A Critical Assessment of the Dystopian Ideology in “The Hunger Games”

15 years after The Hunger Games book dropped and brought about a pop culture phenomenon, let’s take a critical eye at the themes of this dystopian novel.

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Katniss in Mockingjay uniform and The hunger games book cover

The purpose of dystopian novels is multifaceted. It is not just a science fiction fantasy for an alternate reality. Many times, the writers of this genre of fiction purposely allude to the potential futures we could face in reality based on the circumstances of the contemporary world. Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is no different. In fact, she stated that she wrote the series as a response to what she felt was a desensitization to the acts of war and society’s reliance on reality-based television. Collins utilized two major themes throughout her dystopian world to push the idea of change today for a better tomorrow. Let’s dig into it.

Trigger Warning: This article makes direct reference to death, murder, and suicide based on the novel The Hunger Games. Please take caution when reading.
SPOILERS AHEAD: If you have yet to read or watch The Hunger Games, please be aware that spoilers are ahead.

Sacrifice: A Universal Theme

The word “sacrifice” resonates with every human, the definition might be the same, but the meaning varies. According to Merriam-Webster, “to suffer the loss of, give up, renounce, injure, or destroy especially for an ideal, belief or end” is the generalized idea most associated with the term. Parents sacrifice their dreams to raise their children; ancient civilizations sacrificed virgins and animals for their deities; soldiers sacrifice their lives for the principles of their country; these are all examples of what it could mean to sacrifice. Collins showcases sacrifice on minuscule and monumental levels throughout her books in order to demonstrate that even in the darkest of times, humans are willing to put others before themselves.

Katniss’s Ultimate Selflessness

The Hunger Games begins and ends with sacrifice; from Katniss’ willingness to hunt for her family’s survival to selling the illusion of love to the Districts and Capitol. Katniss sacrificed her safety and potentially her life, trading places with her sister Prim to enter the death pit that is the Hunger Games arena. Whilst in the games, she continues to make sacrifices such as feeding and bonding with Rue, knowing that one of them would eventually die; going back for Peeta once the announcement of dual victors was uttered; as well as her hearing when she went to the feast at the cornucopia.


Collins constantly gave humanity an out, a redeemable quality in most of her characters. She used sacrifice as the device with which to do so. In a world where the one percent rules and the other ninety-nine suffer in oppression, dying for non-sense, Collins pushes her belief that even in desolation, there is hope. A sacrifice would never happen if there were no hope.

More Sacrifice Brings Hope

Katniss was not the only character to sacrifice; Peeta sacrificed his physical well-being to make sure Katniss did not starve, Haymitch puts himself in the spotlight to remove it from Katniss, and District 11 gives Katniss bread in honor of her treatment of Rue. In Collins’ dystopian world, the Districts have given up on hope and continue to allow the Capitol to bully them into sacrificing their children for the benefit of a corrupt government. A corrupt government that intentionally starves its constituents, maims and kills for minor infractions, and uses its people for slave labor. For all intents and purposes, the world of The Hunger Games is bleak and, on the surface, without hope of rebellion. After all, rebellion is what got the Hunger Games started.

From left to Right: Katniss, Cato, Peeta, Rue, Effie, Cinna, Haymitch, Gale

When there seems like there is no hope left in the world, the sacrifices one makes for another brighten the bleak and depressive state it has become. Sacrifice is as natural to humans as eating and sleeping, especially when emotional connections are evident. The Hunger Games makes sure to give the reader a sense of the worse that humanity has to offer while also giving them the best.

Death in Dystopia

Death is a major theme throughout one’s life; it is an inevitability. How one views it is entirely dependent on the circumstances and events of their life. The inclusion of this theme within dystopian novels is used to amplify the magnitude of the dire circumstances within the novel. Death is a theme the reader can connect with on many levels; its applicability to the reader’s life and its connotations are innumerable. The Hunger Games uses this theme in varying ways.

Death to Tame the Masses

Suzanne Collins’s dystopian society is about controlling the masses through the threat of death by sacrificing the young in order to oppress the strong. Her entire book is about survival. The main characters fight for the survival of a loved one(s) while sacrificing their own safety and well-being. The presentation of this theme offers up questions as to the value of death: is it a waste to die or a saving grace, and does it make one a coward or a hero?

15-minute in-depth video on the backstory of the country and the games. Definitely worth a watch to get a better understanding.

As The Hunger Games unravels, the reader is constantly barraged with instances of death, whether by the threat of starvation or outright murder. The government of the Capitol uses death as a form of division and control by taking the District’s children and sacrificing them to reiterate what happens to those who rebel against their rule. Every year an arena is set up, children are “reaped” from their districts, trained and presented like reality television stars, and forced to participate in a fight to the death where there is but one survivor. The point of this is to not only prove how powerless the districts are against the Capitol but also to inspire a modicum of hope as the winner and their district are rewarded.

Only one boy and one girl are chosen every year, at random, from each district; however, from the age of twelve to eighteen, they are plagued with the fear that their name will be drawn at the Reaping. Given the one Victor rule, the likelihood of their survival is slim. For Katniss, her volunteering to take the place of her sister, knowing the probable outcome, is both devastating and liberating. Her sister is spared this year, but her own lifespan has possibly been cut down dramatically

Katniss’ Strength of Character in the Face of Death

Collins uses this moment to give her protagonist a strength of character that she states others have not displayed. Even though her death might be soon, Katniss would rather sacrifice her life than have her sister die. That strength of character pushes Katniss apart from most who are trying to survive this dystopian world. While many of the people within the Districts are starving, Katniss risks being beaten or killed as an example to others by Peacekeepers for poaching. The Capitol allows children eligible for the Hunger Games to apply for tessera, which provides extra food, with the knowledge that for each tessera the child takes, the more chances there are of their name being pulled for the Reaping. Katniss refuses to allow her sister to get tessera, though she herself does. Her selflessness in a time of such an austere outlook shines hope on a world where death is brutal and always knocking on one’s door.

Four scenes of Katniss in varying stages of the first Hunger Games Book.

Katniss makes the statement once that she would rather be killed for hunting and providing food for her family’s table than to experience again and die by starvation. Her statement elicits a sense of murder-suicide; she blatantly defies the government to survive, knowing the consequences, and finds those consequences preferable to the alternative. Suicide is highlighted with the idea that it would be more humane than to continue living in the current circumstances. However, the nature of the idea is vastly different within the scope of either. The Hunger Games has the opportunity to turn the tide and bring about a better society.

Subtle Hints of Death Theme

Throughout the training process and the Games themselves, Collins once again makes use of the basic necessities of life: water, food, and shelter. These traits sometimes are more important than learning to fight and kill when it comes to staving off death in a game of last tribute standing. Food is not given to the tributes; they have to hunt and scavenge for it or else hope a sponsor will take pity on them. The arena is outdoors, and limited supplies are given, but only if you can get to them and leave with your life. Knowing how to create shelter, find water, and what foliage is safe to eat is critical. Collins overwhelmingly uses death, whether potential or imminent, to further the idea that one has to take control and fight, or else the inevitable will come sooner rather than later.

When The Dam Breaks

While much of the threat of death is used to keep the districts in line, it ultimately backfired on the Capitol and is what caused the districts to rebel. Katniss’ choice to volunteer for her sister and to mourn the loss of Rue were the first two strikes. The third came as Katniss and Peeta, seeing no other way out together, decide to take lethal nightlock berries in the hopes of the Gamemakers recanting their revocation of the dual victor rule change. The threat of their dual suicide pushed the Gamemakers to do just that, sparking a fire of hope throughout the country: Causing a rebellion that overthrows the Capitol in the two succeeding novels of the series.

The Message

Death is feared by many, a common theme readers experience themselves, especially due to the unknown: Is this life it, or is there more after? Humans have struggled their entire existence to rationalize death. Other than the inevitable, death comes to all; life is a cycle, there is still no definitive answer, and there may never be one. To so thoroughly show the good, bad, and ugly sides of it in such a well-written dynamic as Collins achieved is commendable. She pushes the audience to connect emotionally with the characters and their choices with regard to the threat of and execution of death. The story provokes the reader to evaluate what their own choices would be if they were in that situation, that inner gauging of circumstances surprising given human morals and outlooks.

The Hunger Games special edition by Suzanne Collins

Collin created such a desolate world, with thousands of people suffering while a small percentage flourishes and brushes off the hardships of the majority. Oddly enough, it’s not so hard to believe today, is it? Collins based this sweeping-under-the-rug mentality on reality tv. The watching of others suffer so far removed from you that it’s a form of entertainment rather than the reality of those on camera. Add in the prevalence of today’s social media, and I’d love to see what Collins produces next.

Dystopian novels are a fascinating read, even more so when read critically while asking the question: How does this relate back to when it was written, or even today? You might be surprised at what more you could learn while escaping your own reality.

For more on Dystopia, click here.