24 contenders, 12 districts and one winner: the basic concept for The Hunger Games is a battle to the death between normal people living under an oppressive, malevolent government. Having since been ripped, copied and recycled by various other film franchises, video games and TV series, the politics of the dystopian Hunger Games may have been dropped but the core concept of ‘one winner’ remains prominent in each case.
Written by Suzanne Collins in 2008, The Hunger Games was popularised in 2012 when it was made into a Hollywood movie, placing Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role of a teenage girl who volunteers for a brutal deathmatch ahead of her younger sister selected from a ballot. Organised as a form of constant oppression by the advanced utopian city known as the Capitol, punishing the surrounding ‘districts’ for a historic uprising, Lawrence’s character, Katniss, takes part in their commercial showcase before being plonked in a televised fight to the death with 23 other teenagers.
Highlighting how the tools of fear and consumerism can be used to control a population in real life, Collins’ story offers a critique of the exploitation of capitalist society, making money off the back of those less fortunate.
Its themes differ from that of the 2000 film Battle Royale, a story which many insist The Hunger Games is based on, even if Collins claims she’d “never heard of” at the time as stated to the New York Times. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku and based on the 1999 manga, the brutal Japanese tale takes a harder line on the battle royale concept, though features a similar story about a group of young people forced to brutally kill each other as a punishment for the bad behaviour of the nation’s youth.
Sharing a subversive attitude that intends to challenge institutional systems, the heroes of both these stories eventually overcome their oppressors and champion the very system that once held them in a chokehold.
Though it seems like an entirely modern concept of popular entertainment, examples of such stories are rife throughout human history, from the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur that saw Athens sending 14 children to Crete where they were thrown into a Labyrinth inhabited by a wild beast, to the gladiator battles of Ancient Rome.
Whilst thousands of years have passed since the brutality of such Roman realities, why is it that such tales have made a modern resurgence, with The Hunger Games sparking an obsession that has been followed by Netflix’s most popular series of all time Squid Game and countless other copycats. The popularity of battle royale also cannot be discussed without mentioning their popularity in the realm of video games with Fortnite, Call of Duty: Warzone and Apex Legends each luring in players with accessible gameplay, unpredictability and a crucial element of luck.
Just like Fortnite and the other aforementioned games, each battle royale concept sees every ‘player’ begin on exactly the same pedestal, removing any privileges before the game begins, giving everybody the exact same chance of winning. In the world of battle royale, anybody can win and become a star, no matter who you are, where you’ve come from or how old you are as this 15-year old Fortnite millionaire showed in real life.
The concept isn’t all that dissimilar from reality TV that continues to thrive in the modern entertainment zeitgeist as young contestants vie for fame on such programmes as Love Island, The Circle or Too Hot to Handle where the last one(s) standing are rewarded with great riches whilst everyone else walks away with comparatively nothing.
The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins discusses this in an interview with WH Smith, explaining that reality TV shows are “often set up as games,” before clarifying, “like sporting events, there’s an interest in seeing who wins. The contestants are usually unknown, which makes them relatable. Sometimes they have very talented people performing”.
Battling for supremacy and fame using whatever tools they, Collins describes the “voyeuristic thrill” of seeing people on reality TV being “humiliated, or brought to tears, or suffering physically,” as a schadenfreude delight she admits is “disturbing”.
Just as the audiences of The Hunger Games cheer and shudder at the unfortunate contestants and Fortnite matches amass an incredible number of real-world spectators, such battle royale stories go hand in hand with reality TV. As Suzanne Collins further explains, “The audiences for both the Roman games and reality TV are almost characters in themselves. They can respond with great enthusiasm or play a role in your elimination”.
As the growth of reality TV has permeated throughout the 21st century, the popularity of battle royale stories has flourished hand-in-hand, coming to reflect the zeitgeist of a modern Western world littered with inflated egos.