Bread and Circuses: Panem as Dystopian Future or Present?

Curator's Note

Science fiction narratives have long provided contemporary social commentary within the context of imagined future societies. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers critiqued McCarthyism in the ‘50s, and in the ‘90s The Matrix questioned the Internet’s potential as a means of oppression or empowerment. Now, The Hunger Games offers a critique of the political corruption and economic inequality experienced in the ‘00s. And it makes this critique accessible to young audiences—those most vulnerable to these challenges and most capable of developing their solutions.

In the trilogy’s most Brechtian moment, gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee explains to Katniss that 'Panem' refers to a quotation from the Roman satirist Juvenal. “Panem et Circenses translates into ‘Bread and Circuses.’ The writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power." The ‘Bread and Circuses’ argument has often been used in critiques of mass society, emphasizing how contemporary entertainment media distracts and pacifies the public. But its use in The Hunger Games is particularly interesting. This story about oppressed laboring peoples forced to sacrifice their children to media exploitation and death in order to secure physical sustenance seems appropriate given the simultaneous glut of sensational media content and lack of economic stability and political efficacy in today's society. And Katniss’ development as a (radical) political agent seems especially compelling to a generation who are now participating in populist protests across the globe (from the Arab Spring to Occupy to the Indignados).

Now, I'm not suggesting that the series provides any substantial doctrine for political engagement, but it may serve as an interesting object of analysis for critical media literacy education. For example, despite the series’ social commentary, the movie avoids potentially alienating political content and instead emphasizes the love triangle. And despite its (at least, implicit) critique of capitalism, the franchise will undoubtedly profit from loads of merchandise (a few of which have already prompted confusion). It's likely that The Hunger Games will prove just another distraction from the real struggles we face today. But I hope it provides an opportunity for young people to begin thinking and talking about political power, economic equality, and the often contradictory role of media in these issues. And maybe it even promotes the kind of critical political interventions that would make the Mockingjay proud.


Thanks for this insightful post. The College Humor spoof of the Hunger Games game is such a great illustration of your point/s about entertainment becoming the opiate of the people--the theme song opens: "Boys and Fighting to the Death and Kissing: The Hunger Games game!" This type of containmed political struggle is often alluded to in the books, e.g., when Peeta and Katniss hold hands in the chariot during the presentation of the (cleaned up and glamorized) tributes. Afterwards, Haymitch asks whose idea it was. When Portia says is was Cinna's, Haymitch replies "Just the perfect touch of rebellion." The act seems nothing more than wardrobe. Still, we come to see this show of solidarity as far more politically potent than it first appears. 

Having seen the film last night, I was very interested to see how such moments were handled in images rather than words: the visual impact of the the people of District 12 who refuse to applaud Katniss's volunteering to save Prim, their silence accompanied by the hand gesture of holding three fingers up which is "an old and rarely used gesture of our district" meaning love and admiration and farewell, was extremely powerful. It became a striking  political act using the only semiotic resources available: their bodies. Peeta and Katniss holding hands in the chariot presentation should have been an equally powerful visual moment, but instead it is trivialized in the film as Peeta grabs Katniss's hand halfway through, explaining when she initially pulls away, that the crowd will love it. I was so disappointed by this lost opportunity, that reduced a policital gesture with an individual romanticized act by a love struck adolescent.  Bread and Circuses indeed!

Anna and Virginia, thanks for your comments. I didn't comment specifically on the clip in my post, but you're both right in pointing out how the ridiculous commercial appropriations of the narrative (parodied in the clip) totally undercut its themes.

And I think the contradictory political perspective of The Hunger Games franchise is made even more apparent with the movie's depiction of Haymitch as clown rather than trauma victim and it representing the hand-holding as crowd-pleasing rather than symbolic protest. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm disappointed to hear about both of these depictions. I think that Katniss and her comrades' politicization throughout the series--from their subtle hand-holding, berry-eating, and song-singing to their participation in more explicit acts of defiance--is one of its most interesting aspects. And I hope that that theme is something that (despite sanitized movie adaptations and product tie-ins) is picked up on by the young fans.  Twitter-activism, etc., like hand-holding, can be sincere acts of protest, but the more critical (in both senses of the word) political activism is what comes next. Maybe that means HG-inspired fan-activism or maybe that means something even more radical...?

Benjamin, wonderful piece!  You bring up very important social issues, and your bread-and-circuses analysis is spot on, fitting the bill on and off the screen.  I am somewhat pessimistic of the film's target audience wanting to engage with the latter (off the screen).  This skepticism comes from what I perceive to have been critical literary/media criticism's (not all, but in large part) failure to engage in pertinent issues of society and power in Harry Potter.  Forget the target audience; the big kids (even those of the scholarly persuasion!), instead of institutions and bureaucracy, focused on the fantastic and anti-religious elements or developed a fixation on Rowling's supposed lack of stylistic prose.

Though your link there to the HG-inspired fan-activism (published by the Harry Potter Alliance, no less) is definitely hopeful.

A previous curation--Anna Froula's--specifically invoked Survivor, which may be more conducive of the kind of critical engagement we look for nowadays.  I say this because, arguably of the same amount of fictional content, the mere labelling of "reality" and the employment of reality tropes seem to make engagement more accessible in an age when the escapism of dramas and soap opera are giving way to Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives, or sitcoms to gonzo-style/mockumentary comedies like The Office or Modern Family.  If The Hunger Games (novel and film) are merely "bread and circuses," in order to engage in the pertinent socio-political and -economic issues you mention, might our only resort then be to look toward the spectacle of a "reality" version with real poor, starving people fighting for survival?

Al, I read  Anna's  allusion to Survivor as stemming from Suzanne Collins saying she was inspired to write The Hunger Games after watching Survivor and images from the war in Iraq, flipping channels among the two, I assume she saw the insanity of a world in which we champion unscripted television and televise our wars. 

I agree that the undertone of social criticism in the book The Hunger Games can be analyzed during media literacy education, because at first glance these critiques aren’t completely apparent to the reader. During conversations, I have specifically found the topic of spectatorship in The Hunger Games of interest, as it strongly correlates to our current society’s media structure. In our society, we are drawn to watch horrific and violent movies like the Saw series, and also reality television. People enjoy watching television shows and movies about murder, crime, rape, violence, and also “trashy” reality shows like Jersey Shore, 16 and Pregnant, and Survivor. Collins portrays this in the novel by the Capitol’s pure excitement and enjoyment of the hunger games. To them it is merely entertainment, because no one from the Capitol would ever send a tribute to fight.

She captures the sentiment in our society that is it ok to watch these kinds of productions because “it would never happen to me.” While the people within the districts are forced to watch their own tributes fight in the hunger games, the people in the Capitol enjoy the entire process since none of their own are in the arena. Collins takes the present-day situation and magnifies it to strengthen her criticism of the media and its spectatorship. While the hunger games are exponentially more violent and dramatic, they relate to the current television show called survivor, where only one person survives in a certain “arena.” Collins is criticizing the fact that violence, murder, and the reality of certain people’s lives is televised and produced as a means of entertainment for our society.


I find it interesting how The Hunger Games is similar to many popular TV shows as well as American society and politics. Specifically, the extreme gap between the wealthy and the poor that exists both in the film and the United States. The people who live in the Capitol have everything and their wealth is displayed everywhere. They have unlimited, delicious food, extravagant living spaces and amazing clothing.On the contrary, district 12 is the complete opposite. The people in that district work in the coal mines and can barely survive because of the lack of food. their living and housing conditions are barely liveable because they are so poor. Not only are these two completely different classes, The Hunger Games pits the different classes against each other in the games. Is this not similar to American society? The extreme differences that exist between the upper class and the lower class are very similar in both living conditions and access to food. The middle class is slowly depleting causing the gap between the rich and poor to grow every day. In addition, with the privatization of schools, our education system just further perpetuates the differences between classes. If you can afford private school, you will recieve a decent educaiton that will help you be successful. However, if you cannot afford private education, you must attend public school which will most likely not help you escape the world of poverty. The extreme gap between the rich and poor in The Hunger Games seems to be extreme and unrealistic, but I would argue that our country already experiences these extreme differences between classes. And I would purpose that it is only getting worse. Is The Hunger Games a preview to our countries future?  

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