The 2010 Lev Grossman ‘Mockingjay’ Interview that Wasn’t

Way back in 2010, when HogwartsProfessor was lighting up the online universe with posts before and after the publication of Mockingjay, the Hunger Games finale (you can review those 30+ posts at the HogPro Mockingjay post round-up), Lev Grossman at TIME and Nerd sent me five questions. It was something of a reprise of our Harry Potter and Twilight conversations there.

By the time I responded, though, Mr. Grossman was neck deep in finishing his blockbuster fantasy The Magician King and the time for Mockingjay reflections as ‘news’ had passed. I suspect, consequently, our exchange will never see the light of day (the light of your computer screen?) unless I put it up here — so here goes, after the jump. Enjoy!

Lev Grossman’s comments and questions are in red below.

“Real or Not Real” becomes one of the novel’s motifs. Does Collins use that word, real, the same way Rowling does in Deathly Hallows: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Sheesh, Lev, not even a “hello, how you doin’?” before we jump right into literary epistemology? What’s up with that?

But it is a great question. Collins’ “real or not real” is the heart of her message, an indictment of both Corporate America and Big Government and their manipulation of our ability to grasp truth and distinguish it from conventional Cave Shadow fictions. And Rowling says that Harry-Dumby exchange is “the key” to her books. Let’s start with Mockingjay.

When we meet Katniss in District 12 as Mockingjay opens, she is recovering from her concussion and having a hard time staying clear about who she is and what she’s about. It’s bad enough that she has to repeat a mantra of sorts about her life-identity essentials: My name is Katniss Everdeen. I am seventeen years old…

When we meet Peeta after his rescue, he’s gone to the place-of-no-maps. Having been ‘”hijacked” by Capitol brain washers, his memories have been modified and the process has left him either convinced that what is not-real is real or hopelessly unable to discern the difference. He has been transformed into the mutt-ation shadow-monster of the Peeta we know from Games and Fire, who was something of an Unconditional Love and Meaningful Aesthetics incarnation. His solution is to trust those around him rather than himself and to ask them in his confusion if any given perception he has is “Real or Not Real?”

This struggle of the story’s two central protagonists is the central theme of Mockingjay and is the heart of Collins’ critique of war, of television, and their intertwining in news coverage of armed conflict.

“To murder innocent people costs everything you are” Peeta tells Caesar Flickerman, Caesar repeats it, and in case we didn’t get its importance , Katniss says this is what it’s really like in the arena (chapter 2, p. 23). Remember, Katniss’ father told her she will “always survive if she can find herself” — but war and the inevitable murder of innocents takes away “everything you are,” your survival as an integrated person.

Katniss’ struggle to keep her thinking straight is not only a function of the arena’s madness, but also of the artificial environment of District 13. Separated from the sun and the real world, her grip on reality is tenuous at best. Peeta suffers a much worse fate or extreme deprivation and re-programming in his being “hijacked,” a kind of drug-and-television mind-wipe-and-reset.

The Capitol’s scientists inject into his brain housing group false presentations and distortions of events he has experienced or did not know about. He learns eventually that he can distinguish these misrepresentations and lies from real memories because the artificial ones shimmer, but his ability to do this is very weak. Peeta’s grasp of “real or not real” is so weak that he must confirm with others whose minds have not been formatted lest he act on his false inner convictions.

Can you say “postmodern epistemology”? “Don’t believe what you think” because the metanarrative of cultural programming makes true perception of reality impossible; we are necessarily blinded by prejudices. Ms. Collins’ distinguishing point in this is only that television programming by the power holders is the primary means to our mind formatting, reprogramming, and consequent inability to discern real from not real.

And both the rebels and Capitol power players are all about television. The war is largely a battle between Volts and the Capitol teevee producers for the air waves and, once Volts makes broadcast possible to the Districts and Capitol, between the program producers and their packaging of the war’s meaning. Neither the district or Capitol residents seem to have any resistance to the images of the broadcasts that confirm their beliefs. They’re not asking “real or not real” as Peeta does and are, consequently, prisoners in Plato’s cave to the shadows on their wall, the images on their television screens.

The last words of the book are Katniss’ answer to Peeta’s question:

“You love me. Real or not real?”

I tell him, “Real.”

This conversation is only possible after a prolonged time away from the Capitol or District 13, from the madness if the war, and from the induced mind-stupor of television, unnatural living, and socialist/hedonist cultural ideologies. In the first two books of the trilogy, the enemy was the Capitol, an enemy we came to think of as “other,” not us, because of our identification with the districts through Katniss and Peeta. In Mockingjay, Ms. Collins forces us to come to terms with the reality that those in resistance to the Capitol in District 13 are nothing but the other side of the coin if they use the same tools — war harming innocents and television production — to gain and hold power over people’s minds.

The Capitol is the Hunger Games story stand-in for corporate America. The brave new world of District 13, similarly is Ms. Collins’ transparency for do-gooder big government that regulates every aspect of life. Both control us as they do, turn us into mutt-ations incapable of telling “real from not real” rather than vehicles of love, via our televisions and media. Their regimes only have their authority in the world because of their willingness and ability to murder innocents — and present this murder in such a way that we embrace it as, if not entertainment, than at least an idea and reality we can live with.

The last word, though, is that love is the only reality and the human task is to escape the cave and seek this reality that can only be known in the light, “the bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction.”

I’ve written about Dumbledore’s last words at King’s Cross in Deathly Hallows at great length in Deathly Hallows Lectures and Rowling is after even bigger game, I think, than Collins. She is touching base with the Coleridgerean message of English high fantasy that the fabric of reality is of the same Logos stuff as our thinking and of love, cf., C. S. Lewis’ “inside bigger than the outside” that is Christ, the “light of the World” that comes into the world in every man (John 1:9).

Rowling and Collins are taking the point in the Romantics continued war against the empiricists and fundamentalists. Just by the numbers of their sales, they seem to be winning hearts.

As a card-carrying member of Team Gale, I was of course disappointed by the ending of Mockingjay. Do you think this outcome was ‘inevitable’ — ie do you think Collins was preparing for it all along? Or could it ever have gone the other way?

Team Gale? Wow. I never thought of you as the out-doorsy type, Lev.

No, I think the Peeta finale was inevitable. To get that, though, you have to buy into the idea that we’re living in the imaginative world Joanne Rowling has created for us and better writers are cashing in with some really creative fan fiction.

Twilight and Hunger Games, most notably (though Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy is in the pack as well), use three of the major characteristics of Harry Potter’s literary magic to drive home their message: literary alchemy, logos/love epistemology as above, and soul triptychs. The last — three characters that are story transparencies for body-mind-spirit as in Ron-Hermione-Harry, Jacob-Edward-Bella — is why Peeta was Katniss’ sure destination.

The threesome of Hunger Games differs from the Rowling-Meyers triptychs only in having the lead character not be the heart or spirit figure. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is the human soul naturally paired with Gale, the husky body guy but drawn to Peeta, the trilogy’s long suffering Christ figure who dies sacrificially in each book and rises from the dead to save his beloved. The Christ connection is driven home in the many bread scenes, especially the life-saving one when they first meet outside the bakery, and Peeta’s name being assonant with both ‘Pita’ and ‘Peter’ (I don’t have enough money to be a betting man, but if I did, I’d lay down some serious cash on Collins being Catholic at least in upbringing. Her books read like fictional Dorothy Day Catholic Worker tracts).

In brief, Katniss’ attachment to Gale is an allegory of the soul’s connection to the body, its natural unity, but Petta, as Spirit or God, is the soul’s true home. If anagogical translucencies make you gag, I know you’re not going to be able to swallow that, but that’s the depth of this story and why there is such resonance with readers. We recognize this twin attraction and our ultimate destination. I think even Gales gets this in the story, no?

Much ink has been spilled over the question of Katniss’s sense of agency. Is she a pawn, passed from hand to hand by forces greater than she, and merely surviving? Or does she actually, in the end, command her own destiny?

Her decision at President Rose’s execution and the otherworldly quality of her life with Peeta in the Meadow of District 12 afterward makes this a non-question, I’m afraid. The struggle of the book is her coming to terms with her inability to know her own mind and recognizing the pull of external manipulators on her understanding. But the ending is “self-actualizing choice” of the first order. That it has a powerful touch of self sacrifice in it, rejection of secular authority, and a union with the story’s Christ figure plants Collins, again, like Rowling, on the anti-regime radical Christian left bank by the stream of English letters.

So you understand Katniss’s vote in favor of a Hunger Games for the children of the Capitol …?

As a set-up of President Coin, to reveal how Hilary is in reality no different than Bush (yes, ‘Coin’ and ‘Snow’ with his rose fixation I think are story pointers to Democratic socialists and Republican capitalists), and to make the turning of the tables in the staged execution scene, in which Katniss jumps the divide from scripted actress to story producer that much more dramatic. Haymitch gets this immediately. Peeta just in time to save her.

A ruling from the professor please: all-time, all-trilogy best Katniss outfit?

Great question! Every book features at least one Cinna original outfit that is a transformational piece, that is, the surface isn’t what it appears. From the ‘Girl on Fire’ in the first book to the Wedding Dress become illumined Mockingjay to the super-hero spandex piece in the finale, Katniss’ clothes are major vehicles of the author’s artistry and meaning in the series.

It’s hard to top the wedding dress surprise in Catching Fire certainly and I suspect that is what most readers will remember. It’s the big reveal right at the series center and is really the ignition point for the Rebellion. I prefer, though, the red riding hood or cloak that Katniss wears in her final charge on the Capitol’s City Center at the end of Mockingjay.

Remember, she has escaped the Seam Pod and to disguise herself for the final rush, she turns the cloak “inside-out, letting the black lining show instead of the red exterior” (p. 345). She has become the girl in black one more time and, alas, just before her becoming, on seeing and trying to save Prim, once again the ‘Girl on Fire.’ Really, this pulling together of the outfits and the story circle of Katniss and Prim was a wow touch that I thought topped even the fireworks of the wedding dress. The fire here is something like her apotheosis or glorification the results of which play out in her decision at the execution. Note, too, that Peeta is with her here as he has been in all the fire outfits.

I’m scared to ask, but what do you think of the decision to cast Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in the movie?

Let me say first that I couldn’t care less or know less about this. The first time I heard of this actress was when the casting decision was made and Hunger Games fandom exploded in equal parts excitement and disappointment. It really doesn’t matter from my view, because, if Olive Oyl played Katniss, the movies would be a good thing, even a great thing. Movies, and I’m thinking obviously of the Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings, and Narniad adaptations, act as trailers for the books. They bring millions of new readers to the experience of the story in the imagination on the page, an experience they wouldn’t have pursued except for the sensorial experience they had in the cinema.

When I saw pictures of Miss Lawrence, though, I confess that, like Elizabeth Baird Hardy, I thought this was hilarious. The Capitol’s Gamesmakers had the rights to the Hunger Games and had cast a Blond Barbie Buxom starlet in her 20s to play a mean cross between Pippi Longstocking and Robin Hood. It seemed an outrageous ironic twist, given the message of the books about Hollywood and “bread and circuses.” I’ve since learned that this actress played a similarly demanding role and pulled it off, so I remain hopeful that Katniss’ heroic allegory and Collins’ assault on the American war and media machines won’t be made into Beach Blanket Bingo.

You’ve got more, haven’t you? What are you dying to talk about?

I’ve written a lot — some thirty posts, believe it or not — on Mockingjay at So, if there are any serious reader Hunger Games junkies out there, you can read about The Hunger Games Formula, The Hanging Tree, Katniss’ Meadow Song, and the Ring and Mirror Composition of the books by following those links, in addition to the ones I embedded in the answers above (or just see the HogPro Mockingjay post round-up). Collins is a top flight writer and the books stand up to a deep, slow mining. Thanks for asking!


  1. “The Christ connection is driven home in the many bread scenes, especially the life-saving one when they first meet outside the bakery, and Peeta’s name being assonant with both ‘Pita’ and ‘Peter’ ” My jaw dropped reading this, it is so true! You just sparked an epiphany, thank you!

  2. Unlocking Mockingjay: The Spiritual Allegory’ On Katniss as a Soul Seeking Perfection and Iconological Reading

    Unlocking Mockingjay: ‘The Literary Alchemy’ On Literary Alchemy and Peeta as Postmodern Christ

    Unlocking Mockingjay: Katniss’ Apotheosis’ On the Alchemical Arena and Katniss’ Perfection in the Inner Sanctuary

    Epiphany away! Enjoy!

  3. Not only Pita and Peter (rock, remember) but, perhaps most significantly, Pieta.

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