Tuesday, March 30, 2010


The following post is based on true excerpts from an email exchange between Heather, conductor of The Galaxy Express, and Agent Z, intergalactic spy extraordinaire in response to Agent Z’s post about Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES:

To: Agent Z
From: Heather
Subject line: THE HUNGER GAMES is not as original as people believe

Fitting an arrow to my crossbow

When you first told me about THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, I immediately thought of BATTLE ROYALE, the 2001 film based on the novel BATORU ROWAIARU by Japanese novelist Koushun Takami. After I finished THE HUNGER GAMES, I am convinced more than ever that Collins based her book in significant part on Takami’s story. Not in a plagiarism way—more of a blatant reinvention.

Battle Royale PosterI’ve known about BATTLE ROYALE since 2001 when I first saw the original film on an imported DVD (it also screened in a few U.S. film festivals that year). Yes, I’m cross-culturally informed like that (perhaps Suzanne Collins is as well, hmm?). While I haven’t read the book version of BATTLE ROYALE, anyone can tell you the film is a highly faithful adaptation. The original book actually spawned two films as well as a 15-volume manga series.

The book version of BATTLE ROYALE was translated into English in 2003. The film version has yet to be distributed in the United States, for various reasons (not the least of which is the level of violence “…inflicted by fifteen-year-old characters on other fifteen-year-old characters.”).

Despite the book’s availability at outlets such as B&N, Borders, etc., BATTLE ROYALE remains a cult favorite and will likely never attain mainstream status. Regardless, it’s one of my favorite films. Ever.

I suppose I should give Ms. Collins props for ripping off exploiting Asian cinema the YA SF post-apocalyptic niche. Still, she seems to have borrowed source material from BATTLE ROYALE like nobody’s business—shall I count the ways?

To: Heather
From: Agent Z
Subject line: Don't get your panties in a wad

deftly avoids arrow; pulls taser gun from back pocket

Hold your horses there, Heather. While I loved the books I never claimed that they were works of startling originality. I didn’t claim that because, well, they’re not. The specific question is: did Collins rip off Battle Royale?

My answer is no. She may have read it or seen it, but what resulted was not a copycat, but a reinvention of a theme that has been visited again and again in the annals of literary history. Takami’s book and the resulting film are only two such visits to a place where humans are pitted against humans in a fight ‘till the death.

Where, in fact, did Takami get his inspiration? Perhaps he read ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding (published 1954) or ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ by Richard Connell (published 1924) or even Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ (published 1948.) Perhaps he, or Collins for that matter, read ‘The Long Walk’ (1979) or ‘The Running Man’ (1983) by Stephen King as Richard Bachman.

What I’m saying is that arranged fights to the death, whether involving children or not, are older even than the gladiatorial arenas of Rome. Having made this point, please do enlighten us as to this specific borrowing of source material of which you speak. There certainly are similarities between ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Battle Royale’. So, let’s get to the nitty-gritty, shall we?

dons body armor

To: Agent Z
From: Heather
Subject line: You are so screwed

changes into a jogging outfit and fires a SPAS 12 pump action shotgun

Chiaki Kuriyama

I’ll concede that the two books part company in many ways. Not the least of which is the gore and violence factor. BATTLE ROYALE is strictly adult fare while HUNGER GAMES reads more like a novelized version of SURVIVOR (which is itself derived from the “Swedish television series Expedition Robinson originally created in 1997.” Sigh.)

That said, I don’t know anything about Takami’s inspiration…well except for maybe the fact that in his story, “The name of the school and town the kids hail from is ‘Shiroiwa,’ which translates to ‘Castle Rock.’" Apparently, this is some kind of tribute “…to his favorite author Stephen King…” Oh, yeah, and that “King chose the name ‘Castle Rock’ as an homage to William Golding's Lord of the Flies, whose kids-stranded-on-an-island premise parallels that of Battle Royale itself.”

BR Logo

But whatever. We’re not discussing King or any of those other authors, mmkay? Just because various source material exists doesn’t mean you can excuse or gloss over the eerie similarities between BATTLE ROYALE and THE HUNGER GAMES. Let’s examine them more closely:

*The basic premise of THE HUNGER GAMES itself is a significant derivative of BATTLE ROYALE. To wit:

Both occur in a dystopic future.

Both are about a no-holds barred tournament of death. Both tournaments are run by governments and involve youth as players who are forced to kill each other until one survivor remains.

Someone rebelled and is being punished for it (in BATTLE ROYALE, the students boycotted school; in THE HUNGER GAMES, the districts rebelled against the government).

In BATTLE ROYALE, the characters are 15; Katniss, the heroine of THE HUNGER GAMES, is 16.

Both stories feature a lottery as a means of choosing players.

*BATTLE ROYALE’s Kitano-sensei, the teacher who orchestrates the tournament, tells the student players at one point that “Life is a game.” Get it? THE HUNGER GAMES. I mean, c’mon.

But if that still isn’t enough…

*Both stories feature the use of “backpacks” which are given to the players. In both stories, the backpacks have been filled with random weapons. In other words, the players never know what they have until they open the backpack.

*Both stories involve over-the-top pomp and circumstance as preludes to the tournaments as well as media coverage (e.g., in BATTLE ROYALE, it’s executed via the BR Act Committee introductory video & classical music; in THE HUNGER GAMES it’s the extravagant televised broadcast of the game).

*Both stories feature pairings of an older, stronger youth protecting a younger one (In BATTLE ROYALE, Kawada helps protect Noriko and Shuya; in THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss helps protect Rue). It could also be argued that Kawada’s character influenced Haymitch Abernathy’s character in THE HUNGER GAMES because both characters act as guides for the main characters. Incidentally—or maybe not—both Kawada and Haymitch are survivors of previous tournaments.

*As the games progress, both stories feature means by which players are informed of the current death toll (by public address system in BATTLE ROYALE; by holograms in THE HUNGER GAMES).

*To raise the stakes for the players, there are “Danger Zones” in BATTLE ROYALE and manipulated environments in THE HUNGER GAMES.

*One of the initial death matches in BATTLE ROYALE features a crossbow. Made me wonder if it inspired Katniss’ use of a bow and arrow set in THE HUNGER GAMES. Just sayin’.

*In both BATTLE ROYALE and THE HUNGER GAMES, the surviving couples rebel against the government.

*In THE HUNGER GAMES, Abernathy was the victor of the 50th Hunger Games. In the BATTLE ROYALE novel, 50 Battle Royales are held annually.

Battle Royale Class

I didn’t read THE HUNGER GAMES determined to find similarities (and for a while, I started to wonder if the comparison stopped with the basic premise). Yet as the story progressed, all of the aforementioned details jumped out at me like…like the proverbial cat out of the bag!

But my righteous indignation aside, what does the author herself report as the inspiration for THE HUNGER GAMES? In this article, Suzanne Collins is quoted as saying:

"It's hard to choose one element that inspired The Hunger Games," says Suzanne. "Probably the first seeds were planted when, as an eight-year-old with a mythology obsession, I read the story of Theseus.

Other early influences would have to include watching too many gladiator movies which dramatized the Romans' flair for turning executions into popular entertainment, my military specialist dad who took us to battlefields for family vacations, and touring with a sword fighting company in high school. But it wasn't until the much more recent experience of channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage that the story for this series came to me."

Kinda vague, if you ask me, especially given the other works you mentioned earlier, Z. I can understand she might not be familiar with BATTLE ROYALE, but Stephen King? William Golding? Shirley Jackson? What’s wrong with being inspired by those renowned scribes? Are they chicken feed or something?!

Regardless of Collins’ true inspirations, I feel that the similarities between THE HUNGER GAMES and BATTLE ROYALE were close enough that I felt pulled out of the story while reading her novel. I can’t help but wonder if she did more than reinvent a theme. In other words, if she knew about BATTLE ROYALE, I wonder if she used its obscurity to her advantage.

takes off running and heads into the forest

To: Heather
From: Agent Z
Subject line: I'd rather be screwed than out to lunch

runs after Heather carrying a net and trident

Yeah, the whole idea of literary influences is problematic. I myself had to drop a project when Joss bloody Whedon snuck into my bedroom and stole my idea right out of my head while I slept, and, of course, he got bazillions of dough to develop it. It was MY idea, goshdangit, and I stole it fair and square from George Orwell and Luc Besson. I wonder if Collins resents Takami for writing her story before she did?

The thing is, Heather, that The Hunger Games is just…better.

blocks killing blow

I admit I’m going from the film, having never read the novel, but the characterization in The Hunger Games is better, as is the slow, yet ferocious build to the end. The best character in Battle Royale is, to my mind, the beautifully deceptive Mitsuki, but it’s squeaky little Noriko who has the female starring role. How does she survive? Why, by hiding behind two guys, both of whom protect her for no other reason, seemingly, than that she is so very helpless and female and fetching in her school uniform. Bah! Katniss would have made sushimi out of the lot of ‘em.

backs slowly away

Why, Heather! You look…enraged. Why, Heather! Is that a missile launcher in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me? Now, Heather, calm down. You’re not supposed to kill me, dammit. We’re supposed to break the rules! We both supposed to survive this battle! Dammit. Heather, we’re friends. You can’t kill me, you just…

explodes in a spray of blood and guts

To: What’s left of Agent Z
From: Heather
Subject line: Didn't you know? Life is a game

tosses aside spent missile launcher while shaking head sadly

See what you get for rebelling, Z?

withdraws handkerchief to wipe blood splatter from face. Sits on nearby rock.

Battle Royale BookHere’s the thing: HUNGER GAMES could be the next HARRY POTTER for all I’m concerned. However, my frustration actually arises from people glomming HUNGER GAMES like there’s no tomorrow while I and other fans of BATTLE ROYALE are shaking our heads in puzzlement, especially since BATTLE ROYALE has been available for consumption since 2001. That’s nearly a decade.

Why does it take a westernized version of this type of story to light a fire under readers? I’m not saying Collins should never have written HUNGER GAMES; rather I’m simply expressing a long-simmering frustration that a science fiction romance-ish story doesn’t receive the mainstream appeal I’ve always known it has.

Then you have the fact that Lionsgate has plans to distribute a HUNGER GAMES movie (in development, slated for 2011). The kicker? The film was pitched as “Battle Royale meets Running Man.”

Frankly, I'm perplexed more than ever about HUNGER GAMES and how Collins managed to get it published given the existence of BATTLE ROYALE. My guess is that no one, absolutely no one in her publishing circle knew about BATTLE ROYALE. I love BATTLE ROYALE but sometimes I forget how niche it actually is. On the other hand, it's possible they ALL knew but figured the high concept material was worth the risk. Mum’s the word, eh?

If Suzanne Collins truly didn’t know about BATTLE ROYALE, fine, but if she did, I would just like to see some acknowledgment of Takami’s work. If not from Collins, then from fans of her books, many of whom ought to be flocking to read or watch BATTLE ROYALE by now if the subject matter excites them so much.

Phew. Thanks for listening, Z. I really needed to get that off my chest.

Rebelliously yours,