Is ‘The Hunger Games’ Really a ‘Battle Royale’ Knock-Off?

Posted Friday, January 18th, 2013 05:23 pm GMT -4 by

When I was first told about ‘The Hunger Games‘, I had the same reaction everyone else who reads Japanese science-fiction had, which is “Gee, this sure sounds like Battle Royale”. I then preceded to grumble a lot about how un-well read people are because I unfortunately can be that person.

Then, after I actually got around to reading The Hunger Games, I realized that that people who make this argument may be half right, but they are not very interested in nuance.

But first, let’s go over why Battle Royale and The Hunger Games sounds so similar.

  • Battle Royale: The government takes a class of students and puts them on an island where they are forced to kill one another until there is only one standing.
  • The Hunger Games: The government demands two people from each of the twelve districts to fight to the death until there is one left standing.

Okay… so it sounds almost exactly the same. So, I thought I’d take a deeper look.

Fight to the Death:
(The Hunger Games versus The Program)

As just mentioned, the plot lines center around a fight to the death sponsored by the government. So, I think it would be best to go over what was actually said in the books in order to discern if the plot device is indeed the same.

Battle Royale, Page 40:

“A battle simulation conducted by our nation’s ground defense forces, instituted for security reasons. Officially known as Battle Experiment No. 68 Program. The first program was held in 1947. Fifty third-year junior high school classes are selected annually (prior to 1950, 47 class were selected) to conduct the Program for research purposes. Classmates in each class are forced to fight until one survivor is left. Results from this experiment, including the elapsed time, are entered as data. The final surivor of each class (the winner) is provided with a lifetime pension and a card autographed by the Great Dictator. In reaction to protests and agitation caused by extremists during the first year of its enactment, the 317th Great Dictator gave his famous ‘April Speech’. “

According to the book, the ‘April Speech’ is required reading in the first year of junior high school. Here are some excerpts:

“My beloved comrades working for the Revolution and building our beloved nation. We still have a shameless imperialists prowling our republic, attempting to sabotage it. They have exploited the people of other nations, nations that should have become our comrades, betraying them,  brainwashing them, and turning them into pawns for their imperialist tactics. And they would jump at the chance to invade the soil of the republic, the most advanced revolutionary state in the world, revealing its evil scheme to destroy our people. Given these dire circumstance the No. 68 program experiment is absolutely necessary for our nation. Of course, I grieve at the thousands, tens of thousands of youths losing their lives at the ripe age of fifteen. But if their lives serve to protect our people’s independence, can we not claim then that the flesh and blood they shed shall merge with our beautiful soil passed down to us by our gods and live with us in eternity?”

The Hunger Games, Page 18:

“Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to guarantee peace and, as our yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games.

The Rules of the Hunger Games are simple. In punishment for the uprising, each of the twelve districts must provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate. The twenty-four tributes will be imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena that could hold anything from a burning desert to a frozen wasteland. Over a period of several weeks, the competitors must fight to the death. The last tribute standing wins.

Taking the kids from the districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch — this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. ‘Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. if you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District thirteen.’”

There is a clear difference here. Yes, the government is doing this to encourage fear and therefore fealty, but the threats are different. Battle Royale uses an outside threat to justify itself, whereas the fear in The Hunger Games is strictly internal. While there were protests in Battle Royale, they happened in response to the institution of the experiment, whereas the games in The Hunger Games are a reaction to uprisers.

Some might count this as being a trivial detail, but I think it would be foolish to dismiss it. It changes the entire tone of how the characters react. In Battle Royale, the instinct of a many of the students is to try and escape, whereas the contestants of The Hunger Games are resigned to their fates (in the first book, at least).

Narrative:
(Present/First versus Past/Third)

I’ll do this quick, because it is beyond obvious, but I do think it’s important. The Hunger Games is written in first person/present tense, whereas Battle Royale is written in third-person omniscient/past.

I know it sounds pedantic, but I mention it for a reason. The style of narration automatically necessitates two different types of stories being told, and therefore the drama comes from different places. In Battle Royale, it’s the reader knowing where the evil lurks, and wondering how the pieces are going to fit together, whereas in The Hunger Games, the reader only knows what Katniss knows, and therefore the drama lies in the suspense of being ignorant of her fate.

Not only that, third person omniscient allows you to invest yourself in any one of the forty-two characters, while in first-person limited you are… well… limited to those Katniss chooses to invest herself in… which seems to be like three people.

Characters:
(42 vs 24)

In Battle Royale, every single one of the forty-one combatants are described in great detail, right until their very deaths. This includes their lives before the experiment and how their feelings are during it. It makes for a longer story and involves a more complicated past that needs to be revealed to the reader.

The Hunger Games, on the other hand, focuses on very few of the combatants, with only six being given names or nicknames that are memorable. Their interactions are less important then they are in Battle Royale, and as such, character development is limited to Katniss and Peeta.

Training:

Another key difference between the two stories is that combatants in The Hunger Games are trained for their fight and given a chance to get a hold of weapons they know they how to use. The kids in Battle Royale are not so lucky.  In a very unsubtle attempt to make sure you know how pointless and unscientific the “experiment” is, each student is issued a day-pack with a random weapon which can range from a gun to a sickle to a GPS. Woe to the dude who gets a NERF gun.

How the kids are prepared for the fight, then, makes for a very different kind of story. In the case of The Hunger Games, there is more strategy whereas in Battle Royale luck and fear play a much larger role.

Love Story:
(Katniss and Peeta versus Noriko and Shuuya)

When only one can survive and there are both male and female combatants, it’s a bit hard to not use romance in order to create more drama.

Just as Katniss and Peeta share a number (District 12), so do Shuuya and Noriko (both are Student No. 15). I know it’s stretching it when I point out this similarity, but there is a reason these two couples have arbitrary numbers that unite them. It is a subtle way to remind us that they are connected no matter what happens.

Just as Katniss had Gale, in a sort of weird half-formed love she couldn’t be sure of, Shuuya had Kazumi, who he had wanted to impress from the beginning because of their shared love for the forbidden music of Rock. Also, Shuuya isn’t sure about his love for Noriko just as Katniss isn’t sure about Peeta. Though his reason differs in that he has the memory of his dead friend who had a crush on Noriko keeping him from considering her as a possible romantic interest.

Of course, it is sort of hard to develop feelings for a girl on an island when all the people you thought were friends are all killing each other, but I digress.

In any case, I find these stories to be pretty close to each other, right down to the love interest having a wounded leg that makes it hard for the two of them to keep on surviving. The only difference is that in Battle Royale there is a third person (Shogo) introduced to their team, so it keeps the focus off of romance for the majority of the story, with nods being made to it only when Shogo feels like teasing Shuuya.

Control of the Playing Field:

In addition to the romance aspect, this is one very potent likeness, and that is that government controls both the playing fields. For The Hunger Games, it’s meant to keep audience interested in the event which it controlled with a frightening degree of godliness. For instance, they cause a fire to start burning or create a pack of killer hounds. Battle Royale merely uses a grid system where they will habitually close areas to make sure the students are forced into fighting one another, much like The Hunger Games, however it is not for entertainment purposes.

Religion:

Battle Royale has no religion except fealty to the state. Although not explicitly stated in first book, The Hunger Games seems to follow along the same lines, especially as tributes are given what can almost be viewed as sacrifices to the Governmental God.

The Bad Guy:
(Cato versus Kiriyama)

The Bad Guy in Battle Royale is Kazuo Kiriyama, a student who can basically do anything (from paint to karate) and comes from a rich background with the added bonus of being a full-blown psychopath (inexplicably explained by some sort of head trauma he suffered while in his mother’s womb). This, if you read The Hunger Games, sounds a lot like Cato.

Well.. aside from the in utero head trauma thing.

There is also one other exception, and that is that Cato isn’t really a bad guy. Sure, there is probably something unhinged about someone who willingly participates in The Hunger Games (a trait he shares with Kazuo, who also deliberately got himself into the school and class so that he would be in the Program Experiment 68) but he really wasn’t a bad guy. Okay. Sure. He did kill the poor nameless District 3 boy when Kat exploded the food, but I assumed that was because he needed to win the game and the boy had outlived his usefulness when the food went away.

Wow… look at me trying to defend murderers.

My point is this: Kazuo and Cato are both bad guys, but their reasons and tactics are very different. Kazuo is a lone wolf who kills his loyal friends right out of the gates whereas Cato makes alliances, none of which he actually betrayed, though that could because he didn’t get a chance to.

The Winner:
(No One is Safe/ Shogo and Katniss)

There are three things I need to discuss here: 1. the survival of two when there should only be one,  2. how the winner is treated, and 3. the return of the winner to the ring. So let’s start with one, shall we?

  1. One of the similarities that the books share is that, despite the rules stating there can only be only one survivor, more than one survives. In the case of Battle Royale, three people make it out alive (or two, depending on how you count it) and in The Hunger Games, two survive as well. I think that’s largely because it’s hard to tell a story, and make a believably likable main character you want to survive in that sort of environment, and have that likable character off the other one in the end. The only other way is to have a Romeo and Juliet situation and one likes that cliché.
  2. The winner is treated to a lifetime pension in both cases, but in The Hunger Games, the winner is famous where as Battle Royale winners live a life in quiet solitude on government pensions and probably fending off the side effects of what is likely inevitable PTSD. Though, thinking more about that, that is another shared aspect, as I’m certain Haymitch suffers from PTSD while he languishes on the government’s money.
  3. In both cases, the winner(s) return to the battle. For Shogothis is because he was unlucky enough to be held back a year of school after the program, and then his class was selected again. However, it’s hinted that it was because he became maniacally anti-government after surviving the first round and it was discovered he hacked into the government’s systems. Katniss shares rebellion with Shogo, though hers was done unintentionally. This, however, will not be the case when she returns the second time.  What it boils down to, then, is that the winners are thrown into a fight to the death a second time in order to get rid of them.

Another interesting point is that the winners almost uniformly become anti-government, and willing to fight against it (see Catching Fire/Mockingjay and the epilogue to Battle Royale).

The Media:
(Reporting versus Sensationalism)

The last difference I want to point out is the difference in the coverage of the events. In The Hunger Games, the battle is basically a reality show where all the Districts watch. In Battle Royale, however, the programs are done in complete secrecy and when the parents are informed of their children being entered into it, it’s not uncommon for them, or the students’ teachers, to be killed when they object to their children being sent to their deaths. When the winner is reported, it’s a quick photo on the news with a report that states how many died of gunshot wounds, strangulation, exposure etc..It’s sort of a shame shows like Jersey Show don’t take this turn.

Why is this important? Because, where the program in The Hunger Games is a show of power and fear used to keep the districts in line, the power of the government in Battle Royale is so absolute that it doesn’t need to. Or, alternatively, it does it largely in secret in order to maintain its power which makes for a different story altogether.

Cultural Context:
(America Versus Japan)

Now, seeing as I’m an American who speaks Japanese and has lived in Japan, I feel like I’m in a pretty unique position to speak on this topic and I kind of have a vague clue of what I’m talking about it. Sort of.

What you have to understand is that in Battle Royale, the horror is derived from the complete disregard for the group mentality that is so ingrained in Japanese society, and how that group mentality can lead to such extreme things such as the program. It’s mentioned in the book several times that the students can’t believe they could kill their fellow students whom they had gone to class with for nearly three years (in Japan, once you are assigned a class, you are always with that class for the duration of the school year). The complete dissolution of this bond, which is so important to Japanese society, is unthinkable and yet it is done easily and within minutes of the Program starting.

Now, compare this to The Hunger Games, and it becomes more than clear how these two books are completely different. The horror is emphasized not by “how could we do this to each other?”, but by the individualized “how can I survive this?”. Then later, it becomes “how can we let the government do this to us?” which is something it shares with the epilogue of Battle Royale.

So, Are They Really The Same?

This isn’t really a matter of which one I like better, because honestly… I like them both for what they are, which is violent books about dystopias. There isn’t really anything noteworthy in their prose styles or their characterizations. In fact, the bulk of their appeal seems to be derived from their brutality.

They are obviously similar, though, but I think that you can use the same plot device and create something very different. Just look at The X-Men and Heroes. It happens ALL the time.

So, The Hunger Games and Battle Royale share a foundation, but their stories are very different. I recommend you read them both and enjoy them both on their own merits and not spend too much of your time wondering which copied which, and which is the better version.