The Hunger Games (2008) is the first in the super-popular young adult series by Suzanne Collins. Highly critically acclaimed, with a movie deal in the works, the trilogy has successfully sold millions of copies. (Scholastic must be very, very pleased.)
In the future, North America is divided into 13 districts (one a ruined wasteland), all controlled with an iron fist by the Capitol. The districts are still paying the price for a failed rebellion generations before – the government is doing its damndest to grind them into the ground.
Into this bleak future comes young Katniss, age 16. Katniss has taken care of her family ever since her father died – mostly through illegal hunting. This, in the long run, proves fortunate: hunting has given her the skill set she needs to fight off 23 other semi-feral teens in the annual “Hunger Games”.
Not satisfied with just crushing the districts physically, the Capitol demands human sacrifice as well – 2 teens from each district are brought in every year and forced to fight to the death. It’s not just brutal reprisal, it’s entertainment!
The majority of the book takes place inside the game itself. Katniss can’t get just away with surviving – she also needs to make a series of increasingly difficult moral decisions regarding her fellow combatants. Some are one-dimensional and utterly loathsome (fire away!), others have more complex motivation (and even names!), making it harder for Katniss to rationalize their murder.
Katniss is a strong character (if slightly dense when it comes to personal interaction). The action is good – I’m not sure there’s ever any doubt about who is going to win, but Collins still keeps things tense. When it comes down to it, I’d be much more impressed if it all hadn’t been done before.
Battle Royale, the 1999 novel (first in English in 2003) by Koushon Takami is about a futuristic, dystopian government that randomly kidnaps children and forces them to fight to the death for the entertainment of the masses. Initially a book, it was adapted into a manga series and a popular cult film.
Takami's book has the same moral ambiguity, the same teen romantic struggles and the same horrific violence. It also has the same dystopian, omnipotent government, maneuvering behind the scenes. (Including the same ending – in which the conflict escalates from the physical arena to a political one.) But where Takami's book veers towards the artistic - a sparse writing style that uses violence to emphasize the surreal horror of the situation - Collins' The Hunger Games is more story-driven.
Ms Collins cites a variety of influences for The Hunger Games – including Greek mythology – but not Takashi’s book. I’m certainly not accusing her of plagiarism. It is merely a question of stylistic difference – two authors telling a very similar story in a very different way.
I prefer Takashi’s 1999 work, but I can understand why a young adult publisher (and, trusting their expertise, a young adult audience as well) would be more drawn to the safer option of Collins’ version. The Hunger Games is a fairly respectable book, but the unmitigated enthusiasm surrounding it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Battle Royale, unsurprisingly, is now back in print - I recommend that other readers take the chance to make their own comparisons.
Tube journeys: 1 plane flight