Orwell in Panem: What the Hunger Games owes to 1984

*Spoiler warning: this article reveals lots of plot points from all three Hunger Games books and 1984*


Now that it is venerable enough to merit inclusion on school curriculums and lists of the greatest ever novels, it’s easy to forget the horror and revulsion it initially generated. During the broadcast of a 1954 BBC adaptation of the story, a 42 year old housewife housewife named Beryl Merfin was so disturbed that the shock killed her. And an Early Day Motion was tabled in parliament decrying “the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programs…to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes.”

There’s something similar in the reaction to the Hunger Games. Many are appalled by the violence it shows or by the premise of teenagers fighting to the death.

It is strange that connections are not drawn between these two dark dystopian novels more often. Fans and admirers of the Hunger Games tend to locate Collin’s inspiration in the classics or Lord of the Flies. While her detractors claim she ripped off Battle Royale. However, I’d suggest that 1984 seems like a significant influence as well. Especially given that Collins is apparently a fan.

So where can we see this influence?

The Brutality

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley conceived of a regime that ruled not through fear but by providing its population with a string of amusements to keep them perpetually distracted.

That’s emphatically not how President Snow maintains his power. He relies instead on a rather Orwellian dose of terror.  While the Hunger Games may be set in a land whose name comes from the latin phrase ‘panem et circenses’ (bread and circuses) there is no sense its rulers are trying to buy off their people or earn their affection. Rather it is the threat of violence from Panem’s paramilitary ‘peacekeepers’ that keeps them in line.

While Games themselves may at least in part have been inspired by gladiatorial games and are occasionally described by characters as being meant to serve as a ‘distraction’, that doesn’t seem to be their real purpose. Rather they are a commemoration of a failed rebellion against the Capital and an implicit warning not to try again.

Nuclear Weapons

1984 was written at a time when nuclear weapons were a new phenomenon and is in part Orwell’s attempt to work through their consequences. As David Aaronovitch explains:

“Orwell saw the beginnings of a…carve-up of the globe into superpowers and told friends that this was what initially set him going on the novel.

Less than two years later, the Americans dropped atom bombs on Japan. In an essay for Tribune magazine called You and the Atomic Bomb, Orwell argued that the A-Bomb threatened to bring into being….[a] world of super states governed by totalitarian hierarchies of managers.

It’s often missed that Nineteen Eighty-Four is set a few decades after an atomic war. The managers administering the book’s three super states, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia, have tacitly agreed not to try to destroy each other but to continue forever in a kind of cold war.

Indeed, it was Orwell who coined the phrase “cold war” in that 1945 essay.”

A similar situation emerges in the Hunger Games where the Capital and the rebellious District 13 are locked in a state of mutually assured destruction because during the rebellion each acquired part of Panem’s nuclear weapons stockpile. That creates a situation where the Capital can exert its control over the remaining districts. Until Katniss shows up that is…..

The Names of Places

Real places have acquired impersonal nomenclatures. So Britain becomes ‘airstrip one’ and West Virginia morphs into ‘District 12.’

They can make you hate the one you love

Orwell dramitises the Thoughtpolice’s power and the fear they can evoke with their ultimate torture instrument, Room 101, by showing how they get the lovers Winston and Julia to betray each other. Confronted with his personal nightmare of having his face eaten by rats, Winston cries out that “torture Julia instead.”

In Mockingjay, the final Hunger Games book, Peeta whose adoration for Katniss has been unwavering throughout the trilogy is hijacked (i.e. brainwashed) to hate her with a murderous ferocity.

The Tarnished Revolution

Ok, this is from Animal Farm not 1984 but I’ll bet that if Collins is a fan of the later book, she’ll have read the former too.

Both books feature revolutions that betray their ideals in very fundamental and symbolic ways: Napolean and the other pigs start walking on two legs or President Alma Coin’s proposal to continue the Hunger Games with tributes from the Capital.

Dystopias old and new

When young adult fiction is drawing on ideas from a classic political fable, the distinction between high and low culture really does not make a great deal of sense.

I do wonder how long debates over the threat of totalitarianism will remain dominated by the language of 1984. There’ve been a huge number of dystopias since: Fahrenheit 451, Blade Runner, the Handmaid’s Tale and now the Hunger Games. I wonder how long it will be until they begin providing at least part of the vocabulary we use to talk about tyranny.

The revolution will not be peaceful

Having been challenged by Robert Webb to “read some fucking Orwell,” Russell Brand responds by showing that he’s either not read or not understood Orwell.

Robert Webb and Russell Brand

I’m not sure quite how we have got to the stage where the politics of Russell Brand apparently merit not only an interview by Jeremy Paxman but also a follow up with Medhi Hassan. However it happened, I really wish it hadn’t. His responses to Robert Webb’s thoughtful and intelligent critique of revolutions illustrates the shallowness and recklessness of his political thinking.

His Weak Arguments

Brand continues to deploy the George W. Bush technique of trying to make his ignorance into an asset. He explains that he doesn’t “claim to be a politician, like all things I’m sure there are people in the room who know more about this than I do, I didn’t have an education like Robert Webb had.” People who try to legitimate their views by saying in effect ‘you should take me seriously because I’m as stupid as a regular person’ are not only insulting regular people but also showing why their views don’t merit attention. Political debate should be about the mutual enlightenment of all those involved not about the dissemination of ignorant opinions by those who main qualification is being as stupid as some purported everyman.

Brand also tries the inverse of this reasoning by trying to brand Webb an elitist. He says: “Maybe it’s okay for Robert Webb…If you went to Oxbridge, if you went to a private school, no one is coming for your kids.” This is a weak argument because:

His scary argument

However, this is far from the worst part of the interview.

“I’m not saying lets go smash people up and certainly not kill people. Just for the record, I’m not in on the old death camps… I’m double, double against genocide. I am talking about a revolution of consciousness.”

Brand added: “Definitely no killing. I’m against that; I’m a vegetarian, I think we’re all equal. I’m not saying smash people’s stuff up, and definitely no killing.”

Assessing previous Marxist revolutions, the 38-year-old said that in its “traditional form” revolution was ok but it “went a bit genocidal, it was just a bit of sharing, then it got spoilt.” Brand insisted that he wanted a peaceful revolution. “Once you are violent you’d get nicked. If you’re disobeying without being violent they can’t nick you, it’s a paradigm breaker.”

What Orwell could teach Brand

If Brand took Orwell seriously, he’d understand precisely why these (bizarre) clarifications are so pointless. The whole point of Animal Farm is that even revolutions that seem benign at the start, can mutate into something ugly. The pigs do not start out announcing that they plan to have dogs kill other animals, send Boxer to the glue factory and begin walking on two legs. But that’s what happens as power corrupts them and their revolution.

This not only happened in the Soviet revolution that inspired Animal Farm. It took only a few years of the French Revolution to turn Robespierre from an opponent of the death penalty into the instigator of the terror.

Why we need Democracy for peace

Let’s be clear, the kind of revolution brand imagines – anti-democratic and radical – would almost inevitably be violent.

Democracy is not only (or even primarily) a means for representing the views of the people, it’s also a means of avoiding political violence. It provides a set of rules on transferring power that are generally perceived as broadly fair and therefore accepted – it’s a safe bet that after the last general election, Gordon Brown did not contemplate using the army or police to hold onto power.  Take away democracy and you take away the rules of politics, and anything (including violence) goes. Without democracy it is hard to see how the Brandian revolutionary vanguard would legitimate their rule and without legitimacy it is hard to see how they could maintain their rule except through coercion, and indeed how they could dissuade people from using violence to oppose them.

And revolutions are worse than even Orwell suggested

Brand says a “total revolution of consciousness and our entire social, political and economic system is what interests me.” These kind of genuinely revolutionary revolutions with their utopian pretensions are the most dangerous. Better even than Orwell for understanding why revolutions go bad is Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions. In the dry prose of a sociologist she explains why she found conventional Marxist analysis inadequate for understanding ‘social revolutions‘ like those in France, Russia and China. Marx would lead you to believe that revolutions transfer power between classes. Instead Skocpol found that the largest shift in power was not towards any particular class but to the state itself. This comes about because the revolutionary regimes needed a state mighty enough to push through their plans for dramatic changes. So they give bureaucrats, the armed forces and other organs of the state a degree of power they’ve never had before.

Orwell was actually understating the horror of the revolution when at the finale of Animal Farm, the ordinary animals see that the pigs have become indistinguishable from their old human masters. Stalin wasn’t indistinguishable from the Czar; he was far worse. The Czars ability to oppress his people was constrained by his ramshackle state. By contrast, the Soviet state was powerful enough to send thousands to the Gulags, spy on the entire nation and starve millions to death in the name of collectivizing agriculture.

Time for the political prima dona to exit the stage

Just about the only thing Brand gets right in this whole sorry interview is that there are indeed plenty of people who know more than he does. It’s time he let them take the floor. Nothing he has to say about revolutions portrays insight or deep thought. His political thinking is underdeveloped and ill-informed.

He should be more careful. Revolutionary socialism is an unpleasant and violent doctrine. While there is little or no chance of a socialist revolution in Britain today, there is a risk in even some individuals taking it seriously. There was a time not to long ago when the terrorist threat to Europe came not from angry young Muslims but angry young leftists. Given high youth unemployment and our general disengagement from party politics, the conditions for it to re-emerge are there. Webb rightly observes in his letter to Brand that:

In putting the words “aesthetically” and “disruption” in the same sentence, you come perilously close to saying that violence can be beautiful. Do keep an eye on that. Ambiguity around ambiguity is forgivable in an unpublished poet and expected of an arts student on the pull: for a professional comedian demoting himself to the role of “thinker”, with stadiums full of young people hanging on his every word, it won’t really do.