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“The Hunger Games” Versus “Battle Royale” – A Critical Analysis of Two Similar Works: Act Three – My ultimate conclusions on this whole sordid affair...
Tomorrow, the first big tent-pole release of 2012 hits theatres: “The Hunger Games,” an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ 2008 smash-hit novel. I’m excited for the movie, as are many others, but here’s the thing….when I read the book, it felt awfully familiar. In fact, it was remarkably similar to one of my favorite books of all time, Koushun Takami’s “Battle Royale,” published in 1999.
So throughout this week, I’ve been publishing a special three-part article investigating whether or not Collins stole from Takami, and why that informs how we should look at “The Hunger Games.” In Act Three, the final part, I provide my ultimate conclusions on all the issues I’ve been writing about all week. If you haven’t read Acts One or Two yet, they went up yesterday; my review of “The Hunger Games” movie will be published tomorrow.
So without further ado, enjoy Act Three of “The Hunger Games” Vs. “Battle Royale” after the jump….
Jonathan Lack at the Movies Presents
“The Hunger Games”
A Critical Analysis of Two Similar Books
May the Odds be
Ever in Your Favor
My final conclusions from this whole sordid affair
So…now that I’ve established a fairly robust set of comparisons between “The Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale” and made my point about how dumbing down a thematically complex work will inevitably reach a broader audience, only one major question remains….
Do I think that Suzanne Collins plagiarized Koushun Takami’s “Battle Royale?”
The short answer? No. No I do not.
The long answer? Let’s see…
As someone who is familiar with both books, I personally feel one cannot overlook the vast number of places where the stories overlap. It goes beyond a similar premise, and it’s tough for me to look at the comparisons and believe that it’s all a coincidence. This is why it irks me when Collins says she had never heard of “Battle Royale” in interviews. It comes across as disingenuous. Nevertheless, I consider myself a fan of “The Hunger Games,” and the things I like about it tend to be the original elements: the futuristic society, the ‘reality show’ conceit, the outside help Katniss receives, the image-based strategy, etc. And as far as I can tell, these are the elements that hold the most fascination for many readers. “The Hunger Games” would not be a creative success if it tried to dumb-down and replicate “Battle Royale” verbatim; it works precisely because of its most inventive elements, and because of that, I would never say that it is “plagiarized” from “Battle Royale.”
Instead – and I think this is a fair assessment – I would say that Collins clearly used “Battle Royale” as a foundation for her story and built on top of that with new ideas to build a fun, breakneck thriller. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Many of the best pieces of popular entertainment come from reworking older stories; “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” spring immediately to mind. They aren’t derivative to the same degree as “Hunger Games” – Lucas and Spielberg cribbed from multiple sources, not just one – but like Collins, they took a set of ideas they liked, reworked them, added some ingenious new elements, and struck gold.
I wish Collins would just come out and say that this is what she did in interviews, rather than hide behind her seemingly dishonest insistences that the story came from Greek mythology and the Iraq war. If “The Hunger Games” is an Iraq War parable, it’s the least socially conscious or meaningful war parable ever written, because as I’ve already explained, I think the book only scratches the surface of examining the toll abuses of power take on the young. And unless my ninth grade English teacher simply forgot to tell me the myth about Zeus kidnapping a group of Athenian children and forcing them to fire lightning-bolts at each other for sport, then I’m absolutely befuddled as to where Greek mythology plays into any of this. When I look at the actual evidence, it seems pretty clear to me that the inspiration to this book was “Battle Royale.”
And again…I’m really not overly perturbed by this. Does it bug me that, despite having identical premises, “The Hunger Games” has avoided the controversy that’s always met “Battle Royale?” Yes it does, but that’s not Collins’ fault; it merely reflects a set of odd cultural standards I’ve long since learned to live with. Do I get a little irked when Collins insists she had never heard of “Battle Royale?” Yes, because I think it’s disrespectful to Takami’s work. But does any of this impact my enjoyment of “The Hunger Games?” No, it doesn’t; if anything, I found it kind of cool to read a new spin on one of my favorite stories.
So what are my thoughts on “The Hunger Games” anyway? I’ve been saying I like it, but why is that? The simplest answer I can give is that from the time I started reading, I could not put the book down. The novel has plenty of flaws, most which annoyed me far more than any similarities to “Battle Royale,” but nevertheless, I raced through “The Hunger Games” in a day or two; the book must have been doing something right.
More than anything else, “The Hunger Games” is simply a very effective survival thriller. Collins vividly illustrates a future where every element of the protagonist’s life is based on making it through another day, and then thrusts her into a scenario where her survival instincts are tested. The titular Games aren’t so much a test of the tributes’ physical prowess as it is a trial for their minds and spirits; they must come up with a strategy that takes advantage of all the assets at their disposal: the Cornicopia (where supplies are left), the Sponsors (rich viewers who may send aide into the arena), the pre-Game Interviews and the Gamemakers’ assessment (events where the tributes try endearing themselves to viewers), etc.
In fact, the whole ‘reality show’ conceit isn’t really social commentary, as some have suggested, but another piece of the Games’ puzzle the players must utilize if they hope to win. Collins’ idea of survival is broad and multi-faceted, focusing just as much on outer-image as on inner-strength, and for me at least, that’s what makes “The Hunger Games” an engaging read. I wouldn’t say Katniss has a dynamic character arc, but I think it’s extremely cool how the survival instincts of her life in District 12 come to life in so many different ways during the contest; the precise public image she crafts is just as much a weapon as her bow-and-arrow. The intellectual side of things is so interesting, in fact, that I wish some of the other Tributes behaved like Katniss. Peeta displays similar intelligence, but the ‘villainous’ tributes get by only on brute strength, and the antagonists could be so much more interesting if they were also a match for Katniss’ wit. I also think that, given how much thought is put into how Katniss and Peets survive for the majority of the book, the way they ultimately both make it out alive is a tremendous anti-climax, one that prevents Collins from saying anything bold or memorable about the difficulties of surviving in a dangerous world.
In fact, Collins could have gone quite a bit deeper into the actual psychology of survival throughout the book – which is what I meant in the previous section when I said that death is only a plot device – but settling for an exciting, briskly paced thriller is fine by me. That’s the main difference between “The Hunger Games” and “Battle Royale” – the latter is more focused on themes and subtext than on story or thrills, while the former is all about the strategy of the actual killing contest. This is why, for pure entertainment, “Hunger Games” may be a better read. “Battle Royale” is a much better book overall, but I can’t deny what a fun read “Games” offers.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that I also found it to be an occasionally frustrating read. Collins spends an awful lot of time on a hypothetical romance between Peeta and Katniss that goes absolutely nowhere, and it gets grating fairly fast. I understand that this relationship develops in the sequels, but that’s no excuse for letting the quality of the first book suffer. It makes “The Hunger Games,” as an individual work, feel incomplete, and that is a definite problem. Consider the “Harry Potter” books; each one works beautifully as a self-contained entity while also playing into a larger whole. J.K. Rowling managed to plant seeds for future works without ever giving us substantial unresolved sub-plots; each novel ends with pay-off, just as they should. The loose ends in “The Hunger Games” didn’t make me want to read more, but instead made the book feel unfinished and occasionally unsatisfying, a misstep I hope the movie doesn’t make.
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in "The Hunger Games"
Speaking of the movie, I’m actually very excited for it, because I have no doubts whatsoever that it will be a substantial improvement on the book. If “The Hunger Games” has one truly debilitating flaw, it’s the writing. Collins is a fine storyteller, but her prose is messy; she struggles with tone, dialogue, and visual descriptors, and she is simply incapable of effectively bringing action sequences to life on the page. Reading the book, I didn’t feel an inherent sense of scope to this world, nor any immediate connections to the characters (especially important when the novel is written in first-person). If the filmmakers do their job well, which it looks like they have, none of these problems should exist in the movie. Film is a visual medium, meaning that the set-pieces, locations, and scope will be much easier to realize; just looking at the trailer, I feel so much more excitement for director Gary Ross’s world than I do for Suzanne Collins’ world. And with the film’s top-notch cast – Academy Award nominee Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, anyone? – I can see the characters coming to life in ways they simply didn’t in the novel.
This is why the film is actually among my most anticipated prospects of 2012; as a novel, I feel “The Hunger Games” is a fun read with lots of untapped potential, and if the film manages to draw out even half of that latent strength, I think we’ll have something truly spectacular on our hands.
And whether you or I like how it all turns out or not, “The Hunger Games” is about to become one of the biggest franchises around; some box-office prognosticators are estimating weekend grosses above $100 million. The series was successful in book form, but due to the film, it’s about to become an absolute mammoth, and that’s why I wrote this entire article. When something becomes this wildly successful, it shouldn’t be simply taken for granted. If the new American blockbuster is cribbed from a thirteen-year-old Japanese hit, people should know that; when a story about kids killing kids makes hundreds of millions of dollars, audiences should maintain a critical eye. You don’t have to agree with any of the points I’ve made over the course of this article; I’m positive some of you won’t, and I want to hear your point of view. All I ask is that you’re willing to enter into this discussion with a thoughtful, discerning mind; when we analyze the media consume, we help set a standard for better content, like “The Hunger Games” or “Battle Royale.” If not? Well, that’s where “Twilight” comes from….
Now, I’m off to go enjoy “The Hunger Games” movie. For those of you who haven’t bought tickets yet, may the odds be ever in your favor….
Update: Here is my review of the film
This article has been presented in three parts on www.jonathanlack.com, with parts 1 and 2 having published over the last two days. If you would like to read the full, unedited version of the article, please e-mail email@example.com and we will send you a PDF version of the complete article.