The latest adventures of Katniss Evergreen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, broke November’s box office record with $158.1 M, beating the previous record of $142.8M set by 2009’s The Twilight Saga: New Moon. It’s interesting to note that both of these films are based on a series of very popular young adult novels that are aimed primarily at teenage girls.
But what’s more interesting is that the hugely successful Hunger Games’ books and films are share a striking similarity to the notorious 2000 Japanese film, Battle Royale, which was taken from a 1999 novel of the same name. The film was so controversial that, though it was a huge blockbuster in Japan, it was never officially released in the U.S. for over a decade. For a long time, one had to rely on laserdisc imports and the like if you ever wanted to see this film. Why such controversy? Well, the storyline of Battle Royale is that every year, a middle school class is put on an island, and with everyone given a different weapon, from a sword to a machine gun to hand grenades, they must kill each other until only one is left. If more than one survives, they are all killed.
Watching teenage girls and boys dressed in their cute school uniforms murder each other in a gore-drenched bloodbath was certainly not for everyone. It spurred debate in Japan over their rating system, which no doubt added to the film’s notoriety and increased its box office there. As for America, the recent Columbine shooting in 1999 certainly was a big factor in any U.S. distributor attempting to tackle a release here. But now you can readily purchase a deluxe Blu-ray or DVD courtesy of Anchor Bay or watch the film on Netflix.
Hunger Games’ author Suzanne Collins has said she based her novels on the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome, Greek mythology and modern reality television, and had never heard of Battle Royale. However, they both share the same basic premise of teens forced to kill each other until they are down to only one. That a similar story to Battle Royale, as controversial a film as Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave or Cannibal Holocaust, has been turned into a box office behemoth is truly remarkable. Tone down the violence, and add a love triangle to appeal to teens and young women (which team are you on?), and you have an incredibly profitable film series on your less bloody hands. It’s mass murder for the masses! It was also a stroke of genius casting the then, up and coming Jennifer Lawrence, in the lead role. Now an Oscar-winning actress, the producers could not have picked a better choice to lead their franchise.
Now, for all the similarities between the two properties, there are also distinct differences. Whereas in The Hunger Games, the ‘contestants’ are initial strangers to each other, but form friendships and rivalries during training prior to the games, in Battle Royale, everyone comes from the same class, so jealousies and bonds, even romantic partnerships, are already well established. This adds much more depth, as one may be forced to kill someone they have been friends with for years. Also, while those in The Hunger Games undergo intense training to ready themselves for what lies ahead, the teens in Battle Royale are sent in cold and unprepared. Factor in the disparity of weapons given to each, some are clearly at a disadvantage, as in the poor soul forced to battle with nothing but a garbage can lid. And although, the violence in Battle Royale is much more graphic, that also gives it more weight. In the watered-down violence of The Hunger Games, the deaths generally don’t have as much impact. But clearly, The Hunger Games has an appealing protagonist one can identify with, whether male or female. And the futuristic, post-apocalyptic setting, and the fact that the games are being televised for all to see, certainly gives some added dimensions to Katniss’ adventures. But if you like your competitions to the death more hardcore, definitely seek out Battle Royale. Thankfully, it’s available now for all to see.