The Hunger Games and the Nature of Rebellion

By Natalie Gillis

In my nature explorations, I’ve always been fascinated not just with identifying the species I encounter, but with digging deeper and learning their backstories. There are many stories behind the plants and animals that fill our landscapes. Sometimes they’re hidden in history, myths and cultural narratives. Sometimes they’re hidden in our very words.

With Catching Fire, the second film installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, fans of Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic dystopian world will be celebrating. Many educators will too, since the film’s release will revive the series for students, and thus its relevance in language arts programming.

From a literary perspective, The Hunger Games is an action-packed hero’s quest told through the eyes of a strong-but-flawed heroine fighting to survive in a dystopian future. It’s a great entry point into explorations of the monomyth, and it can be easily compared to other classic quests like The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lion King and many comic-book superheroes.

But The Hunger Games is also about a society that is completely broken—as unhealthy as societies can get. Even though it only glosses over most of the issues it touches on, it is a great springboard to deeper examination of all sorts of environmental and social justice problems. Panem is post-climate change North America. There are parallels with the Occupy movement (Panem’s 99% live with ongoing environmental strife, food insecurity and resource depletion while the remaining 1% live in the Capitol, where the nation’s wealth and power are concentrated). And just why is Panem still coal-powered, anyway? Enter conversations about technological innovation and sustainability.

The Dystopian Nature Disconnect
The Hunger Games can do more than just raise sexy contemporary issues, though. The symbolic role of nature in the story is a portal to a deeper examination of the characterization of nature across the genre. After reading The Hunger Games and thinking more broadly about dystopian fiction, I concluded that many, if not most, fictional dystopias are set in highly urban environments or ravaged wastelands. Even those that are set in relatively healthy landscapes isolate their characters from contact with the natural world, as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where the countryside is the domain of the exiles. The Hunger Games is no different: the land has been wasted, resources have been depleted, citizens are prohibited from wandering freely in the forest and gates surround the districts to separate humans from their natural environment. Wild landscapes and the animals that inhabit them are perceived as dangerous—a continuation of the civilization versus wilderness binary that is a fundamental aspect of colonial and postcolonial culture.

The Nature of Rebellion

Why is this such a common element in dystopian fiction? I think it’s because the primal connection humans have with the land is fundamentally incompatible with dystopian power structures. Beyond providing sustenance, nature has a healing and revitalizing power and is intrinsically linked to human freedom and happiness (Children & Nature Network and IUCN Commission on Education and Communication, 2012). Seen through the lens of the dualistic nature/culture paradigm, a dystopian superpower cannot effectively control its subjects if the people have healthy relationships with the land, which is by definition wild and uncontrollable. Excluding nature’s light and beauty excludes hope, which enables control. Separating people from the place in which they live is necessary in dystopian worlds, because a return to nature would lead to rebellion and independence. Seen in this light, the staging of the final battle in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (in which the Rebel Alliance finally succeeds in overthrowing the Galactic Empire) on the lush forest moon of Endor was highly symbolic. In The Hunger Games, the return to nature and freedom is played out through the heroine, Katniss Everdeen.

Katniss’ deep connection to the land is fundamental to her survival throughout her life. As a young girl, the sight of a single dandelion inspired her to hunt and forage to keep her family from starving and to provide healing medicines. Because these acts are illegal in Panem—all resources belong to the state, and wandering in the woods is forbidden—Katniss’ relationship with the land defines her as a rebel before the story even begins. Aside from the resources the woods provide, Katniss also finds existential freedom and relief there. This bond with the natural world and the vitality it gives her is in stark contrast to the dreary hopelessness of the other residents of her community, who remain caged within the district fences, and to the shallow, overconsumptive urbanity of the Capitol residents, who do not realize they are imprisoned by their luxury.

Once she enters the Hunger Games arena, it is Katniss’ skill as a forager, hunter and herbalist that keep her alive. She knows how to read the land as efficiently as readers of books can decode symbols on a page. But beyond these skills, I think it’s Katniss’ lifelong immersion in nature that gives her the self-assurance and freedom of mind needed to defy the Capitol and ultimately spark a rebellion against its repressive regime.

Dystopias: Utopias for Educators
Katniss’ ecological literacy gives educators an opportunity to forge curricular connections with environmental stewardship and traditional ways of knowing. Questions on the links between nature, rebellion and freedom in the dystopian genre could lead to a comparative study of other dystopian novels. And it’s easy to draw parallels between the expulsion of nature in dystopian societies and our own society’s impoverished nature experiences. What is the existential and symbolic importance of natural spaces to healthy societies? With so many students already in love with The Hunger Games series, the release of the second film offers a cornucopia of discussion topics on nature and society.

Children & Nature Network and IUCN Commission on Education and Communication (2012). Children & nature worldwide: An exploration of children’s experiences of the outdoors and nature with associated risks and benefits.

Natalie Gillis is a Grade 6–7 French Immersion teacher in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. She likes books and backpacking, and thinks more people should ride bikes.