Netizens are comparing the Israel-Hamas war to the Hunger Games franchise. Here’s why it doesn’t work

By Abby Amoakuh

Updated Jan 5, 2024 at 03:23 PM

Reading time: 5 minutes

The Hunger Games is undoubtedly one of the most famous young adult franchises to ever exist. The book trilogy that kickstarted the franchise was translated into 26 different languages and sold in over 38 territories. The incredibly successful movies that followed launched the careers of Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth and also grossed a staggering $3.20 billion worldwide.

The premise is simple: Katniss Everdeen lives in the dystopian nation of Panem which is divided into 13 districts and ruled by the autocratic and fascist Capitol. Every year, all the districts must sacrifice two of their children to participate in a brutal fight to the death where only one tribute survives. Throughout the trilogy, Katniss leads a rebellion against the Capitol and its president Coriolanus Snow and ultimately topples Panem’s violent class system.

Suzanne Collins, the author of the books, was inspired to write the series after reviewing coverage of the Iraq war. “I was very tired and I was flipping through images on reality television where these young people were competing for a million dollars or whatever, then I was seeing footage from the Iraq war, and these two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that is the moment where I got the idea for Katniss’ story,” Collins told The Guardian in a 2012 interview.

However, the powerful concept behind the series still rings true more than a decade later and has surfaced in other narratives, such as the Korean dark thriller Squid Game. The ways in which we consume the pain and humiliation of others through reality TV have not changed. Popular yet exploitative genres like true crime continue to strip us of empathy and compassion for the victims of atrocities. We live in a voyeuristic society that finds pleasure in watching the misery and humiliation of others from a safe distance. There is simply no other way of putting it and the endurance of these circumstances is what maintains The Hunger Games’ cultural relevance.

It should come as no surprise then that the film adaptation of the series’ prequel has enjoyed rave reviews and widespread resonance.

Nevertheless, amid political turmoil, another reading of The Hunger Games started to take hold: the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas-led Palestinian militant groups led to the politicisation of netizens. Over the past weeks, since 7 October 2023, they have shared their horror and collective outrage over the Hamas attack on civilians, as well as the Israeli military strikes on civilian infracture that followed.

So, with the release of the newest movie in The Hunger Games franchise, A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, on 17 November 2023, netizens started to compare the war to the larger conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

In their eyes, Israel is the Capitol, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is President Snow, Gaza is District 13 and Hamas is Katniss. Simple, right? Yet still very wrong.

https://twitter.com/cityofdaredevil/status/1725047361204810175

To say that these comparisons fail to capture the size of the Palestinian cause and the severity of the terror attacks committed by Hamas would be an understatement. They reflect both a very shallow understanding of the book series, as well as the war.

Katniss Everdeen’s character was beloved for her resilience and selflessness, which is why District 13 turned her into a symbol of resistance for a freer, better Panem. Unlike Hamas, she condemns her friend Gale’s willingness to attack civilians for the success of the revolution, and kills District 13 leader Coin, after unmasking her as another dangerous autocrat with her own agenda who does not seek a better Panem.

Katniss cannot be compared to an organisation which has maintained a fascist one-party state that crushes all opposition within its territory, bans same-sex relationships, represses women, and boasts about its ambition to murder Jews since its rise to power in 2005. “As a journalist who has travelled repeatedly to Gaza, I’m appalled by the sympathy that some Americans and Europeans have shown for a misogynist and repressive terror organization like Hamas,” Pulitzer Prize-winning human rights journalist and political commentator Nicholas Kristof stated in the New York Times, highlighting that Hamas is not an expression of Palestinian resistance but an adversary in their continued struggle for freedom.

Any attempt to compare Katniss to the group is an attempt to depict Hamas as a benign organisation of freedom fighters, which is both factually incorrect and morally despicable. If fans attempt any comparisons between the franchise and the Israel-Hamas war, they should cast Hamas as President Coin, an equally corrupt leader who hides her goals under a ‘for the people’ disguise.

However, even this comparison is insufficient at best and offensive at worst because it falls into one vicious trap: it attempts to use a Western framework of knowledge to understand the Middle East. And that never works.

The West doesn’t understand the Middle East and it is this misunderstanding that has plagued foreign policies for years. It was George Bush’s misconceptions of Iraqi politics and society that led to a litany of failures during the Iraq war and continued a tradition of moralising and preaching to the global East, rather than listening and trying to engage with it.

The West has a history of framing its issues as battles between democracies and autocracies, civilised and uncivilised, progressed and regressed. This is a framework of knowledge that also informs The Hunger Games. However, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is more complicated than this and looking at it through this limiting, westernised scope only prevents us from understanding the Middle East on its own terms.

Palestinian-American critic and author of the book Orientalism, Edward Said, famously rejected the notion that the West could ever truly understand the Middle East.

He noted that Palestine was incredibly difficult to solve “because of its local complexities. Let’s say Arabs and Jews, Arab Muslims and Arab Christians and Israeli Jews of themselves very mixed backgrounds. I mean we’re talking about Polish Jews, Russian Jews, American Jews, Yemeni Jews, Iraqi Jews, and Indian Jews, it’s a fairly complex mosaic somehow finding a way to live together, on land that is drenched, saturated with significance on a world scale, unlike any other country in the world. I mean it’s holy to three of the major religions and every inch of it has been combed over and fought over for the last several thousand years.”

In 1947, the United Nations endorsed the division of the British mandate of Palestine into two states, one Arab and the other Jewish, after the British had promised states to both parties. Similar promises were made to the Kurds, the Sunnis, the Maronites, and others, however, no state for these groups ever came to fruition. Instead, they laid the seeds for future territorial conflicts.

Nevertheless, Jewish leaders made a compelling case in front of the organisation that without the protection of a home state, Jews would be unlikely to survive after centuries of displacement and prosecution. Consequently, likening Israel to The Capitol is an imperfect comparison because it aligns Jews with the same people who have tried to extinguish them for several centuries and obscures who the actual Capitol has been historically.

At the same time, this comparison fails to capture the size of Palestinian suffering, which consists of military occupation, settler intimidation and violence, corrupt leadership, and neglect by more than 20 fellow Arab countries. The matrix of their subjugation is complex and outsizes the weight of a singular capital.

“Some of us, not everybody, but many Palestinians have said, ‘Well we realize that we are being asked to pay the price for what happened to the Jews in Europe, under the Holocaust, it was an entirely Christian and European catastrophe in which the Arabs played no part, and we are being dispossessed, displaced by the victims.’ We’ve become the victims of the victims,” Said stated.

Fiction can be a good framework for understanding real-life conflicts. However, we shouldn’t be uncritical about the literature we choose to apply. A book series that was mainly successful in the West and has a fundamentally Western viewpoint simply will not do in this instance.

The Middle East is just not an alternative version of the West. It needs comparisons and viewpoints that allow it to stand for itself. Otherwise, we will fail to capture its complicated dynamics and obscure the West’s culpability in the wars and conflicts that plague it today.

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