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Battle Royale vs. The Hunger Games

My friend Morgan (or “Morgan, Morgan, Morgan!” – like “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” – as Bryan likes to say; apparently, I talk about her a lot) read an interview with Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games’ Trilogy (of which we are both fans; see my review here), where she was asked whether she’d ever read a Asian book call Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami.  In the interview, the interviewer explained that Battle Royale, first published in 1999 before The Hunger Games‘ debut in 2008, was strikingly similar to Collins’ creation.  Collins explained that she’d never read the book and that her editor even recommended her not reading it.  I guess so there’d be no suspicion as to where her ideas came from.  Well, of course, my friend Morgan, Morgan, Morgan! went on a wild goose chase for this Asian thriller and finally procured a copy of her own.  Also, of course, once she’d finished it, she passed it on to me so that we could compare notes.  Warning: review may contain spoilers.

The basic premise for both novels centers on a fight-to-the-death game “played” by teenagers. In Battle Royale (BR), a class of junior high school students is “randomly” chosen for the Program and are gassed on what they believe is a study trip only to awaken at the super secret surprise location of the game.  In The Hunger Games (HG), each district holds a “reaping” at which its two co-ed champions, aged 12-18, are chosen as Candidates.  So the odds are more likely that you’ll have to kill someone whom you know, coming from the same class, in BR … which may mean they are less likely to be “ever in your favor” depending on how you look at it. In HG, you’re less likely to know people from the other districts until you’re on the train preparing for the Games.

Perhaps it is the increased odds of knowing each gamer’s victims that fuels the literary technique used throughout BR of switching points-of-view.  It’s certainly well done for the most part.  You’re introduced to a character, given a little background, then led through an event in the game from his or her own perspective.  Sometimes the author leaves and comes back to this character such that you begin to think her or she might actually make it, only to find out two sentences later that her throat gets slashed. These type scenes are almost always followed by the ominous: “____ students remaining” (where “____” is one less that before the scene). It serves as a reminder that only one can survive. Nice touch.  HG, on the other hand, followed Katniss from beginning to end; we were even privy to her thoughts.  Any real other character development was mostly tainted by how she saw them.  And in all honesty, most readers know Katniss will survive, or, at least, they expect it.

The reason or purpose behind these somewhat similar games differ a little in time and culture, but the ultimate message is one that is both timeless and cross-cultural: oppression. The BR Program is a vehicle by which the Japanese government can test loyalty and draw out naysayers (to then be silenced), not to mention population control.  HG Games exist to remind the districts that they would fail miserably, their people would starve and die, and their communities would be nothing more than a ghost of a district, if it weren’t for the Capitol.

What HG had that BR lacked may be due more to translation issues rather than actual story “flaws.” BR, being an Asian thriller, was translated for publication in the U.S.  There are no powerful or moving lines as in HG or other books for that matter.  No spots where you simply have to read the words again because they were so poignant, beautiful or spine-tingling. Ultimately, though, I enjoyed BR.  I was surprised by a few things, which is always a plus, and I’d guessed a few things as well, which almost always happens.  It’s nonetheless a page-turner that sucked me in many a night, saying to myself “Oh, I’ll just read one more chapter,” then looking up several later to see that it was 2 a.m.

HG is being made into a movie, with a release date set for 2012, starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss.   Despite loving the series, I’m having a hard time keeping an open mind about the movie, considering some less-than-agreeable casting choices, rumors of “adding to the romance” and the decision to keep it rated PG-13.  How is child murder PG-13?  But Collins’ wrote (or at least heavily participated, I’ve heard, in the writing of) the screenplay; so hopefully, the story I so loved on paper will live true to form on film.  (On a related note, I finally watched True Grit this week and absolutely think Hailee Steinfeld could have played the character well).  Anyway, turns out, BR was also made into a movie, released in 2000. In both novels, the violence is necessary to the plot. I’ve got a request in to Netflix for the DVD so that Morgan, Morgan, Morgan! and I can watch and see how Japanese filmmakers approached the story. Let the Games begin.

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