Foucault is judging you Susan Collins...
So I saw the latest Hunger Games film, Catching Fire, this past weekend. As someone who dislikes children and loves war, this is pretty much the ideal franchise for me. I also love a good dystopia. In fact I think dystopia may be one of my favourite genres. But while I think the films are great, the actual Hunger Games, as a method for political control, are a terrible idea.
For those who haven’t seen the Hunger Games films or read the books, the continent of Panem is run by a totalitarian regime centred at the Capitol and surrounded by 12 impoverished districts. As punishment for a past revolt, every year a boy and a girl ('tributes') are picked at random and sent to the Capitol to fight to the death in the titular Hunger Games.
This is an utterly ridiculous method for maintaining political control. Why take children as tributes? Why make them fight to the death? Why have a victor rather than just killing them all?
To answer these questions, lets take a look at the sociologist, Foucault, who wrote a lot about punishment and systems of power.
According to Foucault, for executions to be effective as political tools, they require three things:
- A public confession of guilt. Punishment cannot be seen as random or capricious; it needs to be linked to the guilt of the perpetrator.
- Linking the punishment to the crime. So, for example, scaffold for hangings was constructed near or at the location at which the original crime had taken place, thus linking the punishment with the crime geographically. Another method for linking the punishment with the crime was the use of ‘symbolic’ punishment. Blasphemers had their tongues cut out or murderers had a hand removed.
- Spectacle; It was important to see the criminal suffer.
So obviously the Hunger Games has the spectacle part sorted. The games are televised and there’s a big build-up before the games with processions and tv interviews. The tributes have their own stylists and they are tarted up and paraded in front of the frothing spectators of the capital. The Hunger Games themselves are also spectacular in their raw brutality. Foucault explains that the spectacle of the public execution has an obvious political use because it shows that the sovereign is all-powerful and capable of unleashing his or her mighty wrath upon the guilty. When a criminal breaks the law, it is not just a crime but an attack on the sovereign whose responsibility it is to introduce and uphold law and order. A punishment is therefore an act of the sovereign and a public punishment is a visible demonstration of the sovereign’s power.
But the other two components are largely absent from the hunger games.
There is no confession of guilt because the children cannot possibly be guilty for a rebellion that happened 70 odd years ago. The tributes are also picked at random which further diminishes their culpability for the crime for which they are being brutally punished. Punishing the children can therefore only ever be seen as unfair. You could argue that the districts have some sort of collective guilt that’s passed through the generations but this implies a superstitious or religious society (i.e. a belief that there is a ‘soul’ or some other ethereal entity beyond the physical body which can be tainted) which doesn’t fit with Collins’s portrayal of Panem as a largely secular society.
Finally, there doesn’t seem to be a particular link between the punishment and the crime. There certainly isn’t a geographical link because the location of the games changes each time. You could maybe argue that it’s fitting for the districts to be forced to fight each other since they tried to fight the Capitol but this seems a bit of a symbolic stretch. The format of the games seems to be completely divorced from the rebellion for which they are apparently a reminder.
So the hunger games only fulfills one of the three essential elements that Foucault lists for a politically effective execution.
In the first film, there is a scene between President Snow and Seneca Crane, the Head Gamemaker, where they discuss why the hunger games are used. President Snow says something about how giving people hope, but not too much hope, is what keeps people in line. He offers no evidence or reasoning behind this somewhat bizarre claim and were I Crane I would have insisted that Snow provided a more detailed explanation of his theory (ideally with appropriate citations and references).
Unfortunately, Crane does not challenge Snow into providing a more intellectually rigourous explanation for his seriously underdeveloped theory of political control. Instead Crane changes the rules of the game so that two tributes can win the games instead of one. Thus Peeta and Katniss can both win. This is, ostensibly, to give people hope because everyone loves a romance story. But the rules are then inexplicably rescinded right at the end of the games so that one of them has to kill the other. What is this madness?! There is no way you could make this sort of last minute rule change without invoking everyone’s collective ire. Having changed the rules to allow for two victors, you can’t just change the rules again because this kind of capricious application of rules just offends people’s socially conditioned sense of fairness.
So I guess the conclusion is that the Hunger Games is a great film about a highly flawed political tool. Perhaps President Snow should take a gander at Foucault, then he would know that, “the great spectacle of punishment runs the risk of being rejected by the very people to whom it is addressed.”
Go read Foucault's 'Discipline and Punish' - it's awesome...