In David Denby’s review of Catching Fire he tosses off two interesting observations about the franchise’s premise and context: it’s absolutely nuts to think that an oppressive government could better subdue its impoverished underclass by forcing their children to fight to the death, and the metaphorical value of the contest is rather nonspecific in its evocation of the contemporary endgame which we might call capitalism, the job market, high school, or what have you. (I would quote Denby as he states both points eloquently but I let my 6 month old play with the magazine and her favorite game is eat and destroy).
The first incredibly obvious observation gobsmacked me: how the hell had I accepted the idea that the spectacular corruption, torture, and murder of teenagers would make their parents less likely to revolt? Probably by implicitly accepting the second equation: that because it was ugly it was somehow a metaphor for the ugliness around me, even if I couldn’t really say why.
I could jump through a couple of allegorical hoops to square that circle, but a simpler way to parse the situation is to say that Americans accept the idea that the slaughter of young people makes their parents less violent is because this is the assumption of American foreign policy. To reject that premise is to reject what America does in Afghanistan and everywhere else that it wages the “war on terror.” Or, really, anywhere America acts beyond its borders. Or, if we’re being really real, anywhere American policy holds sway at all. Within the fortress of America a for-profit prison industry ensures that a substantial percentage of young people must be confined to a pit that would never earn a PG-13 rating or else risk impinging on job growth (please tell me you aren’t against job growth?!). Let me skim over all the young people given suboptimal educations because their local governments bet coffers and pensions on housing bubbles, as well as all those children whose food and medical benefits have been rescinded because their caretakers were bilked by financial traders whose crimes have been gerrymandered outside the scope of the law, to the college students just one rung below America’s middle class. Even they must be branded with a form of debt more punitive than that carried by any other entity and at interest rates designed to benefit their private creditors. America’s youth do compete in a death match—they struggle under the dead weight of capital given prematurely to a generation prior—and to live this condition is to accept that young people will be handled cruelly. Adult Americans should not care.
Hunger Games is a symptom, not a metaphor. Its premise shows that it comes from a culture struggling with the cognitive dissonance of sending its youth to slaughter but it doesn’t signify the mechanics by which that culture actually operates. Snot is a symptom of a cold—mucus is a useful way to flush membranes while maintaining a protective barrier; it makes complete sense as a symptom—but a runny nose doesn’t doesn’t provide a model for how viruses and immune systems interact. Reading (or writing) metaphorically helps when we are trying to make a claim about how something works. Sometimes we aren’t ready for that, and all we have to go on is a symptom. But at least a symptom can tell you where it hurts.