in the novels and our globalized world today.  Set in what appears to be North America of some post-apocalyptic future, the twelve districts of Panem endlessly labor to supply a wealthy Capitol that controls them through fear and military occupation. The Capitol insists that the districts rely on it for their daily bread, making hunting and foraging illegal even as the masses exist on the brink of starvation. It even demands the tribute of two children each year from each district to fight in a battle to the death called the Hunger Games, which serve as entertainment for Capitol citizens. To question this totalitarian government results in torture or execution, for it holds complete power over every aspect of the lives of Panem citizens.

The power of the Capitol where people live in luxury, demand constant entertainment, and are unused to want, directly parallels the power Western countries hold over the developing world today. As a citizen of the United States, I enjoy the same luxuries as those in the Capitol, which often come to me at the expense of the poor around the world.  According to a Consolidation Plus review, the economic might of Western nations, enabling them to set trade regulations and stipulations on international loans, has created a globalized world where citizens of other countries have no choice but to toil for the benefit of the already privileged and powerful. And all too often, those of us living off the tribute they send are similarly too distracted by our entertainments to bother caring about their plight.

So I appreciated that a young adult novel called attention to the dangers of political and economic oppression, and looked forward to that message being spread further through the film version of The Hunger Games.  Then I saw the film. On the whole I found the movie to be not only a faithful retelling of the story, but also a helpful commentary on the futility of violence and the realities of oppression. The Capitol was just as evil and controlling as in the book, but sadly there was very little in the visual depiction of the Capitol to help viewers make the connection between it and our society. Instead the Capitol appeared visually similar to totalitarian regimes of recent historical memory. From the towering stone buildings, to the flapping red banners, and stylized emblem, the film deliberately evoked memories of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. To contemporary viewers, those fallen empires are the extent of what we think of when we imagine an oppressive or totalitarian government – they are the bad guys that it is safe to hate.

But in truth the controlling power of empire extends beyond political oppression. Just as while the people of Palestine in Jesus’ time may not have daily encounters with physical representatives of the Roman Empire, they still felt the effects of its economic control over their lives , many in the world today feel the economic oppression of having to labor for little reward for the benefit of wealthier nations. Those that make the laws regarding trade or demand goods produced as cheaply as possible have just as much power over those desperate to survive as any political power. While it is hard for many to recognize that democratic countries cause oppression through economic domination, people of the world feel the control of imposing governments as much through economics as military might.

The dire economic circumstances of the districts of Panem ensure that they must submit unquestioningly to the Capitol in order to survive – a reality that might get lost against the movies’ iconic images of an oppressive government.   If we are to cheer for the girl on fire as she struggles to survive the Capitol’s games, we cannot allow the imagery of the film to let us forget that that her struggles began long before the Games as she tried to keep her family from starving while those in the Capitol lived in luxury off of her districts’ hard work. The Hunger Games can be an avenue for discussing systems of exploitation in our world today, but it is difficult to see how we resemble Panem if we assume that real life oppression is limited to “bad guys” like the Nazis or the Soviets. There is suffering in our world just like in the districts of Panem. The world is talking about The Hunger Games right now, to make that talk mean something it needs to shine a light on the oppression in our own world and move us to then do something about it.

Julie Clawson ( is the author of The Hunger Games and the Gospel (Patheos Press) and Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (InterVarsity Press). She lives in Austin, TX with her family.

Julie Clawson

4 Responses to “Images of Empire”

  1. Kelly Wood Farrow

    Hey, Julie!! Thanks for your post. I agree that the film was faithful to the story and a truly outstanding book-to-film adaptation. I don’t think it’s going too far to say this is as good an adaptation as LOTR (REALLY high praise, seriously). 🙂 This makes me think of a discussion going on in my library teachers’ listserv these days. One teacher brought up the issue that she disagreed w/ schools who were having Hunger Games parties in their schools to discuss and promote the books and to respond to the excitement surrounding the film. She felt that to have a HG party was basically akin to the HG’s themselves–celebrating what shouldn’t be celebrated. She also brought up the additional point that as educators, our primary job isn’t to “hype up” a book or film… But to me that’s kind of a different issue. How would you feel about a school, library, or other group hosting a HG party? Do you feel that’s another way of obscuring the book’s clear point that our entertainment culture is a huge part of our country’s obsession w/ escapism?

  2. Arthur Pare

    If I had created the book layout for Scholastic, I would have had a tattered and torn copy of the Bill of Rights on the frontpiece of the book. The 1st and 2nd Amendments are crucial to American interests in keeping this similarity to The Capital from becoming reality. I sincerely hope that this new generation recognizes not only the injustice shown in the trilogy but also the checks and balances that have thus far prevented the USA from deteriorating completely into this dystopian world.

  3. Brian Walsh

    Thanks so much for this guest blog, Julie. I saw the film last night with my daughters and was impressed by how faithful the film was to the book. And I wonder whether it might have been faithful in its portrayal of Panem as well. The danger of employing the iconography of empire’s other than our own is, as you rightly note, that it creates a distance that is comforting. Panem doesn’t look like our imperial reality, so we can objectify the meaning and effectively ignore it. But I wonder whether Collins does the same thing in the book. And if so, why does she do it? Or is the literary product more porous than the film, thereby allowing for easier self-identification?
    But the most insightful comment about the film came from my daughter Madeleine who climbed out of bed to come to our room last night to say, “Of course the irony of it all is that we were sitting in the theatre watching this spectacle, just like the citizens of the capital were watching the hunger games.”
    There is the heart of the issue. If this series of movies serves to be happy entertainment for the masses, raking in the millions upon millions of dollars, then in the end, might we have been better off without ever having the films produced?

  4. andiibowsher

    I’d been ignoring th film, but you’vemade me think it could be quite significant in ongoing cultural conversation.


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