I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview both Nicolas Michaud and George A. Dunn, the editors of the book The Hunger Games and Philosophy: a Critique of Pure Treason. Both Nicolas and George also contributed their own chapters to the book, and offered some fascinating insights into their thoughts on Panem, the Capitol, and The Hunger Games series in general. I highly recommend taking the time to read their thoughts. Here is my interview with Nicolas Michaud:
What do you think Hunger Games fans will enjoy most about your book?
Nicolas: I think many HG’s fans will feel validated. They know that there is a lot of deep intellectual and emotional value in the book series they love so much. But it is technically a book for young readers, so I am sure that they have to deal with some skepticism. In reading our book, they will see how professional philosophers and thinkers agree with them. And our text helps the reader explore those ideas even more deeply.
You have been a part of a number of Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture books. Some cover more lighthearted entertainment, such as 30 Rock and Philosophy, and SpongeBob Square Pants and Philosophy. The Hunger Games trilogy; however, has a pretty direct message in relation to society and justice. Did you feel that in editing this book in the philosophy series?
Nicolas: Yes. To some degree it was difficult to get away from the ethical issues that are so prominent in the books. And I didn’t really want to get away from them, as they are so powerful. It was important that we made sure to cover a more than just ethics in the text, else our book would not have given a true portrait of philosophy as a field and it would have been a little redundant. However, it is those ethical questions that really drive the book series, and I think you see strands of those ethical tensions running through even the least ethically related of our chapters.
How was this book different compared to the other philosophy books?
Nicolas: Well some of the other books I have participated in are a great deal more lighthearted. Really, of the ones I have written for, I think The Hunger Games and Philosophy is the most serious. So with the other texts we could afford to be a bit more playful and share philosophy with people in a very lighthearted way. But in this book our audience would not have appreciated much in the way of jokes, I think. So, it was important that we keep our own book in line with the tone and seriousness of Collins’s work.
If you had to summarize what the book says about The Hunger Games trilogy in only a few sentences, what would it be?
Nicolas: That there is a great deal of depth to The Hunger Games. It is important that we really think about the questions The Hunger Games brings to light, because it could easily be us. We should use Collins’s work as an opportunity to learn about own society.
In the chapter “Competition and Kindness”, Abigail Mann discusses Darwinian concepts in The Hunger Games. The arena is a pretty obvious example of “survival of the fittest”. Do you think there are any aspects of our own culture that are gentler versions of the arena, and Darwin’s famed theory?
Nicolas: Yes, and not always gentler. When it comes to the personal success of people in our lower classes, we act in a very cut throat, survival of the fittest, way. While we make sure to bail out corporations that are too large to fail, but those people are the lower rungs are deemed, “Homeless because they are lazy” or “Poor because of their own failures.” This libertarian mindset makes it very easy for us to look down on social reform and programs like welfare. So even if someone was raised in the ghetto, without access to a computer, pencils, or even up-to-date text books, we view it as being her and only her responsibility for her success. And if someone doesn’t succeed, we shrug our shoulders and think, “Well, it’s a fair system, she just couldn’t compete.” This kind of social Darwinism is fuel for the kind of apathy that we see both in our society and the Capitol. When others fail, and even die, whether at the hands of mutts or starvation, we feel nothing.
How did you go about selecting the contributing writers (or “soldiers”) for the book?
Nicolas: Well we send out a call for ideas. Philosophers submit their ideas and then we select those that we believe will best fit with the book, and with each other, in order to create a cohesive whole between Collins’s book and our own. The authors who submit their work, submit very strong ideas and it can be painfully difficult to choose. It is never a matter of, “Well that one is cruddy.” Instead, it is a matter of, “Ok these are all strong ideas, which ones tie together the best?”
What was the most difficult part of compiling and editing the book?
Nicolas: For me, I found it difficult as an editor to treat any of the chapters as “done.” In philosophy, there are always more questions and arguments. So finding a point when it feels like there is nothing more to say is very difficult.
On page 38, Anne Torkelson writes about Rue’s four-note song becoming an act of defiance for the people of District 11—essentially, entertainment turned into rebellion. Do you think that The Hunger Games story itself is a subtle example of the same concept, an intellectual rebellion of sorts? It is entertainment, and yet many people believe it mimics similarities to our own society, in the extreme.
Nicolas: Yes, and again closer to the truth than we would like. In my eyes, though I have never spoken with her, the Hunger Games is Collins shaking her fist at us. There is no question in my mind that we in the West, and especially here in the States, are the Capitol. People around the world suffer and die daily so that we can prance around in our uber-expensive outfits. Heck, in even eating a chocolate bar, we are culpable, as most of the cocoa beans are picked by enslaved children. Like the districts, other less economically powerful nations around the world toil so that we can have the stuff we want, immediately, with virtually no work in comparison. But we view it, as your Darwinism question points out, as a matter of success on our parts and deserved failure on theirs.
Is there one book of The Hunger Games trilogy in particular that you really love because of the philosophical principles behind it?
Nicolas: I really loved the deception dilemma in Catching Fire. Katniss and Haymitch both decide to protect Peeta, and deceive him about it. But, throughout, Haymitch is deceiving Katniss. There is a real struggle, there, about the rightness and wrongness of deception. Peeta is the one who suffered because Katniss was so important. But which one of them really deserved to be saved? …which one was the innocent one? …We all know it’s not Katniss.
Who is your favorite character from the trilogy, and why?
Nicolas: President Snow. That final conversation that he has with Katniss shows so much depth. He is such a complex character even though we barely get time with him. Clearly, some part of him believes that he does what he does in order to keep the system running. Snow has all this power, and yet he is also a slave to the machine.
He is a great example of the fact that rules of countries don’t have the power we think they do. They have power because we LET them have power. Snow knows this. In some (very small ways) he had a motivation similar to Abraham Lincoln’s. Granted, Lincoln eventually decided that freeing the slaves was a good thing, finally. But Lincoln, if you look at his speeches, was originally motivated solely by preserving the Union. And he was willing to go to war to keep the Union together. He didn’t actually free any slaves until a couple of years into the war. Snow doesn’t eventually do the right thing like Lincoln does, but his motivation to keep his country together is very similar. And, if you talked to Southerners, they would express feelings very much like in the districts, that they were being forced to provide the basic materials for the North, so that the rich could enjoy their wealth. Obviously the south was doing something atrocious, but people like Snow remind us that there are two sides to every Coin.
Snow reminds us not to lie to ourselves. And I think we have to give him credit for that. Coin was much worse, she claimed to fight for freedom, but it was power she wanted. With Snow you know what he wants; you know he’s evil, and I can’t help but respect the fact that he’s honest about it. Because of that, he can see the evil in Coin—even when no one else can.
Do you feel there is an overarching message in your book?
Nicolas: Yes. Collins expresses to me a great deal of condemnation. I read the books and feel as if she is pointing at me and saying, “This is you! You are affluent at the expense of others.”
Why do you think it is important for people to read your book? What do you hope they take away from it?
Nicolas: Reading our book is important because we don’t want to make the mistake of taking Collins’s work lightly. Sure it is a great read, and entertaining. But as Collins points out, entertainment can be very, very dangerous. Our book is a chance to really think about what Collins is saying and to reflect on how we might be similar both personally, and as a society, to those we do not like so much. The Hunger Games and Philosophy is an opportunity to be honest with ourselves. And, let’s not lie to each other… there are more similarities than we want to admit.