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Decoding the politics of The Hunger Games

The coal miner's daughter (Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen) and the evil rich person (Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket) in a scene from "The Hunger Games"

Murray Close/AP

Stephen King described it as a "speed-rap of a novel that generates constant suspense." And, yes, The Hunger Games – about kids in a fascist state fighting to the death in a gladiatorial contest – is a page-turner. There are also compelling heroes (like the plucky Katniss, literally killer with a bow and arrow), a steamy love triangle (team Peeta or team Gale, you choose), and a grotesque televised spectacle (surprise, an implicit critique of reality shows).

These may not be, however, what made this dystopian narrative such a massive hit with fans of all ages.

Look closer, and note the book's publication date: Sept. 14, 2008 – the day before Lehman Brothers collapsed and exacerbated an already severe economic downturn. Readers were picking up Suzanne Collins's novel and its two sequels ( Catching Fire and Mockingjay) just as millions of them were losing their jobs or living in fear of being fired. What they found was perhaps the ultimate story for the Great Recession.

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The Hunger Games is a stark vision of class conflict. The poverty-stricken heroine struggles to survive in a cruel social order ruled by a wealthy and amoral elite. Following a brutal civil war, the fascist state of Panem is ruled with an iron hand by the Capital – where the fabulously wealthy enjoy the profits created by the impoverished, near-enslaved citizens of 12 districts. So poor are these citizens that some of them buy "tessera" (grain and oil) by increasing their children's chances of being chosen in the annual "reaping" – an anti-lottery in which kids from each district are selected for the fight to the death at the centre of the story.

Our heroine Katniss is more politically aware than the average combatant. The daughter of a coal miner, she's filled with plebian rage against the social order that sends her to her likely death in the games' arena. She's well aware that far from being a fair fight, the odds of winning are stacked against the poor, who are more likely to be selected, and must face well-fed and well-trained opponents from the richer districts.

In the film, this economic polarization is made visible with a distinctive palette for each region. The scenes in Katniss's native District 12 are framed in a dingy Appalachian grey, while in the Capital everything is bright and gaudy. Language and food are two other major class markers: people in Katniss's district are plain-spoken while the over-class in the Capital speak with affected accents; meals in Katniss's home territory look like sludgy mush, while the rich city dwellers gorge themselves on all manner of succulent meats and sweets.

Some critics have picked up on the economic message of the novel and film. Reviewing the movie, Xan Brooks of The Guardian notes that "outside the capital, the America of The Hunger Games looks a lot like the 1930s Depression, full of tarpaper shacks and unpaved roads. Inside, behind the walls, it's a decadent Gilded Age of grinning dandies and gleeful sadism."

All this makes Jennifer Lawrence a particularly suitable choice for the film's lead. She already proved herself (and earned an Oscar nomination) in the 2010 film Winter's Bone – and there are intriguing parallels between its central character Ree Dolly and Katniss.

Both are spunky daughters born to poor white families. Both have lost their father and, in turn, a mother overwhelmed by circumstance, and have to look after their families. And both can be seen as heroines of the 99 per cent – reluctant but fierce warriors living in a nation that seems indifferent to the working-class poor.

In his recent book Coming Apart, the right-wing American social scientist Charles Murray blames inequality on the "laziness" and immorality of the white working class. In emphasizing Katniss's survival skills and willingness to sacrifice for her family, author Collins seems to be making an almost pre-emptive rejoinder to arguments of this sort, which blame poverty on the wickedness of the poor.

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And in a final irony, it's her empathy for the class struggle that's put her into a position to speak out on the issue without a poor writer's axe to grind: The book has earned millions of dollars so far and the movie is expected to do boffo box office.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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