The joke has been making the rounds more lately, but probably started roughly ten seconds after somebody read a description of Suzanne Collins's young adult novel: "What do they call The Hunger Games in France? Battle Royale with cheese." It's unfair, of course, especially if the implication is that Collins was inspired by Koushun Takami's novel or Kinji Fukasaku's film; adults forcing teenagers to fight to the death as a means of control is not a difficult concept to come up with.
Still, Battle Royale is out there, more so now than ever as Viz's Haikasoru imprint and Anchor Bay have been happy to use this movie's coattails to promote the translated Japanese novel and film. However, especially during the opening segment, it's often another recently-filmed novel that comes to mind, Debra Granik's adaptation of Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone. Having only seen the three films, I can't offer any commentary on how they digress from their source material. I can, however, say that based on the films alone, The Hunger Games is the least of them.
The Hunger Games
* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 March 2012 in the Arlington Captiol #1 (first-run, 35mm)
Of course, that's not to say The Hunger Games is a bad film; as these things go, it's pretty decent. Its future world makes a little bit of sense, it has some neat ideas that it plays with fairly well, and it gets good work out of a well-chosen cast. There's very little in it that's done badly. This may be damning with faint praise, but I'm pretty certain that there was more hilarious idiocy/incompetence in the two-minute teaser for Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part Two that preceded it than the entire 122-minute run time of this film.
There are some red flags, even early on. Director Gary Ross and director of photography Tom Stern can't even shoot a crowd scene that doesn't need to be particularly frantic without shaking the camera; a big action scene at the finish would be a whole lot more exciting if the camera had been bolted down and the audience got to see what the fight co-ordinator (and cast and stunt cast) is capable of. He, his co-writers (Billy Ray and original novelist Suzanne Collins), and the editing team use their relatively generous running time to let things unspool slowly rather than hit the audience with a lot of detail - there are twenty-four young "tributes" expected to fight to the death, but only three of them are worth remembering names, and maybe another handful (if you're generous) worth tracking from scene to scene.
To a certain extent, that makes the concessions to the PG-13 rating more tolerable - yeah, a lot of kids are killed off-screen or without a lot of gore, but showing the kid-on-kid violence would be little more than cheap exploitation in this case, as we don't know the characters well enough for it to be more than empty violence. The filmmakers also seem to go out of their way to avoid having the sympathetic characters kill in cold blood, to the point where it's as noticeable as the arbitrary "gameplay".
Still, it works pretty well, in part because Ross does keep up a steady pace, and very seldom does the movie sacrifice pleasant enjoyment to set up a franchise. The world-building is full of interesting details, even if it is occasionally really dumb on a macro level (the city folk appear shocked that murdering a child leads to riots, and District 12 appears to have a population of maybe a few thousand at most). Even if it keeps Elizabeth Banks smothered in make-up, the design of Capital City and its people hits a near-perfect balance between seductively opulent and grotesque. That's some nice attention to detail.
And the cast is pretty great. Banks, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, and Wes Bentley aren't really doing subtle work, but they are doing good work. Really, the person in the casting department who came up with Woody Harrelson deserves a bonus - he's the one who is funny, but with an edge, and does as much as anybody to create a sense that this is a real world with history and complexities to it. Liam Hemsworth does pretty well in a role that will likely be much larger in the sequels. Josh Hutcherson and Amanda Stenberg do well as two of the other tributes.
And, man, Jennifer Lawrence. If you're starting a youth-oriented franchise, you could do a whole lot worse than someone deservedly nominated for an Oscar for work she did at the age of 19. She's in nearly every scene as Katniss Everdeen, never giving less than her best. She's not always put in the best position to succeed - Katniss never really the underdog, and the script never opts to tip its hand as to just how well she grasps the media manipulation angle - but she is absolutely somebody who can carry the movie on her back.
The Hunger Games & Winter's Bone
Of course, anybody who has seen Winter's Bone knows what Lawrence is capable of; that's the movie where she got nominated for that Academy Award, and she spent a similar amount of time center-stage in that one. If you haven't seen it, do so. I loved it at IFFBoston in 2010 and in my opinion, it was the best of the Best Picture nominees that year.
And, amusingly, the set-up for Winter's Bone is somewhat similar to that of The Hunger Games - "District 12" could be the future of the Ozarks where Winter's Bone takes place (well, more likely the Appalachians; I don't believe there's coal in the Ozarks), and both feature Lawrence as a girl looking after a younger sister, and Katniss makes a comment to her mother that suggests she once was as catatonic as Ree's is. It's fun to make tongue-in-cheek comments about The Hunger Games being a sequel to Winter's Bone.
The comparison between the two highlights one of the main issues with The Hunger Games, though - it talks big about the dire straits the outlying districts are in, but it's hard to really feel it. All of the Tributes look pretty well-fed, although there are hints that this can be explained in-story (resource consumption seems to increase the number of times one's name is in the random drawing, so the healthier kids are statistically more likely to be selected). One of the most memorable scenes - one repeated, it's so important - has Peeta angrily throwing bread from his family's bakery away before tossing some to Katniss. It's likely meant to demonstrate how angry and frustrated with his family was; instead, it comes across as there being food enough to waste. Compare that to the scene in Winter's Bone where Ree is teaching her younger brother Sonny how to gut a squirrel, setting certain bits aside. "Do we eat those parts?" the brother asks. "Not yet," Ree replies.
That's a family and region in dire straits; the folks in District 12 don't ever seem to be quite there yet.
Another way that The Hunger Games and Winter's Bone seem to be drawing on the same material is in the music choices; traditional backwoods music shows up in both, with The Hungers Game having T-Bone Burnett as musical supervisor and credited with "additional music" (James Newton Howard is the main composer). It's a shame that it's only really noticeable as what's played over the end credits. Imagine if they had used it as much of the underscore in the first half, and really set the mood, before switching up for something more futuristic or symphonic in the city. Then, maybe have the time in the arena a sort of synthetic imitation of what we heard in the beginning.
The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale
The arena, of course, is where the comparisons to Battle Royale become most obvious - once you've got kids killing each other, the details are where a distinction must be made.
Just in terms of execution Kinji Fukasaku (and his son Kenta, who adapted the novel into a screenplay) - do much better work. Penalties for not fighting are made abundantly clear early on in Battle Royale, but I don't think the film of The Hunger Games ever presents the audience with a compelling reason for the Tributes to do something other than sit around and talk about how the Capital City folks are screwing them over early on. Sure, later they herd Katniss back toward the others and throw CGI monsters in, but at that point it's late enough to feel like a cheat - something that has been running for 75 years shouldn't need to resort to this.
(Kukasaku Kenta also did second unit work, and directed the much-maligned sequel after his father passed away. Hopefully those that scorned him for this lightened up after seeing his delightfully frantic X-Cross!)
(And speaking of second-unit directors, Steven Soderbergh is one of three listed for The Hunger Games. Yes, that Steven Soderbergh. That's either an odd extravagance for a movie that doesn't seem to have a huge budget or a guy with some extra time on his hands!)
Digressions aside, what makes Battle Royale a much better, vital movie is that it's got teeth. Not just because it's got the kind of blood & guts that made it too hot a potato for anyone in the USA to touch ten years ago (at least at the prices Toei was demanding) while Ross and company keep much of the violence off-screen; Fukasaku's movie is at its heart a satire that, while it springs from a very specific set of circumstances, is able to have broad, long-lasting appeal because it's willing to make its characters more than just stand-ins for ideas and because it's willing to attack in all directions.
The funny thing is that, though The Hunger Games is the franchise designed and marketed specifically for teenagers - it's shelved in "Young Adult" rather than "Science Fiction" - Battle Royale is the one that more specifically speaks to youth. The villains in The Hunger Games are sort of generically privileged, a vague mishmash between one-percent-ers and an uncaring government. If there's a reason why kids are chosen to be Tributes beyond "they're the target audience", it doesn't make it into the movie. Having a young cast lets them tap into the audience's feelings of persecution directly, and does offer a moment or two of clever satire - when a blond, athletic cadre advances on Katniss and Rue, it's tough not to think of a jock-and-cheerleader crowd going after a pair of outsiders. But that's as mean as it gets.
In Battle Royale, things are heightened; various high-school cliques are at each other's throats with the members literally willing to stab each other in the back if there's something in it for them. But it's not just about high-school rivalry; at its heart the movie is about how adults are often afraid of the next generation (or the one after that, if they're old enough). They see high schools as full of delinquents and thugs who return their love and kindness with scorn and violence, and by god, it's time to put them back in their place. Japan in the 1990s seemed to feel this particularly strongly, as the conflict between a culture with a high priority on respecting elders ran into a generation that did not see security in tradition. Things seldom got as violent as the flashbacks in Battle Royale, but the tension and unwarranted disdain likely seemed that extreme to both parties.
And that's part of what makes Battle Royale fantastic - Takeshi Kitano's former teacher is a monster, but he's also a good man broken by undeserved hate and violence. Kitano is a spout of angry, vicious comedy, but he's not entirely unsympathetic. Fukasaku makes this movie just enough of an elders' revenge fantasy that it doesn't become a one-sided rant. Everybody is exaggerated, but even the kids who eventually realize that being at war does no good are at least a little complicit.
All of that working together makes Battle Royale a legitimate classic. And while The Hunger Games is good, with some very impressive work in it, it very seldom has the greatness of its "parents".