I have a framed Hunger Games poster.
It’s huge. It’s right in the entryway of my apartment. And on the face of it, it’s jolly: a June Cleaver type, canning canned food with her smiling pigtailed daughter, who says, “Then we’ll have enough to eat thanks to my tesserae, won’t we, Mother?” At second glance, you might notice the disturbing caption: “Don’t let your family starve this winter!” Third, you might recognize the Panem Capitol seal, or read the bold block below that scream, in unnerving capitals:
BE RESPONSIBLE — FEED YOUR FAMILY — YOUTH AGES 12-18 MUST ENTER THE LOTTERY TO BUY — NO EXCEPTIONS — PENALTY OF DEATH
Why should I, a 35-year-old not-quite-a-Hunger Games-fanfan, 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 film adaptation – there’s more Lord of the Rings to the Hunger Games story than Harry Potter.
Let’s talk tesserae
You probably know the outline of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian YA series. In Panem’s technogenetic society, the hedonistic Capitol maintains its dominance over 12 other districts through military might and an annual televised debutante-ball-slash-reality-show-slash-battle-royale featuring 24 children from the smaller districts . These ‘tributes’ are chosen in a ceremony called the Reaping, where their names are put on paper slips and drawn at random from a globe. Any child from 12 to 18 years old, as long as they live in the district, can be elected.
But you may not know the details: The Reaping not a totally random lottery. For starters, it’s aimed at older kids. A 12-year-old’s name will appear only once on the globe, but a 13-year-old will have two pieces of paper, a 14-year-old three, and so on. On the other hand, the Hunger Games are aimed at the poor.
This is an eerie little detail absent from the Hunger Games movies and easily overlooked in the books. If a family in Panem runs out of resources – the examples we see firsthand are widowers and disabled parents – the children can sign up for a “tessera,” or a year’s hunger rations for one person. Kids can sign up each year if they qualify for the Hunger Games, and each year they can sign up for as many tesserae as there are family members.
The word is derived from the ancient Greek and Roman word “tessera”, meaning “tile”, and refers both to a ceramic piece and, more relevantly, to a token, as in an object you might buy at an arcade. Because for every tessera a child requests during their lifetime, an extra piece of paper with their name is added to the globe each year during the harvest.
It is mentioned in the books that both protagonists, Katniss and Gale, have taken numerous tesserae to prevent their families from starving and to prevent their younger siblings from increasing their chances. A well-to-do 18-year-old would only have seven slips in the world. Katniss has 20. Gale has 42.
It is a small detail. It doesn’t affect the plot: Katniss’ sister Prim, whose name appears only once on the globe, is chosen, prompting Katniss to apply in her place. The other unfortunate tribute that year is Peeta, the baker’s son and the mayor’s grandson, who never wondered where his next meal would come from. The tesserae idea is pure world-building, and it’s a remarkably nimble element at that.
With tesserae, Collins didn’t have to participation that the cull is weighted by the Capitol toward workers who produce the least for consumption by the elite, not in so many words. She didn’t have to explain right away that the Hunger Games were meant to show the Capitol’s dominance over the districts, but the tesserae system was meant to perpetuate class divisions within the districts themselves. She simply built her scenery in accordance with the universal truth: when it rains everywhere, there’s a reason why some people get wetter than others.
In some ways, the story of Tesserae is the polar opposite of the Harry Potter books, where zooming 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 entire society around not sharing with the rest of humanity, you really start to wonder what the morality of the wizarding world is .
And that’s what I love about my poster: It reminds me that the Hunger Games books were more subtle and complex than they might seem today, based on the conversations they sparked. Especially after they became megalithic: after imitators flooded YA publications, and after the dominant online discourse around them—besides talking about the movies—focused on how annoying Katniss’s 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 was burned
The story of The Hunger Games always ran counter to the fundamental fact that, simply by being adapted in the cinema, it was turned into spectacle. The films removed viewers from Katniss’s perspective and recast them as Capitol citizens: an audience swept up in a far-flung life-or-death drama of love and war that could be as relevant to their real lives as fiction.
I got my poster from the nice 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 in The Mary Sue. (Unfortunately, the email thread mentioning the artist’s name has long since been lost.) But that collection of book-fan-made clothing and housewares was soon overshadowed by the main push of Lionsgate’s advertising blitz.
There were official Hunger Games makeup palettes, official athletic wear based on the tributes’ uniforms – the movie even started an official Tumblr account in the voice of a fashion magazine Capitol, urging followers to compete to become the next “stylist,” i.e. the person who puts fancy dresses on the child gladiators. And that was just for the First movie. Once the franchise’s blockbuster bet turned out right, the merchandising process escalated: product lines got bigger, brighter, and more sanitized. None of that was ironic, certainly not on the business side.
I think people underestimate the Hunger Games because, as with the Lord of the Rings movies, they remember more about the derivatives that came after the books than the strengths of the work that started the genre. And they remember the movies, where the fundamental limitations of the medium condense, flatten and distance the audience from the message.
From my home office, all I have to do is turn my head to look at my poster, featuring an image that would never have appeared on a glossy, PR-run Tumblr. After all, it’s not a message for Capitol residents; it is a reminder of 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 reminds me that in this golden age of pop culture filmmaking, film doesn’t elevate the lowbrow, or legitimize the overlooked. At least not by default. It’s another way to tell a story, not the one Ultimate way to tell a story.
The book is not always better, but the movie is always different. And above all, you can’t judge a book by its discourse.