Psst! Don’t mention Battle Royale. Too late! I mentioned it. Novelist Suzanne Collins is on record as saying that she’d never heard of the Battle Royale book, or it’s author before submitting her manuscript. I’ll admit I haven’t read either book, and only have the movie adaptation of Battle Royale to compare. It’s true that both stories feature an oddball future where children are put to war against each other, to send a message to the masses. Both in a forest. And both with whatever weapon they end up with in the ensuing battle. Deaths are announced as they happen. There are many similarities.
Battle Royale, a great movie, isn’t perfect. And there are a few differences in the way The Hunger Games is told. After all, films where thugs, innocent people, soldiers or whoever are placed into a high pressure situation and forced to kill each other for entertainment is nothing new. It’s in films like The Running Man, The Condemned, Series 7: The Contenders, and probably even a few others I’ve missed. Way back in 1969, Peter Watkins made a film called The Gladiators, where war has been reduced to countries fielding hand-picked teams to fight it out in the “international peace games” as a safer way than nuclear warfare to settle disputes.
So really, it’s not like this sort of film is getting released every other week. If we can have a million movies where a wronged cop goes after the mafia kingpin who slaughtered his family, I’d say there’s probably room for both Battle Royaleand The Hunger Games. Even though I’m not convinced that Suzanne Collins is telling the complete truth, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
So, is the film actually any good? Well, it’s inoffensively enjoyable. Now, I’m not sure that’s how I should feel about a film where kids are picked at random and made to slaughter each other. It’s not really a subject that should while away a pleasant Sunday afternoon. I think it’s down to the film being a little gutless, and showing very small amounts of blood, with most deaths happening just off-screen or in conveniently placed shadows. I’m guessing the book could get away with showing a bit more gore.
But do I want to see teenagers getting hacked to pieces in graphic detail? No, not really. But if your story hinges exclusively on a contest where teenagers are killing each other, and it’s air-brushed for a family friendly audience, then it’s disturbing for the wrong reasons.
Disturbing not because I’m horrified by what these kids have to go through, but because I can hear the cash tills ringing as a science fiction franchise wheezes into life. One whose subject has been made blander, and safer, to get more bums on seats. In some ways, I can understand. The target audience — chiefly the teenagers who’ve read the book — would be frozen out of their own film if it was too extreme. I can’t imagine the suits in Hollywood losing much sleep over more ticket sales, however. The decision to play it safe must’ve been a no-brainer.
Squirrels for supper
Having said that, I’m quite impressed with how earnest some of these films based on young adult novels are. The Hunger Games is no exception. At times, it may seem overwrought and humourless, but some of Hollywood’s big blockbusters for the older generation are positively inane in comparison, concerned as they are with nothing but spectacle.
However, there’s still something rather average about the whole thing. Thankfully, it has Jennifer Lawrence at its centre. She doesn’t have to do a lot. For the second half of the movie she’s just running through a forest, sleeping up trees, and catching squirrels for her supper.
But this is Jennifer Lawrence. Such is the mesmerising quality of that big, soulful face, I’m quite happy to watch a couple of hours of Jennifer Lawrence just running through a forest, sleeping up trees, and catching squirrels for her supper. Her beguiling presence pulls the film above average.
Where The Hunger Games scores points over Battle Royale is the tease of two further sequels in a planned trilogy. Battle Royale is a great film. Battle Royale 2is terrible. So there’s a chance if the sequels deliver on story (if not bravery in the depiction of its brutal games), then it may surpass the movie it’s been accused of ripping off.