Formulating ‘The Hunger Games’ Part 2: Evolution of the Mockingjay

As we discussed last time in The Next Reel, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay go much farther than simply telling the story of the titular game of death, presenting a rich and challenging world and culture that (luckily) made it mostly intact to be big screen with The Hunger Games (2012), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 (2014), and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015). Lionsgate’s culmination of their cinematic enterprise was with “The Hunger Games Complete 4-Film Collection”: a comprehensive Blu-ray boxed set, released in March, 2016.

In spite of so much originality, there are also many similar works out there that continue to captivate audiences small and large. Of course, the elephant in the room always seems to be Battle Royale (2000), the Japanese film based on the Koushun Takami novel, published in 1999. In fact, any time I mention that I’m working on these articles, friends immediately ask me if I’m mentioning Battle Royale.

Well of course I am. I discussed the similarities in great detail in the last Next Reel, but the idea that The Hunger Games is an actual rip off of Battle Royale is actually as untrue as the rumor that Battle Royale was banned in the United States. Nobody makes the rip off claim about Stephen King’s The Running Man, do they?

Unlike Battle Royale, The Running Man (1987) film never faced banning in multiple countries. While it’s true that the alleged “banning” in the USA was the result of hype, Battle Royale was indeed banned (at least for a time) in Germany. This is ironic because a very similar film to both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games (not to mention, The Running Man) debuted in West Germany in the ‘70s.

It was called Das Millionenspiel (1970) and is translated in English to either The Game of Millions or Chance for a Million. The subject is Bernhard Lotz (Jörg Pleva) who is pursued across a futuristic Germany by “the Köhler gang” and because this is the most watched and popular show in the nation, he can’t go anywhere for help without being recognized. Similar to The Hunger Games’ Caesar Flickerman (played by Stanley Tucci in the films) who boisterously hosts the title game show and gives both commentary on and history of the contestants, Das Millionespiel’s Thilo Uhlenhorst (Dieter Thomas Heck) moderates the German show as game-makers similarly keep things exciting and unexpected.

Winners, you can guess, manage to take home one million German marks (for all its prescience the Tom Toelle-directed telefilm failed to predict Euros), but with futuristic death spirals and the running man’s face recognizable to every citizen, only six of the past 14 contestants have survived the ordeal. Lotz is the subject of the 15th season.

Das Millionespiel was written by journalist, screenwriter, and director Wolfgang Menge, who wasn’t a novelist and with the German flick’s television release, it’s unlikely that Collins would have been familiar with the story. However, The Hunger Games is one of a great many sagas based on death games (and their morbid spectators) that have come out of American cinematic and literary culture.

David Carradine as “Frankenstein” in Death Race 2000

Death Race 2000 (1975) is a satirical cult film that takes place in the (then) future dystopia of the United States in the year 2000. Based on Ib Melchior’s short story The Racer, Paul Bartel’s film features an annual game of death: The Transcontinental Death Race, meant to pacify the population under the martial law of a very corrupt totalitarian president. The cross-country auto race (with characters in costumes as elaborate as their tricked out cars) is not only hazardous to other contestants, but to civilians as well. Points are awarded for civilians killed by racers and old people, women, and children are not only not exempt, but many have higher point values. Death Race 2000 also features a band of resistance fighters who hope to both end the Death Race and to topple the president in favor of a more preferred choice.

While most certainly a “b-movie” (it was produced by Roger Corman), Death Race 2000 also stands as both a quality actioner, a cool black comedy, and a wild social satire that fits in well with Battle Royale. The film is also notable for featuring a pre-superstardom Sylvester Stallone in full ham-it-up mode as “Machine-Gun” Joe Viterbo. If that’s not enough for you, David Carradine’s main character of Frankenstein has been cited by creators Carlos Ezquerra and John Wagner as their visual inspiration for the character of Judge Dredd.

Dredd never showed up in The Hunger Games, that’s for sure.

Ironically, Stallone would go on to play Judge Dredd in 1995’s Ill-received Judge Dredd

There must have been a little something in the water in 1975 because two months later theaters got Rollerball (1975). Also based on a short story, adapted from “Roller Ball Murder” by William Harrison (who also wrote the screenplay), this Norman Jewison film features James Caan as Jonathan E., the star athlete in the title sport. Much as The Hunger Games features a world of city states after the fall of the United States, Rollerball takes place in a world where all governments have been replaced by “corporate states”. The Energy Corporation is one such entity while other companies represent separate nations.

In this futuristic world, which seems at first to be something of a utopia, there are no more wars as the only way to handle international (inter-corporation) strife is to have each corporate state compete in a blood sport called “Rollerball”. This full-contact sport doesn’t simply concern men on roller skates, but also a magnetic ball that must be thrown into a cone-shaped goal, and spiked motorcycles. Actually there are spikes on just about everything and your favorite players aren’t guaranteed to go home at the end of the day. The games are not only to pacify the masses with blood, but also stand to keep the common man down by stifling individuality (something that having a star player like Jonathan threatens to upset).

The fatal blitz of Rollerball (1975)

Just as the game makers of The Hunger Games change the rules and make up new dangers on the fly, so do the rules of Rollerball change as the game becomes more deadly. Jonathan E is also none too happy to do what his governing corporation instructs and carries out public (and worldwide televised) acts of rebellion. While the whole thing seems just the tiniest bit trite and silly, it’s actually not. In fact, this very artistic film holds up against the test of time (significantly better than its 2002 remake in name only) and manages some intensely chilling moments. The scene in which the ultra-rich laughingly destroy living trees with flame guns is startling to say the least.

This theme was revisited in the late ‘90s with the TV movie Futuresport (1998). The title match is a non-lethal alternative to gang warfare that combines hoverboards, skates, hockey, basketball and baseball. However, terrorism isn’t on the decline and it’s up to Dean Cain (just after his stint as Superman) to win Futuresport in order to save the world from (presumably very laid back) revolutionaries called the Hawaiian Liberation Front.

Even closer quarters are seen in the Dutch film Terminink: The Ultimate Fight (also 1998). Here, a sociopathic criminal named Terminink (hence the title) is condemned to fight other criminals in “The Arena”, a transparent enclosure that is watched not only by a live audience but by entire nations. Taking a political page from films like Rollerball and Death Race 2000, Terminink also deals with the politics of a brutal society, the treatment of criminals and the concept of freedom. Much as Katniss finds a way to soften herself in the most extreme of conditions, so does Terminink change, becoming less a mindless killer and more a friend with a heart. He’s as surprised as you are. But, is the whole thing rigged? If you’ve read or watched The Hunger Games you might have a guess.

Things don’t go exactly as planned for the producers and creators of the “ultimate” game show that gives its name to the film Live! (2007). Whereas the audience and the game makers of The Hunger Games are bloodthirsty and want to see their “tributes” killed on camera, the makers of Live! want just the opposite. Putting their contestants in mortal jeopardy by televising their game of Russian roulette, the TV executives give each winner $1 million. However, things take a dark turn when the cynical applicants prove to be suicidal and actually want to die on camera. Amid complaints by the Federal Communications Commission, Live! itself must struggle to survive with an entirely new plan. If you can believe it, things actually get more disturbing from there.

Of course, the arena of The Hunger Games is not merely a rink or even the gladiatorial enclosure of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). The highly technological enclosure is expansive and enormous with lethal tricks and death traps around every corner. In fact, by the time we get to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, the death game film has become a war film with the arena exchanged for urban warfare at its most lethal. This is why larger contests like The Running Man bear such a similarity to Katniss’ ordeal.

Again, Suzanne Collins got her ideas for this blood sport by flipping through TV channels and combining footage of war with episodes from reality shows. Thus, a unique companion piece to The Hunger Games is found in a black comedy called Series 7: The Contenders (2001).

Purporting to be the seventh season of a brutal American reality show called The Contenders, this 87-minute film depicts a lottery used to select six contestants who are then armed and forced to hunt and kill each other whether they want to or not. The “season” we see takes place throughout the city of Newbury, Connecticut and shows us gamers ranging from 18 to 72 years of age, including one pregnant woman. It’s never quite explained how a game show got this powerful, but each contestant is forced to contend or die.

Unlike The Hunger Games in which only the players themselves are in mortal danger, in The Contenders, everyone in the entire city is at risk as the six fighters hunt each other to the death. Also like The Hunger Games, The Long Walk and The Running Man (and actually all of these), “winning” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Emerging victorious from The Contenders doesn’t grant you riches and the kind of fame you might like, as we learn in Series 7, but only affords you a spot as the returning champion in the following season of The Contenders. The good news is that if you win three times, you get set free. So far that hasn’t actually happened.

Somewhere in between Rollerball and Series 7 is The Tournament (2009) in which a group of the wealthiest power players who control law enforcement, criminal enterprise, and the media have created a new form of entertainment called “The Tournament”. Every decade or so, a large city is selected and the toughest and craziest volunteers apply to contend for the grand prize of £10 million by killing each opposing candidate. If no one wins outright within 24 hours, the whole thing is a draw because every survivor is then killed as their tracking devices explode (note the similar accessories in Battle Royale).

The big difference here is that The Tournament is not meant to be a global phenomenon watched by the pacified masses and is a secret war made for the entertainment of the elite only. In fact, the citizens of the very towns in which this tournament takes place (this time in Middlesbrough, England) have no idea why these apparent crimes are being committed. The elite in charge of the Tournament pass these things off as the result of random lone wolves, terrorists, or accidents. The winner not only gets the grand prize and the glory, but also the prestige as the world’s most highly paid contract killer at $1 million per bullet. That is, if their tracking devices don’t turn them into wall art before the whole thing is through.

Films and stories of this kind didn’t start with the reality TV boom, which made such things seem shockingly prescient. In fact, these fictional game of death spectator blood sports actually precede Rollerball, Death Race 2000 and even Das Millionenspiel .

In 1953, American author Robert Sheckley published a short story called “Seventh Victim”. Looking to do him three better, the Italian/French coproduction La decima vittima (translated to The 10th Victim) was released in 1965. If you think Sheckley minded the change, he didn’t. He published a novelization of The 10th Victim in 1966 and rounded it out to a trilogy with sequels Victim Prime (1987) and Hunter/Victim (1988).

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before. The most popular form of entertainment in the entire world is a blood sport called “The Big Hunt”. It’s watched everywhere and has managed to replace wars by bringing in violent people and seekers of fortune and glory into a ten round battle. In five of the rounds, a contestant is the hunter, in the other half they become the prey. The reward for surviving all ten rounds is, as you might guess by now, “More wealth than YOU can imagine!”

In The 10th Victim we see Ursula Andress as a hunter thrust into the game, desperate to be its sole survivor by claiming her, you guessed it, tenth victim. Just as Hunger Games players obtain sponsorships, so does Andress’ character. Just as Katniss’ win is compromised by an unexpected romance… well by now it may seem obvious, that happens in The 10th Victim too.

The similarities are all over the proverbial board. So you may be thinking that I am either being ironic or that I’m completely wrong when I maintain that The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay are completely original concepts. However, no, it’s quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that Suzanne Collins’ books and the movies that came from them are completely original and exciting stories that are, in part, the logical culmination of one big part of our literary and cinematic heritage.

As I’ve said before even Star Wars is a case of recombinant DNA from many sources including Flash Gordon, Samurai films, and Westerns. Symphonies are all composed of variations of notes A through G. Even the incredible Alien series of films began because, as the writer himself stated: “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!”

Blood sports and games of death have been a part of our collective culture since the Roman Gladiatorial Games and even long before that. Stories of this kind tap into our morbid and predatory spectator nature and often satirize this to the point that we feel bad about being a part of these spectacles. The story of Katniss and Peeta and their rises, falls, and re-rises are unique and wrapped around a gladiator arena tale that is a part of who we are if not in reality, then at least culturally as a part of our collective fiction and lore. Reality television and voyeuristic war coverage taps into the same parts of our brains that Suzanne Collins managed to access in her saga.

So those who believe The Hunger Games is directly borrowed from a previous source such as Battle Royale should take a much closer look and see that even Battle Royale merely tapped into the same entertaining (if morbid) vein that was mined for everything from The Running Man, to Death Race 2000, to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (not to mention from Nineteen Eighty Four, to The Giver, to Fahrenheit 451). In short, if The Hunger Games is a rip off, then so is everything else on this list.

So until someone attempts to grill William Shakespeare for plagiarizing his excellent sagas (again, missing the point entirely), this intrepid columnist will see all of you in The Next Reel!

May the odds be ever in your favor!