With Friday’s release of the final Hunger Games film , Mockingjay Part 2, I felt it was my last chance to address one of the more mainstream plagiarism accusations that’s been tossed around in the past seven years, as well as introduce what I hope to be a regular feature here on Cinematic Oblivion.
If you’ve paid any attention to the publicity surrounding Suzanne Collins’ popular dystopian young-adult series and/or the subsequent films you’ve probably heard that The Hunger Games bears a striking resemblance to the Japanese 1999 novel and 2000 film Battle Royale.
But influences for The Hunger Games series go back much further than 1999. As most popular mainstream media The Hunger Games is not a uni-sourced rip off, but rather a well-tuned remix of books, movies, and stories reaching back through narrative history.
So here, in our first issue of Traceback, we plan to break down the major, obvious influences other than the Japanese classic.
But if you have no idea what Battle Royale is I’ll catch you up briefly:
Hunger Games similarities: A dystopian future where teenagers are forced to fight to the death on a specially designed battle island as an oppressive control tactic against rebellion. Our heroes exhibit kindness, resist the game and forge partnerships while their peers are reduced to animalistic aggression and sadism.
A little after the first Hunger Games film was released all of my Tarentino-fan friends were making the same joke.
“Do you know what they call The Hunger Games in Paris?”
Me: “No, what?”
“Battle Royale with cheese.”
If you don’t get that joke you may not have seen Pulp Fiction.
Battle Royale is a 1999 novel written by Koushun Takami about a dystopian future in which a defeated teenage rebellion (which aimed to create a society that favors the young) is annually addressed and punished by The Battle Royale Survival Program, wherein a high school Freshman Class is selected to fight to the death on a battle-weary island.
Takami shopped the novel around for three years before publication, struggling mostly due to the graphic content involving adolescents, but upon publication Battle Royale gained a cult-following and even garnered praise from Stephen King, who further drew comparisons (chainsparking back farther and farther through the endless remix that is media culture) to Survivor and WWE as well as favorably comparing it to his own pseudonymous novel The Long Walk.
A year after publication the novel was adapted into one of Japan’s finest ero guro films that became both a blockbuster and a cult classic. Quentin Tarentino claims that 2000’s Battle Royale is the best film to be released since 1992 (when he joined the profession) and the one movie he truly wishes he’d made himself. If you haven’t seen it, and you’re not too squeamish, do yourself a favor:
Though The Hunger Games exhibits striking, sometimes (seemingly) lazy similarities to Battle Royale, Takami’s novel is not a snowflake of originality. Fine work though it is, it draws richly on collective fears, civil history and past literature. Just as Stephen King became a self-avowed fan of Takami’s work, it’s possible Takami is a King fan himself…
The Long Walk
Hunger Games similarities: a public contest to the death between teenagers to gain fame and financial security in an impoverished dystopia.
…or a Bachman fan more specifically. For a brief period in the late 70’s and early 80’s a young and hungry Stephen King was producing novels at such a pace that he was forced to create a pseudonym to avoid over-saturating his brand. That pseudonym was Richard Bachman, an author who did more than just take a few books off the King name, but rather represented a fast-paced and bitingly cynical style wholly different from Stephen’s slow-burn terrors. Bachman’s novels Rage and The Long Walk encapsulate the violent indignity, hunger, and fury of the young, while The Long Walk, The Running Man and Roadwork seeth disdain for society and authority. The Bachman Books are a standout view of King accessing the raw resonance of his adolescent energy before wizening.
The Long Walk deftly describes an endurance feat from hell. A walkathon that can only end with one teenage boy left standing. One rule: keep walking. Slow down below four miles per hour and you get a strike. Three strikes and you’re out. Out as in shot dead by one of the soldiers riding in a half-track alongside you.
The Long Walk mirrors its characters in mastery of pacing. The story encompasses the full walk, the conversation between the boys, their ambition, their pain and all but one of their deaths. There is, perhaps, a subtle military critique in the way auxiliary characters in the book celebrate the “noble sacrifice” of these young men. Bachman/King has never been an impatient writer and takes his time describing every foul detail of being walked to death, from boys trying to eat their provided lunches while moving (some dropping them accidentally and unable to walk back), soiling themselves, collapsing from fatigue, bleeding through their shoes, and occasionally going insane. Though Battle Royale is very disturbing in its depiction of youth on youth murder, The Long Walk‘s portrayal of slow, drawn-out suffering and endurance will make you grateful that you have the option to sit down.
Bachman/King visited a similar dystopia three years later, and focused his patient study of suffering on a faster paced tragedian.
The Running Man
Hunger Games similiarities: the most popular television event in the world is a game show in which contestants, (volunteers from the lower, impoverished classes) are hunted to the death.
It is said that Stephen King/Richard Bachman wrote the The Running Man in just a week while on a cocaine bender, which is about as apocryphal as Robert Louis Stevenson’s composition of Jekyll and Hyde.
Nose candy or not the no-pause pace of the story reflects how quickly the book was written. The prose has the frantic quality of our doomed hero, Ben Richards, as he evades “hunters” across the country, the rest of the nation watching his desperation on their TV’s. The Running Man hinges upon the techno-paranoia emerging in the 80’s against television culture. Its critique seems aimed at the humiliation of game shows of the era, but has become even more relevant in our current, reality-show world.
The book, which is a thrilling, quick read was regrettably developed into one of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s worse movies. However, the film highlights an aesthetic that seems even more reminiscent of the The Hunger Games. Rather than be hunted across the world, as in the novel, the film’s Ben Richards is hunted within a specially designed murder maze. The way the plastic-faced host, Damon Killian (played by the real life host of Family Feud, Richard Dawson) hypes the studio audience up for the syndicated carnage is reminiscent of Stanley Tucci’s unnervingly beamish depiction of Caesar Flickerman in the Hunger Games films. Additionally, the garishly festooned “hunters” of the film, with kitschy names for their signature weapons (e.g. Subzero, Buzzsaw) are like the colorful, neo-eighties styles and weapon specialties of Katniss’ blood-hungry competitors.
Though Stephen King, under any name, has defined the horror of the second half of the twentieth century (and much of the twenty-first) there was another master, or rather mistress, of horror that presented our fears of a human sacrifice based dystopia long before Stephen had written a word.
Hunger Games similarities: An eery world where yearly tributes, in the form of human sacrifices, are selected by lottery to insure the stability of the society
If you’ve taken a high school English class, it’s likely that around Halloween your teacher had you read and analyze Shirley Jackson’s enigmatic and harrowing short story The Lottery.
Or if you’re too lazy for that then Spoilers Ahead:
The Lottery describes a small farming town’s annual tradition of drawing lots. The horror arises from the enigmatic dialogue surrounding “tradition,” and “the harvest,” creating tense uncertainty. At the end, as a woman pulls a black dot from the many scraps of paper, and cries that “it isn’t fair,” everyone in the town, including her own children, pick up rocks and stone her to death.
Taking the ancient idea of human sacrifice, from cultures such as the Celts and the Aztecs, and setting it in contemporary America was Jackson’s deft way of illuminating how far we think ourselves from our bestial origins, but how easy it would be to slip back into barbarity. The futuristic inhumanity of The Hunger Games’ opening tribute lottery has the same tone, as Katniss Everdeen volunteers herself as tribute to save her little sister, whose number has come up.
Though Collins can feign ignorance of Battle Royale it is hard to believe she never read Jackson’s Lottery. Though the story’s initial publication in a 1948 edition of The New Yorker was so inflammatory that it caused readers to cancel their subscription and send hate mail it has since become such a touchstone of American literature that it was adapted into a radio play in 1951, a ballet in 1953, a short film in 1969, and was even parodied in one of the more disturbing yet prescient episodes of South Park.
The Most Dangerous Game
Hunger Games similarities: people on an island are forced to survive being hunted for the entertainment of an aristocratic villain
A double entendre of a title, this short story’s title signifies both the most dangerous game you’ll ever play, and the most dangerous prey.
Or if you’re too lazy, once again, Spoilers Ahead.
A castaway hunter named Sanger Rainsford finds brief shelter on Ship-Trap island. Here he comes into the care of an aristocratic Cossack named Zaroff who informs him that after years of hunting all the world’s most dangerous beasts, he desires only to hunt humans, the eponymous most dangerous game. Rainsford is given a head start, a knife, and some supplies before Zaroff comes after him with a pack of hounds and a gun.
The main similarity I noticed to The Hunger Games in Most Dangerous Game is one you might also draw to MacGyver, Home Alone or even Breaking Bad. Rainsford, though bearing little defense to Zaroff’s hounds and gun, manages to fashion a myriad of clever and deadly traps out of the island’s native vegetation. Just as Katniss demonstrates her cunning when she drops a hive of tracker-jackers onto the mob that has trapped her up a tree, Rainsford builds Malay-man-catchers and Burmese-tiger-pits to stay the tide of the even pursuant Zaroff. In the end we love Katniss’ victory not just because she is kindhearted, but because she is clever. Rainsford set the precedent for turning from the hunter to hunted (after having the same tables turned on him), and The Hunger Games is far from the only piece influenced by Richard Connell’s story. It was adapted into a film of the same name in 1932, an Orson Welles radio play in 1943, many B movie knockoffs in subsequent years such as A Game of Death, Run for the Sun, and Bloodlust (which I recommend enjoying along with Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and Mike Nelson), was parodied in a terrible 90’s comedy you barely remember and has been adapted for TV about as often as A Christmas Carol. It even made it’s way into a joke on Parks & Recreation:
The Most Dangerous Game so aptly epitomizes the classical irony of the hunter becoming the hunted that it has become one of our cultural myths, of which The Hunger Games series is one of many retellings.
similarities: slaves forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the aristocracy rise up in rebellion against the Empire and attempt to end slavery in the name of their charismatic leader. Shares most similarities with Mockingjay, the third book of the series.
As The Hunger Games series draws to a close in Mockingjay the focus turns from neo-gladiatorial carnage to revolution and resistance of the gaudy empire by the disenfranchised districts.
While revolution is a theme so timeless in history, narrative and media that it would be foolish to try to assign its originating depiction to a single cinematic predecessor, the idea of those who have been trained to fight for the entertainment of hedonistic aristocrats using their slave training against their masters is specifically Spartacus. It fits even better in the many references The Hunger Games elite make to Ancient Rome (such as their excessive parties where they drink vomit-inducing cocktails between courses while those outside the city starve to death, their choice of cuisine, and their clownish sense of style.)
In addition one of the most iconic scenes in Spartacus mirrors the level of solidarity Katniss manages to garner in her own impassioned revolt.
Compare the willing sacrifice of life in solidarity with a brave ex-gladiator:
That touchstone moment has inspired many scenes of solidarity throughout cinema. It even resonates with the reality of its conception as it was indicative of the brave solidarity certain screenwriters at the time (1960) expressed in staying loyal to their blacklisted colleagues (and comrades) during the McCarthy Hearings. Kirk Douglas insisted that famed blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s name appear on Spartacus despite threats that such solidarity might end Douglas’ career.
Spartacus retells the story of a slave rebellion known as the Third Servile War. While the epic film takes narrative liberties to elevate Spartacus from obscure military figure (little is factually certain about the man) to messianic symbol of freedom, the spirit of Roman excess at the cost of slavery has forever cemented the way we as a society think about the excess which superiority condemns upon us.
Suzanne Collins freely admits that the history of gladiatorial combat directly influenced her books. It is an irresistible and cosmically apt irony that the poor and oppressed must train to become perfect killing machines for the entertainment of the elite, only to turn their deadly skills against their oppressors.
Even outside of the Hunger Games context I must recommend Spartacus, a film most people forget is directed by the great Stanley Kubrick, which is well reflected in the awesome cinematography:
Whether the real Spartacus was anything like the way Kirk Douglas portrays him matters no more than the fact that Katniss Everdeen has never existed. The phrase “I’m Spartacus!” is as good a song of solidarity against the oppressor as the four-note tune whistled by Roo.
I hope you enjoyed our first issue of Traceback.
The fact of the matter is that while artists, writers, and filmmakers may seems cleverer or more creative than you, more often they’ve just read more books and watched more movies. What they produce seems resonant, exciting and original, when it’s usually just a well curated smoothie of past works.
Understanding the influences of a certain film or book series reveals the patchwork that defines storytelling. Read enough and watch enough and one day you’ll learn to sew disparate parts so that the final product seems all your own.
As T.S. Eliot, a poet whose life work is little more than a finely phrased compilation of references, said; “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
(incidentally T.S. Eliot stole that quote from W.H. Davenport. But he phrased it better.)
P.S. Anyone ever read any Ralph Ellison?