Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games inevitably draws comparisons to Konshun Takami’s Battle Royale. Both are set in a dystopian future; both describe Bloodsport-like competitions where contestants enter a large arena and must fight to the death, leaving only one man standing. And both works pack a twist: here it is children, specifically teenagers, that are pitted against each other, not adults. The young are goaded into performing heinous acts of violence on their peers. Yet the similarities extend further still: both these stories were originally books, adapted for the screen and directed by Gary Ross and storied Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku respectively. There is no variation in these broad details between the two pictures, and so they may very well seem to be duplicates—The Hunger Games being the facsimile, coming twelve years after the Japanese original. But there are finer details, and here differences between the two begin to emerge. The Hunger Games pulls ahead, and it wins on just one count: it does a terrific job of building up its heroine, Katniss, and she carries the entire picture.
Both films are unusual in the sense that they take an expansive and dense narrative and condense it into a two-hour production. Battle Royale is set over three days, and The Hunger Games seems to play out for about a week. The long, interminable nature of the competition (it continues during nighttime) would seem to make it better suited for the television format as opposed to film—indeed, in the fiction of The Hunger Games, the competition is already televised to the public in a reality TV-style format. (Battle Royale doesn’t seem to be televised, but it may as well be because it has the same vibe as The Hunger Games.)
A few weeks ago we looked at The Running Man, and wondered whether it too would be better suited for a longer medium. The beauty of the television format is that the creators have a much greater amount of time to illustrate the characters they are presenting us with. This applies equally to novels and comic books, but not so much to film—most movies are just over ninety minutes long, and character work (and character development, if there is any) can feel totally empty if not handled by a capable screenwriter. Battle Royale and The Hunger Games face a bigger challenge than most films: they have a giant cast. The latter presents us with twenty-four contestants and a handful of supporting roles; the former almost doubles down on that, with forty-two contestants.
Not even the television format could convey the acts of forty-two different characters, let alone film, and even twenty-four is a stretch. This season of the reality show Survivor began with eighteen “castaways,” and even now, with over half of the original cast cut, there is one player (Carter, to be specific) that I feel I know nothing about, simply because the producers did not afford him enough screen time earlier in the season. Battle Royale never manages to navigate this problem. It ostensibly has a hero, but we know nothing about him, and he doesn’t receive the allotment of time a lead character should. Because we have no ties to the story, the film can feel a little empty. People die left and right in almost every scene but it means nothing to us because we do not know who they are, we do not know their motivations, and we have no rooting interest in any of them. There are some flashes of brilliance—all the contestants are from the same class in high school so they quickly segment into their social cliques (the jocks, the popular girls, and so on), and it’s interesting to watch that dynamic play out—but the filmmakers fail to capitalize on any of it.
The Hunger Games surmounts this character obstacle by going in precisely the opposite direction from Battle Royale: rather than nervously flitting from character to character, The Hunger Games focuses almost exclusively on its heroine at the expense of everyone else. The deaths of the other contestants are just as meaningless as they are in Battle Royale, but unlike the Japanese effort, here we have someone to root for. The standard fare matters—Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is a kind, humble type who is altruistic, upstanding, moral, and is, in terms of the physical realm, a capable hunter and a good athlete; she is, then, the prototypical super heroine—but more important is the fact that we are left alone with Katniss for an extended period of time. We bond with her in precisely the same way we bond with John Rambo in First Blood. The challenges she faces and the experiences she submits to are magnified, and we are forced to undergo them with her. When she is burned on the leg, the camera insists on showing us the gaping wound in all of its delicious glory; when she is perched up a tree, held under siege by a band of thugs on the ground beneath her, the camera stays with her. She does nothing, and we do nothing, because that is part of the waiting game—that is what being under siege is.
In that way, while in the fiction of the film she is companionless, in reality we are her companions, just as we accompany Rambo in the solo portions of First Blood and even (to a lesser extent) Schwarzenegger in the final showdown in Predator. We share in similar emotions, and we connect almost as if she were next to us or if we were next to her. We quickly begin cheering for her, and we hang on each of her moves. So the film’s success is simple: she is such a well realized character, and so well portrayed, that she is, in effect, the entire movie.
Unfortunately, the author of the original text and the screenwriters here opted not to keep Katniss alone for the entire picture. She eventually teams up with a younger girl, and then with a boy her age. It’s a lost opportunity: a much more compelling story could have been told with Katniss by herself—perhaps something that followed a First Blood-like trajectory, though that would unquestionably have resulted in a darker and more mature film. Instead, The Hunger Games ends with a boilerplate romance thread between Katniss and the aforementioned boy. But this slight misstep, if it can be called that, is not nearly enough to unravel the good work done earlier in the film. The first hour determines that we like Katniss and that she is a strong and colorful character, and none of that changes.
Battle Royale struggles because it has almost no character work, though it finds some small success as a crass examination of violence and death. The Hunger Games, bereft of any real violence despite its inherently violent plot (it was designed for a younger audience), has no other crutches to lean back on other than its protagonist; in fact, if it wasn’t for Katniss, I suspect the entire film would fall flat. It has problems that we might initially overlook because our attention is on the heroine. For instance, there’s too much deus ex machina in the film (on at least two occasions Katniss is saved by altruistic contestants that come out of nowhere), and that includes the regular meddling in the rules of the game by the Games’ hosts. The sudden rule change to allow for two winners rather than one is essentially an admission Collins and her fellow screenwriters that they could not think of a way to end the story by the original rule set, because that would necessitate Katniss actually killing someone—so why not start with the rule that there can be two winners, thereby avoiding an unseemly twist?
Katniss is the smoke and mirrors act that the filmmakers insert to distract us from the film’s flaws, and it works. It is, in a way, a showcase for the importance of good character work. If we pare The Hunger Games down, we find that it only succeeds because of its protagonist. Throw her out and you are left with a toothless Battle Royale—a certain failure. Battle Royale itself fails as a traditional film. Both of the pictures feel a little out of place in the movie format. These are stories that are tailored for the television format. The big screen would seem to promise more revenues, and that is why studios flock to it, but compressing a long narrative in that way is difficult, and it brings with it some major narrative challenges. The Hunger Games got away with it once, but the same method may not work twice.