Your ‘Hunger’ might seem familiar

The Hunger Games is pretty good but might induce déjà vu upon Japanese viewers

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson train for war in 'The Hunger Games'

MANILA, Philippines—At this era when Hollywood blockbusters are rarely engaging and provocative at the same moviegoing time, The Hunger Games is a refreshing concoction.

The 2012 movie, based on the 2008 debut novel by Suzanne Collins (who went on to co-script the big-screen adaptation), dares to present a future—a fictitious but not improbable one—where teenagers are pitted against each other, against their will, in a deadly fight to the finish. This mainly for the callous enjoyment of a dominant social class who gets to revel in the televised “hunger games.”

A total of 24 girls and boys are made to commit the perversity of condoned murder until only one survives and, thus, wins—the lone victor’s reward being nothing more than continued existence. So as the movie unfolds, universal issues like loss of innocence, social injustice, inter-human hatred, sadism as entertainment, and kindness versus viciousness might cross your mind.

Jennifer Lawrence shoots away in 'The Hunger Games

Steady and shaky

That the lead protagonist, as well as the other unwilling participants, is a young adult have made observers liken The Hunger Games to another recent, youthful literary figure with his own formidable foes. What gives Hunger an edge over the Harry Potter series, however, is that for all the dangers the boy wizard ever faced, they came off as too fantastic as to elicit palpable, emphatic concern.

In comparison, Hunger’s Katniss Everdeen, as efficiently portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence, may be a tough cookie yet comes off as vulnerable, prone to an alarming, miscalculated turn or two. (Both the character and the actress—in addition to upcoming flicks The Avengers and Brave—also give archery a visual boost, and many a youth just might take up the sport in Hunger’s wake.)

The film, as directed by Pleasantville and Seabiscuit helmer Gary Ross, is indeed a worthwhile diversion. Despite its 2.5-hour length, the flick is generally steady and packs a few blind-corner surprises—never mind if Ross, via cinematographer Tom Stern, often resorts to shaky camera work to dramatize realness and urgency. Overall, it’s a relief that this is no juvenile fodder in the same vein as the Twilight “saga.”

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence portray glee and fear in 'The Hunger Games'

A ‘Royale’ resemblance

That said, a caveat: The Hunger Games closely echoes an earlier novel turned movie: Battle Royale. “Battle Royale” by Koushun Takami was first published in Japan in 1999, with its celluloid adaptation by director Kinji Fukasaku unspooling in Tokyo just a year later.

The similarities are uncannily mirror-like.

Battle Royale also involves a randomly chosen bunch of youngsters—an entire high school class, in this case—made to fight each other in government-sanctioned warfare until only one remained alive.

As with The Hunger Games, the guys and gals in Battle Royale are made to duke it out using an assortment of weapons packed in travel bags… On some remote, outdoor location, without any bystanders to help them… Without any way of escaping their predicament by way of, say, surrender… Their every move tracked via technological means… With the “losers” announced to the remaining competitors as terrible FYI updates…

Even both stories’ respective titles serve as the very names of each novel/movie’s central event. Plus, each tale happens to have a diabolically chirpy woman: in Battle Royale it’s an unnamed orientation video host who blathers like a maniacal stewardess; in The Hunger Games, it’s an “escort” named Effie (played with gleeful versatility by Elizabeth Banks) who looks like Willy Wonka’s long-lost sister.

(Some might say that both novels and movies are offspring of novelist William Golding’s 1954 Nobel Prize-winning The Lord of the Flies, yet the resemblance is more on a broad scale.)

Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence are TV stars in 'The Hunger Games'

Stark differences

Sure, there are differences between THG and BR.

The “hunger games,” for one, are televised, while the “battle royale” is purely followed solely by its authoritarian executors—although the outcome, the “winner,” can get mobbed by media.

The hunger games are supposed to be staged as punishment for an earlier societal uprising, while battle royale is extreme chastisement for its youthful characters’ generational irreverence. And the hunger gamers get ample training and become celebrities, while the royale players have to rely purely on their wits and largely remain obscure teens.

The two starkest differences between The Hunger Games and Battle Royale involve narrative and cinematic technique.

First, whereas heroic sacrifice and sheer tenacity are THG’s cups of tea, BR goes for something more potent, more down-to-earth: the harshness of teenage life by way of volatile friendships, unrequited affection, class bullies and oppressive adults, all taken to the nth degree by way of having to slay each other.

Second and conversely, such relatable realism, or lack of it, distinguishes each of these films on a technical scale.

The Hunger Games relies much on computer-generated imagery, as if an inadvertent mirror to the discernible fakery of its tale. Battle Royale, on the other hand, is in-your-face brutal and hardly has any CGI to speak of, its cynicism almost as shocking as the violence variedly depicted throughout. (As a result, THG is able to earn a PG-13 rating while BR is easily the kind that makes censors sharpen their scissors.)

Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson all leathered up by Lenny Kravitz (far right) in 'The Hunger Games'

Pure coincidence?

Novelist Suzanne Collins has denied prior knowledge of Battle Royale, claiming that she got her Hunger inspiration from watching reality TV and footage of the war on Iraq. (Her fellow American, director Quentin Tarantino, for his part has been unabashed in adoring Battle Royale, to the point of casting BR supporting actress Chiaki Kuriyama in his 2003 bloodfest Kill Bill Volume 1.)

Collins fans likewise have noted that she has managed to stretch her Hunger into two published sequels (soon to become movies, too) whereas Battle Royale is just one novel that became a film with a less-heralded sequel (Battle Royale II: Requiem)—never mind if BR expanded into a 15-volume manga series that ran up to 2005 and had adapted a reality TV angle a few years before THG surfaced.

To each his/her own.

In the end, the audiences’ own moviegoing victory is what truly matters. To paraphrase The Hunger Games’ own deliberate catchphrase, may the odds of savoring great entertainment be ever in our favor.—

(Photos by Lions Gate Entertainment)

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