Hunger Games is more than Battle Royale with Cheese

hunger-games-battle-royale-with-cheeseI’ve been thinking a lot about the common connection drawn between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. I can’t speak to whether Suzanne Collins saw Battle Royale, was inspired by it, lifted it wholesale, or whatever. To me the only clear thing is that while the films/books share a lot of similarities, they’re interested in wildly different things.

The Hunger Games starts out with the spectacle of it all. The egregious event floats a sense of dread throughout Katniss’ thoughts and action; looming tall over what is otherwise an ordinary day. And it does so because that’s what it’s intended to do: The government (“The Capital”) puts on the Hunger Games because they need to teach the outer districts a lesson in obedience, using the brutality they force their children into as a way to keep the status quo. It’s what makes the ending of the first Hunger Games so powerful, even when it’s stripped of the same savageness that gives Battle Royale its bite due to the U.S. film’s PG-13 rating. Katniss has learned to make the system work for her. The ending is abrupt, as her and Peeta go home in deception, but it works because the entire movie has been building to it; all that spectacle, now used to cage her in a very different way.

For whatever spectacle there is to the titular Battle Royale, it’s not entirely clear in the movie. The beginning shows us that there’s immense press interest in the winner of the games, but somehow the students have never heard of it.

Similar to the Hunger Games, the Royale was instituted to keep students compliant after 800,000 of them once walked out and utterly disregarded the rules of Japanese society. The focus, by director Kinji Fukasaku, is much more on the institutions of society, rather than the human nature of the “spectacle” in The Hunger Games. He interrogates what adults’ roles in the lives of the next generation are, how they communicate with them, the heightened melodrama of stories that—had the students lived longer—would’ve been blips on a radar.

Even the posters reveal a crucial difference: Fukasaku initially (and brilliantly) focused Battle Royale on the way teens move and react as a group. Collins plucks Katniss out as a distinctive “YA protagonist” type.

That last point is why the characters come off so differently from each other. The Hunger Games focuses on kids who have had to grow hard, who have needed to become tough in order to function in the world. Battle Royale is about kids who have trauma suddenly and unsuspectingly thrust upon them. The former is about PTSD and adults, the latter is premature death in kids.

Whatever similarities there are—which, don’t get me wrong, are a lot, between the “kids killing each other because the government demands it” angle and the two lovebirds making it out together against all odds—they seem to be starkly contrast when held side-by-side. Collins went through great lengths to separate the government in her book from the government of the present, even if the media environment seems remarkably similar. Fukasaku’s work seems like a direct indictment of the government of both past and (at the time) present Japan.

Notorious Ev-er-Deen

I haven’t seen the latest “Hunger Games” movie. I tend to see things in packs, or at least with my best friend/co-reviewer, and currently our lives are a bit busy to rush out and see things. Additionally, “Mockingjay” was probably my least favorite of “The Hunger Games” novels, because I found the focus to be a bit bizarre.

MV5BMTcxNDI2NDAzNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODM3MTc2MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_But I am excited to see “Mockingjay: Part 1” because it seems like the media and the movie are finally getting to the essence of the book I’m so interested in: Katniss and her role in the war machine. And so I’ve been following reviews, essays, and any media I can get my hands on that discusses this kernel.

Which is why I was so disappointed when I read the Village Voice’s review, which seems dedicated to wholly misinterpreting Katniss’ character.

I can’t speak for the film, but I’ve always read her as an demisexual (or somewhere on the grey scale) young woman of color, who fights for herself, and–by the time we reach “Mockingjay”–is suffering from some pretty severe PTSD. It’s an element of the books that seems to have been glossed over (perhaps in an attempt to earn a PG 13 rating), but I believe that “Mockingjay” finally delves into Katniss figuring out what role she’s really playing.

Of course she’s not a big picture thinker; you show me a 17 year old who could grow up in a world like that and suddenly think they could concoct a master plan to overthrow the government. Up until now Katniss, who was raised in this totalitarian wasteland and had political messages drilled into her, has focused exclusively on how she can help her family, her friends, and herself. In an odd way this combined mix of passion and naiveté about the players around her make her the perfect face of the revolution.

As the Village Voice writes:

The narrative thrust is simply Katniss shooting several pro-revolution commercials. But it works because we’re fascinated by media fights — thousands occur online every day. Despite the dystopian setting, a story beat where a lullaby that Katniss casually sings on camera ripples onward to become the chant of four dozen civilians marching toward their own massacre feels like both high-concept tragedy and the next evolution of #AlexFromTarget. Turns out when Collins wrote Mockingjay, in 2010, she was predicting not only America in two centuries, but the accidental overnight internet instafame that was just four years away.

Though, again, I haven’t seen the movie yet, this paragraph seems to be so profoundly missing the point. Katniss is not #AlexFromTarget. She did not get her picture taken and let loose the cries of war. Collins was not predicting the overnight web fame, with her book about young people being massacred as the government looks on. “The Hunger Games” did not become a multi-billion dollar franchise by exploiting our love for “media fights.”

As we await the Ferguson decision tonight, many of us are left in the real world wondering what kind of today we live in and tomorrow we’ll wake up to. But it’s clear that the turbulence of Ferguson is more akin to “The Hunger Games'” revolution than #AlexFromTarget ever could be. Writing Katniss off as a mere teenage web star is as inaccurate as saying that Peeta vs. Gale is the focus of the series.

The ramp up after a single tragedy in a sea of thousands is a theme that’s rampant in “The Hunger Games” and an important context for the stage in Ferguson. After all, it’s not Katniss that really starts the rebellion, is it?