Back when The Hunger Games movie hit theatres, there was a great deal of grumbling on the internet labelling Suzanne Collins’ story as Battle Royale for kiddies. The author said she’d never read or seen Battle Royale, but the film adaptation of Battle Royale holds such cachet among geeks that the litany of complaints continued. Of course, the problem with this connection is that Battle Royale itself isn’t a very original book either. The setup of a group of unwilling participants stuck in an arena in a fight to the death for the entertainment of onlookers is not just a common occurrence in human history (the Coliseum is just one example), but it’s also the plot of just about every low budget 80s action film ever made. For whatever the reason, it was the default plot device for hack screenwriters.
Earlier this year my small cadre of other graduate history student friends watched Gymkata. This is the very exemplum of “low budget 80s action film,” the ideal realization, the perfect combination of every element the phrase entails. The budget is indeed low. The premise is as ridiculous as you can expect—the power of gymnastics and karate combined! The acting is endearingly atrocious. Best of all, the plot is exactly the same as just about every other low budget 80s action film: American agents must infiltrate the Central Asian country of Parmestan, but foreigners are only admitted if they enter “The Game”—an obstacle course where loss means death, most likely brought about by the other contestants rather than the obstacles themselves. Arena combat follows. No one has ever won to the end, but our intrepid protagonist, trained in the duel arts of gymnastics and karate, will make the attempt. Well-placed gymnastic equipment randomly scattered throughout the Parmestani countryside aids him in his quest. Not quite Battle Royale, I know, but there isn’t a very big leap to make from adults fighting to the death in an arena to teenagers fighting to the death in an arena, and the state oppression angle goes right back to the “bread and circuses” mentality that marked the decay of Rome itself.
Part of the reason I ended up liking The Hunger Games film despite the extreme popularity that automatically made me predisposed not to was the light 80s action movie vibe running through not only the story it was based on but in the set design and aesthetic choices. Retrofuturistic touches cribbed from 1960s sci-fi films like Logan’s Run also helped as well. The movie certainly has more to recommend to it than Gymkata.
Now that I’ve finally read The Hunger Games I’m ready to fully dismiss superficial resemblances between it and Battle Royale. These are very different works drawn from essentially the same source material. Collins’ current popularity doesn’t come from stealing the concept itself, but rather injecting some truly biting commentary on the phenomenon of reality TV. This is one mega-bestseller that I really am happy to see adolescents reading on the bus, instead of mediocre works that dominated the YA scene beforehand. Who knows, maybe it will lead readers to the pleasures found in Gymkata and its ilk?