Hunger Games v. Battle Royale

In the pedagogical battle between The Hunger Games, a book (and now film) by Suzanne Collins, and the Japanese film Battle Royale, the former is the clear winner.

Spoilers for both follow, so fair warning!

Background: I teach a course on Politics in Film and Fiction, which is based on the premise that we can learn about major political concepts by watching and reading non-political works of fiction.  Thus, the syllabus includes no documentaries or ‘political’ films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; the closest we get to that genre is 12 Angry Men or Elizabeth.  I’ve used the Hunger Games in the class before, and having heard a similar plot was used in Battle Royale, I figured I would give it a shot.

Both works are about a group of kids forced to fight to the death in a game run by adults.  In Hunger Games (HG), this is a punishment given to outlying provinces for a rebellion, and acts as a tool of oppression.  In Battle Royale (BR), the punishment is aimed at an unruly youthful population who, due to high unemployment rates, are engaging in criminal activity. Both works are enjoyable on their own merits, with the gore content much higher in BR, but for teaching politics, HG stands superior.  Here’s why:

In choosing fiction for the classroom, we need to be sure that the political themes are present, relatively easy to spot, and worthy of lengthy discussion.  Showing an entire film to make a single point wastes the time of our students, as does giving them something so complicated that they need everything spelled out for them.  The sweet spot is the film or book that they enjoy on its own merits and also happen to learn something from.

BR is an enjoyable film at times, but the themes are rather muddled.  There is some interesting stuff on how people respond to authority and violence, and some great work on human nature (I particularly like the scene in the lighthouse, where four girls working happily together end up killing each other on the slightest suspicion of treachery).  But the role of government in what is happening is very weak.  Certainly they passed the original BR law mandating these contests, and they kidnap the students and maintain order–but beyond that we can only speculate as to what the role of the government is and the motivation behind these games. The battle is not televised; indeed, this crop of students had never heard of them.  The winners become fugitives when they return to Japan and are decried as murderers.  Thus there is no real connection between the world within the Battle and world outside, and its completely unclear as to how the BR will solve the problem it aims at.  The world in which BR takes place is simply ill defined, and that leaves us talking solely about events within the game, rather than the broader context of why the games exist at all.

This contrasts with HG, where the themes of oppression, rebellion, wealth inequality, and the role of the media and entertainment in politics are quite clear and consistent throughout, and thus allow us to talk about both what happens within the Games as well as the wider world in which they occur.  Viewing of the games is mandatory, and the participants are treated both as celebrities and prisoners.  Wealth inequalities play a crucial role, as poorer kids are more likely to be selected as tributes, poorer districts are unable to train their kids for the game like wealthier districts, and popular tributes receive expensive gifts during the games that can make the difference between life and death. And HG gives us the added dimension of seeing how the event impacts the wider world, with Katniss becoming a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol.

I use the HG book in the class (as usual, it is much better than the film) and will continue to do so.  I may show some scenes from BR to benefit from some of the interesting insights it has into social behavior, but overall, if you are looking for a good fictional work to help your students explore themes like revolution, wealth inequality, behavior in a state of nature, information control, and totalitarian governments, think about using either the HG book or film in class.

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