Much has already been written about the similarities and differences between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, and while this piece is just adding to an already crowded marketplace, here be my tuppence for what it’s worth. I do not entertain the idea that I’m by any means an expert in either camp, as all this is based on having seen the film and read the original novel of Battle Royale and only seen the film version of The Hunger Games. Turns out this is more about badly adapted books anyway. Naturally, SPOILERS FOR BOTH ARE CONTAINED WITHIN.
Whenever I’m asked “what is your favourite film of all time?”, I’ll always fire back as a matter of course Evil Dead 2 and Battle Royale. Sure, my actual favourite at any one moment may change, and there are probably other films I’ve watched many more times. However, in terms of their initial impact and how they subsequently changed me on an almost molecular level, few other movies come close. Battle Royale hit in particular being that I was in the prime demographic – a 16 year old school student – and I forced pretty much everyone I knew at the time to watch it. I imported the soundtrack, I trawled through fan sites, I doodled incessantly about it, converting my old school diary into some kind of tribute survival guide. It was a big deal.
So when The Hunger Games first came to my attention as being billed as “Battle Royale for Twilight fans”, I was naturally intrigued yet sceptical that it really fulfilled either quotient of the shorthand, or even intended to. But it was clearly positioned as “the next big thing”, and so, with an open mind, I went to see it. And the thing is, it’s not really much like Battle Royale at all. See, I’m not about trying to defend The Hunger Games, but to dispel the idea that enjoying both it and Battle Royale on their own terms is mutually exclusive.
Neither work is in itself wildly original – when Battle Royale was released, the same comparisons to The Running Man and Lord of the Flies that are being bandied about now in reference to The Hunger Games were also used. And given that the games themselves make up only about a third of the film (and is easily the weakest portion), it would be a shame to just focus on the Battle Royale similarities when The Hunger Games plays on a wider canvas, with myriad influences.
There’s the dustbowl Great Depression Americana iconography that weighs heavy on the opening scenes in District 12. There’s the obvious rich-poor divide/ conflict between the exploited masses and the wealthy few which seems mostly indebted in this instance to Metropolis (one shot of workers marching towards a mine-shaft is near-identical to those in Fritz Lang’s classic). And of course, the seen-it-all-before reality TV angle. But more than anything, it’s Ancient Rome that The Hunger Games really whacks its flag into – chariots, gladiatorial combat, ‘bread and circuses’. Even the characters have names like Caesar, Claudius, and Cato. So if you’re going to attack The Hunger Games on being obvious and unoriginal, start there.
For what it’s worth, I quite liked The Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence was a compelling lead, even if her fellow competitor cast members were a mixed bag. And despite all the hype and attention, it never felt like a blockbuster. The editing, the cinematography and music were far more interesting and independently-spirited than the typical wide-sweeping shots, grand vistas or bombastic score that usually blight the mega-budgeted. From a production stand point, they did an excellent job. But in terms of an adaptation, it’s a bit of a mess.
I know I’m wading into some dangerous territory here, not having read the original book, but likewise with the Harry Potter series, it seems in bringing the story to screen, they forget that they are making a FILM and not a VISUAL REPRESENTATION OF THE TEXT. Naturally, in the process of adaptation, plot strands need to be sidelined, and exposition cut, but not at the expense of keeping in unnecessary holdovers that bemuse the uninitiated. It’s not a problem for people not ‘with it’ like myself to join the dots, but it takes you out of the ‘cinema experience’ when elements that may work on the page find their way into the movie version. It’s the reason why, for all the best will in the world, a comic book hero like The Incredible Hulk never seems to work in live action as there’s just something plain silly about a big green monster man with stretchy trousers. A film should behave like a film, and you shouldn’t need to read the source material to understand the fictional universe, or the motivations for characters, or just plain why something happens. Screenwriters, editors, directors – they always talk about ‘killing their babies’, getting rid of their favourite scenes for the sake of the film as a whole because it just doesn’t work in the rest of the context. Increasingly it seems in adapting a book, writers now are often too precious or too fearful to lose what’s either needless or nonsensical from a moviegoing perspective.
It’s understandable while all the “wuh?” moments in The Hunger Games are there (and not just because author, and former staff writer on Clarissa Explains It All, Suzanne Collins also co-wrote the screenplay) – leave it in and baffle the newcomer, or take it out and feel the wrath of the fanbase. And no-one wants to upset the fanbase. So here we have magical dresses that catch fire, genetically engineered wasps, and mutant/computer-generated dogs that turn up with little indication for why and for how. Even relatively normal concepts, like whistling mockingjays, while based in reality, feel kind of stupid and forced. While a weird dialogue exchange about smelling like roses seems to turn two pages at once falls flat, but probably meant enough in the novel to warrant inclusion here. Part of the problem is the failure to lay the ground rules of the competition (here, a Battle Royale-style instructional video would have helped A LOT), which seem to change at a whim anyway to suit the powers that be, but also the ground rules of the world itself. It needn’t be explicit, but it should be smarter about it. If any of these components were actually invented for the film and didn’t feature in the novel, then by all means, let me know and I shall happily stand corrected. But they’re just too odd to feel like anything but sloppy attempts to please Hunger-heads (or whatever the fans call themselves).
Of course, Battle Royale has great big flipping plot-holes which still take sizeable leaps of logic even if you refer to the novel – how none of the kids seems to know about the act passed by law to punish miscreant youth when it was established as a deterrent and gets seemingly wide press coverage, plus all that hacking in and swiping data and deactivating the collars and pretty much everything about the ending. For a film that ties itself up in so many knots, it leaves so many loose ends. Yet, it doesn’t stop me loving it to pieces. And same goes for The Hunger Games – well, except the “love” part, naturally. More “kinda okay, I guess”…to pieces?
Despite its flaws, I am still looking forward to the follow-up – the wheels have been set in motion by the actions in part one, and I’m interested in where the story goes from here (even if, apparently, it’s all downhill from here). So, if you’re going to rag on it, it’s lazy to say it’s just a rip off of Battle Royale when a) that’s not entirely accurate, and b) that’s the least of its problems.