The Best Dystopian Movie on Netflix Reveals a Dark Psychological Truth
Political scientists explain the perverse role of psychology in The Hunger Games.
“May the odds be ever in your favor.”
That iconic grim phrase about the slaughter of children from 2012’s The Hunger Games — the first movie in a trilogy based on Suzanne Collins’ books of the same name — launched a thousand memes it also offered a dark glimpse into the perverse political psychology dictatorships employ to maintain power — both in the fictional Hunger Games and in real life. (Spoilers ahead for The Hunger Games).
The Hunger Games is set in an authoritarian regime comprised of twelve Districts and the Capitol. The wealthy elites of the Capitol — run by dictator President Snow — exploit the poor districts for resources and entertainment in the form of the annual Hunger Games. As punishment for rebelling against the Capitol 75 years ago, the districts are forced to offer up child tributes each year to fight to the death in a battle royale match. Only one tribute will emerge as the victor.
“Henceforth and forever more, this pageant shall be known as the Hunger Games,” the movie informs the viewer in the opening sequence.
But throughout the movie, we realize that the Hunger Games are far more than a disturbing form of entertainment — they’re also an essential tool of psychological repression that the Capitol wields to keep the impoverished districts in check. Curious? Allow us to explain.
“The game shows a number of tactics, which are regularly used by dictatorships,” Fathali Moghaddam, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, tells Inverse.
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What role do the Hunger Games serve in this society?
The Hunger Games are a clear homage to the real-life gladiator games conducted by ancient Romans. Just as in real life, the games in the movie distract the wealthy Capitol elite from the fact that the state is repressing them.
“The purpose of the gladiator game is to distract the populace from their current condition — give them entertainment,” Thomas Zeitzoff, Co-Director of the Peace and Violence Research Lab at American University, tells Inverse.
But the games serve a very different psychological purpose for the non-elite, subjugated residents of the districts, who toil daily to provide food and commodities for the Capitol. For the impoverished district residents who are forced to send their children — known as “tributes” — to die in this annual spectacle, the games are very clearly a show of dominance by the state.
“It's a propaganda tool to placate the masses...”
The Hunger Games allows “people to blow off steam but never forget that the capital is always watching and the capital is always in control,” Zeitzoff says.
“It's a propaganda tool to placate the masses in general,” Thorin Wright, associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics & Global Studies, tells Inverse.
Wright adds, “it reminds people of both state strength but also tries to present this narrative that the system is working for everyone.”
Scholars argue that The Hunger Games actually displays a number of subtle psychological tactics similar to those that real-world authoritarian regimes deploy. Moghaddam explains one tactic known as frustration-aggression, where the authoritarian redirects aggression that the angry masses would normally deploy against the state — in this case, in the form of the games.
By pitting the tributes from each district against each other in a battle to the death, the fascist Capitol effectively makes them see each other as enemies, preventing them from forming a coalition that could take down the government. This tactic is pulled from the real-life playbook of “divide and conquer” which colonial and authoritarian governments — from North Korea to Nazi Germany — have used throughout history to prevent different oppressed factions from joining together in collective rebellion.
“So, the Hunger Games is not using any kind of tactic that's new — dictatorships have used this often,” Moghaddam says.
How do the Hunger Games offer “hope?”
In one of the movie’s most psychologically fascinating scenes, dictator President Snow — speaks with the architect of the games, Seneca Crane. Snow asks Crane why they bother hosting the games when they could simply mass execute people to intimidate them through fear. The answer? Hope.
“Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous,” Snow tells a puzzled Crane.
But how can the Hunger Games – which forces children to battle to the death — ever be seen as a symbol of hope? Political scientists say there’s actually good reasoning to back up Snow’s rationale. After all, the one rule of the games is that there’s always a victor — someone who receives food, glory and security from the Capitol in exchange for participating in and surviving this heinous pageant.
“There's good psychological evidence that as long as people see some array of hope, then they will stick with the system they won’t rebel collectively,” Moghaddam says.
Wright agrees, adding that if you “get enough people mollified by the existing system, it makes mobilization for protest less likely.”
The promise of being a victor — hope — proactively squashes rebellion among the poor districts — until Katniss Everdeen shows up.
Why does Katniss threaten the regime?
Katniss develops a partially contrived show romance with a boy from her district, Peeta, while participating in the Hunger Games. Seeing that their romance is proving popular to the elite masses in the Capitol, Crane allows them to both stay alive until the very end. Then, he pulls the wool over their eyes and says that only one of them can survive the Games — potentially pitting them against each other in a battle to the death.
But Katniss effectively calls the Capitol’s bluff: she pulls out a handful of poisonous berries and threatens to commit suicide with Peeta. Realizing that such an ending would not prove very entertaining to the Capitol elite, Crane decides to let both of them survive the games.
Katniss was simply thinking about her survival, but the people in the districts see this moment — and others such as her three-fingered salute to fallen comrade Rue — as an act of rebellion against the Capitol. Katniss’ actions have a ripple effect of inspiring widespread protest and rebellion throughout the districts — the very thing the Capitol was seeking to prevent through the Hunger Games.
People in the districts may privately abhor the Capitol — their private preferences — but they don’t dare express these views publicly out of fear of reprisal from the dictatorship. Instead, they adopt publicly supportive views of the fascist regime. This dichotomy between private and public views is known as “preference falsification.”
“What Katniss does is essentially something like preference falsification. She is showing the rest of the people [in the districts] that if you don't like the Capitol, you're not alone. And that's why Katniss is so dangerous,” Zeitzoff says.
Authoritarian governments want to suppress what political scientists refer to as “belief cascades” or the kinds of ripple effects where individual actions inspire collective protest as the masses come to realize the system isn’t working for them. Think, for example, of the Arab spring democracy movement in 2011, which began when Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in response to government harassment.
“I think The Hunger Games does a good job talking about how [dictatorships] don't want to allow these belief cascades to happen. They want people to keep falsifying their preferences,” Zeitzoff adds.
Yet, Moghaddam isn’t so sure real-life individual action — like Katniss’ defiance with berries — is as successful as inspiring collective action in real life. Instead, he thinks “fraternal deprivation” — when you see your group being oppressed as a whole — is more likely to inspire rebellion, such as the recent women’s protests in Iran.
“Individual rebellion, really, historically, doesn't get very far. It usually leads to martyrdom,” Moghaddam adds.
But while experts are uncertain on Katniss’ actions being a realistic catalyst for political rebellion, they agree on one thing: The Hunger Games offers a fascinating lens to examine the psychological tactics of authoritarian regimes.
The Hunger Games is leaving Netflix on March 30.