One important theme in most dystopian literature is the presence of a powerful, ruling government that controls public thought and opinion. By keeping people from forming individualized opinions, the government can keep itself in power and prevent uprisings. In The Hunger Games, this government is exemplified by the Capitol, which uses soldiers, surveillance, and starvation to keep its citizens in line.
"District Twelve. Where you can starve to death in safety," I mutter. Then I glance quickly over my shoulder. Even here, in the middle of nowhere, you worry someone might overhear you.
Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. "Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there's nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you."
(Collins, The Hunger Games, Google Books)
The first quote shows how people are trained to think in a certain way. Because growing food is limited, they live in starvation, and are forced to scavenge when they can; however, even this is illegal and fear of being caught is ingrained in the public consciousness.
The second quote shows the brutal nature of the Capitol. To keep people from rebelling, they force their children to fight in the Hunger Games each year, demonstrating their power over the individual. Since the people are kept hungry and weak, they have no choice but to watch, hoping that their own children won't be chosen the following year.
There’s a major disconnect between life in the Capitol and life in District 12. The Capitol’s residents are rich and (seemingly) happy, while residents of other districts are poor and miserable. The Capitol governs all the districts, but it’s not a democratic rule. The Capitol institutes and enforces laws that are meant to quiet dissenters and keep the status quo – a rich and happy Capitol.
In the quote below, Katniss discusses how people aren’t allowed to say negative things about life in their district or about the Capitol. There’s no concept of free speech in Panem. It’s clear that speaking negatively about the country in any fashion is likely to result in serious punishment.
“When I was younger, I scared my mother to death, the things I would blurt out about District 12, about the people who rule our country, Panem, from the far-off city called the Capitol. Eventually I understood this would only lead us to more trouble. So I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts.” (Chapter 1, Paragraph 11)
The dystopian theme is furthered when we learn the reason the Hunger Games were created. They were created as a reminder of the Capitol’s power and what it will do if anyone tries to disrupt the status quo. Any attempt at overthrowing the government will be met with a harsh, lasting punishment.
“The rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes to participate. The twenty-four 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.” (Chapter 1, Paragraph 75)