I have a framed Hunger Games poster.
It’s huge. It’s right in my apartment’s entranceway. And at first glance, it’s cheerful: a June Cleaver type, canning preserves with her smiling, pigtailed daughter, who says, “We’ll have plenty to eat thanks to my tesserae, won’t we mother?” At second glance, one might notice the worrying caption, “Don’t let your family starve this winter!” At third, you might recognize the Panem Capitol seal, or actually read the block of bold text beneath that shouts, in unnerving capitals:
BE RESPONSIBLE — FEED YOUR FAMILY — YOUTHS 12-18 MUST ENTER THE LOTTERY FOR THE REAPING — NO EXCEPTIONS — ON PENALTY OF DEATH
Why do I, a 35-year-old not-really-a-Hunger Games-fan-fan, keep a Hunger Games poster in the year of our lord 2023? Because it reminds me that you can’t judge a book by its online discourse or its movie adaptation — there’s more Lord of the Rings in the story of the Hunger Games than there is Harry Potter.
Let’s talk tesserae
You probably know the broad strokes of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA series. In the techno-genetic society of Panem, the hedonistic Capitol maintains its dominance over 12 other districts through military might and a yearly, televised debutante-ball-slash-reality-show-slash-battle-royale featuring 24 children from the lesser districts. These “tributes” are chosen in a ceremony called the Reaping, where their names are put on paper slips and randomly drawn from a globe. Any child age 12 to 18, so long as they reside in the district, could be chosen.
But you might not know the specifics: The Reaping isn’t a totally random lottery. For one thing, it’s weighted toward older kids. A 12-year-old’s name will only be in the globe once, but a 13-year-old will have two slips of paper, a 14-year-old three, and so on. For another, the Hunger Games are weighted toward the poor.
This is a ghoulish little detail that’s absent from the Hunger Games movies, and easy to miss in the books. In Panem, if a family finds itself without means — the examples we see firsthand are widowed and disabled parents — its children can sign up for a “tessera,” or a year’s starvation rations for one person. Children can sign up each year they’re eligible for the Hunger Games, and each year, they can sign up for as many tesserae as they have family members.
The word derives from the ancient Greek and Roman word “tessera,” meaning “tile,” referring both to a ceramic piece and, more relevantly, to a token, as in an object you might purchase at an arcade. Because for each tessera a child requests in their lifetime, an additional slip of paper bearing their name is added to the globe during the Reaping, every year.
It’s mentioned in the books that both protagonists, Katniss and Gale, have taken numerous tesserae to keep their families from starving, and to save their younger siblings from increasing their odds. A well-off 18-year-old would have only seven slips in the globe. Katniss has 20. Gale has 42.
It’s a tiny detail. It has no bearing on the plot: Katniss’ sister Prim, whose name is only in the globe once, gets picked, prompting Katniss to volunteer in her place. The other unlucky tribute that year is Peeta, the baker’s son and the mayor’s grandson, who has never wondered where his next meal would come from. The tesserae idea is pure world-building, and it’s a remarkably deft element at that.
With tesserae, Collins didn’t have to say that the Capitol’s culling is weighted toward workers who produce the least for elite consumption, not in so many words. She didn’t have to directly explain that the Hunger Games were designed to display the Capitol’s dominance over the districts, but the tesserae system was designed to perpetuate class divides within the districts themselves. She simply built her setting in line with the universal truth: When rain is falling everywhere, there’s a reason some people get wetter than others.
In some ways, the story of tesserae is the opposite of the Harry Potter books, where drilling in on the details only diminishes the series’ overt themes. Forget the pooping thing: Once you start thinking about how Hogwarts runs on slave labor, or how magic can instantly heal broken bones, but wizards have built their whole society around not sharing with the rest of humanity, you really start to wonder about the morality of the wizarding world.
And that’s what I like about my poster: It reminds me that the Hunger Games books were subtler and more complex than they might seem today, based on the conversations they sparked. Especially after they became megalithic: after imitators flooded YA publishing, and after the dominant online discourse around them — other than talking about the movies — focused in on how annoying Katniss’ first-person narration is.
But more than that, what I like about my poster is that it reminds me that the medium is always the message.
The girl who burned
The Hunger Games’ story always strained against the basic fact that simply by being adapted into cinema, it was rendered into spectacle. The movies removed viewers from Katniss’ perspective and recast them as Capitol citizens: an audience swept away by a far-off life-or-death drama of love and war that could have no more relevance to their actual lives than fiction.
I got my poster from the kind people behind the official Hunger Games CafePress store (now defunct — 2012 was a different time!), who reached out and offered me the print for free after I wrote about it at The Mary Sue. (Unfortunately, the email thread mentioning the artist’s name is long lost.) But that collection of book-fan-created apparel and housewares was quickly eclipsed in the main push of Lionsgate’s advertising blitz.
There were official Hunger Games tie-in makeup palettes, official athletic wear based on the tributes’ uniforms — the movie even started an official Tumblr account in the voice of a Capitol fashion magazine, exhorting followers to compete to become the next “stylist,” i.e., the person who puts pretty dresses on the child gladiators. And that was just for the first film. Once the franchise’s blockbuster bet was proven good, the merchandising process escalated: The product lines became bigger, sparklier, more sanitized. None of that was ironic, certainly not on the corporate side.
I think people underestimate the Hunger Games because — as with the Lord of the Rings movies — they remember the derivative stuff that came after the books more than they remember the strengths of the work that sparked the genre. And they remember the movies, where the fundamental constraints of the medium condense, flatten, and distance the audience from the message.
From my work-from-home desk, I only have to turn my head to look at my poster, featuring an image that never would have shown up on a glossy, PR-managed Tumblr. It’s not a message for Capitol citizens, after all; it’s a reminder to the other districts. Your children are never completely safe — but if you work for us, and other people don’t, you can make them safer than those other people’s children.
And it’s a reminder to me that in this pop-culture golden age of the adaptation, film doesn’t elevate the lowbrow, or legitimize the overlooked. At least not by default. It’s another way of telling a story, not the ultimate way of telling a story.
The book isn’t always better, but the movie is always different. And most of all, you can’t judge a book by its discourse.