This article contains spoilers.
Since the market success of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010), fans and critics alike have been involved in debates regarding the originality of Collins’ work. Despite being reminiscent of other, more widely read works of dystopic fiction, a majority of critics have mistakenly focused on Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel, Battle Royale as its primary influence.
Collins and Takami are both relatively new additions to a gruesome literary tradition that can be traced back to many mythic cycles. The central action in both The Hunger Games and Battle Royale recalls many famous works of literature and mythology, as well as historical world events. While the novels of both Collins and Takami have, no doubt, striking similarities, there are integral differences that set them apart.
A Brief Overview of a Grisly Tradition
Though Collins denies having ever read Battle Royale, she repeatedly cites the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur as inspiration for her futuristic dystopia. In the myth, the hero Theseus extricates the Athenians from the tyrannical rule of Minos, the King of Crete. Until Theseus bests the beast, the Athenians are obligated to send seven boys and girls each year to the labyrinth in which the Minotaur dwells.
This basic thread of conflict exists in both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. What makes the plight inherent to the conflict of both books so effective is the element of hope existent in each “arena” the child tributes are sent to. In the contemporary novels, Collins and Takami steadfastly assure us that there will be at least one victor per “game.” The sacrificial youths in the myth of Theseus, however, face a more desperate situation – they must attempt to escape a labyrinth that’s so brilliantly constructed that even the artificer responsible for its construction, Daedalus, struggles to escape his own creation.
The fairy tales of the brothers Grimm are also notorious for their violence against children and for violence regarded as unsuitable for the assumed target child audiences. In the dual stories aptly named, “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering (1812),” three boys recreate a butcher shop setting wherein one child plays a butcher, one a cook, and the third a pig sent to slaughter. Two girls are chosen to play another cook and a cook’s assistant, whose job is to catch the blood of the “pig” in a bowl. The tale ends, of course, with the child butcher slitting the throat of the child “pig” so that the assistant may collect his blood in a bowl to make sausages.
More widely known works, perhaps, are William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Stephen King’s (writing as Richard Bachman) The Running Man (1982) and The Long Walk (1979), George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948), to name a few. In many of these works, the government oppresses citizens either to gain or maintain some form of power. In the case of the Brothers Grimm, Collins, and Takami, adults construct a dismal exaggeration of what they believe life – specifically a child’s life – to be.
Both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games employ elements of a dystopian future wherein the citizens of each world are governed by fear so that those in power may keep that power, though the infrastructures of each world vary greatly. Neither author offers up a detailed explanation for how either country came to be, though the government in Battle Royale, the Republic of Greater East Asia, seems as though it’s more stable, albeit more mysterious, than Panem’s Capitol in The Hunger Games.
Battle Royale, additionally, offers little hope for its characters at its conclusion. When the final survivors are on the run, Takami makes the reader feel disenchanted, as though the Republic will never change, the two rebels can’t incite the kind of action necessary for an altering revolution, and the deaths of forty children were in vain.
Collins also gives the reader enough cause for despair in The Hunger Games’ final installment, Mockingjay (2010), though she also makes it clear that two initially reluctant rebels can inspire a country to enact change. To her credit, Collins offers up an ending more realistic to the aftermath of a widespread rebellion than most people would expect from a work of young-adult fiction. Katniss and Peeta begin the rebellion that liberates the districts of Panem from the Capitol, though no one emerges from the rebellion unscathed.
Violence and Interpersonal Relationships
While the violence in The Hunger Games is not to be taken lightly, the plethora of deadly spears and arrows, bloodthirsty mutant abominations, and the brute strength of professionally trained child killers (i.e. the “Careers”) are tame in comparison to the blood-drenched pages of Battle Royale. Both Takami and Collins, however, consciously use their brand of gore to suit their respective audiences.
Battle Royale has a much smaller scale than Collins’ trilogy – while the children in the arena may know one another, the reader is left at a chilly distance from the forty-two “players.” The Hunger Games employs this arm’s-length tactic, too, albeit in a different fashion. Collins allows the reader to become intimate with the major characters of her story; Takami’s satire operates under different rules. We don’t have to know the characters to be horrified by their plight – the excessive gore merely drives that point home. If anything, Takami endeavors to show how alike the children are. For example, most of their desires, in the face of death, revolve around a crush, love, or what children believe romantic love to be. Takami’s central focus is the overnight battle between students, both in their brief affections for one another, and in the struggle for their lives; whereas for Collins, the games serve as a segue into a political revolution.
While the tributes (Collins’ specific terminology, not Takami’s) in both books are children, the qualities of the two groups differ greatly. As previously stated, the tributes in The Hunger Games are comprised of twenty-four relative strangers with an awareness of the dynamics of the games. Additionally, these tributes receive some training in weaponry, hunting, camouflage, basic survival skills, etc. Whether they’re a boon or a curse, the tributes in Collins’ games are given time to contemplate and prepare for their tasks, and ultimately, their own deaths. This factor alone exacerbates the issue of hope mentioned earlier and drives the survival instinct of Collins’ tributes, the bulk of which fight for their lives as best they can – something Takami deliberately keeps from his tributes in Battle Royale.
In Battle Royale, forty-two students from the same junior high school are, without warning, gassed and stranded on an island. Some are given weapons, while others are left to fend for themselves. Because of the abrupt nature of their situation, some of the children are driven to suicide – something we are not exposed to in The Hunger Games. While Collins’ tributes create alliances to make it through the initial stages of the games, many of Takami’s tributes are driven by paranoia that, in the case of one group of friends, drives them to shoot one another to death over a misunderstanding.
Whereas most of the tributes in The Hunger Games employ their survival training, or at the bare minimum, possess a basic need to survive, the children in Battle Royale are too emotionally involved with one another, causing their deaths to be much more complicated both for the characters and the reader.
Maybe the argument that we have, over time, exhausted all unique ideas seems trite, but there’s an aspect of truth to it. We borrow, conscious or unconsciously, from the cultures and artistic endeavors we are immersed in, the people we meet, and the histories we learn. What makes for great storytelling are the innovations an adept writer can give to familiar human conflicts, such as the relationship of the individual to the state or the loss of innocence.
Though The Hunger Games may possess striking similarities to Battle Royale, they are works of fiction that are also drastically set apart from one another. Where Takami focuses on violence and the brief, yet complicated, relationships among school children, Collins focuses on the relationship between a tyrannical government and its people. But we have seen stories reminiscent of these before; it’s certain we will see them again, if only because these are the same stories we can see ourselves in.