Another Blog Post About The Hunger Games and Battle Royale

I joke, I joke...

It’s proof of how long I’ve been in the bookselling business that I recall hanging out in the morning meeting before the store opened one day, listening to one of my co-workers tell us all about this book none of us had heard of that she was really excited about and thought we should really stand behind and push to our customers.

The book was Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. She explained the plot to us: dystopian future, kids sent to fight to the death until a lone victor remains.

“Oh. So it’s Battle Royale for kids?” I snarked. Exactly like millions of other nerdy fanboys have been snarking as the film adaptation of The Hunger Games demolishes the box office this week and for the foreseeable future.  

Nerds, especially nerds with a soft spot for Japan, can be very sensitive about things they cherish from the Land of the Rising Sun getting ripped off or remade by Hollywood into what are typically inferior versions [rare exceptions like Ringu/The Ring or Infernal Affairs/The Departed exempted {Yes, I know Infernal Affairs is a Chinese movie}]. Personally, I hold Battle Royale in pretty high regard [even bought the t-shirt], so the idea that a similar story from the States would take a similar premise, scrub out the over-the-top violence, moments of satire or outright nihilism and replace them with a some pat melodrama and a tween love triangle was maybe the only thing worse than a Hollywood remake.  As The Hunger Games trilogy continued to keep the bestseller lists in a chokehold and excitement for the movie amped up to a bona fide phenomenon, the Battle Royale nerds, armed with the film in its first ever domestic North American DVD/Blu-Ray release, were ready to take up the fight again, show those stupid kids what real televised fights to the death look like.  I was ready to join the cause.

But. After seeing The Hunger Games last night, I’m not anymore.  Because now having seen both I can say that despite the similar premises, they are two completely different films

I’ll tell you why I think so behind the cut. SPOILERS!

The one thing that The Hunger Games does way better than Battle Royale is world building. The reasoning behind the BR Act that sends Class 3-B to fight for their lives is muddy at best, something about an attempt to intimidate out of control kids after some sort of global economic collapse.  Some text on the title card is the only explanation the viewer gets.

The world of Panem in THG is far more realized, despite sharing BR’s title card introduction.  The history, the culture of Panem is far more developed than anything in BR’s alternate Japan, which looks an awful lot like regular Japan.  Also, the greater relationship of the Tributes competing in the Hunger Games and the larger world watching them throughout the Districts is far more detailed: in BR, we know from the intro that the media covers the games and reports on the winner, but it’s unclear if anything is broadcast to the public while they take place.  Conversely, the whole point of The Hunger Games is for the citizens of the Districts to watch: as Gale muses in one of the early scenes, if everyone tuned out the Games one year, the Capitol would probably cancel them.  This relationship with the audience provided what I found the most interesting elements of the film: the idea of sponsorship, winning over the audience to help one’s chances, and what I felt was the film’s strongest moment, Katniss’s salute to District 11 after Rue’s death, and the subsequent riot that breaks out there afterward.

Now, despite my earlier assertion, there are a number of similarities I noticed between the two, and any fanboy who wants to get their mad-on will have more to go on than I might have thought [reports say Collins was unaware of Battle Royale as she wrote her books, crediting the idea to flipping the cable channels between the war in Iraq and reality TV]:  Shuya  and Katniss both kill only reluctantly and in self-defense, or to protect the useless and perpetually injured Noriko/Peeta; the ‘exchange students’ Kiriyama and Kawata share a similar plot function as the District 1 Tributes as wanton forces of destruction; Takeshi and Seneca both use the environment and other tricks to manipulate the movements of the players and ensure the game gets played [exploding collars and ‘Danger Zones’ in BR; spontaneous forest fires and hellhound deployent in THG].  But I feel like these are all minor similarities compared to the major philosophical difference between them: the Tributes in the Hunger Games know it’s coming.

This seems like a minor difference in and of itself, but it sets the tone and worldview of both movies on very divergent paths: Katniss and her  fellow tributes are selected in a public event, and then given mentors and a couple of weeks of training before the game begins.  They get all that time to try to come to terms with their situation [I found Katniss and Peeta’s moment the night before the game’s start a little too relaxed].  In Battle Royale, the classmates are on their way to a school trip when they’re gassed on the bus and wake up in the abandoned school and told they have to kill or die.

Because of the sudden onset of their situation, the kids in BR each have to decide whether or not to play the game. And some, like the young lovers, choose not to, opting to throw themselves off a cliff.  Others, like Shinji, try to find a way out of it or ride it out like the poor Lighthouse girls.

Battle Royale is much more of a ‘What Would You Do?’ proposition [one promo image I recall from years ago had the tagline, ‘Could You Kill Your Best Friend?’], where The Hunger Games skirts around any emotional connection between the Tributes by collecting them from different Districts and playing fast and loose with the Katniss/Peeta romance and the whole ‘two can win, no they can’t, yes they can,’  thing.  I enjoyed the movie, more than I was expecting to honestly, but it didn’t make me think. Battle Royale did.  And that’s not saying it’s betterit’s just different. BR may have made me think when I first saw it, but nobody in that movie owned the screen like Jennifer Lawrence did as Katniss, possibly the most kickass film female since Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That said, I’ll always love BR for its willingness to be funny [the instructional video, Shuya’s pot-lid weapon], and to revel in the over-the-top absurdity of its violence, something THG just can’t do as PG-13 franchise for teenagers.

The Hunger Games is a story about smashing the state; Battle Royale is a story about survival in the face of madness. There’s more than enough room in the world of fandom for both of them.

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