In 2000, filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku came out with his adaptation of the novel “Battle Royale,” a dystopian fable set in a near-future totalitarian Japan where a law called “BR” has been established to keep ninth-graders under strict control in a world of torturous fear and brutal murder. Twelve years later, “The Hunger Games” was adapted by Hollywood from a best-seller YA (young adult) series by Suzanne Collins and grossed $68.3 million on opening day.
There are obvious similarities between the two: In each story, a group of teenagers are thrown together in an isolated location, given weapons and ordered to fight to the death. In both cases, only one survivor will be allowed to walk free.
In Japan, “Battle Royale” became a social phenomenon, condemned at the Diet and rated R15+. The controversy reached fever pitch when Fukasaku finally talked to the press about how the project had its roots in World War II. When Fukasaku himself was a ninth-grader, he and everyone else were plucked out of school and thrown into munitions factories to toil 14 hours a day in the name of the war effort. One day, Fukasaku’s factory was bombed. He scrabbled around in the mud and rubble, trying to retrieve the body parts of his best friend who had been blown to bits.
For Fukasaku, “Battle Royale” was a way of dealing with a period in his life when everything was tainted with brutality, deprivation and a terrible, gnawing hunger.
“The Hunger Games” carries no such history and is much more accessible. While “Battle Royale” was a painful, fist-clenching, wince-inducing affair, “The Hunger Games” is entertainment-heavy, with the violence more stylishly choreographed and easier for the “Twilight” generation to handle. The setup is trendier too, as the teenagers are first dolled up and interviewed like celebrities, and then their killing spree is televised for mandatory viewing by each and every citizen. You know, just like “American Idol.”
Above all, protagonist Katniss Everdeen (played with guts and relish by Jennifer Lawrence) has a lovely Earth-goddess sheen to her, her round baby cheeks and trustful gaze the very epitome of hope. Nothing really bad could ever happen to her, could it? Because if it did, the world will be plunged into a darkness blacker than hell.
That’s the movie. Collins’ original books, on the other hand, delve freely into this hell and more. Sixteen-year-old Katniss is emaciated from chronic hunger along with all the other adolescents around her, and has known nothing but penury and desperation her whole life. Thin but tough, Katniss is built for survival, which is why she volunteers to be the “tribute” (games participant) in lieu of her more fragile younger sister.
The movie traces this story line, but director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”) carefully rations the brute pain Katniss must endure — he doesn’t want to give her too much, but on the other hand he calculates the geekish pleasure of witnessing Lawrence panting from dehydration or grimacing from agony. Similar “fan service” is to be found in the pregames process, where Katniss and the rest of the teenage participants are primped by a team of stylists and makeup crew (watch for Lenny Kravitz, who delivers a rad performance as chief stylist Cinna) and then dragged onto an “American Idol”-like stage with brilliant footlights for televised interviews.
Collins cowrote the screenplay with Ross, and her message is clear in both the book and the movie: She’s sick of the omnipresence of digital screens, rampant consumer culture, celebrity-worship and the cocktail-party antics of the 1 percent. Fukasaku was fueled by memories of the war; Collins apparently got the idea for the “Hunger Games” series when flipping channels and switching from reality TV to the war in Iraq.
In the United States, some critics have said that “The Hunger Games” has parallels with the Occupy movement. For teens, however, it has rapidly become a cult classic on par with the aforementioned “Twilight” series — both the books and this first of four movie adaptations. That Collins’ bleak, withering commentary on a modern world infatuated with inanity has captured the hearts of the most privileged teens in the world seems like a colossal irony, but also a matter of course. Katniss’ steely, single-minded determination to live must work like a mega-adrenaline shot to the SNS-addicted, and the absence in her life of anything resembling convenient high-tech gadgetry probably seems more awesomely exotic for teens than adults can imagine.
“The Hunger Games” is a window on another, totally different level of existence, one that glitters with the allure of unspeakable fear and endless violence. In the real teen world the desire for adventure and real, teeth-gritting physical exertion is often frowned upon by adult society. “The Hunger Games” must feel like the most exclusive of escape hatches. Personally, the movie gets me in touch with my inner adult-hating, freedom-lacking, angry, scrawny teen. Any opportunity to feel 16 again is golden.