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 George and Nicolas 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. Below is my interview with George A. Dunn. (Warning, it does contain spoilers if you have not read the entire series!)
If you had to summarize what the book says about The Hunger Games trilogy in only a few sentences, what would it be?
George: That’s a tough one, but how about this? The Hunger Games trilogy isn’t only about an extraordinary teenager who volunteers to enter an arena death match in order to save her sister and ends up sparking a rebellion that topples a tyrannical regime. It’s also about the meaning and significance of art, entertainment, music, morality, luck, suffering, gifts, family, science, love, gender, authenticity, identity, warfare, rationality, virtue, justice, fashion, education, and human dignity. The Hunger Games and Philosophy explores all those themes and shows how the Hunger Games trilogy can help us to think about them and their importance in our lives.
Is there one book of The Hunger Games trilogy in particular that you really love because of the philosophical principles behind it?
George: I love all the books. Every one of them is exceptionally rich in philosophical themes. But I have to admit that there’s something about the ending of the last book, Mockingjay, that really struck a chord with me. Of all the books, it doles out some of the greatest horrors, but at the same time it offers a fragile but still very real hope that many of the evils of this world can be overcome. That hope resides in Katniss and Peeta’s two children, who play in a meadow that they don’t realize is a graveyard. Early in the story, Katniss confides to Gale that she never wants to bring children into the world. She doesn’t want to produce more little workers and potential tributes to feed Panem’s cruel engine of evil. That she changes her mind strikes me as a testament to hope. Katniss will never again be entirely whole after the horrors she’s endured in the arena and the rebellion—and I’m not just talking about the terrible things that have happened to her, but, even worse, the terrible things she’s had to do and the kind of person she’s had to become. As I argue in my chapter, she’s a victim of “bad moral luck,” morally compromised due to circumstances over which she had no real control and with no way to reverse what she’s become, at least not entirely. There’s no changing the past, no reset button to restore the innocence she’s lost. Or is there? Children in a way are that reset button. They’re a new beginning, the meadow that replaces the graveyard, and the triumph of hope over the fear—Katniss’s quite justified fear!—that the renewal of life is really just the perpetuation of evil. I like that Collins ended her trilogy on that note.
You have been a part of a number of Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture books. Some cover more lighthearted entertainment. 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? How was this book different compared to the other philosophy books?
George: The Hunger Games and Philosophy is actually the third book I’ve edited in the series, after True Blood and Philosophy (released in 2010) and Avatar and Philosophy (which still hasn’t been released). Those books also included chapters that dealt with political philosophy and social justice concerns, so those aren’t new topics for me. Where the Hunger Games trilogy differs from a lot of other pop culture media is in its explicit focus on entertainment and fashion—in particular, extreme, envelope-pushing entertainment and fashion. One of the most intriguing aspects of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is how it gets us thinking about what our taste for certain forms of entertainment, such as those that involve the suffering and degradation of other human beings, might say about us. We’re very lucky to have some excellent chapters in our book that tackle that theme and deliver some really good insights.
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?
George: One of the things I really like about Abby’s chapter is that she corrects the widespread misconception that Darwin made cutthroat competition between individuals the sole engine of natural evolution. If natural evolution were really like what the Gamemakers intend life in the arena to be like, with only the most duplicitous and merciless surviving, then we might as well abandon any hope of creating a more just and peaceful world. Our supposedly moral dispositions would just be an elaborate smokescreen that disguises our natural selfishness and brutality. I think that one reason the Capitol designed the Hunger Games and compelled every schoolchild is to watch was to persuade them that life in the arena really is just a more concentrated and no-holds-barred version of real life—or, at least, real life as we would experience it were it not for the benign despotism of tyrants like Snow to keep us all in line. But the fact is that evolution has not designed us to be nothing but cutthroat competitors. What both Darwin’s theory of natural selection—that is, his real theory as opposed to that travesty known as “Social Darwinism”—and the Hunger Games trilogy show is that the “fittest” won’t always be the most remorseless killer, like Cato, but will often be the ones who are most willing to cooperate and even sacrifice their lives for each other, like Katniss and Peeta.
That’s a lesson that the Capitol would prefer that viewers not take from the Hunger Games, because it undermines the ideology that justifies their ironfisted measures of social control. Abby Mann’s chapter does a wonderful job of explaining how our cooperative and altruistic impulses are every bit as natural and adaptive as the selfish brutality that the Capitol attempts to instill in the tributes. So in answer to your question: Yes, of course, there’s much in human culture that confirms Darwin’s theory and much that resemble life in the arena, but it’s not just the nasty, brutish, and selfish aspects of human existence that we should focus on. Morality, altruism, kindness, self-sacrifice, cooperation—these are also aspects of human nature with deep roots in our evolutionary past, not just the fragile threads of some thin, culturally constructed veneer that’s bound to get swept away the minute we’re launched into society’s competitive arena. The Hunger Games trilogy shows that these aspects of our humanity can never be entirely suppressed or eradicated. In times like ours, that’s a source of hope.
How did you go about selecting the contributing writers (or “soldiers”) for the book?
George: So you noticed how in the book we refer to our contributors as “soldiers” and as “our resistance squadron,” just like the militarized residents of District 13 battling against the Capitol. Actually, if you read our bios in the back of the book, you’ll learn that all the members of our squadron are civilians, with the exception of Louis Melancon, who’s a real live officer in the U.S. Army. He wrote a first-rate chapter on the rebellion against the Capitol. So how did we select our contributors? We wrote a bunch of names on slips of paper and then randomly drew them from a big glass ball. No, seriously, what we do for all the books in the series is to send out a CFA or “Call for Abstracts” to some of our fellow pop culture enthusiasts in the academic world, inviting interested parties to submit a brief description of the topic they propose to write on. As usually happens with books in our series, we received more abstracts than we could use, which meant that we could “reap” the very best “volunteers.” There were a few contributors whom I had worked with before and some whom I actively recruited, since I knew they would be real assets to our “squadron.”
What was the most difficult part of compiling and editing the book?
George: Honestly, the hardest part for me was writing my own chapter. That came after all the rest of the work on the book had been completed and the publisher’s deadline was breathing down my neck. Writing my own chapter was intimidating because the outstanding quality of the other chapters had set such a high bar for me. I didn’t want my chapter to bring down the overall quality of the book!
What do you think Hunger Games fans will enjoy most about your book?
George: It’s awesomeness. Seriously, though, if you’re a fan of the Hunger Games series, you’ll enjoy reliving all those memorable scenes from books, while reflecting on their deeper significance. Consider the scene where Thresh spares Katniss’s life. It’s discussed in four different chapters, in connection with altruism, paying debts, morality during war, and even the ways that men and women may differ in their approaches to moral decision making. You end up with a much deeper understanding of what’s at stake in Suzanne Collin’s trilogy after reading our book. It’s like living through the whole story again, but this time with some really smart people by your side, talking to you about how it all relates to your life.
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.
George: Isn’t Anne’s chapter terrific? She does a great job of showing how powerful music can be, both in the Hunger Games trilogy and in the real world. As for whether the Hunger Games trilogy itself is potentially subversive, how could it not be? Several chapters in our book point out how art and entertainment can not only be an instrument of social and political control but also, under the right circumstances, a source of resistance. For example, Jill Olthouse’s chapter discusses how Katniss’s “little trick” with the poisonous berries”—which was a absolutely brilliant piece of political theatre—becomes the means for her to redefine her relationship to the Capitol and subvert the entire message that the Gamemakers had designed the Games to convey. If a handful of berries can knock the legs out from under a powerful tyrannical regime, just imagine what a best-selling Young Adult series could do! And, yes, Panem does indeed mirror our world. Reality television shows that enflame our worse instincts, advances in bioengineering that are outstripping any progress in moral wisdom that would equip us to use them properly, slavish devotion to fashion while turning a blind eye to human suffering, education pressed into the service of indoctrination and social control—all of these problems are discussed in our book. There’s no doubt that Suzanne Collins wrote the Hunger Games trilogy in large part to get us thinking about some of these deeply troubling aspects of our world. But I don’t think she did that just to dampen our spirits or fill us with despair. Reflecting on the imperfections of our world should get us hungering for something better and thinking about what we can do to make a difference.
Who is your favorite character from the trilogy, and why?
George: The character that I most resemble is Haymitch, though I’m moodier and less reliable. But from the moment Peeta made his first appearance in the story, I was drawn to him because of his unwavering strength of character and his acute sense of the importance of personal integrity. That’s what made it so sad when he got hijacked, which is a topic my co-editor Nick explores really insightfully in his chapter. What happened to Peeta really underscores how vulnerable goodness is in our world.
Do you feel there is an overarching message in your book?
George: Just as there are lots of lessons to be drawn from the Hunger Games trilogy, you’ll find lots of messages in the pages of our book. But, in one way or another, nearly all our contributors highlight the importance of values like personal integrity, authenticity, and love, while shining a light on some of the powerful forces that imperil them both in Panem and in our own world. I suppose that if there is one overarching message, it’s that our world is similar enough to Panem to make it worthwhile to delve more deeply into the philosophical themes of the Hunger Games trilogy. I’m pretty sure that most fans who love the Hunger Games trilogy as much as we do have already been thinking about many of those themes for a while.
Why do you think it is important for people to read your book? What do you hope they take away from it?
George: Like I said before, fans of the Hunger Games trilogy will enjoy The Hunger Games and Philosophy because it lets them revisit that world in the company of some really smart people who have spent a lot of time thinking about what it all means. And I hope that they’ll continue philosophizing about Panem and our own world long after they’ve put our book down.