Films can include anything the filmmaker wants to depict, as long as they, and perhaps more importantly their financial backers, are willing to accept a restricted rating that limits their potential audience. There are nevertheless a few subjects that remain taboo, things that are considered so transgressive or distasteful that they rarely occur onscreen. Violence against animals is one of these and reputedly was a main driver behind the British "Video Nasties" legislation.
Violence against children is even more rare onscreen. Nearly four decades after Beverly Hills Housewife-to-be Kim Richards took a bullet to her now-silicone-shielded chest in Assault on Precinct 13, director John Carpenter still wonders whether he went too far with that scene. This from a guy who once showed a living person's intestines spliced to film and run through a movie projector. It is so uncommon to see a movie where a kid gets offed that, when it does happen, it usually becomes known as that film's signature scene. Assault on Precinct 13 is one notable example, Pet Sematary is another. Here, we're going to look at a pair of films that challenge this taboo by depicting full-on teen massacres: Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.
Each of these films has its own rabid fan base, so first let's get this out of the way: This will not be about declaring one the winner over the other, it will be a balanced comparison of the two films. If you're hoping to find some validation for your opinion that your favorite rules and the other sucks, you won't get that here. The two films have different viewpoints and each has its own strengths. One is uncompromising in its depiction and makes good use of shock, the other conceals a startlingly subversive message behind a mainstream veneer.
These two films share an identical basic premise: Each depicts a contest in which a group of youths are placed in an isolated area and forced to fight to the death. Both are set in a dystopian future society, but there are differences in how far into the future they are set and, more importantly, the games' intended purposes. The latter is key to understanding the statement each film makes about our own society.
Battle Royale, like Godzilla, is rooted in its director's experiences during World War II. Kinji Fukasaki had worked at a weapons factory that was the regular target of enemy bomb raids. In such a situation, the question of "Whom can I trust with my life?" becomes a daily survival issue. Fukasaki wanted to make a film that examined "the limits of friendship."
After a junior-high school teacher is stabbed, his class is transported to a deserted island where they learn of the "Battle Royale" law. Fearful of rising rates of youth crime, the government has passed a law that requires a selected group of teenagers to fight to the death over a three-day period. Each child is issued weapons, maps, and a tracking necklace that will explode if tampered with. Two additional combatants join the students: a previous winner and a thrill-killer.
It doesn't take long for the limits of friendship to be tested. These are immature, young middle-schoolers, and petty jealousies and resentments boil out of even those who appear superficially to be friends with one another. Some bond together to find a solution, but the few whose bonds are strong enough to stand the pressure become targets of the more predatory combatants. Some recognize the hopelessness of the situation and opt out quickly and permanently.
Alliances in Battle Royale tend to form along the lines of preexisting friendships. This would seem to suggest a certain level of character development, but little of that occurs because the characters just don't last long. A rare successful alliance enables one of the characters to hack into the contest's control system, which introduces the possibility of escape from the island.
Battle Royale has a number of satirical elements. The Japanese obsessions with pop culture and cuteness are mocked by the video in which a perky, cheerful hostess explains the rules to the combatants. None of the students have ever heard of the "Battle Royale" law, despite that the event has been taking place for some time and directly affects them. The only parent ever seen hangs from a rope in a flashback sequence. Other adults seem very pleased to be rid of the kids, even though especially because it means their death. There is a winking nod toward the viewers' bloodthirsty natures with a choreographed, Quentin Tarantino-inspired gun battle and a running scorecard of kills. Yeah, it's heavy, tragic stuff, but it's an action movie with a message. It can still be fun, right?
THE HUNGER GAMES
The Hunger Games is based on the Greek myth of the Minotaur, in which children are sacrificed as punishment for a past rebellion, and on the movie Spartacus, about a slave who leads a revolt. I also seem to remember some other story about someone who rose up from obscurity, skilled with a ranged weapon, to defeat an enemy against whom nobody else was willing to rise up, but the "David & Goliath" cliché...actually is particularly appropriate here. Katniss' flame outfit suggests a reference to the young military leader Joan of Arc, while another scene references the legendary rebellion leader William Tell.
That's an awful lot of rebellion imagery, and this is the key difference between Battle Royale and THG. The former focuses on the individuals, albeit in "single-serving friend" form. Only at film's end does it raise the subject of rebellion, which effectively makes it the first installment of a multi-part story. THG, although even more obviously a setup for sequels, explicitly addresses the need for revolt against an oppressive government.
This aligns THG with the classic tradition of dystopian society science fiction films such as Soylent Green, Logan's Run and Planet of the Apes. BR is set in the future, but only by about five minutes. Enough time has passed for the "Battle Royale" law to have been in place for a while, but not so much that there is any new future technology. THG, in contrast, is set so far into the future that none of the present world nations exist. Its technology and culture are far advanced beyond what we have now, although only in the capital city. The outlying regions, which supply manual labor, appear to have moved backward in time to the 1930s or so.
Governmental control is inescapable in The Hunger Games. It is significant that Katniss spends her time in the woods, hunting, where she exists apart from governmental control. She is not subject to their manipulations, which are intended to crush the will of the individual. This makes THG very similar to the 1975 Rollerball, in which corporations have assumed control of the Earth and a brutal game has been designed both to distract the population and to send the message that the individual is powerless.
The titular event of The Hunger Games is one such manipulation: It requires each district to send a young man and woman, randomly selected, to participate in a fight to the death from which there can be only one survivor. The event is punishment for a past revolt and the citizens are forced, at gunpoint, to watch as their children are slaughtered. In a rare act of sacrifice, Katniss enters voluntarily to spare her younger sister from selection.
The spectator aspect is among The Hunger Games' more cynical points. Broadcasters take glee in the carnage just like in another 1970s classic, Death Race 2000. It is a televised event, and spectators are coached in showmanship even as they are trained for a deathmatch. As in reality television, popularity matters. Despite her impertinent behavior and lack of social graces, Katniss' sincerity and courage win over the spectators. Her acts of compassion inspire the population to riot against the injustice. She outwits the game and breaks the system. "Love conquers all" is a very simple message, but it's an appropriate response to a dehumanizing society.
SIX OF ONE, A HALF-DOZEN OF THE OTHER
In keeping with its youth-targeted audience and intended mainstream appeal, The Hunger Games minimizes its depiction of violence and gore. Onscreen deaths take place in a flash and are viewed as though out of the corner of one's eye. This may seem like a compromise, but keep in mind the difficulty of even getting a film like this made in a post-Columbine world.
Battle Royale does not spare in its depictions of violence and could even be said to revel in them. This, predictably, resulted in outrage. The movie was described as "harmful" and young viewers were restricted from its showings. Viewers nevertheless waited in line for as long as two days to see it. Official concerns that it might inspire copycat violence were intensified by events that occurred around the time of the film's premiere: the stabbing of a schoolteacher and a series of clubbings committed by a teenager. The Japanese government considered banning the movie, and home video releases even now include a serious-sounding warning that reminds the viewer that the film was intended for audiences of a certain age. The film's international release escaped opposition, but only because something that actually mattered happened that week in September, 2001.
Survival films commonly examine whether people act on their own or band together in groups, but both films subvert this issue by requiring a single winner. This prevents the films from acting as metaphors for society as a whole. It also introduces a moral conflict. Survival requires killing, even among friends. BR raises the stakes with its three-day time limit: if there is no winner by that time, all the necklaces explode and everyone dies.
BR is well-acted, although the short lifespans prevent this from mattering much. Its location setting is nice enough, although the cinematography is rather pedestrian. THG excels in these areas: its sets are vast and lavish in the capital, gorgeous and serene in the country. The cast is loaded with A-list talent. For all of the blandness that oozes from mainstream Hollywood, there's one thing they do better than anyone else: spectacle. The Hunger Games uses that in all the right places.
The relatively tame violent content of The Hunger Games may give the impression that it's a watered-down version of Battle Royale, but it works in a way that is much sneakier and more subversive. It contains a level of social protest that was a staple of popular culture during the sixties and seventies. Its call to overthrow is more typical of the radical wing of the hippie movement than of anything since. This at a time when movements such as "Occupy Wall St." represent the first outspoken movement for large-scale societal change since then. Terrorism fears and other incidents of the previous decade resulted in a chilling effect on media willingness to say anything challenging or controversial, so for a movie to suggest overthrow of the government, even obliquely as this does, is remarkable. That it would happen in a film directed at a teen/pre-teen audience is astonishing.
That said, it is always the policy here to evaluate films on their own, apart from any external factors such as faithfulness to their source text, "appropriateness" of the message, etc. Would THG be singled out for such praise if all other things were equal? Probably not, but it would still hold up well as a film, as would Battle Royale.
As in the earlier Rollerball, both films feature an oppressive government that ultimately fails to suppress the will of the individual. The Battle Royale combatants succeed through teamwork, while The Hunger Games' participants triumph through the inspiring, optimistic power of love.