Why The Hunger Games is More Academic Than It Seems: A Review of the First Two Books As Illuminated by Zygmunt Bauman's "Happiness in a Society of Individuals"

I made reference in an earlier blog post which I did about the first Hunger Games book to the fact that I like these books because of the comment that they make on the reality television phenomena.  This point was articulated particularly well by Mark Naglazas in his review of the film, which I have since seen.  At the time of writing that review, I was beginning to grasp an idea of how to interpret the books, the idea being that these books make some sort of comment on the way we live now while seemingly being completely disconnected with reality.  This is a feat which many books, particularly Young Adult books strive for and don't always achieve.  The reader is also an important part in this making of meaning, because while the writer may intend to say one thing, a reader is responsible for taking what they will out of it.  And I am a reader like everyone else.

So, on the one hand, you could say that in the first two Hunger Games books, a character named Katniss Everdeen is selected to participate in an annual event known as The Hunger Games in which she and 23 other "tributes" must fight to be the last competitor left alive.  The Hunger Games exist as an annual reminder of the Capitol's strength after an uprising that took place 74 years before.  Katniss wins, but defies the Capitol in allowing a second tribute from her district to win alongside her by faking love for him and devising a suicide pact.  In the second book, Katniss struggles to convince the Capitol that her love for Peeta was genuine and accidentally becomes a figurehead for a partisan movement.  As punishment, she is placed in The Games again as part of a competition between prior champions.

On the other hand, what we have is a demonstration of Zygmunt Bauman's theory (alongside others... I'm sure Foucaultian ideas are in there, because Foucault's ideas always come up.) of Happiness in a Society of Individuals.  This is a really fascinating article and I recommend Hunger Games fans try to read it if they can get their hands on it. 

Bauman says that reality television is presented as a simulation of real life- that is, the audience is supposed to believe that what they are seeing is exactly the same as what would happen were the cameras to stop rolling.  However, each person on the show is competing for 'survival'.  In Bauman's example of Big Brother, the competitors work to stay on the show, but in the Hunger Games this is taken to its logical extreme as competitors must physically kill one another to survive.  This exclusion principle works on the premise that "someone must be excluded each week: not because, by some curious coincidence, regularly, every week, one person shows themselves as being inadequate, but because it has been written into the rules of 'reality' as seen on TV." (Bauman, 21)  Each person competing, then, selfishly pursues their own interests alone.  They are rewarded with recognition.  The alternative to this is humiliation, defined by Bauman as being "brutally shown, by words, actions or events, that they cannot be what they think they are." (Bauman, 22)  The consequence of this is resentment.

And resentment is exactly what Katniss Everdeen experiences as she tours the districts in book 2 of the trilogy, somewhat enigmatically named Catching Fire for those who don't know what to expect.  As she tours the districts, she becomes aware of unrest.  The Capitol have humiliated the districts for 74 years and Katniss's actions have given rise to an opportunity to react.  

Another similarity is that the Capitol is a classic example of the pursuit of happiness in a society of individuals.  Their fashion choices and love of ridiculous and inhumane entertainment is illustrative of the one-upmanship which is so necessary for consumerist happiness.  "Consumption leafs not to surety and satiety but to escalating anxiety.  Enough can never be enough... In a world in which 'everyone' can afford a luxury car, those who really aim high' have no option but to go one better." (Bauman, 25). 

I think that it would be boring an unnecessary for me to talk more at length about how this article applies to the books, but I will say this- if you are searching for deeper meaning from your YA dystopian fiction, this is a great place to begin your search.  


  1. So true about Foucault coming up in everything!

    I think this is a really interesting point about the Hunger Games - I'll definitely be looking into the "Happiness in a Society of Individuals" thing, I've never heard of it but it clearly applies to these books.

    Thanks for posting :)


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