According to The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins,she had never heard of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale or the movie version directed by Kinji Fukusaku, when she wrote her book. Nevertheless she is everywhere accused of ‘ripping off’ the Japanese epic, and comparisons of similarities abound, especially at IMDB. When I came across The Hunger Games, my first thought was, “Oh, someone’s found a way of sanitizing Battle Royale for a western audience.”
But now, having read both books and seen both movies (in the case of BR, multiple times) I can honestly say I don’t think there is any plagiarism or deliberate copying involved – partly because similar ideas are often found in fiction and movies – but mostly because there is actually no comparison between the two. Battle Royale will never have that kind of competition. It is will always be superior, both as a book and a movie.
As a book, The Hunger Games is well written, although it falls short of Takami’s powerful, compelling narrative, even in translation. Takami’s characters stalk the pages of his novel, the predators and the prey. There is always a sense of urgency, of death waiting in every shadow, around every corner. It has the added impetus of a time limit – three days only or everyone dies. In The Hunger Games, days can go by with nothing happening, until even the games controllers get bored and start a fire to liven things up. That couldn’t happen in BR because if everyone decided to hide and wait it out, the neck collars would kill them anyway.
With the movies, BR has the edge for anyone who knows and loves Asian cinema. The lead actors are Tatsuya Fujiwara as Shuya, Takeshi Kitano as the Teacher, Taro Yamamoto as Kawada and Kou Shibasaki as Mitsuko. Shibasaki, in particular, is a revelation – I saw this woman in three other movies before I realised it was the same actress. Shibasaki is a phenomenon. Kitano plays Kitano of course – but he does it so well, combining cruelty and vengeance with an odd kind of pathos. With a cast of this quality and Fukusaku at the helm, it cannot help but be memorable, the kind of film you can watch again and again, in spite of it’s subject matter.
However, Jennifer Lawrence won the Oscar for Best Actress in 2013 – the girl’s no slouch and could hold her own in any acting duel. The movie THG also ensnared the likes of Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland, so Hollywood need not eat dirt over the casting. But director Gary Ross got things off to a slow start, and it dragged, even when the kids got to the arena. In BR the game starts at around 2am in the morning with tired, hungry and stressed kids who have just seen two of their school mates brutally murdered, whereas the Hunger Gamers arrive in broad daylight, and have been fed and pampered for four days. Once again, the sense of urgency is not there.
The arena of THG seems almost an afterthought – a wood, a lake, a big field with an odd shaped barn in it. In BR, the island used to be inhabited, there was a village, a clinic, a shrine, a lighthouse – places with unique character of their own, which shaped the actions that took place there. In THG there was a lot of running, sitting in trees and wading through water. Again, a sense of urgency, of mystery, was lost.
THG did have some memorable moments though – Katniss befriends a 12-tear-old ‘tribute’ and this leads to a very affecting scene, that makes one realise that the older generation deserves disrespect when it proves so hopeless in its duty to protect the young. But how often are we reminded of this anyway? Every time there is a war, and the young are sent to fight each other for some elders’ ideals – child soldiers, slaves and workers across the globe – both BR and THG come from the same place here.
This is the primary difference between BR and THG though – the historical and mythic structure beneath their creation. BR comes from the war between the generations, how the young are always blamed for the mess the elders make, and the vast gulf between what they believe is important. BR comes from war itself, where those who suffer most are always the young, losing their homes, their loved ones, their education, their identities, their futures. And yet, with the supreme hypocrisy of politics, the war mongers insist that they are fighting for a child’s right to have all these things, even as they pit the young against each other in a bloodbath. It is disgusting, and revolting, and Fukusako never lets you forget it.
While THG does share this disgust, its real wellspring is myth – the great myths of the Olympic Games, and the young tributes sent to Knossos to learn to vault the bulls in the arena – if you failed, you were maimed or dead. There are also the sacrifices of the Inca and Maya, where those chosen to carry a message to the gods were feted and pampered up to their deaths. You can see all of this in THG, this strange human compulsion to watch others suffer and be demeaned, exemplified now by Reality TV. It could just be the sign of a collapsing society, as it was in ancient Rome and South America. Indeed, Collins drew the name for her world – Panem – from Panem et Circenses, meaning bread and circuses, what the Roman poet Juvenal mockingly suggested was all that interested the populace, allowing the ruling elite to indulge in their corruption without protest.
In that sense, BR and THG are both subversive, revolutionary books and movies, pinpointing what it is that robs humanity of its compassion and humans of their freedom, and awakening lead characters – as well as the audiences in the books who watch the games, and by default the readers and viewers – to the need for change.