After screening the San Francisco premiere of Battle Royale, made possible only because of the success of The Hunger Games, it is time to compare and contrast the two films. To set the scene, we open on a dystopian near futuristic world, yet seemingly familiar, overrun with crime and violence. Teenagers are forced to fight to the death in a government sponsored competition. There can be only one winner. This is the plot to The Hunger Games (2012) and the Japanese film Battle Royale (2000). There are similarities and quite a few differences, the most glaring being that The Hunger Games is the next blockbuster-tween-franchise machine while Battle Royale is a horror cult classic never before released in the US. It could be safe to say that Battle Royale was the spiritual successor to The Hunger Games, even if writer Suzanne Collins insists she has never seen the film. Still, it would be unfair to say The Hunger Games ripped off Battle Royale. They are both distinct works, with well developed worlds, characters, and themes, not to mention cult followings. And as Midnight for Maniacs host Jesse Hawthorne Ficks said, Battle Royale ripped off Lord of the Flies.
First let’s look at characters. In Battle Royale our protagonist is a young male Shuya Nanahara. His father has committed suicide and his mother has ran away. In The Hunger Games we have Katniss Everdeen. Her father was killed at a very young age leaving her mother mentally incapacitated. Both of our heroes have had hard lives which probably shapes their heroic traits. Love interests include Noriko Nakagawa and Peeta Mellark. Noriko unlike Peeta is a true love interest. It is shown in the film Shuya and Noriko have had a crush on one another but were both too shy to act on it until faced with life and death. However, in The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta pretend to be star-crossed lovers in order to win the favor of the crowd. Shuya has a strong sense of ethical and moral sensibility. This is where his strengths lie. Katniss is physically and emotionally strong and is prepared for battle. Noriko and Peeta by comparison are weaker characters. They both need to be protected. Noriko, while the more typical damsel in distress, is much more likeable than Peeta. Katniss being a strong female character is a refreshing twist. However, both Noriko and Peeta are initially favored to be winners of the contest.
The other characters vary in likeability and believability. In Battle Royale, the contestants are a single classroom of students while in The Hunger Games the teens are chosen by random to represent their particular districts. The characters of Battle Royale largely are more believable as “real teenagers” placed in a terrible situation. They, however, are very disobedient and unruly. This is possibly to make their deaths seem more deserved, in a way. As they die, they still are spurting words like, “You are so cool,” followed by “You’re the coolest girl in the world.” Even when faced with imminent death they can’t escape their teenage social world. The other “tributes” of The Hunger Games are completely unlikeable and are one dimensional. Perhaps in the book they were more developed but it doesn’t transfer to film. You can’t wait for them to die. In both films there are contestants that are too big, and obviously unstable, that volunteer to participate to create an unfair advantage. Again in Battle Royale this was handled better because their volunteer is a complete sociopath whereas in The Hunger Games you neither care for nor hate him. The teens of Battle Royale bring a certain verisimilitude to their roles. The viewer can actually believe these were once school children now desperately trying to hang onto their social circles while trying to survive the unthinkable.
The worlds of Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are disparate in their imaginativeness and creativity. The world of Battle Royale is seemingly familiar to this world. It does take place in the future but it is the very near future. It is a world where students run amok with violence slashing their teachers. The government has instituted the Battle Royale competition but it is unclear if it is held in secret. The students are completely surprised when they are confronted with the competition but at the beginning a media frenzy is created when the winner of the previous year’s winner is arriving home. This doesn’t quite add up and leaves the impression that this was not very well thought out. They students are taken to an unknown island, similar to the setting of The Hunger Games, but this is where the similarities end. Perhaps Battle Royale’s unimaginative world was the result of a lack of budget but it doesn’t excuse lack of imagination.
By contrast the world of Panem, see it even has a name, is well charted out complete with a history and a presence. No clear date is given in The Hunger Games but the story takes place during the 74th annual Hunger Games adding to the deep history. However, it is unclear why an annual teenage blood bath is an appropriate punishment for a peasant uprising but hey, suspension of disbelief – I can roll with it. Panem is a beautiful world of contrasts. The outer districts are desolate and desperate; people are hunting squirrels to survive. Even the colors of life in the districts consist of a palette of browns, grays, blacks and muted hues. This is contrasted with life in the Capital. The Capital is a futuristic metropolis where the denizens are dressed in vivid pastels and bold colors, even bright blue hair. The difference between the worlds is deliberate but effective. Poverty equals brown while affluence equals a rainbow of colors. Panem is postmodern but still believable. The furniture may be unrecognizable, the wigs at times intolerable, but a train is still a train.
The themes of both films overlap and differentiate themselves in interesting ways. Both films play off of themes established in works such as the Lord of the Flies. The inevitable downfall of self-governance, youthful rebellion, and human nature’s predisposition to violence permeate the works. In Battle Royale the children of the world have turned against their adults and are resorting to violence. The solution, therefore, is to reinstill fear in the youth by forcing them into competition against themselves. This completion breaks any bonds the teens formed while in their studies and creates fear in the next generation. Psychologically, it is wondrous how quickly the students take to killing each other. Studies on group think might back up this reaction. Some of the characters, all girls, attempt to form alliances and vow not to kill one another. Paranoia and impending death after the three day time limit dissolves this alliance in a bloody Mexican standoff. Media sensationalism is barely touched on at the beginning with the return of last year’s winner, a young girl hounded by reporters grinning with a devious smile. The tone of Battle Royale is a contradiction of harsh realism and tongue-in-cheek dark humor. At one point in the film a title card appears asking a question and the protagonist Shuya answers it aloud. And the actors die suddenly and comically, likely a reminder to the audience that – hey, this is only a movie.
On the other hand, The Hunger Games is played straight for a Hollywood audience. This is well handled for maximum entertainment value. The Hunger Games plays down the violence and gore in order to achieve a PG-13 rating. Where The Hunger Games shines is in its portrayal of media obsession with the tributes. In the wake of America’s reality TV dominance, The Hunger Games is all the more relevant. The bulk of the story concerns the tributes wooing the Capital audience for support and gifts in a possible dangerous reflection on our star-obsessed society.
Still, I can’t understand how a film about kids killing kids does so little showing of kids killing kids. Furthermore, I can’t understand how a book about kids killing kids is acceptably the next young-adult adventure science fiction series craze. America’s preoccupation with violence, contradictorily both condemning and worshipping it, becomes eminently clear in the success of The Hunger Games. America’s stance on violence is inconsistent. The Supreme Court heard the case Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (formerly Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association) in an attempt to constitutionally ban the sale of rated-M video games to minors but a series based on teens killing teens is the latest tween sensation. However censorship and reactionism is not unique to America. Battle Royale opened to controversy in Japan and director Fukasaku feared parliamentary retribution. It was rumored to be banned in the US but never was; it just never opened commercially. An irony of the success of The Hunger Games is an American remake of Battle Royale was planned but had been panned due to the Virginia Tech massacre.
Comparing Battle Royale and The Hunger Games on the basis of which is better is unfair and subjective. It’s not quite comparing apples to oranges but is like comparing apples to apples (or playing). There is room enough in the movie lovers’ world for both to exist. They both have their strengths and weaknesses and they each appeal to their own audience. If you are in the mood for a good reality TV “death game” themed teen-angst melodrama, check out Battle Royale or The Hunger Games.