“Originality is undetected plagiarism” – William Ralph Inge
It is very easy to dismiss a film, or any form of art, as a ‘rip-off’ of someone whose work you admire. Sometimes, however, echoing previous work need not be a bad thing – ‘derivative’ should not automatically be a pejorative. The influence of previous work on the greats is well known, stretching back to Shakespeare. If presenting itself as relevant to the world, then new work can stand on the shoulders of giants quite legitimately. It could be argued that THE HUNGER GAMES is a decent example.
Despite a number of issues the film may have (more of which later), it is a decent sci-fi adventure which echoes a great number of literary and cinematic sources, yet manages to tread that fine line between influence and plagiarism to good effect.
Released this past weekend to eye-watering box office numbers, this dystopian paedocidal drama will undoubtedly do well amongst the teenage target audience and beyond. But despite the desires and best efforts of some commentators to place it alongside TWILIGHT, some of the occurrences in Panem (the dystopian North America of the film) make Meyer’s vampires look like the Care Bears. Although generally well received so far, the film has had some detractors decrying it as rather derivative. In particular, the comparison to 2000’s BATTLE ROYALE is pretty hard to get away from. Although the comparison is apt, it is also a rather smart-arsey and superficial one to make – rather like the cinema equivalent of claiming you saw The Beatles in Hamburg “before they were big”. Despite my admiration for the arguably superior and far more visceral film adaptation of BATTLE ROYALE, the developed world’s relationship with many of the institutions and concepts symbolised in THE HUNGER GAMES has changed profoundly since the turn of the century, when BATTLE ROYALE appeared on our screens and in our bookcases.
…the comparison to 2000’s BATTLE ROYALE is pretty hard to get away from [but] it is also a rather smart-arsey and superficial one to make.
Suzanne Collins has already stated numerous times that the concept originates with the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, where 14 Athenian children (7 boys, 7 girls) are delivered to Crete as penance for past discretions, and released into the labyrinth to be devoured by the creature. The lineage from this to the 24 tributes drawn from the suppressed and previously rebellious districts of Panem is clear. Cinematically, however, there are also many contemporary touchstones. The extreme TV show or sport angle is a well-trodden path, evoking memories of ROLLERBALL and THE RUNNING MAN – although fortunately with less Arnold-hugging yellow lycra. With the constant surveillance and complete control over the environment in which the games take place, even to the point of heavily influencing the actions of those within, THE TRUMAN SHOW is another relevant comparison. Lord Of The Flies is a famous examination of the abandonment of humanity in the absence of authority – comparisons have been made to William Golding’s classic novel, and there is an undeniable ancestry, THE HUNGER GAMES and BATTLE ROYALE differ in that the violence comes about through the opposite route: imposition by authority. In terms of dealing with rebellious youth and oppressing the populace, it is also easy to see the influence of Nineteen Eighty-Four and even A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
The [film evokes] memories of ROLLERBALL and THE RUNNING MAN – although fortunately with less Arnold-hugging yellow lycra.
However, the nature of how the children of Panem come to find themselves as ‘tributes’ and the way they attain success in the games has plenty to say about contemporary reality television and what the world’s youth have to aspire to. Encouraging Katniss Everdeen to play to the audience to earn ‘sponsors’, and to consider the gamesmanship of the process as well as simple survival tactics indicates this parallel. The existence of competitors who view the games as a career rather than imposed state control is also interesting and relevant to those seeking fame and fortune. Reality TV may not lead to the physical demise of its competitors, but it often does lead to the death of their dignity: eviscerated for the entertainment and placation of the masses. This is an idea explored previously in rather more heavy-handed and literal fashion by Ben Elton in Dead Famous. The fact that THE HUNGER GAMES chooses to portray these ideas through the classic sci-fi device of a dystopian future makes it no more or less derivative than any of the other films mentioned above. The superficial comparison obscures the interesting satire the film could have to offer, even if it doesn’t quite manage it as best it could. This is not a mindless Hollywood action rehash of foreign or classic material with nothing new to say. Despite some of the themes and devices being explored before, the manner and nuances of THE HUNGER GAMES particular modus operandi, and what it refracts through it, mean it has much to offer a contemporary audience.
Reality TV may not lead to the physical demise of its competitors, but it often does lead to the death of their dignity…
This isn’t to say Gary Ross’s film is a soaring masterpiece of cutting, allegorical satire to rival Orwell himself – far (far) from it. One can forgive the rather more silly elements (Peeta’s cake-decoration rock-face chief among them), but some issues prevent the film from being as lasting and cutting as it could be. The tributes outside Katniss and Peeta’s District 12 have all the character depth of a BT commercial and leave you wishing for more from the larger world the film has created. The horrific acts of violence perpetrated by children against their peers are contrasted with the casual public desensitisation to the horror before them. Despite this the film tries to draw a distinct line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ violence, whilst simultaneously toning it down to obtain the demographic-straddling 12A certificate necessary for box-office domination. This could almost be levelled as a downright contradiction in the film’s message. The film is very much held together by the terrific Jennifer Lawrence – particularly as the film begins to lose a little focus in the home straight. Suddenly, the sights are set on becoming a franchise initiator rather than a compelling standalone tale and this comes with the frustrating ending that implies. As a result, the film ends up slightly too long and lacks the intensity of the second act as it trundles to its denouement.
Suddenly, the sights are set on becoming a franchise initiator […] and this comes with the frustrating ending that implies.
However, a ‘tween’ film with something between the ears should be applauded, even it probably shouldn’t be fawned over. Often compared to TWILIGHT (similar demographic; same production company; a Stephanie Meyer endorsement), it is a far better entry into cinematic canon than the necrophilic glittery vampire saga ever could be. The presence of a satirical undercurrent and a genuinely pro-active and commanding young female lead (whilst, crucially, retaining a core femininity) contrasts markedly with the other teen mega-franchise. THE HUNGER GAMES has made its mark and, despite its issues, is a more interesting and admirable one than the 12A audience has been offered in some time.