Teenage Wasteland Syndrome: Battle Royale vs. The Hunger Games
Oh boy, I thought. Is there any escape?
But, seeing as I am more of a Battle Royale fan than I care to admit, I decided to read The Hunger Games anyway, just so see if it was more than the obvious rip-off I expected it to be. And, while I can give credit to the author to add a pretty unique spin on the infamous Japanese sociopolitical horror story, I still closed the book feeling unsatisfied, feeling like I expected a surge of empathy for the lead characters and finished the book, the only feelings in my mind were ones of ‘I need to finish some homework now.’
And, for the record, I am not going to summarize both books. Look it up on Wikipedia.
The thing is, I’m not the type of person one would expect to like a blood-pouring-out-of-your-eye-socket/senseless violence pulp fiction novel. But here’s the skinny on why I like Battle Royale: I see it as a novel that really respects youth, ironically. It takes a group of middle school kids completely seriously and gives each one of them a soul, a character, and a purpose. Sure there are some characters who are less developed than others, but I can’t think of a single one of the young characters who doesn’t have a legitimate motivation or back story that guided them to their current state. It explores the psychology and sociology of the mind of young people, and what makes it even more of a stand out concept to me is the main theme: this whole blood fest was not the fault of the children, but the adults who shoved them into a premature adulthood in one of the worst ways thinkable. Thinly-veiled parable, anyone?
American media, especially in recent years, takes that away from its under aged dramatis personae. Most American teenage characters are immature, self-loathing, melodramatic horndogs. They have one of two home lives: the nuclear family suburban home life that they are bored with, which provides their motivation for rebelling and trying to find a unique, existential purpose, or the most unfathomable existence not fit for a rat, which is supposed to make them ‘deep’ and ‘relatable.’ Life just isn’t fair because Johnny is dating Susie even though Mary is the one who really, really loves him.
This is the main reason, among others, that The Hunger Games was a huge disappointment to me. Most of its young characters are not only extremely underdeveloped, but most are just motivated by the fact that the government sucks and doesn’t take care of its people. The Hunger Games focuses on a single character, Katniss Everdeen, who fits into what I call the ‘Pity-Sue’ archetype. Her back story falls right in with the ‘my home life sucks, so sympathize with me’ arena, so I assume we’re supposed to accept her cold and calculating personality as ‘bad ass.’ I found it rather insulting, and despite the fact that she knew what the hard life was like and, therefore, wasn’t materially selfish, I found her to be a shallow, self-glorifying character. Very American, indeed.
Another point is the severe lack of motivation. Okay, so Katniss’ motivation is to not die, but in her scenario, she is thrust into a battle arena with complete strangers. So, basically, why not kill to survive? That makes the book less of a psychological profile and more of a blood bath amongst teenagers.
In Battle Royale, Shuya Nanahara and Noriko Nakagawa are told to kill their best friends, their classmates, each other. So, how does one develop the motivation to survive while keeping their humanity and their soul? Do these adults controlling their lives even intend for them to keep their souls? What would you do in their place? Shuya Nanahara had a pretty crappy home life, if you could even call it that, but this didn’t turn him into a ruthless, rebellious punk. It made him turn to his friends for life support even more, which proved to make it even harder when the time came for him to choose between his own life and the life of his friends. Which, in my opinion, is more realistic in assuming that teenagers aren’t animals with primitive instincts, but complex creatures with just as much depth and social awareness as any fully-grown adult.
Also, the surrounding scenario in Battle Royale is a lot harsher for a character to put up with, upping the sympathy factor, but I digress.
As far as pure entertainment goes, I would put The Hunger Games on more equal ground with Battle Royale, but I am the type of reader who reads between the lines (if you’ll pardon the overused expression). I was hoping that an ‘American Battle Royale’ would be a bit more of a stretch into the realm of character development and thematic expression, but who am I to complain, unless I was to pen my own American take on the Japanese novel? And, if I did, what are the odds I would be scoffed as ripping off The Hunger Games?
Well, let’s see about that…