I am currently doing a bit of a farewell tour through some books and films, and last week I indulged myself in a re-read of the last books which served as out-loud bedtime reading with my kids, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. We read these (or certainly the first one) before the films came out, so before the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, was inseparable from Jennifer Lawrence, though I can’t now recall the image I had of that character in that pre-Lawrence period. The books certainly kept us engaged, though, and it was with happy memories that I revisited them just now.
They are full of action, of course, and some engaging characters, but naturally enough, I found myself wondering what there was in terms of legal content. As ever with science-fiction, it is interesting to look past the tech gadgets and aliens (if applicable – not so here) to see how societies are imagined. This includes the sorts of rules and constitutions which are set out or assumed. There may be less of this in what is, in the end, an adventure story for older children, but still there are some bits and pieces it seems worthwhile pointing out.
District Twelve Tables? Bread, circuses and … Roman Law?
The central idea of the games and the arena, not to mention some of the names – Caesar, Plutarch, Seneca, Claudius, Coriolanus, the Capitol, and Panem itself – obviously show the influence of Rome. I can’t say, though, that I see much of the legal content which looks especially Roman. It’s rather more akin to modern U.S. law and institutions. The only vaguely legal thing that really screams ‘classical world’ is the end of Seneca Crane – made to kill himself by taking nightlock.[i] This, though, is rather more reminiscent of the death of Socrates than the deaths of Romans who fell foul of the authorities.
Histories and Constitution
The story which is fed by the Capitol to the twelve districts which serve it, is that Panem was once (in ‘the Dark Days’) threatened by an uprising against the Capitol. When the districts were defeated, one, (District 13) was obliterated, and relations between the Capitol and the remaining districts was reset. These relations, interestingly for law-fans, were governed not be a statute but by a treaty (which, I suppose, gave an appearance of consent, even though it was consent to abject subservience). The settlement included the foundation of the Hunger Games. This quotation gives the basics:
‘The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to guarantee peace and as our yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games. The rules of the HG are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the 12 districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The 24 tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.’[ii]
In the time covered by the books, Panem is ruled from the Capitol. There is a President (President Snow) but I suspect that he is not democratically elected.[iii] There is some idea that his powers are limited by law, [iv] but it is not clear what those limits might be, and he does not seem to feel constrained from arbitrary action, such as making death threats against family members or friends to ensure that he gets people to do what he wants.[v] Are there lawyers in this world? We do not really know. There is a hint that there are at least some sort of legal experts who might offer an opinion on aspects of the arrangements of the Hunger Games.[vi]
In the later books, we discover that some of the ‘origin story’ is false – District 13 was not obliterated, but has become a strict, underground, society, which, in its way, is as disturbing and controlling as the Capitol.[vii]
It is not always easy to see what is the law and what is abuse of the law on the part of the Capitol and its emanations, including the paramilitary ‘Peacekeepers’, but the overall picture is one of strict criminal law, with severe sanctions, including mutilation and death by hanging or shooting.[viii] There are also those medieval and early modern favourites, the stocks, and whipping,[ix] and some use of imprisonment.[x]
In an echo of the ‘Bloody Code’, theft and poaching offences are harshly treated, especially if they involve crossing from one’s district into the woods beyond. ‘Hunting in the woods surrounding District 12 … is punishable by death’.[xi] All forms of stealing are punishable by death.[xii] There is, though, a broad range of possible outcomes, depending on how strictly the local authorities or Peacekeepers want to adhere to the penalties. Initially, the Peacekeepers in District 12 are not interested in punishing poaching ‘because they are as hungry for fresh meat as anybody is’.[xiii] An outside Peacekeeper, Thread, however, imposes a stricter regime and Gale is condemned to forty lashes at the whipping post for poaching a wild turkey (which, it was pretended, had wandered into the district).[xiv] In other districts, punishment may also be stricter: this seems to be the case in District 11, where, Rue reveals, eating crops is punishable by public whipping,[xv] and a boy was killed for stealing night glasses.[xvi] The law does not seem to have much room for defences, but there is some concession for mental incapacity: Coin says that District 13 would not punish as a traitor somebody who was (mentally) ‘frail’,[xvii] and Katniss herself benefits from some sort of mental instability plea, after she shoots Coin.
Treason is, unsurprisingly, treated with severity: death or removal of the tongue and enslavement as an avox seem to be the main responses. [xviii] The scope of treason/rebellion seems to be fairly wide, encompassing whistling and setting off an anti-Capitol demonstration, [xix] and selling bows.[xx]
One boy and one girl …
As with so much science fiction, gender roles are essentially traditional. Thus, the miners in District 12 are all male. I am not sure I can explain, therefore, how it is that, in the Hunger Games, male and female tributes are selected to fight each other.
We do learn a little about marriage – which again seems fairly traditional, and M-F only. It is, at least, not compulsory, and free choice of spouse seems to be the norm. [xxi] There is some variation in terms of traditions, but some form of registration applies throughout, and marriage seems to result in the assignment of property to the new spouses.[xxii] In general, property seems to be state-controlled, and assigned for life only. This applies to the swanky homes given to those who are victorious in the Hunger Games as well as to the rest.[xxiii] So, sadly, I can’t say anything much about the property law of Panem.
Other miscellaneous thoughts
I note that, in an attempt to disrupt the Quarter Quell, Peeta (falsely) claims that Katniss is pregnant. This has me thinking about ‘pleading the belly’ in order to defer a death penalty (or torture), but it would seem that pregnancy does not stop a person having to take part in the Hunger Games, even if it does outrage those hearing about it.[xxiv]
Also of interest: there is a fair bit of questioning of what limits there might be on acceptable behaviour in war – idea of war crimes not named, but sort of there: e.g. questioning of whether it is OK to trap people, enemies and ‘collateral damage’ in a mountain tunnel network,[xxv] andy disagreements about the (effective) strategy of bomibing both Capitol citizens and then their rescuers.[xxvi]
Ave atque vale, Katniss
That’s about it, as far as I can see. A few bits and pieces of law, along with all the violent excitement and a rather inspiring heroine. Off they go to the charity shop, and all that remains is to say, with the great E. Trinket,
May the odds be EVER in your favour …
I Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008)
II Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire (2009)
III Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay (2010)
[ii] 1, 21
[iii] I, 7.
[iv] For possible questions about the relationship between the President and the constitution, see the questioning of whether President Snow has the power to change the Quarter Quell II, 303.
[v] II, 36.
[vi] II, 301.
[vii] compulsory military service, strict rules about food, brutal treatment of offenders, even those who did not really get the rules III, 42, 43, 57.
[viii] III, 148.
[ix] II, 221.
[x] I, 19.
[xi] II, 11.
[xii] I, 35.
[xiii] I, 6.
[xiv] II, 127, 135.
[xv] I, 245.
[xvi] I, 247.
[xvii] III, 67.
[xviii] I, 94.
[xix] II, 77.
[xx] I, 6.
[xxi] II, 55.
[xxii] II, 299; III, 262.
[xxiii] II, 7.
[xxiv] II, 309.
[xxv] III, c. 15.
[xxvi] III, c. 25.