'The Hunger Games': Gladiator meets reality TV
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
The Hunger Games is the kind of stroke of genius plot everyone wishes they had somehow thought up. The eclectic fusion of futuristic technology and style, ancient Roman politics, and Greek myth make it both visually stunning on screen and brimming with so much detail in the books as to make the whole concept surprisingly realistic.
Set in the nearish future, Panem, formerly North America, is made up of the Capitol, where all the wealth, power and freedom is concentrated, and the oppressed 12 districts. Katniss, the protagonist, describes an earlier district uprising against the Capitol, which was brutally quelled. As both a punishment and reminder not to defy the Capitol's power again, the Hunger Games is created. This is a nationally televised event, for which one boy and one girl from each district are selected as tributes in ‘the Reaping.’ They are then forced to fight in an arena to the death, until one is left standing.
Though this premise feels like something that could only happen in a future where things drastically went south politically and morally, the author Suzanne Collins, was inspired by a concept conceived thousands of years ago.
Theseus and the Minotaur
In Greek myth, the son of Minos, king of Crete, competed in and won all the events in the
Panathenaic Games. Out of jealousy, a gang of Athenian men ambush and kill him. A furious Minos commands that, as compensation, Athens must each year send seven maidens and seven young men to be eaten by his stepson, the minotaur: a monstrous half man, half bull. If they refuse, Minos will wage a war that the underdog-Athenians will certainly lose.
This goes on until Theseus, son of the king of Athens, volunteers himself to fight against the Minotaur and end this sadistic tradition. Despite Minos' cocky expectations, Theseus succeeds. In the Hunger Games (the HG), Katniss is a modern Theseus, who volunteers for the games, wins against all odds, and begins a chain of events that ultimately topples the regime.
In the myth, Theseus doesn't just have to kill the minotaur, but also find his way out of its lair: a massive labyrinth underneath Minos' palace. He only manages this by taking advantage of Ariadne, Minos's daughter, who has a crush on him. She gives him a thread to help trace his path out, on the condition that he take her to Athens and marries her. His promise to do this was clearly a little half-baked, as he quickly loses interest part-way home and abandons her while sleeping on an island.
In a way, Katniss does the same thing. She pretends to reciprocate her district 12 partner, Peeta’s, feelings for her, so that they might both survive the arena by gaining the audience's sympathy, and it works. Like Ariadne however, at the end of the first book Peeta realises that it was mostly an act, and he resents her for it.
‘I want to tell him that he's not being fair. That we were strangers. That I did what it took to stay alive, to keep us both alive in the arena’ (The Hunger Games).
Half human, half beast
Collins manages to take the concept of the Minotaur and make it even more twisted and personal. The final obstacle of the Hunger Games forces the remaining three contestants to fend off ‘muttations’. These are essentially were-wolves, genetically altered to have the facial features of the tributes who have been murdered throughout the games.
'the green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakeably human. And that revelation has barely registered when I notice the collar and the number 1 inlaid with jewels and the whole horrible thing hits me. ‘The blonde hair, the green eyes, the number…It’s Glimmer*’ ( The Hunger Games)
*a tribute from District 1 whom Katniss killed earlier in the Games
Hero, at a cost
Both stories show how Katniss and Theseus gain freedom for their people, but pay a heavy personal price.
Before Theseus goes to Crete, his father (Aegeus) tells him to set a white sail on his return, to signal that he has survived, and a black sail if not. In one version, Theseus just forgets, (he can kill a raging bull-man but he can’t change a sail?), in another, a bitter Ariadne asks the gods to make Theseus forget.
Aegeus sees the black sail from a cliff edge and, believing his son to be dead, commits suicide by hurling himself into the sea out of grief - hence today it's called the Aegean Sea.
At the start of the HG, the only reason Katniss volunteers for the games is to save her younger sister, Prim, who is randomly selected in the Reaping. Nevertheless, Katniss ends up inadvertently becoming the symbol of rebellion against the Capitol. By the third book, Panem is engaged in a fully-fledged civil war and Prim is killed, making Katniss's sacrifice in the first book pointless.
'Prim walks me as far as the hospital doors. “How do you feel?”
“Better, knowing you’re somewhere Snow can’t reach you,” I say.
“Next time we see each other, we’ll be free of him,” says Prim firmly. Then she throws her arms around my neck. “Be careful.”' (Mockingjay)
This is the last time the two sisters see each other, and Prim's own reassurance that she is safe just before her death, is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the trilogy.
Like Theseus and his sail, Katniss assumes that danger only comes from one source. She is so fixated on viewing President Snow (the primary antagonist) as the enemy, that she realises too late that another threat, and the instigator of the explosion that kills Prim, is much closer to home.
Bread and *Circuses: Panem et Circenses
Being from the UK, I vaguely assumed Panem was based on the name of the airline Pan Am (yes, I didn’t realise they were spelled differently), since I couldn't see what else it could possibly link to. It turns out that, surprisingly, it’s from the Latin word for bread.
The Roman writer Juvenal criticised the blind willingness of the Roman people to take food handouts (bread) and entertainment (circuses) from the emperor, at the cost of having any political voice: essentially allowing him to be their dictator. This mirrors the relationship between President Snow and the citizens of the Capitol, who are mostly shallow and, unlike the districts, view the Hunger Games as the prime entertainment of their year.
*Circuses here refer to the circuit-arena where the most popular form of entertainment in ancient Rome took place; chariot-racing. Since Suzanne Collins probably realised today no one would find this particularly interesting to read about, (if you’ve ever wasted four hours of your life sitting through Ben Hur, you understand) she changed the focus to gladiator spectacles.
In Ancient Rome, watching fights to the death in an arena was as normal a way to let off steam as a reliable binge session on Netflix.
This might seem shocking, but Collins has said that the idea for the novel came to her when she was flicking through channels on TV. She realised the way we can switch between mindless reality TV and serious news depicting death throughout the world with one click, has desensitised us to the suffering of others.
This gave Collins the idea of fusing gladiators and reality TV together, to create her disturbing dystopian vision. The games aren’t watched from stone seats in person as in ancient Rome, but from the comfort of the Capitol on television screens.
In the HG, the tributes are paraded out in chariots and eccentric costumes as part of a perverted sort of pre-death ceremony, in front of hysterical Capitol spectators, all while President Snow surveys them from high up. Gladiators did exactly the same thing in front of citizens and the emperor in the largest arena in Rome: the Colosseum.
And just as the Hunger Games are persecution, faintly
masked by the build up of glitz and glamour, the gladiatorial arena was used to make an example of those who were viewed as enemies of Rome, particularly Christians. Romans would kill them in whatever method of murder was most on trend, whether it was feeding them to half-starved lions or burning them to death. The sadistic challenges tributes face in the Hunger Games, forest fires, tech-enhanced predators and the like, are reminiscent of these cruel punishments.
On the other hand, gladiators who fought well or were just attractive, could gain massive popularity from the audience, especially women, as well as prize money for victories. Sometimes the fate of a defeated gladiator was in the hands of the audience, who could indicate to the emperor whether they wanted the person to live or die, since he had the final call.
'Eppia, wife of a senator, ran off with the gladiator
To Pharos, to the Nile, and notorious Alexandria
He was a gladiator, though....
That’s why she preferred him to children and country,
Husband and sister. [Women] love the steel...' Juvenal, Satires, 6
Finnick replicates this gladiator fetishisation. Being young and attractive, he is
ridiculously popular in the Capitol. This takes a turn for the sinister though, when President Snow forces him into prostitution after winning the games.
He is also modelled after a particular type of Roman gladiator, the retiarius, who used a net and trident as weapons. In his first Hunger Games, Finnick is sent a trident in the arena by Capitol fans, the most expensive weapon Katniss has ever seen gifted in the games, and he weaves his own net out of vines. With these tools he becomes lethal and wins the games with ease.
'He pops a sugar-cube in his mouth and leans against my horse...I can't argue that Finnick isn't one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet' (Catching Fire)
The class structure of Panem is characterised by drastic contrasts in wealth and lifestyle. President Snow and the Capitol citizens live in disgustingly excessive luxury. They also have slaves (former rebels) called Avoxes, from the Latin meaning 'without a voice', as their tongues have been cut out. Then there are the districts, whose residents live humble and harsh lives.
Ancient Rome was basically the same, just with more back-stabbing.
There was the emperor at the top, then the aristocrats who would boot lick him while betraying anyone else in order to gain more power for themselves. They were also notorious for living in gratuitous luxury. Slaves, often captives from conquered lands, were very common, and the richer you were, the more you had. Meanwhile, the commoners of Rome and those in the provinces, who had been conquered by the Romans, generally lived much simpler lives, and resented Rome's power-hold over them.
Eat, sleep, rave, repeat
Bread isn't just the bizarre new name for America in this dystopian universe. It is important to Katniss, as it's the food Peeta gives to her when she and her family are on the verge of starvation. Before the games, Katniss receives a massive culture shock seeing the decadent food of the Capitol citizens: they have so much that they frequently make themselves vomit to enjoy more and more.
And because all the wealth is reserved for the Capitol, the citizens spend their time partying, pampering and obsessing over their appearance, while the districts work hard providing all the resources that indulge the Capitol's greed.
Bread was the staple of the average Roman's diet, while the aristocrats feasted on the most exotic meals: dormouse, peacock, fermented fish innards-the grosser the better I suppose? The emperor Claudius in particular was mocked for devoting more time to food than ruling his empire. One ancient historian describes how he would eat all day, vomit, rinse and repeat:
"He hardly ever left the dining-room until he was stuffed and soaked; then he went to sleep at once, lying on his back with his mouth open, and a feather was put down his throat to relieve his stomach" (Suetonius, Life of Claudius 33)
President Coriolanus Snow
Coriolanus, born circa 500BC, was one of the most unapologetically un-PC figures in the history of the Roman Republic. Born into a patrician family, (the highest class in Rome) and a successful general, he tried to use his power during a famine to withhold grain from the poor, until they agreed to have the role of tribune nullified. The tribune was a politician who stood up specifically for the rights of the poor, and so this would lave them powerless. When Coriolanus wouldn't budge from his extreme stance, he was exiled from Rome. However, this guy was stubborn. He decided to join an enemy army, the Volsci, become a general, and march against Rome.
This story clearly inspires the callous determination of President Snow to oppress the districts. He does whatever it takes to preserve his own small bubble of power, even though he uses his position as leader in a way that is destructive to most of his country. The connotations of his first name clash with the unthreatening surname 'Snow', implying that his calm appearance hides his quietly psychopathic modus operandi.
Seneca was a Roman philosopher and advisor of the emperor Nero. Inwardly, he seemed to disapprove of the mad emperor's questionable behaviour i.e. killing senators left and right, neglecting to even rule the empire etc. However, he was too afraid to oppose him directly, and wrote reams of propaganda on his behalf. This didn’t do him any favours in the end, as Nero believed (probably unfairly) that he was part of a plot to assassinate him, and made Seneca commit suicide by opening his own veins.
Meanwhile, Seneca Crane is the Gamemaker of the first book: he effectively decides the ways in which the tributes die until there is only one left standing. The outcome of the games goes beyond his control however, when he is forced to announce both Katniss and Peeta the victors, to prevent them martyring themselves through suicide.
As a result, President Snow orders Crane's death, blaming him for making the Capitol look weak. The book doesn’t specify exactly how he dies, but in the film they take a leaf out of the historical Seneca’s life. At the end, Crane is led into a room where a bowl of poisonous berries is sitting. It is implied that he has no choice but to kill himself by eating them.