Hugh David pits Hunger Games against Battle Royale... FIGHT!
Suzanne Collins, author of the fiction phenomenon The Hunger Games, has come under fire from fans of manga and Asian cinema, who have taken to dismissing her work and the looming Hollywood film as merely derivative of the late, great Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku’s final film Battle Royale (2000). But rarely is Takami Koshun’s source novel mentioned, nor the manga which he co-wrote, while few of these complainers seem even to have read Collin’s novels.
Both stories are SF, both popular with younger readers, but only the US trilogy was written expressly with that readership in mind; the Japanese novel’s high levels of gore and political content show it was clearly intended for a much older one. Takami’s work postulates a parallel universe where Japan’s history has diverged some 80 years in the past and is instead a larger fascist state. A military programme takes 50 third-year high school student classes from across the Republic of Greater East Asia once a year, places them in a district cleared to act as an arena, and commits them to a fight to the death, with only a single winner permitted, resulting in 1,950 students wiped out every year. The author follows one class to focus in on the political, cultural and moral issues he sees as significant in 1990s Japan, and makes up for generic, underwritten characters with splatter detail coupled to vivid action-movie stylings.
Fukasaku, a life-long rebel with an eye for coruscating on-screen violence and trenchant criticism of Japan’s society, made the film before cancer took him. His own experience of being drafted at 15 to work on munitions at the end of World War 2, underscores a reality for the film that production limitations could not. Also, the casting of legendary comedian, actor and writer-director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano in the much-expanded role of the Programme Supervisor shifts the entire dramatic weight of the film, with one of the three clear villains of the book made sympathetic and as much a victim as the children. It does, however, add an effective touch of moral grey to a written work that is more black-and-white.
Collins’ trilogy looks at a future post-apocalyptic US in which nuclear conflict has left the remaining habitable areas divided into 13 districts, with the titular games an annual event that helps prevent rebellion and further civil unrest – one district attempted it and was wiped out. Looking very seriously at modern US issues such as resource scarcity, the 1% vs. 99%, reality TV, celebrity culture and other, more subtle cultural elements, Collins shows she is an experienced writer capable of placing teenage emotions in that mix, underpinned by her own experiences growing up with a father suffering post-traumatic stress from military service. She also draws from the same well of potential influences as Takami, including George Orwell’s writings and the dystopian SF sports cinematic subgenre that includes Death Race 2000, Rollerball and The Running Man, but is most clearly inspired by the horrific daily reality in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In this sense her work is much closer to the superb DC Vertigo comic series DMZ from Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli than it is to Battle Royale, transplanting the effects of US military occupation back home. Most importantly, she has an entire trilogy to develop her story, and the characters breathe and grow across the books. Her grim final volume is both horrific and compassionate in sufficient measures as to demand her readers grow up with the series, rendering any petty arguments about the Hunger Games being Battle Royale with cheese utterly debased. Whether the upcoming film manages to do the book justice, however, remains to be seen.
The Hunger Games movie is out now on international release. Battle Royale is now available as in a new Blu-ray edition in the US from Anchor Bay, and in the UK from Arrow Films.