Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series has often been compared with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novels primarily because both centre on a young female protagonist and somehow both became phenomenons for their shared young-adult demo. Personally, I think this is both an insult to the novel and the latest big screen adaptation, since The Hunger Games is leagues above Twilight in artistic credibility. The sense of familiarity of The Hunger Games in fact goes much further back, recalling everything from William Golding to Phillip K. Dick and even Stephen King. Here are several films which may or may not have inspired Gary Ross’s big screen adaptation – eleven films which come highly recommended and should be essential viewing for any fan of the soon-to-be billion dollar franchise.
1- Battle Royale
Directed by Kinji Fukasaku
Written by Kinji Fukasaku
The concept of The Hunger Games owes much to Japanese author Koushun Takami’s cult novel Battle Royale, itself adapted for the cinema in 2000 by Kinji Fukasaku. Set in a dystopian alternate-universe-Japan with the nation utterly collapsed, leaving 15 percent unemployed and 800,000 students boycotting school. The government passes something called the Millennium Educational Reform Act, which apparently provides for a class of ninth-graders to be chosen each year and pitted against one another on a remote island for three days. Each student is given a bag with a randomly selected weapon and a few rations of food and water and sent off to kill each other in a no-holds-barred fight to the death. With 48 contestants, only one will go home alive. Yes, this has been often noted as the “original Hunger Games”; whether or not the author of that series (Suzanne Collins) borrowed heavily from Kinji Fukasaku’s near masterpiece or the novel is ultimately unknown. In the end, it really doesn’t matter. Art has always imitated art. The fact is, both films share the same premise, but stand at opposite ends in tone, style, genre, and narrative shape. The film aroused international controversy and was either banned or excluded from distribution in many countries, yet it became a domestic blockbuster, and is one of the 10-highest grossing films in Japan. It received near-universal acclaim and gained further notoriety when Quentin Tarantino was quoted as saying he wished he had directed the movie himself.
Battle Royale is part exploitation, part teen angst drama, part black comedy and part survival thriller. This is about as bleak and cruel as they come, yet it remains endlessly entertaining. Fukasaku’s direction doesn’t get any points for subtlety, but like all great films, Battle Royale has something to say. This is a harsh critique and a dark funny satire of a wide array of elements of modern Japanese society. Think of it as a cross between reality TV with Lord of the Flies. The targets of satire vary: there is the unsettling social commentary on our tolerance for violence and thoughtless self-preservation, Japan’s obsession with authority and obedience, how adults place far too much pressure on their children’s educational achievements, and finally the obsession with violent video games and anime. Put aside the social commentary and even the deliberately provocative violent teen-hunts, and Battle Royale is downright cartoonish, hilarious, and exciting, as Fukasaku maintains the right tone, never slipping into seriousness or preachiness.
2- Lord of the Flies
Directed by Peter Brook
Written by Peter Brook and William Golding
Peter Brooks’s big-screen adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies adheres so closely to the spirit of the source material that some would argue that at every turn, Brook captures the ferocity and fascination of Golding’s symbols and metaphors perfectly.
Following a plane crash, 30 British school-age boys find themselves deserted on an island and try to govern themselves, with disastrous results. As with Golding’s book, human nature and individual welfare versus the common good earned are themes explored within the film. Even when innocent children (much like in The Hunger Games) are placed in isolation, fear, hate and violence are inherent.
The film was shot in black-and-white and on a shoestring budget, with an entirely non-professional cast, and neither cinematographers Gerald Feil nor Tom Hollyman had never been behind a movie camera before. The casting of amateur actors required intensive overnight rehearsals and improvised dialogue, and the extensive editing took nearly 2 years to complete, the majority of which was spent fixing the sound due to the continual crashing of the ocean waves. All of this would in most cases be unfavourable for a motion picture, but somehow here it all lends to the natural aspect of the film, which sparkles with raw intensity. Its a miracle that Brooks not only got the job done, but directed such an unsettling film, one that brings out Darwin’s theory of “the survival of the fittest” to its darkest light. If Piggy doesn’t win your heart, you have none.
Note: The story was adapted with less success in 1990, and so I recommend this version instead.
3- The Running Man
Directed by Paul Michael Glaser
Written by Steven E. de Souza
Directed by former Starsky and Hutch TV star Paul Michael Glaser, this post-apocalyptic science fiction yarn starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is without a doubt the most mainstream film to appear on this list. Much like The Hunger Games, The Running Man satirizes American entertainment, deriding everything from professional wrestling to reality TV and game shows. The film, which is very loosely based on a novel by Richard Bachman (aka Stephen King), is set in the totalitarian America of 2019, wherein convicted criminals are forced to take part as bait in a hideous TV manhunt called, yes, “The Running Man.” Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Ben Richards, a cop framed for massacring rioting civilians during a protest and later picked to go on the show, where he must survive a gang of skillful assassins like “Subzero” (Prof. Toru Tanaka) and “Captain Freedom” (Jesse Ventura), each armed with unique weapons. Think American Gladiators mixed with WWE, Let’s Make a Deal, Max Headroom, and The Most Dangerous Game.
Admittedly the commentary on America’s preoccupation with violence and game shows is heavy handed, but what is most obvious is a set of double standards present. On one hand, it has a plot that harshly criticizes a society that keeps the masses at peace with televised ultra-violence (much like The Hunger Games); on the other, the filmmakers revel in the violence, showing little interest in exploring any intellectual commentary. Yes, The Running Man is brainless and somewhat dated, but it is still a must see, if only for the onscreen combo of Jim Brown and Schwarzenegger kicking ass. Also on display is Paula Abdul’s dance choreography, long before her days on American Idol.
4- Series 7: The Contenders
Directed by Daniel Minahan
Written by Daniel Minahan
I’m not the biggest fan of Series 7, but I felt it deserved some mention simply because its timing was impeccable. The movie was filmed before the first airing of a Survivor episode, and thus seemed more radical when first released. Essentially a satire on reality TV, The Contenders is the name of the Survivor-style show depicted within the film in which six contestants are set loose in the same Connecticut community, with orders to kill each other. Series 7: The Contenders marked the directorial debut for Daniel Minahan, who previously tackled pop culture and America’s obsession with violence in his script for I Shot Andy Warhol and later would go on to direct episodes for hit TV shows such as Game OF Thrones and True Blood.
5- The Most Dangerous Game
Directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by James Creelman
The Most Dangerous Game was made in 1932, in the era known as “Pre-Code Hollywood,” a time when filmmakers were able to get away with sexual innuendo, illegal drug use, adultery, abortion, intense violence, homosexuality and much more. It was during this time that a film like The Most Dangerous Game was allowed to be made and shown to the general public without fear of censorship.
This was the first of many official and unofficial screen versions of Richard Connell’s short story of the same name. The film was put together by producer Willis O’Brien while in pre-production on King Kong and features several of the same cast and crew members as well as props and sets from Kong. Despite these obvious cost-cutting measures, Dangerous Game never feels like a second-rate production, and in fact features impressive effects, moody cinematography, smart dialogue, and fine acting.
Running a lean 63 minutes, the film is tightly constructed with hardly an ounce of fat, quickly establishing the basic premise within the first five minutes. The plot concerns a big game hunter on an island who chooses to hunt humans for sport. The Most Dangerous Game is basically a mindless action movie, but remains a genuine classic no less. Although the film stays close to its original source material, visually and tonally, it draws heavily on the tradition of Grand Guignol – a mix of deviant sexual desires, cruelty and grisly horror. Many people have remade the story, some more successful than others, but none have matched the level of craft on display here.