Some of us spend our evenings playing chess and eating salad. But for the rest of us, tonight's the night. It's time to get our Hunger Games on. The novel comes to life on the silver screen today, and it's expected to, um, suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. (Seriously? Read a book.) The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian, alternate universe weirdo America (ahem, that's Panem to you) that still has states and a Capitol, but also has a thirst for blood. In order to properly orient you to the feature that you're about to see, there are some things that you should know.
If you've been living under a rock for the past year or so, you should start here: The Hunger Games takes place in a futuristic, negative utopia. The government is quite "Big Brother-y." The populace is entertained with violent games that pit young contestants against each other in a Thunderdome-esque fight to the death. The protagonist (and that confusing word on Draw Something) is 16-year-old Katniss, and she's taken the place of her sister in the games. She must kill or be killed — win or die. Also there's a teenage love triangle.
So now you know enough to see the movie, or buy the book(s). But you should also know that, no matter what, any work of popular fiction will likely be derivative. Instead of ranting for hours, panning Suzanne Collins for watching too much TV and only reading what seems like four books in her life, it seems we're at a loss. While intellectual snobbery and cultural criticism are relevant to writing for the Internet, we really liked The Hunger Games. And we like these nine pop culture predecessors to The Hunger Games that every fan should know. Enjoy the show!
In the not too distant future, wars will no longer exist. But there will be Rollerball.
After you finish that midnight showing (we know you had your tickets six weeks ago), you'll no doubt be wondering exactly this: "What if there was a movie that was totally like The Hunger Games, but instead of "bows and arrows" — try "rollerskates." And replace the Truman Show-style manipulatable game arena with a magnetic roller rink. Oh, and make it in 1975."
Enter: Rollerball. The story has some bare bones similarities to The Hunger Games — in that it's set in a futuristic, dystopian world (run by a ubiquitous energy conglomerate based in Houston, Texas), and that the regionally represented characters must battle each other in a universally popular arena … of death. (Semi-spoiler: In the original 1973 short story for Esquire by William Harrison, the contestants battled to death. In the movie, a few may get out alive, albeit crippled.) It's a knock-down drag-out roller derby meets dodge ball (if the dodgeballs are made of steel and have giant spikes on them, naturally) — a four-wheeled game of death, destruction, random motorcycles thrown in for good measure and cool effects, and survival of the fittest. And it's worth checking out if you're a Hunger Games fan. Or if you're just really into violence and you liked Starlight Express.
Obviously. It's no secret that many accuse author Suzanne Collins of dipping into this book (and also movie) for inspiration, but the author argues that she'd never heard of Battle Royale before writing The Hunger Games. Articles aplenty exist to compare and contrast the two stories, and it can't be denied that there are many structural similarities. Public opinion is that you should take Collins at her word, as there are enough differences in the novels to warrant that, although derivative, The Hunger Games is singularly its own tale. But for you purists that get your panties in a twist about, well, just about everything — here's a quick and dirty breakdown for your water cooler talk. (P.S. Everyone's had this conversation, probably ad nauseam. You've been warned.)
What's The Same: It's an every man for himself, all-out fight to the death that relies heavily on dream sequences to orient the reader — this can't be denied. Additionally, the games are used in both instances as a function of societal control via fear. Utilizing young people as characters (with a female protagonist) and fighters, as well as the stock love triangle — these too are commonalities. Both have epic titles. Both are violent. Both were made into films.
What's Different: Landscape (future Japan versus post-apocalyptic North America, called Panem), the evil leader (Teacher Kitano differs wildly from President Snow), and the technology (it's more stilted in Battle Royale, while in the Games, there exist seemingly limitless options for tech tinkering) — to name a few. Readers and watchers of both stories will let you know expressly that the two differ enough to be satisfactory. But honestly, it's just not that big of a deal. Everyone wants to see kids fight to the death in the gladiatorial games of the future. Why not have a diverse wealth of books on the topic? It's not like this is Highlander — there can definitely be more than one.
In the evergreen classic Star Trek: The Original Series, there's an episode in Season Two called "Bread and Circuses." (Episode #43, to be exact. LLAP, y'all.) The crew lands on another world, where they come across a ship named The Beagle (again, read a book). The people of this world are "sun worshippers," and they have a 1960s-style Roman gladiator type thing going on, Kirk soon learns, for masse entertainment. Uhurra figures out that the bloodthirsty populace are actually "Son [of God] worshippers," and Spock and McCoy must fight in the ring. Because there's an Episode #44, you can probably glean that they make it out alive. Definitely worth a watch, as is nigh everything Star Trek. Ever.
Why Any of This Matters: "Bread and Circuses" is a phrase (Panem et Circenses, in the Latin — which, if you're a Games fan, should look at least a little bit familiar) that harkens back to a sociopolitical strategy employed through much of the Roman Empire. It has long been a trope for the setup of post-apocalyptic (and, arguably, current) governments — a society where most of the people have enough to eat and languish in superficial entertainment, so that the government can quietly go about its deleterious totalitarian rule. Many times, these government sanctioned "circuses" take the form of fight-to-the-death arenas, which the depicted masse society dearly values.
And for all you true lovers of antiquity, there's an even less relevant (read: popular) cultural reference to be had. The protagonist, young Katniss, has been described by Collins herself as a "futuristic Theseus," which means you're going to have to brush up on your mythology if you're going to understand the books and movie in full. Theseus was the mythical founder-king of Athens. He volunteered to fight the Minotaur, and at one point in his journey saved his sister. The Hunger Games relies heavily on several Roman terms, concepts, and (as much subsequent literature does) ancient stories to achieve its aims — and models Katniss (and perhaps her love triangle — Hippolyta and Phaedra, anyone?) after the mythical badass.
Suzanne Collins has said so herself — an exhausted night of channel surfing between Iraq war coverage and reality television programming inspired and informed The Hunger Games. And if you've been avidly watching Survivor for ten years, you're halfway to understanding even the most intricate twists and turns of the novels. (Also? Get a new hobby.)
One of the most unsettling truths about Collins' futuristic fantasy world is that it's not altogether or markedly different from the one in which we currently live: population influencers are the ostentatious, well-fed, and well-entertained — often by violent or disgusting shows (Fear Factor comes immediately to mind) that rely on the somewhat humane-yet-dehumanizing crux of elimination (as opposed to the less humane elimination by death). While there are many differences in our world and the Games (though it's handily arguable that Panem is a logical conclusion of our current societal trajectory), it's a bit spooky how life can imitate art.
This world's divided into two kinds of people: the hunter and the hunted. Luckily, I'm the hunter. Nothing can change that.
Also called The Hounds of Zaroff, this low-budget, highly profitable 1932 RKO feature utilizes bows and arrows and the "stranded on an island/being hunted/must survive" storyline to progress the action. Based on a 1924 short story by Richard Connell, this archery-fueled bloodsport movie revels in people hunting and lust for survival. Bonus: Fay Wray, the King Kong babe!
The movie is good, the book is better. That's one way it's like the Games. William Golding's masterpiece (and first novel) is a meditation on the tendency of the harmoniously civilized to — when confronted with scarcity and a lack of previously imposed order — revert to the will to power (survivalism and desire for supremacy/achievement — ugh, read a book, people). And this isn't just a book (also, movie) that you need to know in order to comprehend where The Hunger Games fits in the annals of books about kids killing each other; this is a book that you need to be familiar with in order to be considered well-read. And being well-read (note: actually well-read) gives you more than just Katniss, Quidditch, and the Cullens to talk about at parties — assuming you even get invited to them. (As it's one of the novels that Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins read as a teen, we've taken a bit of mercy and tried to help you out. The video Spark Notes are below.)
If you want to go into overdrive, try these Bachman page-turners. In The Running Man, a 1982 novel by Richard Bachman (who is actually Stephen King), you're thrust into the negative utopia of a futuristic, shambly America (sound familiar?), where protagonist Ben Richards participates in a game show (sound familiar?) wherein he is declared an enemy of the state and tracked by "Hunters." And if you liked The Hunger Games, this little gem will be impossible to put down (if only because it's much more well-crafted). Twists, turns, bluffs, secrecy, planes flying into skyscrapers, and unexpected alliances; all of these things and more you can find in The Running Man. This book, along with another Bachman classic — 1979's The Long Walk — King himself likened to the Games, in his Entertainment Weekly book review of the novel. He awarded Collins' work with a solid B.
"I always knew I was going to kill a bunch of teenagers, but I wanted it to be on my terms." – The Hunger Pains, The Harvard Lampoon
You've read the books. You're about to see the movie. You've spent hours and hours gesticulating wildly and discussing the Games. You look sideways at the guy at work that still has "TEAM JACOB!" as his Facebook "About Me," while you prefer to wax philosophical on the merits of Peeta versus Gale. You've got some esoteric catnip references creeping into your parlance that are beginning to rival your bad TARDIS puns. Not since the deletion of Tom Bombadil in Lord of the Rings have you gotten such a rush out of having some potential new talking points after the weekend's over that will basically boil down to "Yeah, well. I liked the books better." Face it: you're serious about your commitment to The Hunger Games.
The rest of us? We like to laugh. And while we're definitely — definitely — laughing at you, we're also laughing at these:
1) Who doesn't love felt and nostalgia-turned-once-again-relevant puppetry? The Muppets did a parody trailer called "Feel the Hunger." Watch it here!
2) The Hunger But Mostly Death Games. Hilarious. Worth the $0.99 for the Kindle e-book. Read the first chapter for free here, and just try not to buy the rest!
3) The Hunger Pains by the Harvard Lampoon. Even funnier. Worth the money. Read it in several formats here.