culture wedge debate: hunger games vs. battle royale

If there’s one thing nerds love, it’s a good old fashioned nerd-debate. And for the past couple months, one debate in particular has dominated nerd circles – Battle Royale vs. The Hunger Games. We certainly couldn’t let this go unnoticed here, so join us as Culture Wedge contributors Ping (Team Battle Royale) and Trev (Team Hunger Games) step into the arena and fight to the death…or at least just have a civilized debate about two popular novels.

*This post contain spoilers

Ping:  With the recent success and media attention of the young adult series, “The Hunger Games”, much speculation has arisen regarding the originality of Suzanne Collins’s work. Many skeptics believe Collins plagiarized from a lesser known Japanese novel called “Battle Royale”, due to the similarities between two novels’ central theme: a government forced game of death among teenagers. Although Collins denies ever having read Koushun Takami’s book, it is still possible that her current best-selling trilogy was at least influenced by it, perhaps informally. Whether or not Collins actually stole the foundational theme, “The Hungers Games” as a whole is different enough from “Battle Royale” to discharge many of these criticisms.

“The Hunger Games” is a great book. There is a reason why it has sold nearly a million copies worldwide. Collins did a phenomenal job crafting her novel to appeal to nearly all demographics. There is plenty of violence to satisfy males, soft romances that swoons women and totalitarian politics for adults. However, despite the novel’s qualities, it ultimately pales in comparison to its foreign predecessor.

“Battle Royale” is a superior novel for a manifold of reasons. The most relevant of which has to do with its interchanging third-person point-of-view. In contrast to HG’s first-person perspective centered on the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, BR’s perspective shifts continually among the 42 contestants, with emphasis on a select few. BR’s approach is more effective because it provides readers with the historical and emotional backgrounds of nearly every character. HG’s biggest flaw is its inability to connect readers to the contestants of the games other than Katniss and Peeta. Many characters are killed off without ever being named. Even some of the more important characters to the story, such as Cato, Rue, and Thresh, were never analyzed outside of their actions. Who is Thresh? Why does he care about Rue? What was his job? Is he educated? Outside of the fact he is from District 11, not much is known about him. The same goes for Cato, who is arguably considered the main antagonist in the first book. Outside of the fact that he is a “Career Tribute”, what more do we really know about him? Providing background is important because it emotionally bridges the reader to the characters. Most of the deaths in HGs were hollow, since you didn’t know or care who just died, while in BR, deaths carry greater significance because the reader got to know the characters. In addition, due to HG’s single POV, many scenarios manifest without clarity, thus creating an array of unanswered questions. For example, how did Thresh die, exactly? Did Peeta really kill that injured girl who made the camp fire? How did he do it? How was Peeta able to escape his fight with Cato after getting cut? How did the Careers manage to evade the swarm of Tracker Jackers? Etc. Unlike in HGs, every death is explained and accounted for in BR. Takami’s execution of his story is definitely superior to Collin’s.

* * * *

Trev:  First of all, even though Ping has already said as much, let me just confirm –choosing between “Battle Royale” and “The Hunger Games” is sort of like having to choose between a night making love to Natalie Portman or a night bar hopping with Bill Murray. Both are awesome for totally different reasons. Still, as made perfectly clear in BOTH stories our culture loves, and often NEEDS, to have a winner. And so, if pressed, I give the slight edge to Collins’ tale.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I have NOT in fact read the original “Battle Royale” novel by Koushun Takami, so Ping sort of has me as a disadvantage here. I have, however, read the entire 15 volume manga adaptation (also written by Takami), as well as seen Kinji Fukasaku’s excellent movie version on numerous occasions (for “The Hunger Games,” I have both read the novel and seen the film). So, apart from this admittedly unfortunate gap in my “Battle Royale” knowledge, I feel at least partly qualified to debate the two.

One thing I think Ping would agree with me on is that the whole similarity between the two stories has been completely overblown in the first place – cries of “Hunger Games” just being a rip-off of “Battle Royale” are predictable and boring, as well as dismissive of the fact that “Battle Royale” was itself not exactly the most original story ever told. Both books share the same obvious influences – “The Most Dangerous Game,” “The Lottery,” “The Running Man” and “Lord of the Flies” all immediately come to mind, and really all of these go back to mythology and even actual historical events like the gladiatorial games. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter that the two are similar – there are only a handful of original stories anyway, right? What matters are the stylistic differences between the two, and that’s where I believe “The Hunger Games” comes out on top.

Ping argues that “Battle Royale’s” inter-changing perspective makes it a more satisfying tale, but I’m not sure that’s the case. While I’ll admit there were times I found Katniss to be a frustrating narrator, I still think being in her head the entire time gives you a more emotional connection with her than you have with any of the “Battle Royale” characters. Sure, maybe you do get the back-stories of all the BR kids, and maybe each one of their deaths is fully explained, but how important is that, really? It’s just two different stylistic approaches, and I would argue that “Hunger Games” is actually a bit more intense, as it sells the chaos of this horrible event. Since we are seeing things solely through the eyes of Katniss, there is no reason to stop the narrative to fill us in on character details she would neither realistically know nor probably even care to learn (would you really want to know all the intimate life details of somebody you might be forced to soon kill? Wouldn’t that just make it harder?). Likewise, Katniss would never be aware of everything that is going on in the game – she only knows what happens to her, and therefore we do, too. There’s a great moment in the “Hunger Games” movie that really captures this – the opening slaughter at the “cornucopia,” which we see in quick chaotic flashes as Katniss runs for a bag and tries to make sense of the madness around her. Look, if you’re in a war, you’re not gonna know the life-story of everyone dying around you in battle. An omniscient narrator that gives the reader this sort of info might make for a more encompassing story, but Collins’ purposely limited approach is much more effective in selling you on what it might actually feel like to be involved in an event like this.

* * * *

Ping:  Trevor certainly brings credibility to this debate, as the 15 volume manga adaptation of “Battle Royale” follows the original novel fairly well, with the exception of some added magic.  In fact, the characters in the manga were depicted almost exactly as how I pictured them from the novel.  Judged independently, the manga is also a quality read and I recommend it for anyone needing to fill the space between the two “Hunger Game” films.

Returning to the debate, Trevor made some strong points.  The POV centered on Katniss certainly has its merits.  Majority of the time, I find the first-person POV to be more effective method of storytelling, as it creates the sense of embodiment, rather than projection.  Being able to cognitively feel what Katniss felt certainly is a plus for HGs.  With that said, I still believe it is important to receive background on minor characters, even if their death is knowingly imminent.  In “Battle Royale”, readers are introduced with many ambitious individuals who have goals that might or might not correspond with the competition.  The character Hiroki spends the majority of the story looking for his love, Shinji exhausts every minute trying to find a way to beat the system, and Kazuo goes on a mission to annihilate everyone.  Characters with goals bring value to the story because they provide something to cheer for.  We can expect minor characters like Hiroki to die, but as we wait for that scene, we cling to the hope that he can at least accomplish his goal, first.  It is also true that getting to know the characters would only make their deaths harder, but I believe the best books are those that make you feel something.

When it comes to characters, I also feel “Battle Royale” has the better selection.  Although I enjoyed seeing Katniss evolve as an individual, I still feel her and Peeta have rather bland personalities.  The villain Cato was pretty straight-forward (here to kill people and win the game) Rue had her innocence, and everyone else didn’t get much attention (as I have previously complained).  In contrast, BR had characters like Mitsuko, a sickle wielding vixen who seduces people into death; Kazuo, a talented silent killer who feels absolutely no emotion; Shogo, a battle-scarred champion of a previous competition that is also a shotgun trotting badass; Shiniji, a genius who uses his witt as a weapon; and the list goes on.  Due to the array of personalities, it also made the psychology of the story more interesting.  You never know who is playing the game and who is trying to escape or beat it.  Who you can trust and who you can’t.  Seeing Mistsuko coddle a trusting schoolmate right before she slices her throat open was awesome, to say the least.  And the moment when Kazuo flips his coin to determine his course in the competition created nothing but joyous anticipation for me.

* * * *

Trev:  Well, I’m not gonna lie, I’m happy Ping was so eager to lavish praise on the “Battle Royale” manga, as it allows me to take something of a cheap shot. Because while we’re debating these two haunting stories, all I’m suddenly reminded of are the copious panty-shots and unnecessary graphic sex scenes that permeate the “Battle Royale” manga. All of it just comes across as if it’s trying too hard to be adult and edgy (even though it’s already about kids slaughtering each other), but in fact is just laughable and ridiculous – the teacher character, in particular, is such a cartoonish and perverted figure in the manga that it is impossible to take him seriously as a real threat. Now I understand this fixation on sexuality is a common thread in many manga’s, and maybe the novel wasn’t like that, but if we were just gonna compare “Hunger Games,” the novel with “Battle Royale,” the manga, I’d say the former’s immature approach to sex would almost certainly render it the loser.

Sticking to the stories themselves, I’ll agree with Ping that there are more varied characters in “Battle Royale”, and it can be sort of interesting to see their different motivations. But, to what point, ultimately? Ping himself says that many of their goals don’t correspond with the competition, and that we expect most of them to die (like many stories of the kind, it’s fairly obvious who the REAL main characters are). With that in mind, it almost feels a bit more emotionally manipulative to trick us into caring about all these characters that, at the end of the day, are really nothing more than cannon fodder. But I don’t know, maybe that’s just the slasher film fan in me talking, as I’m used to little character development for those that are simply on hand to increase the body count.

The truth is, Takami had more time to build up the characters within the game because he spent more time in the game, period. And here is where we come to what I believe is “Hunger Game’s” biggest advantage over” Battle Royale.” Pretty much the entirety of “Battle Royale” is in the game itself. This means we never really get a sense of the society outside that has created such a sick and demented program. Heck, it’s not even adequately explained how the government intends for this program to benefit them. There is some lip-service about how it is intended to terrorize the population in order to discourage organized insurgency, but how the hell does that work? “Battle Royale” is NOT a televised event (only the American translation of the manga changes this, and in turn creates plenty of plot-holes). How exactly does sending one group of 42 kids to an island each year to fight to the death, and then just telling people about it, prevent rebellion? Don’t you think a large part of the population would wonder if the program was even real, or just a myth the government cooked up? We never know the answers to this question, because we never really know anything about the world outside the game.

In “Hunger Games”, on the other hand, Collins spends the entire first half of the book creating her world. We are given the history of the nation of Panem, and how its 13 districts once rebelled against the Capitol. We are told how, after the rebellion was crushed, the Hunger Games were created by the Capitol in order to both remind the districts of its power, and create a false sense of hope amongst the districts, who can at least root for two of their own every year. More importantly, we see how the Hunger Games IS a televised event – everyone watches these kids fight and die, everyone is aware of its horrors. And on the other side, we see how the rich fat-cats in the Capitol treat it as nothing more than entertainment, seemingly oblivious to the real-life pain it creates for the friends and families of those chosen. All of this not only gives the reader an easy to understand historical perspective of the games within this world, but it also allows for a level of sly social commentary that, quite frankly, is actually pretty absent from “Battle Royale,” despite all its posturing otherwise (sure, it’s entertaining, but let’s not pretend it’s not 80% or more pure exploitative thrills regarding watching kids murder each other). “Battle Royale” might have created a slightly more interesting batch of competitors, but “Hunger Games” created an entire world.

* * * *

Ping:  Trevor got me on the manga bit.  Being a former avid manga reader, I have become practically desensitized to the Japanese habit of objectifying women and have completely forgotten about the unnecessary sexual themes in the manga adaptation.  The novel is definitely not as perverted, and I agree that the adult themes of the manga damages its veneer.  But I suppose if you are into that sort of thing, then well, definitely consider reading the manga instead of the novel.

In regards to design, I wouldn’t say “Hunger Games” is superior because it paints a more vivid world/Panem (though I would argue that it’s more like a county consisting of a central city and its suburbs, rather than a world) in comparison to “Battle Royale.”  As Trevor himself have mentioned, Takami spent more time on character development, while Collins focused on background development.  Essentially it comes down to what a particular reader wants.  I picked up HGs and BR for the same reason: to see a death match.  “Battle Royale” gave me exactly what I wanted, while “Hunger Games” sort of did.  To me, BR is like the UFC, you tune in to a see a fight and not much else- oh except maybe the ring girls.  I wasn’t as impressed with Collin’s execution of the Panem Hunger Games because it didn’t showcase as much conflict and interaction as BR.  In HGs, there are only 24 contestants, and a batch of them perishes almost immediately without vivid clarity.  In BR, only two characters are removed early and their deaths carry weight in the story.  The remaining 40 are then presented to the readers in a multitude of scenarios and death sequences.

Trevor’s criticism of BR government’s lack of political and social motive is valid, but again, BR is primarily focused on the games itself.  To Takami, everything outside of that island is rather irrelevant.  In contrast, Collins’s story is built on the foundation of politics, especially moving into her next two books.  But while we’re on the topic of things not making sense, I want to rant about a few observations I had while reading HGs.  First, it doesn’t make sense to me as to why the Careers would even need or want to team up with Peeta in the first place.  They claim he will help “find Katniss”, but they should know that sooner or later, she would be delivered to them via the Capitol’s intervention, anyway.  Plus, would they really trust him after he told the world he loved her?  Oh and who the hell lets their entire party sleep without a guard when you are waiting on an enemy in a tree?  Forget the Tracker Jacker hive, Peeta could’ve just stabbed them all in their sleep!  Also, did anybody else find it ridiculous and silly that they decide to create a pack of super dogs from the corpses of fallen tributes?  And lastly, why even bother with the sponsors?  They put so much effort into making her a crowd favorite and what did she get out of it?  Some burn medicine and a can of soup….Why didn’t anyone send her a flipping bow?

To conclude my end of the debate, it really just comes down to what you are looking for.  “The Hunger Games” does a wonderful job at providing a well-balanced story with politics, history, and drama.   “Battle Royale” on the other hand is crafted for those who enjoy reading about physical and psychological destruction.  They are both tremendous novels, and whether you prefer one or the other, you have great taste, either way.

* * * *

Trev:  C’mon, Ping, I was speaking FIGURATIVELY, not LITERALLY, when I said that Collins created a “world!”

Anyway, Ping is right in once again pointing out that these two different takes on how to tell the story are both valid – I just think giving the whole ordeal a bit more context in “The Hunger Games” allowed me to connect to its awfulness in a way that I can’t with “Battle Royale” – because, frankly, I feel like “Battle Royale” celebrates the violence a lot more. Like I said, this is primarily a story built on shock value, and Takami’s version is much more content to try to entertain you with scenes of young people brutally murdered. It can still be emotional, sure, but at the same time I think it’s hard to deny there’s not some level of pure sensationalism here. Collins, on the other hand, doesn’t shy away from the violence, but nor does she linger on it. She is much more interested in the bigger picture, and not just how cool it is when a kid’s head blows up.

As for Ping’s specific complaints about “Hunger Games” story points, I can’t argue with all of them. I absolutely HATED the bit about turning the dead kids into genetically modified dogs (and was very happy the movie abandoned the idea), and I agree that going to sleep while your enemy sleeps in a tree above is pretty damn stupid. But I think some of his complaints can be rationalized. There’s no reason to believe the Careers would know that Katniss would eventually be delivered to them, as they are not fully aware of the motivations of the game makers. I think their trusting of Peeta just goes to show their cocky arrogance, and the fact that for them, it’s all just a sick game. The idea of pitting these two supposed lovers against each other is probably a sort of sick thrill for them. As for the sponsors, well, maybe there is a limit on what can be sent into the game. Although I think more COULD have been done with the sponsors, I still like the idea of it, as it once again enforces the idea of being a TV show, and the sick pleasure the rich get out of it not only watching it, but even participating in it.

If we’re really gonna go after things that don’t make any sense, by the way, allow me to point to how “Battle Royale” ends – and I have to get into spoiler territory here, so skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know. But does anyone else find it pretty corny that Shogo is able to trick the people overseeing the game into thinking he killed Shuya and Noriko simply by firing in the air twice? I mean, that’s it? I get that there are microphones attached to the collars they wear, but isn’t it earlier insinuated that there is also some sort of pulse detection attached to them, as well? I mean, if all it takes is being quiet, wouldn’t the people in charge just assume any kid who has been silent for awhile is dead? This whole misdirect is glossed right over, and you might not even notice it, but it’s always bothered me.

We could go back and forth on this all day, and I doubt either Ping or I will change each other’s minds. The fact is, these are two awesome and incredibly well-done stories, and whether you prefer one or the other will depend on whether you are looking for a more expansive and satirical examination of society, or a crushing, visceral action piece. Each has its merits, and each is worth exploring. At the end of the day, maybe we shouldn’t be arguing about whether “Battle Royale” or “The Hunger Games” is better. Maybe, instead, we should just be agreeing on one simple fact:

They’re both a hell of a lot better than “Twilight.”

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About Ping Zhou

Social scientist, traveler, nerd.
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