Whether you’re been a fan of the books from the beginning or constantly find yourself grumbling “Battle Royale ripoff” under your breath, it’s hard to deny the pop culture phenomenon that is The Hunger Games. However, there’s a lot to the series – especially as it is committed to film – that is left unexplained.
The premise is simple: After an uprising and war that wiped out much of the North American population, the oppressive government of Panem now demands that two tributes a year are chosen from each of the sparsely-populated districts to compete in the Hunger Games, a battle to the death with a single victor. The story opens in the poverty-stricken District 12 where our heroine is marched into the town square to be part of this annual Reaping.
However, knowing that District 12 makes up a large portion of Appalachia and supposedly is larger than the modern state of West Virginia, it seems this Reaping is like the people struggling to survive: a little thin. Do they have the Panem equivalent of draft dodgers? Do the THX-1138 stormtroopers not notice that the ranks are a bit small? How are they getting away with this?
In the interest of fairness, this got us thinking: Were the good folks in District 12 scamming the Hunger Games?
The Answer: At least two-thirds probably were.
According to the book, the population of District 12 is approximately 8,000 people. Like the Hunger Games themselves, the Reaping is required viewing, and anyone between the ages of 12 and 18 is required to attend. This is apparent from the DNA testing check-in procedures we witness in the film itself.
Due to a somewhat nausea-inducing directing choice by Gary Ross, all scenes in District 12 were shot with a Cloverfield handheld style. However, an occasional steady shot of the square reveals some interesting numbers.
Girls and boys are separated on either side of an aisle. Parents, other family members, and onlookers are stuffed behind them. As Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) prepares to draw names from two fishbowls on either side of the stage, we get a decent shot of the crowd. There are about a dozen rows of 10 to 15 girls on the right. The boys comprise a slightly larger number, with about 20 rows of 10 to 15 each. That comes to about 200 girls and 300 hundred boys eligible to be reaped as a tribute, or a total of approximately 500 teenagers.
The problem with this number is that it isn’t nearly enough to represent a population of 8,000 – especially one that has few old people because there are so many deaths in the mines. These 500 teenagers make up a little more than 6% of the full population. According to international census numbers, in a population of relatively young people (assuming few people make it into their 60s), teenage population should be between 15 and 20 percent, or in this case 1,200 to 1,600 people. Considering that poverty leads to higher birth rates and thus higher numbers of younger citizens, it’s likely that the number is closer to 20 percent, if not more.
So where are the other 9 to 14 percent? Where is District 12 hiding the other 700 to 1,100 teenagers?
Maybe they were behind the train
According to Suzanne Collins in her novel “The Hunger Games,” not everyone can fit in the town square. She states in the first chapter:
The square’s quite large, but not enough to hold District 12’s population of about eight thousand. Latecomers are directed to the adjacent streets, where they can watch the event on screens as it’s televised live by the state. (p. 17)
This explains the relatively small crowd of 400 people behind the potential tributes in the square, which can be seen as about seven rows of 60 people each. However, the teenagers are not allowed the luxury of hiding in the streets just in case their name is called. It’s clear to see there’s a roped off area where the potential tributes are being held, after checking in with a blood sample.
There are also the fish bowls, which contain quite a few name cards in them. However, the entries into the reaping are cumulative, meaning that a person’s name goes in the bowl for every year he or she is eligible. For example, a 12 year old’s name is only put in once, a 13 year old’s name is put in twice, a 14 year old’s name is put in three times, and so on. With seven years of eligibility, the average minimum number of times a name would be entered would be 3.5 (7 ÷ 2), producing at least 4,200 entries for the 1,200 eligible teenagers.
More over, vital supplies of food can be purchased by putting your name in multiple times, as Suzanne Collins explains in the first person voice of Katniss:
But here’s the catch. Say you are poor and starving as we were. You can opt to add your name more times in exchange for tesserae. Each tesserae is worth a meager year’s supply of grain and oil for one person. You may do this for each of your family members as well. So, at the age of twelve, I had my name entered four times. Once, because I had to, and three times for tesserae for grain and oil for myself, Prim, and my mother. In fact, every year I have needed to do this. And the entries are cumulative. So now, at the age of sixteen, my name will be in the reaping twenty times. Gale, who is eighteen and has been either helping or single-handedly feeding a family of five for seven years, will have his name in forty-two times. (p. 13)
Assuming many of the potential tributes traded additional entries for food and supplies, the number of entries would be considerably higher than the minimum 4,200 entries, easily into the tens of thousands in the fishbowls rather than the few hundred shown on screen.
How do you like them odds?
I’m not sure how the other Districts do it, but District 12 managed to hide hundreds if not thousands of teenagers from the Reaping. The odds were not in the favor of the kids that ended up in the square, but it was ever in the favor of those who managed to dodge the draft of Panem.
Maybe it was that fence around District 12 that was as effective at keeping people in as the Rio Grande is at keeping people from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. After all, if Katniss (and more importantly the lumbering Gale) can come and go into the forest as they please, maybe everyone else can, too.