Most of the Hunger Games mania has been focused on its kick-ass heroine, the love triangle, and what it says about our relationship to reality television. With the plethora of zombie-style apocalypse stories out there lately, true dystopia, about a society that has regressed to a pre-20th century state, has fallen by the wayside. But readers and fans of the films often forget that Collins is writing about a dystopian world. The government may use advanced surveilliance equipment to keep its citizens scared, but the tactics are centuries old — pitting small groups of citizens against one another in hopes that their hate keeps them from unifying. In a way, the Districts are almost like feudal manors, all loyal to the same central power but in no way loyal to one another.
And like that old-fashioned system of government, Panem has some other, darker practices at its core. We don’t get to see much from every District, but what we do see is actually only glanced on in the series. Panem is a funhouse mirror version of the U.S., with Katniss’ District 12 a clear model on Appalachian mining towns in rural Pennsylvania and West Virginia. This is reflected in the first film, which went even further and built the town to look like a mining town from the 1920s or ’30s. There are also the Avoxes, mute household servants who are made to do domestic work after breaking the strict Panem laws. This could be inspired by a number of real-life analogues, from European indentured servitude to strict punishments in ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Collins pulls from historical injustices rather than inventing new ones.
But in District 11, the agricultural farm district, there are some clear parallels being made to the American antebellum South. The District is full of fields that the citizens work through grueling hours, even into the night (where, in a modern twist, they are forced to work in the dark with night vision goggles). The fence around their District is always electrified in order to prevent escapes, and even the younger children, like Rue (who’s only 12) have to work instead of going to school. And we don’t meet too many people from District 11 throughout the series (only Rue, Thresh, and Chaff come to mind), but all of them are described in contrast to the other characters as dark skinned and dark eyed. And Katniss, who’s only ever seen people from other Districts on television in the Hunger Games, can easily recognize all of them because of this.
The punishment for stealing, running away, or breaking any rules at all is being publicly whipped. Again, there’s no problem with Katniss not understanding the subtext of this moment, but how on Earth did readers so easily gloss over these details and allusions to slavery? And why doesn’t anybody (even Collins) care to call it out?
In the film, they had the chance to show the people of District 11, and while they did not cast all black actors (and cast Lenny Kravitz in a role of a Capitol citizen, hinting at more diversity among the haves as well as the have nots), they did at least try to show the destituion of the people and picked a location that could pass for a Southern plantation. In Catching Fire, Katniss has the chance to see District 11 for the first time. While she obviously doesn’t know American history, she is taken aback by the cruelty of the guards. It will be interesting to see how the rebellion in District 11 is treated at the start of the film. We’ve seen a lot of American slave imagery this year, with 12 Years a Slave still fresh in many people’s minds. Maybe this will shock people into realizing the comparisions Collins was making when she wrote the book. But they’re dealing with difficult territory.
But if only Collins had dug into those themes a little more. If racial harmony has regressed that much, how are women treated? Religion isn’t even mentioned in these books, and it’s often a powerful tool in the hands of an oppressive government. Instead, the books don’t really address many social issues. Mockingjay is primarily focused on the rebellion and the cost of war. But there are two movies being made out of one pretty short book. Maybe there’s space to go outside of Katniss’ head a little bit and explore Panem. Glancing over imagery that loaded is shallow for an otherwise pretty astute dystopian satire.