In Defense of...The Hunger Games

Recently there has been a lot of vitriol spit at the big budget adaptation of Suzanne Collins tween novel "The Hunger Games." Most of the anger it would seems centers not around the quality of the film itself (with which there are plenty of issues), but with shared properties of the films that preceded it. Namely, the Japanese film "Battle Royale." On the surface, criticism of Collins does seem warranted. It does seem rather implausible she had never heard of "Battle Royale" before sitting down to launch her mega franchise. There are a great many similarities between the two works. Both take place in dystopian futures, feature a group of kids dropped in an isolated location to fight it out to the death with the winner being showered in adulation and receiving everything their hearts desire. No one is wrong when they point out the story parallels. But is this the real reason for the hate heaped on "The Hunger Games?" Similar themes, story and plot points exist through every genre of film and this seems to have never been an issue with the horror community before.

A cursory look at the horror genre should tell anyone that "The Hunger Games" is hardly unique in it's "borrowing" of ideas from another property. "Battle Royale" premiered, first as a novel, then as a film right around the turn of the century. It shares similar themes with the 1987 Schwarzenagger film "The Running Man." "The Running Man," based on a Stephen King novella, actually borrows heavily in themes from another Stephen King novella "The Long Walk." Did King actually plagiarize himself? Is that possible? Actually it's not, former Creedence Clearwater Revival front man John Fogarty was once sued by his old record label for releasing a song that sounded too muck like one of his previous CCR hits (Old Man Down The Road vs. Run Through The Jungle). He was found innocent. Back to my point. Kings original story "The Long Walk" was first published in 1979 although it was written in the late sixties while King was at the University Of Maine. It borrows thematically from a short story called "The Most Dangerous Game" which was first published in Colliers magazine back in 1924. A story that has lent itself to at least a dozen film adaptations over the years (my personal favorite being "Surviving The Game" - Gary Busey, John McGinley, Rutger Hauer and F. Murray Abraham - all in the same film. Awesome.) The theme of man hunting or outlasting other man for survival, which is basically the story of "The Hunger Games" has been around for almost a hundred years, if not longer. You can trace the theme back to the Roman gladiators if you so desired.

Borrowed themes are not unique to "surviving man" films either. Slasher films "borrow" from each other in the same way. As influential as films like "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th" were, there is very little original in either film. The idea of stalking and killing your victims is directly ripped from movies like "Psycho" or "Peeping Tom." The faceless, virtually unseen killer is lifted from the classic "Black Christmas." The over the top gore and violence? Look no further than Mario Bavas Bay Of Blood/Twitch of The Death Nerve (depending on which version you've seen). "Twitch" was so influential on the genre that the second Friday film stole two kills from the film literally shot for shot! Does that make Friday the 13th part II any less of a film? No, I don't believe it does. All genres have similar stories. Would "Back to The Future" be possible without "The Time Machine?" Aren't all romantic comedies essentially the same? They all follow the same template.

I've eluded to it a few times before, but most films exist as templates. There is a structure that needs to be (generally) adhered to. Certain beats need to be hit at certain times to elicit the desired response from audiences. These tried and true templates work. In a previous review I stated "if I tell you we have a car load of kids, a run down gas station and some possibly inbred country folks - you can virtually fill in the rest." There are literally dozens of films that attempt follow this template. Following the template is not a sin. It's what happens within the confines of said template that determine if something is worthwhile or not.

Does "The Hunger Games" borrow liberally from "Battle Royale?" Absolutely. Is "Battle Royale" a completely new concept? Absolutely Not. Does it borrow from it's predecessors as much as "The Hunger Games" borrows from it? Absolutely. Clearly using similar structure, content, and themes hasn't deterred the horror audience from embracing a film in the past. There is something deeper at work here, something a bit more psychological that is effecting the reactions to "The Hunger Games."

As horror fans we seem to be extremely protective of the genre we love. There are legitimate reasons for this feeling. How frustrating is it when great films like "Let Me In" (even if you enjoyed the original more, the remake was still pretty damn good) getting dwarfed at the box office by some film about talking owls? Eddie Murphy (who I think is still rather funny) gets to put out a new movie every six months that's destined to lose 50 million dollars. Yet films like "Kill List" "Wake Wood" and "Retreat" get at best "limited theatrical releases" or worse - direct to DVD releases. It's maddening. Yet it's our lot in life as horror fans. As much as we hate it, horror will never be as mainstream as we want it to be, and when it does have it's occasional brush with the mainstream the powers that be quickly rush to reclassify what we love as a "thriller" because that term is more palatable to the masses. Calling films like "Silence Of The Lambs" anything but a horror film is disrespectful to the audience and to the genre, but that's exactly what's done. So we are used to getting disrespected as a class of fans. "The Hunger Games" enters the fray borrowing rather liberally from respected horror sources while at the same time straddling the line as to what may be considered horror in the first place. Successful or not, (and as we know, it will be successful) it's not something we as genre fans are going to be able to hold on to. We won't be able to claim it, even though it builds on things we've already claimed. There is no reason to try to build an attachment to it. It makes it easier for horror fans to disavow.

But the main reason, I believe, there is the "Hunger Games" backlash has to do with it infringing on something we as horror fans considered "ours." "Battle Royale" is a great film. It's a film that we as horror fans have latched on to as a lynchpin of what makes horror great. It's understandable, like I stated earlier, ours is a genre that gets scoffed at by the everyday populous more often then it gets praised. To feel like something that we "own" (in out hearts, if not physically) is getting neutered for the masses really grinds on us. I felt the same way during the Hollywood remake craze. Films I loved, particularly "The Last House On The Left" were films that I thought were "mine." That film was the ultimate gateway film for me. It opened doors to so mant different grindhouse and expolitation films of the 70s. It also became the measuring stick by which I'd judge other horror fans. Most casual film goers knew Freddy or Jason, but did they know Krug? I had claimed that film as my own. Enter Hollywood who decides it's remake time and next thing you know the original film is everywhere. It felt like they had taken away something that was mine, something that was special to me. That is where I think a lot of the "Hunger Games" hate comes from. "Battle Royale" is a powerful film that "we" owned as a community. Someone has come in and (seemingly) taken that from us and made it into god forbid, a "tween" film.

In truth though, no one has taken anything and there is nothing wrong with "The Hunger Games." Either in it's content, or how it's presented. The issues with "The Hunger Games" lies more with us than it. Sometimes it's o.k. to let things go. Fans of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" had to let it go. Myself, as a fan of "Last House" had to let it go. Maybe this is the moment for fans of "Battle Royale" to let it go and take solace in the fact that something has been created that is so powerful that, at least for a fleeting moment, will transcend us as individuals and as a community.

Choose to read and see "The Hunger Games" if you wish. Enjoy it for what it is. There are things it does better than "Battle Royale." There are things that are markedly worse. If you choose not to, then sit down with your new fancy 4 disc copy of "Battle Royale." Be thankful that "The Hunger Games" has come along to renew interest in a film like "Battle Royale" or "the Running Man" or that perhaps a film version of "The Long Walk" and remember why you enjoyed them so much in the first place.

As always thanks for reading....

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