Formulating ‘The Hunger Games’ Part 1: When Books Catch Fire

In March 2016, Lionsgate released The Hunger Games: Complete 4 Film Collection on Blu-ray with all four films (based on the three books of the saga) and 14 hours of bonus features (for the binge-watching enthusiast). The collection is great for fans and possibly showcases what a cool and original saga this is. That said, it also highlights some of the elements that fans and detractors alike may find a bit familiar.

The question (and even accusation) of “Is this a rip off?” has dogged The Hunger Games from the beginning, and is something that I would like to explore and answer in more detail across two articles. At the very least, if you like The Hunger Games series, there are a lot of other books and movies that would most assuredly float your proverbial boat.

Author Suzanne Collins has maintained that she developed the story while flipping through TV channels, seeing news reports of war and reality shows until the divergent images merged into the concept for The Hunger Games. Thus, cries of “rip off” can be quelled with careless ease. However, what of the similar stories out there? Influence or not, a little compare and contrast couldn’t hurt, and it might just shine some light on some lesser known and very interesting tales out there.

I first heard of The Hunger Games in around 2011 when the saga was inspiring preteens to become avid readers. Hearing that school-agers had worked their way through The Hunger Games (2008) I expected some kind of cute, illustrated kids’ book about some finicky diner who refused to eat her icky Brussels sprouts and collard greens to the eternal chagrin of her long suffering parents.

Not long afterward I found myself at a movie theater looking at a “coming soon” movie poster for the 2012 film adaptation of that same book. Seeing a metallic bird clutching an arrow while on fire made me think: “This isn’t really a bedtime story for fussy eaters, is it?” Certainly, this could have been merely a fanciful metaphor for mom having burned the poultry dish (making it unpalatable to the nervous stomached main character) but somehow I doubted that interpretation. Therefore, I whipped out the old smartphone (a Samsung Instinct because, by technological standards, 2011 was the dark ages) and checked out the teasing synopsis for the first book.

As most of you are infinitely aware by now, the title contest is a brutal reality television extravaganza of violence (where changing the channel is impossible for an entire nation) in which teenagers from twelve dystopian colonies battle for survival in a futuristic arena to entertain the totalitarian Capitol and to keep the even more long-suffering districts within the grip of the Capitol’s iron fist. To top it off, the whole shebang is televised as a sick reality program for the entertainment of the whole nation of Panem (though mostly for the Capitol, who has no dogs in this fight) and lots of bets and media coverage abound. When I read the first novel, I loved it but you know there wasn’t even one silly drawing of a suburban family at the dinner table?

I wasn’t the first or the last to find something very familiar about the story of the novel and the release of the first movie prompted more claims of the same.

For most, the similarity seemed obvious. The Hunger Games simply must be a rip off of a film I had already been intimately familiar with: Batoru Rowaiaru (2000). Itself based on a novel (by Koushun Takami), Battle Royale, as it is known in the West, is a Japanese film in which a class of high school kids is brought to a remote island to take part in an annual game in which the students must fight to the death until only one remains alive.

The reward? As Luke Skywalker once said: “More wealth than you can imagine.”

Fitted with explosive collars (that also serve as microphones for monitoring this “entertaining” event), the kids fight for both victory and defense (with uncooperative students who refuse to fight being executed via the collars) until two of the survivors defy the rules and fight against the government sponsoring the brutality. To make matters (and the possibility of sleep) much worse, there are forbidden zones on the island which trigger the collars to explode when such areas are entered… and those forbidden zones are constantly revolving.

Fascination with Battle Royale was partially spurred by the fact that it was advertised as a banned movie. Hey, if you had your hands on that VHS copy, you were one of the very special few outside of the Land of the Rising Sun to even see this film, right? In fact, the film was totally illegal in the USA, right?

Well, no. Battle Royale was actually never banned in the United States, although it did face a lot of such trouble elsewhere. The truth of the matter is that it is almost impossible to “ban” any film that isn’t explicitly illegal in the United States of America due to that little pesky thing we call “freedom of speech”. The real truth is that Director Kinji Fukasaku’s work of social satire was held up in Western release for so very long because no deal could be reached that would be equitable both for Toei Company and any prospective American distributor. Toei reportedly wanted a large, wide release like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (also 2000) enjoyed, but the level of violence precluded such a wide release.

With the assured NC-17 rating, few theater chains would sign on, relegating the film to the art house circuit. Cutting the film down to an R rating would result in a very, very, very short film with no discernible plot. Thus, aside from apocryphal stories about American lawyers warning Toei that they might “go to jail” for releasing this picture, there was never anything illegal about the copies that did surface stateside (most of which were region-free foreign made editions). Unprofitable, sure, but banned? No.

While that’s the film most comparative minds thought of when The Hunger Games got popular, I actually thought of another story. As I mentioned in my 2006 review for Battle Royale, I immediately thought of The Long Walk, a 1979 novel by no less a noteworthy author than Stephen King (writing under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman).

The Hunger Games is primarily the tale of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (played in all four films by Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteers for the violent annual contest in order to save her sister from having to participate. Should she win the contest, she will be given a large lifetime income from the Panem Capitol as well as posh living quarters in District 12’s “Victor’s Village”.

The Long Walk is primarily the tale of 16-year-old Ray Garraty who volunteers for a brutal annual contest called “The Long Walk”. While The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future of North America (the Capitol of Panem is in the Rocky Mountains while Katniss’ District 12 is somewhere in Appalachia), The Long Walk is similarly set in a future United States much darker than our own. The lust for entertainment is seen here as “The Long Walk” attracts great throngs of fans and onlookers as much as the totalitarian nature of the world of The Hunger Games.

Instead of the vile President Snow we are given a mysterious character known as “The Major” (described with the Snow-reminiscent epithet “society-supported sociopath”) who is in complete control of both the Walk and presumably a whole lot more we don’t know about. Both Snow and the Major serve as their respective story’s “Big Brother”, reminding one of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) more than a little.

“The Long Walk” itself consists of a literal “long walk” starting at the Maine/ Canada border and progressing southward as far and as long as it needs to. Along the way any contestant (here all male) who slows below four miles per hour (or is found guilty of other infractions by the military overseers) is “warned” and ultimately killed after three warnings. The goal is to be the last contestant standing (well, walking) before the race comes to its end. The prize is anything the winner wants for the rest of his life (presumably excluding an end to “The Long Walk”).

Ray Garrity faces The Major in Stephen King’s The Long Walk

Just as fans of The Hunger Games are able to send care packages to their favorite sponsored contestants, fans of “The Long Walk” similarly can interact with the walkers with some spectators throwing food and others picking up anything the walkers leave behind as gruesome souvenirs. Just as exorbitant bets are placed by the enormous fans of the Hunger Games, billions of dollars are wagered on the title “Long Walk” each year. Just as winning the Hunger Games proves to be a pyrrhic and loaded victory, so do the walkers note that no previous winner has survived for long, with some speculating that winners are actually executed after the race’s conclusion. The ending is left somewhat ambiguous but one would be hard pressed to call it “happy”.

Like many of you, I missed the whole pseudonymous “Richard Bachman” part of Stephen King’s career and I first read The Long Walk in the 1985 collection of four novels collectively called The Bachman Books, described on the cover as “Four Early Novels by Stephen King”. Within that same omnibus was another “Bachman Book” known as The Running Man (1982). Much like The Long Walk and The Hunger Games, The Running Man takes place in a future dystopia in North America under a brutal totalitarian regime in which death games reign supreme as a form of entertainment. Although “The Major” is never explicitly mentioned, who the hell knows? Both Bachman books could be set in the same universe.

Much as Katniss volunteers for The Hunger Games to save her younger sister, The Running Man‘s protagonist Ben Richards turns to “The Games Network”, a government controlled television channel focusing on blood sports (which might have felt like an extreme satire of more recent reality TV programming had it not been written in 1982 instead of 2002) in order to get money for medicine for his critically sick daughter. Much as in The Hunger Games, contestants on the Games Network’s most popular show, “The Running Man” are given rigorous tests and training to prepare them for battle and survival while the world is watching. Much like The Hunger Games, The Running Man depicts a prosperous upper class that intentionally keeps the poor subdued as a permanent underclass.

As the title character of both the book and the TV show within the book, Richards makes his way across the country accumulating money for every hour he survives and for every hunter or law enforcement officer he dispatches along the way, while cameras are everywhere including on his own person. Should Richards survive for a full month, he will pocket a full billion dollars. Of course the producers of The Running Man are just as corrupt as those running The Hunger Games‘ televised feed and Richards soon becomes the victim of various public and secretive machinations of The Games Network and its undeniably Snow-like executive producer Dan Killian.

Bets are placed, surprise kills are made and last minute twists change the game entirely. Sound familiar?. Just as the first novel, The Hunger Games ends with Katniss’ inspiration spreading and leading to the phrase (and second novel title) “catching fire”, The Running Man concludes with the words “… and it rained fire twenty blocks away.”

The 1987 film version of The Running Man is only loosely based on the novel but does condense the novel’s multi-city setting to a single, very technologically advanced killing arena with multiple levels and rooms with cameras everywhere, much closer to the more enclosed space of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale.

America’s best known game show host, Richard Dawson, was chosen for the antagonist of Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Running Man (1987) with good reason!

With The Hunger Games‘s lottery-based method for choosing victims (or contestants) for the (perceived) greater good of the society at large, it is as difficult to ignore the influence of Shirley Jackson’s chilling short story “The Lottery” (1948) as it is to believe that Collins wouldn’t have been aware of it. The influence is most probably there, but then again, the influence of Shirley Jackson is also all over Stephen King’s own writing (by King’s own admission).

Instead of a futuristic dystopia, “The Lottery” takes place in a provincial little town that participates in a common (perhaps even nationwide) event known as The Lottery which is believed to ensure a good harvest. The shocking finale is what Jackson referred to as “a particularly brutal ancient rite.” She also stated that this sacrificial community action was done in the present day.

In the wake of the success of the film series based on The Hunger Games, a plethora of studios rushed to release their own film adaptations of somewhat similar books, hoping to be the Pepsi to Collins’ Coke. One of these films was The Giver (2014) starring Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges. This makes sense, as in many ways the novel The Giver (1993) by Lois Lowry feels a lot like a less action-packed The Hunger Games.

After years of working to direct his father Lloyd as the title character in The Giver, Jeff Bridges accepted the role for himself.

The Giver details a futuristic, seemingly utopian society in which all strife has been eliminated and “sameness” has become the ostensible saving grace of the community. Like The Hunger Games, the society in The Giver sprung from an era of war, pain, death, and starvation. Also, much like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), free-thought and creativity (and, in fact, differences of just about any kind) are discouraged and even criminalized. In Fahrenheit 451 a few people read and memorize the (now illegal) literature of humanity’s past, while in The Giver a designated scholar becomes “The Receiver”, who is the holder of all of the world’s memories of strife and pain as well as color, love, music, and creativity. Much as Hunger Games contestants from the twelve colonies are selected by a government system called “The Reaping”, Jonas, the protagonist in The Giver is assigned to become the new “Receiver” by a community system known as “The Ceremony of Twelve”.

Much as Katniss’ bravery results in a major change in the society (not to mention two sequels and a series of four films), Jonas’ own spirit brings about the time for change in his own community (and inspires “The Giver Quartet” of four novels).

Next time in The Next Reel, we jump from page to screen, to discuss many more works (coming from some surprising places) that have strikingly similar elements to both The Hunger Games and its eponymous game of death. To be sure, Suzanne Collins’ work is still remarkably original in so many ways, but if you like The Hunger Games you might want to take a long walk (or try running, man) to check out some of these other, works too.