As far as dystopian regimes go, none is more famously infamous than the one in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” where an individual is executed for even a “thoughtcrime” (a rebellious thought that questions the authority of the rulers.)
Some fictional dictatorships don’t police the mind so much, but like to play God, having laws that even regulate the number of years its people can live.
The concept was seen, most notably, in the critically acclaimed science-fiction film, “Logan’s Run (1976).”
Set in the year 2274, human civilization, it envisioned, will live in a shiny, sealed, domed city, zipping from point to point in glassy, beetle-shaped transports. Its citizens lead hedonistic lifestyles—except that good life is a limited-time offer.
Every resident, who reaches the age of 30, must be vaporized.
The trilogy of young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games,” presents us with a future society that’s the ne plus ultra of the genre.
Panem is a post-apocalyptic society that evolved out of the ruins of North America, but, as a society, is nothing like it.
In this successor nation, the 50 states of the U.S. have melded—perhaps in a nod to the thirteen states of the Confederacy—into a ring of a dozen “districts,” each bordered by electrified barbed wires. They have no names, and are designated by numbers—one to twelve.
Its residents live on the brink of starvation and do back-breaking labor, under continual surveillance. Their horror is amped up with the Sword of Damocles of the “Hunger Games,” perpetually hanging over their lives.
A yearly extravaganza, the games are, in essence, a state-mandated death fest, requiring participation by kids between the age of twelve and eighteen, picked by a system of lottery.
Each district sends in two contestants—a boy and a girl—known as “tributes.” Devised as a “punishment” for a mutiny staged by its constituent territories, early in its history, it’s Panem’s Super Bowl.
Marked by pomp and parade; brutality and roaring crowds, fanfare and festivity; inventive finery and cosmetics; they’re a fusion of Roman gladiatorial combat and modern television programming.
Twenty-four competitors are held captive in a vast, Holodeck-like simulated reality facility that can hold anything from a tropical jungle to a frozen wasteland, where they kill each other. The last one standing is the winner.
A pathologically sadistic autocracy that Panem is, power is centralized in the hands of the flamboyant, rose-loving President Coriolanus Snow. Everything that happens there, is for the cameras—for the entertainment of those who live in its capital, the Capitol.
An isle of eye-popping excess, where people live in tech bliss, in candy-colored buildings, alongside tiled streets; dye their skins and wear ornate wigs; feast on fine fare, they’re lulled into political inaction by “panem et circenses” (“bread” and “circuses,” in Latin), both of which are supplied by the districts.
But the 74th Hunger Games give them something they’re starved for: a rare spectacle, a Romeo and Juliet-style love story.
Katniss Everdeen, an ace archer and Peeta Mellpark, a baker’s son, both from Panem’s poorest district, are madly in love, but are condemned to the cruelest possible fate where one must slay the other in the games.
Their mentor, the paunchy tippler, Haymitch Abernathy, figures that love is the recipe for winning the war.
As soon as Katniss declares, “I volunteer as tribute,” a swarm of cameras swoop down on her, never failing to capture her sigh, grimace, or blush. Instantly, the couple becomes the darling of the audience.
What they don’t know, however, is that what they’re witnessing is only a simulation of romance. From the get-go, they’re fed on a perfect diet of cloying sentimentality and tragedy, which appears, to them, to be spontaneous and “unscripted.”
Their mental state calls to mind “WarGames” (1983), in which a U.S. military supercomputer, WOPR, trained to play out simulations of various nuclear war scenarios, is on the verge of setting off a nuclear missile and triggering a full-out World War III, when it fails to differentiate between a computer game and reality.
Katniss pretends to care for Peeta, on-screen. Peeta, on the other hand, loves Katniss, off-camera as well. Neither knows whether the feelings of the other are genuine or a performance made for show.
What matters, though, is that the both of them, as a team, do manage to keep the galleries enthralled. They even threaten to die together by eating poison berries.
As we wade deeper into the trilogy, the border between illusion and reality gets more and more blurred.
Is their love merely a survival strategy, or is it a pure sentiment?
The situation turns paradoxical. For, if Katniss is merely play-acting, then, why would she need to keep Peeta, her opponent, alive? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to finish him off and get crowned the victor?
However, if their mush is indeed, manufactured, then, they must pay the price for pretense—by getting married legally.
When the spectators—the reader included—are waiting for the Capitol to host a glitzy wedding bash for Katniss and Peeta, in “Catching Fire,” the second volume, it’s as if scheduled programming is interrupted, only to be resumed by an altogether different channel.
In a despotic and capricious move, President Snow decides to send everyone—everyone who’s ever won the Hunger Games in its history—to the killing field. The Quarter Quell—the regular games, with the volume turned up—is crueler, deadlier, and more unpredictable.
A motley crew of an 80-year-old lady, an electronics geek, a dashing fisherman, a woman with chiseled, gold teeth, face off in a death machine that’s nothing short of an engineering marvel.
By then, Katniss is no longer pretending to love Peeta. This time, it’s the bloodletting, not love, that’s a simulation, of sorts.
Not every player in the game is privy to the knowledge that true goal of the game, isn’t to win. This results in an outcome that’s unprecedented. Victory is scored, but without any one victor.
In “Mockingjay,” the concluding volume of the series, the game has hemorrhaged into the districts.
The nuclear weapons-armed District 13, emerges out of its 75-year oblivion, joins forces with the rebels, and stages a coup d’état against the Capitol.
As with everything else in Panem, the war effort, too, is a spectacle, its success riding squarely on the ability of the rebels to capture the airwaves and pump out motivational footage.
Katniss is picked to be its face, its mouthpiece. Her role in the war effort, much to her own disappointment, is largely that of a “televised rebel,” whose appearance is out of her own control.
The interplay between the real and the unreal gets to be so dizzying that Peeta bursts out: “The problem is, I can’t tell what’s real anymore and what’s made up.”
But Katniss returns Panem to a time of pastoral simplicity, where her two kids won’t have to play the Hunger Games.