This weekend at Nitehawk, we will be opening the long awaited adaptation of Susanne Collins’s YA novel The Hunger Games. The film stars Jennifer Lawrence as the film’s tough-as-nails lead Katniss Everdeen, who’s forced into a deadly televised competition called The Hunger Games, where 24 children are forced to fight to the death until only one remains alive.
The plot for The Hunger Games has caused quite a stir in certain circles of science fiction fans. You could connect bits and pieces of Collins’s tale of dystopian strife to a long line of titles–Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Stephen King’s The Running Man, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game–but it’s the story’s similarities to another title that raises the most hackles: cult-favorite Japanese movie Battle Royale.
For the uninitiated, in Battle Royale, itself an adaptation of Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel, a totalitarian Japanese government struggles to control its youth population, and, in an effort to scare the nation straight, passes the BR Act, allowing the government to kidnap entire classes students at random and force them to fight to the death until only one remains alive.
Since Collins’s novel burst into popularity over the past couple of years—largely standing on the shoulders of the success of the Twilight series—fans of Battle Royale have been in a near constant state of outrage.
Collins claims that she had never heard of Battle Royale until after she submitted her novel, a statement that few people actually believe. Aside from the government mandated death-games, The Hunger Games shares too many other similarities with Battle Royale to be completely coincidental. In both, the kids are all given weapons and supplies of varying degrees of effectiveness, the games take place in a secluded wilderness, contestants are threatened with death if they refuse to participate (through explosive collars in Battle Royale and various death traps in The Hunger Games), and the main protagonist in both is a maniac who volunteers for the games for fun.
In this regard, The Hunger Games, without doubt, mirrors Battle Royale to a suspicious degree–but that doesn’t mean that Battle Royale fans should write off Collins’s series as a teeny-bopper re-hash of their favorite school-children-murdering-each-other horror show. The stories aren’t without key difference in plot and tone. The Tributes taking part in The Hunger Games know what they’re getting into, and are allowed to train and prepare for the event; while in Battle Royale the kids think they’re going on a field trip before they are gassed and kidnapped; and The Hunger Games takes place in more of a futuristic, science-fiction universe, where Battle Royale takes place in an alternate time-line modern day.
Without question, Battle Royale is a delightful piece of genre cinema—violent, pulpy, and relentlessly paced, marked with a hell of a performance from Beat Takeshi as the students’ demented teacher, and it, mercifully, doesn’t bother with the safe, sexless, certified YA romance of The Hunger Games. But, like most genre movies, Battle Royale has its flaws–most of them relating back to its rather messy narrative. Because BR attempts to juggle so many characters, no one is ever as fully realized as Katniss; the impetus behind the BR Act and whether or not the games are televised or a secret is never totally clear; and, while there are seeds of a broader revolution against the government planted in Battle Royale, that plot is left unresolved for its unforgivably bad sequel. While Battle Royale got to the premise first, Collins puts more time into its structures and characters, leaving the bulk of the bloodshed for the second half of her story.
What I’m getting at here is simple. Yes, The Hunger Games, by and large, shares much of the same DNA as Battle Royale. Is it a flat out rip off? Maybe. Hell, probably. But, in that light, both titles have their merits. Both have children, and both depict them murdering each other in unflinchingly extravagant ways. But, while Battle Royale offers extreme violence and grit without consideration for more sensitive youngsters, The Hunger Games boasts strong characters and a narrative that actually makes some degree of sense.
Solution: We’re playing both movies this weekend. Why? We like both.
The Hunger Games at Nitehawk Cinema all week. Check the website for ticket availability.
Battle Royale March 23 and 24 at Midnight.