Let’s get back to the literature, shall we? There are a couple books out that have very similar premises. You’ve already read the title of this post, so you already know what they are–Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami, and The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Both books (later adapted into movies, and in the case of Battle Royale even a manga) are premised on the idea of children chosen by lottery in an arena forced to kill one another until there is only one left standing, while people watch on television. A lot of people forego The Hunger Games on this basis, thinking it is a rip-off (never mind that Collins had never heard of Battle Royale before she started writing her own series). I can understand the impulse because I use to think the same thing, but frankly that just isn’t a valid position. Here’s my spoiler-ific explanation of why.
First of all, for the purposes of this entry, I’m going to talk about Battle Royale the novel. It also exists as a movie, which is somewhat true to the novel, and as a manga, which is more…well, “freely adapted,” by which I mean that there is a lot more sex and rape in it. Because manga, I guess. I never actually read to the end of the manga series (I stopped after 11 volumes), but I am told it ends basically the same way the novel and film did. There are also a number of adaptations of Battle Royale, including a sequel film, two separate sequel mangas, and a sub-set manga that focuses on a number of side characters in the original novel. None of these things are relevant to this post, so I’m going to stop talking about them.
So how can two novels with the exact same premise not imitate one another? Let’s take it apart, piece by piece.
Battle Royale is set in a future dystopian Japan, where the totalitarian government has complete control over the lives of its citizens and gleefully abuses that power. Even outside the battle arena, violence, corruption and rape are every day occurrences, with government officials permitted to do pretty much whatever they like, and while wealthier citizens have more protection, no one is immune to government terrorism. While Battle Royale Japan is isolationist, it is made clear that there exist other countries outside its borders that operate entirely differently. Early in the novel, Shuuya betrays a love for America and the ideals of American culture as communicated through classic rock music (which is illegal), despite the prevalence of anti-American propaganda. There is a clearly delineated outside place to run to, if you manage to escape. Additionally, the majority of the settings in this novel are urban, particularly in the flash-backs to life before the arena–think Sin City.
The Hunger Games is set in Panem, a country risen from post-apocalyptic America. Panem consists of 12 “districts,” each with a different major export, all of which support the gluttony and extravagance of the Capitol. Don’t scrutinize too closely, because the economics/demographics/geography of Panem don’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s essentially an extreme physical representation of class differences, with a tiny section of the population living large while everyone else suffers to support those privileged few in their luxurious lifestyles. The brutality of the governing body has backing from its privileged citizens. The districts range in levels of wealth, with 1 and 2 the most well-off, then on down the line until 11 and 12, where most people are starving. There use to be a District 13, but they rebelled and were bombed off the map (at least, that’s what you’re meant to believe at the novel’s outset). Thus, the people of Panem have nowhere to run, unless they want to chance it trying to survive in the woods. Running away just isn’t really an option. But while the people of Panem are certainly oppressed, they aren’t subjected to the same level of abuse and violence seen in Battle Royale. Instead, their suffering is large through attrition–something that can probably be credited to the fact that The Hunger Games is young adult while Battle Royale is firmly adult.
Purpose of the Games
In Panem, the Hunger Games have a very specific purpose: to remind the districts that they lost the revolution, and therefore should not even try to rise up against the Capitol. Of course, that’s not the reason the Capitol gives, but it’s widely understood anyway. By forcing their children to murder each other for sport, the Capitol is demonstrating their complete control over the districts–and providing themselves with entertainment in the process. The games occur once a year, with two children (“Tributes”) from each district selected by lottery, ranging in age from 12 to 18, and the entire thing is played off as a chance for the contestants to win glory for their district. While district members are expected to enjoy the Games, there is a universal sense of silent protest against them, at least in the poorer regions like District 12.
In Battle Royale, “the Program” is much less ceremonial–and far more brutal (again, this probably has more to do with the book’s audience than anything else). Participants are selected in groups, by lottery, an entire school class at a time. That means each Program is populated by 42 grade nine students who have been in the same class for the entirety of their lives, and they do not know that they have been chosen until they wake up in the arena. There are also multiple Programs occurring at any given time, and they are all described as “military research,” though it’s widely understood that the true purpose is to terrorize the population. Unlike in Panem, though, there is no sense of injustice against the Program, or sympathy with the children thrown into it; instead, people not actively participating generally accept the Program and don’t seem to give it a whole lot of thought.
The relationships between contestants in the arena are also vastly different between the two books. In Panem, each district gets two Tributes, who know each other and will sometimes team up. The tributes are chosen by lottery, but also given the option to volunteer, which only happens in the richer districts where the Games are seen as a privilege. In volunteer districts, tributes train their whole lives for the opportunity to compete in the Games, and often have to beat one another out for the opportunity. They consider it an honor. In poorer districts, which rarely win the Games, tributes are just the kids who got unlucky. In both situations, though, tributes get an extended period of time to train and prepare for the Games, and they are strangers to the people they are killing in the arena–there are no interpersonal relationships.
For Program participants, it’s a whole different game. These children are thrown into the arena without warning and with very little briefing, and asked to murder people they have known their entire lives. Interpersonal conflict is strewn across the novel, with characters betraying friends, enacting revenge, forming and then breaking alliances, desperately searching for loved ones, and dying of psychological damage as much as physical. As you might imagine, trust is a major theme. What’s more, these children aren’t fighting for any kind of honor or glory. There isn’t a prize involved–at least, not one that anyone sees as motivational. The prize is making it out alive, and for some students that isn’t even worth fighting for.
Whatever else you might say about the Hunger Games, its protagonist is inarguably one of the strongest female protagonists in young adult fiction. Katniss is smart, strong and practical, and very much defined by the world into which she was born. Her survival instinct drives everything she does, and her ultimate goal is simply to keep herself and her loved ones alive–everything else is secondary (a fact that makes her narrative voice unpalatable for some readers). She rejects romantic notions like heroism in favor of practicality, and doesn’t even particularly value abstract ideas like sense of self (a major theme in her relationship with Peeta, who cares very much about maintaining his humanity). This is why Katniss does so well in the Games; she doesn’t get distracted by notions of glory, instead focusing on survival. The fact that she later becomes a symbol of the rebellion bothers her greatly, and she would much rather be left alone to live in the woods with the handful of people she cares about.
Battle Royale doesn’t have a single point of view, the way The Hunger Games does. Instead, it’s written in third person, and it jumps around the arena to showcase different students and their struggles against one another. But if you had to pick a single protagonist, it would be Shuuya, and Shuuya is all about the heroism. He has all sorts of ideas about responsibility to others and protecting the weak (which Katniss does, also, but not with the same level of drama and self-sacrifice), he constantly talks about wanting to break down the system (rock’n’roll, remember), and most of his character arc is centered around saving Noriko–the girl his deceased best friend had a crush on. Of course, while Shuuya means well, his bravado is a major detriment, and ultimately he only survives because Shogo decides to protect him and Noriko both.
Scope of the Novel
Finally, the two novels have very different endings. In Battle Royale, the protagonists survive the story, but that’s all. They escape to New York (probably–the book ends with them running for the train, so it remains unknown whether or not they made it), theoretically to meet up with rebels and eventually try to bring down the government, but we don’t get to see anything past that. For all intents and purposes, Battle Royale is a dystopian novel of the 1984 tradition: in the end, nothing is changed. The Hunger Games, on the other hand, follows Katniss all the way through the rebellion and the downfall of the Capitol, into a new age in Panem, where presumably things are much more equitable. This is a much more closed and conclusive ending, whereas Battle Royale leaves the story open-ended, inviting speculation and a number of unofficial sequels. Again, this is a difference best attributed to the novels’ audiences; young adult fiction is much less amenable to ambiguity than adult fiction is (whether it should be or not is a question for another day).
Ultimately, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are very different books, on everything from characterization and theme to cultural influences and even reading level. It just goes to show how two authors working from exactly the same premise can come up with completely unrelated works. Just because the premise has been done doesn’t mean the story has.
Your friendly neighborhood copycat,
“Royale hits all the manga bases (martial arts, creepy old men, panty shots) without being Sailor Moon silly….” -Marc Bernardin, Entertainment Weekly