the girl on fire: mass violence and weak politics in the hunger games

Upon their arrival in the Capitol, the District 12 victors are swiftly ferried to President Snow’s residence, where Panem’s highest-society dandies assemble to toast this year’s Hunger Games–the 75th annual. Newly-appointed Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee approaches Katniss Everdeen, the District’s neighborhood firebrand, for a brief dance. She presses him on his gamemaking responsibilities. “Are you planning the Quarter Quell Games already?” “Arenas aren’t built in a day,” Plutarch responds.

For most, the Hunger Games trilogy is a thin fable about doing what’s right, and finding humanity where you least expect it. But for the Capitol–and, specifically, for President Snow–Katniss’ revolution is a cautionary tale about the politics of control, what happens when you lose it, and the human consequences of political weakness. In this regard, Plutarch’s idiomatic retort is obvious: the Hunger Games arena is Rome, and Plutarch is its Romulus. Or, rather, he’s Plutarch–the storied Greek biographer who paired heroic lives and who, in Panem, destroys them. Plutarch Heavensbee stands in total judgment of the districts’ violent heroes: he determines the former victors’ renewed participation in the Quarter Quell, and once the melee begins, controls their fate. Its spectators gasp and cheer for freethinking humans, but the ugly odds are always in the Head Gamemaker’s favor.

In 1883, America’s railroad barons reset time. The postbellum American timescape contained at least fifty zones, a chronic plague for punctual rail arrivals and departures. When, in the early 1880s, a railroad syndicate inaugurated America’s current standard time zones, Americans gradually turned back their clocks. Panem’s Plutarch fashions his own power in the same gilded image. His Roman arena is clock-shaped, and his destructive algorithm literally moves like clockwork–a hazard every hour, on the hour. The arena’s tributes perceive a Fibonacci-like natural sequence, but Plutarch’s translucent design is synthetic. The midnight lightning strikes against the same tree, and four o’clock’s Hitchcockian hazard is a flock of mimicking jabberjays, the Capitol’s trademark invention. But the arena’s false reality is known to few–the Head Gamemaker, his minions, and the imperiled tributes. Beyond those few, the arena is an obvious popular symbol of the Capitol’s totalitarian strength, over both humans and nature.

Plutarch’s arena is a synecdoche of Panem’s authority–twelve hourly hazards, twelve regulated districts. The Capitol’s power is those districts is often repressive, but infrequently violent. As violent as the annual Hunger Games appear, they are a substitute for regular and consistent mass violence–two children, rather than thousands, die in battle. When the Capitol’s control functions well, it saps Panem’s subjects of their freedom, but it does not kill them. In the early aftermath of Katniss’ inglorious initial Hunger Games victory, she crosses paths with Cray, District 12’s security chief. He chides Katniss for carrying alcohol for Haymitch, her mentor, but still “slaps down a coin for a bottle.” The District’s black market–that informal economy that enables Cray’s alcohol purchases–is paltry and impoverished and subversive, but it exists.

Later, it doesn’t. Panem’s other districts–which, like District 12, subsist on the Capitol’s forgotten margins–begin to revolt. During their “victory tour,” Katniss and Peeta Mellark, her companion, witness impressions of the Capitol’s weakening authority: an old man’s protest, the “crumbling facade” of District 11’s Justice Building. When Katniss and Peeta return home, the Capitol has doubled-down: a new “peacekeeping” command seizes control, and its security forces–larger by an order of magnitude–shutter District 12’s black markets. The resistance of Gale Hawthorne, Katniss’ close friend, prompts a crackdown, a violent one. Gale’s lashes, administered by Cray’s replacement, are a new repression, and a harbinger of the Capitol’s mass violence to come.

The Quarter Quell arena crumbles as the Capitol’s control unwinds. Katniss’ allies discover Plutarch’s algorithm, and use the midnight lightning to dissemble the arena’s electromagnetic forcefield. “The earth,” designed with such precision by the Capitol’s gamemakers, “explodes into showers of dirt and plant matter.” Katniss, rendered unconscious by the arena’s explosion, wakes aboard Plutarch’s hovercraft, now transformed into a rebel quarters. Gale offers, mournfully, that “there is [now] no District Twelve.” The Capitol, reeling from internal collapse, fire-bombed the entire region.

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