From Queen Esther to Occupy: 5 Ways to Interpret ‘The Hunger Games’

By  · Published on March 26th, 2012

Maybe our science fiction writers have failed us with all their damned pessimism, or maybe we’re all just obsessed with the world ending because it’s definitely going to stop spinning this year. Either way, everyone on this doomed planet is currently obsessed with the cold, distant Dystopian futures of hits like The Hunger Games.

Now it’s time to figure out what it all means (which also means a bit of psychoanalysis). Good thing the Jennifer Lawrence-starring flick has people hungrily dissecting it for meaning. The results? Old Jewish heroines, our cinematic past, Occupy Wall Street, unspoken sexuality and the anti-Twilight.

Home for Purim: Katniss as Queen Esther

“Once upon a time, a young girl from an oppressed minority was summoned to the capital. The nation watched as she competed against her peers, and won. She could have done the thing that was expected of her and lived happily ever after. But instead she risked everything – not just her newly won riches and standing, but her life – to stand up for her people. And these people, with her as their heroine and figurehead, rose up violently. We would like to say that then they all lived happily ever after, but the text doesn’t quite permit us that luxury. Still, the war was epic, and the story became beloved, the bitterness of the ending often skipped over. Its legend is considered myth, fairy tale, or fantasy, even though the supernatural is notably absent.

Sound familiar? This is the story of the Book of Esther – and of The Hunger Games…”

Abigail Miller over at Tablet finds a startlingly connective parallel between Suzanne Collins’s novel and the story of the young Jewess who stops a prime minister in the ancient Persian Empire from killing all of the Jewish people. The above excerpt is striking, but the similarities even go right down to Purim (which means “lots,” like the kind you cast to find out which kid will be fighting to the death on your behalf).

Teen Sex and the Culture of Voyeurism

“No surprise that Collins also flips the whole teen-porn-at-one-remove thing inside out by making even adult readers empathize with her characters’ miserable consciousness of performing for other people’s jollies. The telltale allusions to public nudity are something the movie will presumably have to skip visualizing. But in tune with Collins’s overall approach, the point is vulnerability, not pandering, one more reason to be grateful that Zack Snyder, let alone Michael Bay, didn’t get his mitts on directing the screen version.”

Although it’s more buzzy than coherent, Tom Carson’s piece for GQ evokes “The Lord of the Flies” in the same heavy breath as The Hunger Games. He doesn’t spell it out, but the assumption here is that unspoken sexuality of the infamous sow-killing scene in William Golding’s novel in addition to the overt child violence and the bonus of Katniss and friends doing it all on live television equates to a sort of innocence lost by way of reality television. Is an arrow really that phallic? Is the systemic creation of aggression and bloodlust always symbolically sexual?

Hunger and the Most Dangerous Game

“In fact, Collins herself has cited almost too many inspirations for ‘The Hunger Games,’ from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur – in which seven Athenian boys and seven Athenian girls are sent into the Cretan labyrinth as sacrifices to the bull-headed monster – to the gladiatorial games of the Roman Empire to television coverage of the Iraq War to ‘Survivor’ and its many offshoots. All of that is in there, to be sure. But to some degree she’s supplying ex post facto, overly intellectual analysis of something that’s really much simpler.”

Leave it to the ever-brilliant Andrew O’Hehir over at Salon to explore The Hunger Games by digging into the books and movies that came before it. From Stephen King’s “The Long Walk” and “The Running Man” to classics like The Most Dangerous Game and Logan’s Run, most of these are available on bookshelves and instant queues right now. At the very least, it showcases the differences that Hunger brings to the table alongside a stunning short history of how we view the sports-crazed, totalitarian future.

Katniss Could Kick Bella’s Ass

“And while both Bella and Katniss get things they want out of their leaving – Bella gets to be a vampire, Katniss gets to go home – Katniss’s perceived resolution is much more satisfying and compelling. Despite stacked odds and an evil system, she has persevered and won (though her win is obviously tinged with pain, regret, and suffering), and she has accomplished something bigger and better than herself.”

Bella simply triumphs over a specific and ultimately short-lived pain that she’s asked for, and asked for with only selfish intentions. Her victory is only worth celebrating if you’re convinced that the culmination of an abusive and immature relationship is worth celebrating.”

Kate Erbland does a fine job taking all those cosmetic Twilight comparisons and extrapolating them out to the fullest effect. Yes, the books were huge just like “Twilight.” Yes, they feature a young female hero just like “Twilight.” Yes, everyone used “Twilight” as a jumping-off point to write about “The Hunger Games.” There’s where the similarities end, and Erbland dissects Katniss and Bella in an attempt to show how much stronger one is over the other.

Occupying The Tea Party

“However, it’s interesting that commentators on different sides of the political spectrum have all discerned an anti-government and anti-centralization message in The Hunger Games. As a libertarian decentralizer myself, part of me hopes that the series’ millions of young fans came away with the same impression, even if it is not the most accurate possible interpretation of the text.”

There are a ton of critics unearthing the not-at-all-subtle politic messages of a world where the decadent, vicious, focused governmental entity holds its outer ring of people in abject poverty and makes their young ones kill each other for a laugh. One such is The Volokh Conspiracy’s Ilya Somin.

The signs are all there, easily perceived on the surface, but what’s interesting is that those messages seem to be malleable depending on what your viewpoint already tends to be.From Occupy to the Tea Party to plain old classic revolution, there’s something for everyone.

What We’ve Learned

It’s a giant cultural phenomenon that taps into current feelings, studies some of the past, and tries to predict the bleakness of the future. The Hunger Games – while walking in the secret military footsteps of Battle Royalegives the world a bold heroine at a time when women’s rights are forcefully back on the agenda for some lawmakers. In taking a classic structure, it leaves itself wide open to many, many interpretations.

What’s yours?

Correction: In an earlier version of this piece, we incorrectly identified the author of “The Lord of the Flies,” as William Goldman when it is, in fact, William Golding. Apologies all around – especially to our sophomore year English teacher.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.