Battle Royale is on Netflix Instant right now, so the other night, Sailor Boy and I sat down to watch. It’s not my usual type of film at all, and I probably wouldn’t have even heard of it, except it inevitably comes up in any discussion about The Hunger Games, as apparently there is a small but vocal subset of the population that hates THG (and by extension, Suzanne Collins) for “stealing” from Battle Royale for her enormously popular juggernaut.
I don’t actually believe in that crap. When I first heard of The Hunger Games, I was unfamiliar with Battle Royale. However, I was familiar with Stephen King’s Running Man, which was a far more popular story (and movie) that, for my money, had way more in common with Collins’s story than the cult Japanese film. When The Hunger Games first came out, Stephen King even commented on it (and Battle Royale) in his review. Commented, then dismissed. Because here’s the thing guys: Stephen King knows that there’s a lot more to a story than a concept. He’s not the first person to write about demonic children or haunted hotels or possessed pets or any of the other things King is famous for writing about. Even King admits that he’s written more than one story that uses the concept of execution-as-entertainment.
Quick story: Harry Potter came out when I was in college. People started getting really excited about it, and despite it being totally up my alley, I chose, in my immature understanding of ideas, not to read it, because I was a huge fan of The Worst Witch, and I thought Rowling was totally “copying” the concept of witch school. ‘Round about 2000, I broke down and read it, and ladies and gentlemen, I go the education of my LIFE about the difference between concept and execution.
Okay, back to our regularly scheduled programming. Having now seen Battle Royale, I’m here to tell you that there is one thing that it has in common: children who are forced to kill one another until there’s only one left. Though there is some nod at the very beginning to the idea that the media is somehow involved, that doesn’t actually seem to be the case, as the children have NO idea what is happening to them when it happens, so whatever the “BrACT” is, it doesn’t seem to be a widely understood game. (Also, I’m not sure what the purpose of the act is — it doesn’t seem to have any effect on making kids behave in schools or whatever). This may be better explained in the book. I haven’t read the book. But in the movie, it’s brought, up, then completely ignored/dismissed and contradicted at every other point. None of the characters in the story actually act like they’ve ever heard about the battle before, so it can’t be THAT much of a media event.
Compare that to The Hunger Games, where every child in the districts lives every single day of their life under the threat of the Hunger Games. They decide whether to starve (or not) based on their willingness to put more tesserae in the pot. In some districts, a few children voluntarily choose to spend their lives training to become killing machines for their neighbors’ benefit. Katniss has even decided never to have children, so she won’t have to watch year after year at the reaping when they are eligible. Everyone’s life revolves around this event. The opposite is true in Battle Royale. Even during the event, people seem more interested in playing out their high school dramas.
So yeah, Battle Royale is also about children being forced to kill each other. (So is City of God, by the way, and unlike BR or THG, that one is actually REAL.) But other than that, it’s a completely different story. The media element which informs so much of the action of The Hunger Games is absent, the idea of the “trained career killers” — also not there (both are present in Running Man, though, as it’s all a literal “game” that people watch on TV, and the players are all convicts, some of whom are already murderers).
The thing that struck me in Battle Royale and formed the central arc of the story is that almost all the characters knew each other, and their behavior in the battle was so often an opportunity for them to work out the long standing jealousies, behaviors, and desires of years and years that they spent together in school. Lovers commit suicide together, rivals use the game as an excuse to finally get revenge, one murder even occurs in self-defense after a boy attempts to rape a girl he’s been spreading rumors about sleeping with. Even the “gamerunner” had been a former teacher who had an ax to grind against his students. Um, literally.
To me, this is an incredibly different kind of story than one about a corrupt government who utilizes a public deathmatch among children in order to keep its downtrodden states in line. Perhaps, in the book, the media element is more clearly delineated, and the purpose of the government’s involvement actually makes sense. The Wikipedia article on the book says it does and specifically says that the purpose of the program is to prevent insurgency, though I’m not sure how. (The Wiki article also says King reviewed the book in 2005, after it was translated into English, and said “no prob” to its similarities to his own work.) Nevertheless, even that element is not original to Battle Royale — the classic “dystopian” House of Stairs, by the sadly departed William Sleator, features a government that places children in an experimental “arena” of stairs then forces them to be sadistic and cruel toward one another.
There’s no reason, in the film Battle Royale, for the government to be the organizer of the deathmatch. It could easily be a revenge scheme by the stabbed teacher, which would put this film more in line with thrillers like Chain Letter or even the Saw franchise. The Hunger Games (book and film) by contrast, places the political motivations of all the characters and the gamemakers front and center, and the romantic entanglements of the characters in second place (“Team Peeta” marketing efforts be damned), which means the story has more in common with Theseus and the Minotaur, in which Theseus’s attempts to free the tributes, and thus, Athens, from the political burden of sacrificing their teens to the Cretan monster year after year certainly takes precedence over whatever little romance he may or may not have had with Cretan princess Ariadne.
I enjoyed Battle Royale, and I think if you’re a fan of Quentin Tarantino type combination of violence, action, romance, and humor, you would, too. (True fact: one of the main actresses in Battle Royale reprised a similar role in Kill Bill for Tarantino. He was supposedly inspired to write that character after watching BR.) I actually loved the deeply personal dramas that were being played out as the battle raged — it was a very different take on the story and one I enjoyed a lot. I’m interested to read the book now, though from what I’ve seen on Wikipedia, the book and the film are very different.
The takeaway I got from all of this is how many ways there are to take a concept and tell a story with it. Of course, that’s no big surprise to me. I took Jane Austen’s story of class struggle and lost love and used it to tell a story about bioethics and the tension between technological advancement and natural order. All these stories — Battle Royale and Hunger Games and Theseus and The Long Walk and City of God and Running Man and Kill Bill and House of Stairs all have something to say about violence and to varying degrees, government sponsored violence, violence against children, children committing violence, violence as media spectacle, personal relationships and violence — they’re all remixed over and over again, and I think you can properly enjoy them all with no disloyalty to your favorites.
So guess what came from Netflix this week? BREAKING DAWN, y’all. I’m enlisting Jessica Spotswood to drink and watch it with me.