Resisting the Hobbesian Narrative: Hope and Morality in ‘The Hunger Games’

By Loaay Wattad

“Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear.”

President Snow, The Hunger Games

This powerful quote encapsulates a key theme in the resurgence of dystopian literature, particularly in young adult (YA) dystopian literature. While dystopian literature for adults often depicts a gloomy reality with despondent conclusions, the change in the target group has transformed these narratives. Dystopian literature has become a powerful cultural force, shedding light on societal apprehensions and uncertainties about the future. While this genre has somewhat waned in adult literature, it has experienced a resurgence among younger readers. The interplay between power, violence, and technology as a means of control has been a central theme in many dystopian novels for young adults. A crucial difference emerges when comparing dystopian literature for adults with that for a younger audience: the existence of hope.

While dystopian literature for adults often depicts a bleak reality that results in hopeless conditions and catastrophe, dystopian literature for young adults explores the potential for hope. It presents dystopia not as an inevitable end point, but as a perspective that arises from the reconstruction of reality and the ability to effect change.

I aim to elucidate this phenomenon through a case study of The Hunger Games book trilogy (2008-2010) by Susan Collins[1], coupled with the examination of its prequel released a decade later The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (2020)[2]. Specifically, it focuses on the evolution of hope and morality in dystopian narratives. It also explores how this literature manifests and reverberates in our daily lives and emphasizes its development into a tangible political statement—one that challenges Hobbesian philosophy and its expression in contemporary politics. This analysis takes on added poignancy in light of current events, such as the ongoing war on Gaza, highlighting the timeliness and relevance of dystopian reflections in the face of contemporary conflicts and wars. However, before delving into these specifics, it is imperative to provide a comprehensive discussion of the political and cultural context within which dystopian literature evolved over the last century.

Dystopian Literature and World War II

Dystopian literature, distinct from utopian visions of an ‘ideal city’, focuses on depicting societies at their nadir, ensnared in the grip of oppressive power. This genre explores realms marked by adverse conditions, portraying grim futures or alternate realities where individuals grapple with challenges like governmental control, surveillance, and societal upheaval. Functioning as cautionary tales, these works serve as mirrors reflecting the potential repercussions of unchecked power, its societal ramifications, and the transformative impact of technological advancements on human existence.

The two bears: Gaza, November 2023. Photograph by Belal Khaled, Instagram: @belalkh.

According to Thomas Moylan[3], dystopia is characterized as distinct from its generic counterparts, utopia, and anti-utopia. Unlike utopia, which typically implies a creative and critical stance, and anti-utopia, which often asserts that seeking alternatives is more dangerous than accepting the status quo, dystopia navigates a continuum between the two. Dystopian texts are described as existing within an already oppressive society, and their narrative trajectory unfolds on contested terrain influenced by historically opposed political tendencies—the Party of Utopia and the Party of Anti-Utopia.

Conservative dystopian arguments may assert the absence of alternatives, risking a transformation into full-fledged anti-utopia. On the other hand, progressively inclined dystopian texts, by refusing to settle for the status quo, explore positive utopian possibilities through their negative engagement with dystopian worlds. Dystopia is portrayed as a tool capable of capturing the extent of human and ecological devastation brought about by the latest configurations of capitalism and imperialism, while also revealing seeds of opposition within the existing social system.

20th-century classics of dystopian literature are works such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921)[4], Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)[5], George Orwell’s 1984-Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)[6], and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953)[7]. Notably, many seminal works in this genre emerged during and after World War II. The rise of totalitarian regimes and technological advancements, particularly the development of nuclear weapons, shaped the prevalent themes in this genre. The potential for catastrophic consequences arising from these technological strides has remained a pervasive theme in dystopian literature, addressing concerns that endure to this day. A case in point is Brave New World, which envisions a future society where scientific and technological progress results in the dehumanization of individuals.

In the realm of social dynamics, the post-war years marked substantial shifts, with the emergence of consumerism in the 1950s becoming a central theme in dystopian literature. Another pivotal social phenomenon influencing this genre was the proliferation of McCarthyism, characterized by the persecution and suppression of dissenting voices. These circumstances fostered an atmosphere of behavioral conformity, where deviations from socially accepted norms were met with accusations of foolishness and peculiarity. Exemplifying this theme, Fahrenheit 451 portrays a society in which books are banned, and thoughts are stifled, reflecting concerns about censorship and societal uniformity.

Nearly seven decades post-World War II, a contemporary examination of dystopian literature allows us to assess the prescient warnings these books conveyed. Orwell’s 1984, resonates with present-day anxieties surrounding data privacy, government overreach, technology misuse, media and information manipulation, and, notably, the fluid interpretation of justice, truth, and those who advocate for it. Similarly, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 shifts focus to the suppression of intellectual freedom via censorship, portraying a society where books are banned, and reading becomes an act of rebellion. This cautionary tale resonates in today’s debates on freedom of expression, information control, and the consequences of an ill-informed society. Buthaina Al-Issa’s 2019 novel Guardian of the World’s Surface[8] offers a modern parallel, depicting a government’s quest to eliminate dreams and emotions to maintain positive realism, resembling the themes explored by Orwell and Bradbury. Al-Issa’s protagonist, like those in Orwell and Bradbury’s works, begins as a book censor, adding a contemporary layer to the enduring relevance of dystopian literature in anticipating and understanding evolving threats to personal freedom.

Philosophical beginnings

The historical philosophical beginnings of utopia and dystopia trace back to the profound reflections of prominent thinkers throughout different epochs in various languages and contexts. The modern concept of utopia, envisioning an ideal society, goes back to Sir Thomas More and his book Utopia (1516)[9] that was influenced by Renaissance humanism and represents a critique of contemporary socio-political structures. His ideas are also related to Arab and Greek thinkers such as Ibn Tufayl, Al-Farabi[10] or Plato who explored notions of an ‘ideal city’. In contrast, modern dystopian thought emerged during the Enlightenment, notably shaped by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, whose work Leviathan (1651) [11] painted a bleak picture of the ‘state of nature,’ envisioning a chaotic society without centralized authority.

Hobbes engages in a thought experiment that would evolve into a distinct literary genre, introducing the concept of the social contract—an exploration of a society before the establishment of a state or system. According to Hobbes, the state of human nature equates to utter chaos, a scenario characterized by a war of all against all. He posits that without a framework of totalitarian authority, there is no assurance that individuals will not resort to violence, even to the extent of seizing property from one another. Consequently, Hobbes argues for the necessity of a security entity within society.

While Hobbes paved the way, subsequent thinkers like John Locke[12], who emphasized individual rights and the social contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau[13], who focused on the idea of the noble savage and the general will, and others proposed alternative scenarios for the state of nature, introducing diverse perspectives into the discourse.

Deconstructing Dystopia: The Hunger Games as an example

Broadening the exploration of dystopia beyond the classics, reveals a notable shift in the last decade towards engaging a different audience—young adults. Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy stands out prominently in this context, alongside the Divergent[14] series, The Giver[15], and various other literary series. Set in the dystopian nation of Panem, governed by the Capitol, the Hunger Games unfold in the remnants of North America after life-threatening natural disasters. The Capitol exercises tyrannical control over the twelve surrounding districts, deploying guards called “Peace Keepers” in each district. Through the annual Hunger Games, wherein a boy and a girl from each district, aged twelve to eighteen, are chosen to duel to the death on a reality show, the Capitol asserts its dominance. This mechanism, reminiscent of the Roman Empire’s gladiatorial spectacles, uniquely targets children, symbolizing the Capitol’s attempt to stifle future dissent and control the bodies, lives, and moral choices of the younger generation according to Capitol Law.

However, The Hunger Games is not a traditional dystopian narrative; instead, it presents objectionable alternatives to the ruling regime. In the opening installment of the trilogy, the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, stands as a formidable archer and resourceful individual, boldly defying the Capitol’s control. As a tribute from District Twelve in the perilous Hunger Games, Katniss not only navigates the challenging dynamics of the deadly competition but also confronts the Capitol’s authority. She demonstrates her moral stance by threatening suicide during a live broadcast, demanding the opportunity to form a partnership with her district colleague. This principled rejection of killing and a preference for death over becoming a tool for Capitol entertainment and intimidation becomes a symbol of revolution in all provinces, as revealed in the second book of the series, Catching Fire. Katniss’s simple act plants a grain of hope, lighting a small flame symbolizing the possibility of dissent against Capitol rule—a flame that transforms into a blazing symbol of resistance.

In the third book of The Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, Katniss assumes an official role as a symbol of revolution, aligning herself with the rebels against the Capitol government. The narrative takes a darker and more somber turn. In a poignant scene, Katniss visits a hospital to uplift the spirits of the wounded and instill hope. However, upon leaving the hospital, Capitol planes swiftly attack, pursuing Katniss and ruthlessly destroying the hospital along with everyone inside. This traumatic event deeply unsettles and infuriates Katniss. Standing in front of the smoldering ruins of the hospital, she broadcasts a stark and realistic message for the rebels, recounting the devastating events that transpired within the hospital:

“I want to tell the rebels that I am alive. That I’m right here in District Eight, where the Capitol has just bombed a hospital full of unarmed men, women, and children. There will be no survivors. […] I want to tell people that if you think for one second the Capitol will treat us fairly if there’s a cease-fire, you’re deluding yourself. Because you know who they are and what they do. […] President Snow says he’s sending us a message? Well, I have one for him. You can torture us and bomb us and burn our districts to the ground, but do you see that? […] Fire is catching! And if we burn, you burn with us!” (Mockingjay, p. 117-118)

The soccer shirt: Gaza, October 2023. Belal Khaled, Instagram: @belalkh.

The profound impact of this harrowing scene is encapsulated in the next uttered word in the book: “Cut!” (i.e. to “Stop filming”). Author Collins astutely acknowledges the real-world necessity to document all events, no matter how distressing, for global awareness and action. In The Hunger Games, the audience extends beyond the Capitol to include the rebels. The horror of a hospital, filled with vulnerable wounded individuals, being obliterated is universally comprehended. However, for it to wield political influence, the world must witness the events, underscoring the crucial role of the press. In The Hunger Games universe, all journalism serves political objectives, be it aligned with the Capitol or the rebels. A critical examination of this narrative unfolds at an advanced stage in the same book, during another explosive event that warrants further exploration.

Katniss proceeds towards the presidential palace, intent on confronting President Snow. At the palace entrance, she encounters a group of refugees seeking shelter, realizing that President Snow is callously using them as human shields. Drawing nearer, Katniss discerns the shocking truth that these refugees are all children. The children, hopeful for aid, eagerly gather around as parachutes descend. Tragically, some of these parachutes detonate, adding another layer of horror. Subsequently, as medical aid forces rush to assist the injured children, a second round of parachute explosions unfolds, claiming the lives of all the children and medical personnel, including Katniss’ sister.

This heinous act aligns with the Capitol’s sinister policy, honed over the years through the exploitation of children in The Hunger Games. Throughout the entire Hunger Games series, a disquieting truth unfolds: the Capitol’s war is explicitly directed against children. This deliberate targeting of the youth serves as a chilling strategy, reinforcing the Capitol’s oppressive control by not only extinguishing young lives but also instilling fear and submission in the hearts of the oppressed districts, perpetuating the cycle of cruelty and subjugation.

In a conversation with President Snow following his arrest, Katniss uncovers a startling revelation that he was not responsible for the bombing of the children. Instead, it was a calculated scheme orchestrated by the rebel leader to falsely attribute the atrocity to President Snow, undermining the legitimacy of the tyrant Snow: “The idea that I was bombing our own helpless children instantly snapped whatever frail allegiance my people still felt to me” (Mockingjay, p. 417). In these pivotal scenes, Collins unveils her overarching narrative, asserting that power and authority, when wielded in the crucible of war, can lead parties to transgress the moral boundaries they once defended. Ultimately, in The Hunger Games, the rebel leader transforms into a tyrant herself, resorting to the killing of children for political propaganda—paralleling the actions of President Snow. This revelation neither absolves President Snow nor the Capitol government, but leaves both the rebels and Capitol residents to navigate a path, together, toward safety in the aftermath.

Numerous scenes from The Hunger Games may now strike a chord of familiarity, their resonance heightened by the degree of similarity between the depicted horrific events and certain unsettling realities in the contemporary world, particularly within the context of the recent war on Gaza. While, at the time of the book’s publication, these scenes seemed distant from reality, their cruelty and dystopian nature surpassed initial expectations within the realm of young adult literature. The series’ prescient themes echo unsettling parallels with present-day events, emphasizing the enduring relevance and disconcerting reflection of societal dynamics portrayed within its pages. The persistent comparison between The Hunger Games‘ dystopian Panem and the challenging circumstances in Palestine is a recurring theme often scrutinized by various commentators[16]. This analogy garnered significant attention, particularly during the series’ cinematic release. The narrative of The Hunger Games has unsettling parallels to the Palestinian struggle against oppressive forces. The actions of the Israeli government in Gaza mirror the tactics of the Capitol and echo the dystopian narrative.

Perhaps due to its numerous parallels with real-world issues, The Hunger Games stands out as a notable series in contemporary young adult dystopian literature. The series transforms dystopian literature into an astute political commentary on power, its use, and the fluidity of moral boundaries. However, The Hunger Games is not merely a cautionary tale; it is also a narrative of hope. It embodies the hope of resisting formidable forces like the Capitol, the hope of standing up against tyrannical figures such as President Snow, regardless of the seemingly divine and omnipotent nature of their authority. Katniss exemplifies this hope by weakening the once indomitable Capitol regime, which had ruled North America for 75 years, reflecting the number of Hunger Games. It is not surprising that the director (Gary Ross) of the first Hunger Games movie chose to express this idea through the quote I mentioned above: “Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear,” uttered by the tyrannical President Snow. Although this quote doesn’t appear in the books, it feels fitting and appropriate, capturing the essence of The Hunger Games.

Aftermath

A decade after The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins unveiled a prequel titled A Song of Songbirds and Snakes (2020), narrating President Snow’s early years as he joins the Hunger Games planning crew. Collins intricately explores the origins of the malevolence associated with Snow in the original series, commencing the book with quotes from social contract philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Through the novel, Collins illustrates how Hobbes’s theories shaped President Snow’s understanding of power during his youth. Political science researcher Michael Allen Fox[17] highlights the dominance of the Hobbesian state of nature in shaping contemporary perspectives on war mentality, advocating resistance against narratives glorifying war as the sole means of controlling human nature.

In The Hunger Games prequel, Collins underscores, through characters embodying the philosophies of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the imperative need to reject and resist tyranny, even when manipulated to present a violent and bloody reality as the sole recourse. The Hunger Games, ostensibly serving the Capitol’s elite, imparts a lesson on vigilance against power in all its manifestations, mirroring the insights of the original series.

In an era marked by hyper-partisanship, dystopian literature implores us to safeguard fundamental moral concepts and prompts us to scrutinize assertions about the naturalness of the existing order and its normalization. While this literature served as a cautionary tool during World War II, now in the hands of young adults, it transforms into a beacon of hope. It suggests the possibility of resisting the Hobbesian narrative depicting humanity’s inherent evil and advocates recognizing and embracing innate goodness to avert the bleak futures depicted in dystopian literature. This, according to the narrative, is key to saving children from The Hunger Games, preventing hospital bombings, and shielding refugee camps from shelling.


References

[1] Collins, S. (2008), The Hunger Games (Vol. 1). Scholastic Inc.; Collins, S. (2008), Catching Fire (Vol. 2). Scholastic Inc.; Collins, S. (2008), Mockingjay (Vol. 3). Scholastic Inc.

[2]  Collins, S. (2020). The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: A Hunger Games Novel (Vol. 4). Scholastic Australia.‏

[3] Moylan, T. (2018). Scraps of the untainted sky: Science fiction, utopia, dystopia. Routledge.‏

[4] Zamyatin, Y. (1921). We, UK.‏

[5] Huxley, A. (1932). Brave New World. ‏London: Chatto & Windus.

[6] Orwell, J. (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). London: Secker & Warburg.

[7] Bradbury, R. (1953). Fahrenheit 451. NYC: Ballantine Books.

[8] العيسى، ب. (2019). حارس سطح الأرض. منشورات تكوين والدار العربية للعلوم ناشرون.
[Al-Issa, B. (2019). Hares Sat’h Al-Ard. Taqueen publishing & The Arab publishing house for science]

[9] More, T. (1890[1516]). More’s utopia. The University Press.‏

[10] Regnier, D. (2018). Utopia’s Moorish Inspiration: Thomas More’s Reading of Ibn Ṭufayl. Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme, 41(3), 17-45.‏

[11] Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. London: Printed for A. Crooke. Retrieved from: 10.5479/sil.59773.39088001833995

[12] Locke, J. (1948[1689]). The second treatise of civil government and A letter concerning toleration. Oxford: B. Blackwell,

[13] Rousseau, J.-J. (2004[1762]). The social contract. Penguin Books.

[14]  Roth, V. (2011). Divergent (Vol. 1). New York, NY: HarperCollins.; Roth, V. (2012). Insurgent (Vol. 2). New York, NY: HarperCollins. ; Roth, V. (2013). Allegiant (Vol. 3). New York, NY: HarperCollins.

[15]  Lowry, L. (1993-2014). The Giver Quartet. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.‏

[16] Khader, J. (2013, December 28). When the revolution comes to Israel. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2013/12/28/when-the-revolution-comes-to-israel ; Baroud, R. (2015, February 13). Mockingjay Palestine: If we burn, you burn with us. Middle East Eye. https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/mockingjay-palestine-if-we-burn-you-burn-us ; Zornosa, L. (2023, November 17). We’re Not Too Far From the Reality of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. TIME. https://time.com/6337113/hunger-games-squid-game-dystopian-reality/

[17] Fox, M. A. (2013). Understanding peace: A comprehensive introduction. Routledge.‏


About the author

Loaay Wattad is a 2023-2024 EUME Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien, and a literary scholar and critic specializing in the sociology of Palestinian and Israeli children’s literature.


Citation: Loaay Wattad, Resisting the Hobbesian Narrative: Hope and Morality in ‘The Hunger Games’, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.12.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49733



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 20. Dezember). Resisting the Hobbesian Narrative: Hope and Morality in ‘The Hunger Games’ TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 23. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vfa8

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The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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