On March 23, The Hunger Games will hit theaters. It would be surprising if it didn't do well at the box office. It's the new young-adult-book-crossover juggernaut-to-be, a status Harry Potter recently enjoyed and that Twilight still does. By now, we should all be familiar with the basic plotline even if we haven't read the books (and no, I have not or else I'd have said something here about it).
Once a year, a post-apocalyptic society set sometime in the future holds the Hunger Games, an event put together by an oppressive government. Teenage kids from various parts of the world volunteer (or, more to the point, get volunteered) to be 'tributes' to the Hunger Games. This involves being thrown into an arena and made to fight to the death while the world watches on TV, and May The Odds Be Ever In Your Favor. Last one standing gets all famous and stuff, but also gets seriously messed up in the head from the experience.
Again, I haven't read any of the Hunger Games books, though I'm sure they're perfectly fine. I've never been that big of a fiction reader; note how rarely fiction shows up in the Rapid-Fire Book Club. However, even if I was, there's little chance that The Hunger Games would have ended up on my shelf anyway.
Why? Because I have seen this plot before. Several times.
The first thing likely coming to your mind is The Running Man, where an oppressive government has Richard Dawson send Arnold Schwarzenegger into an arena to fight to the death for television. But not me. First off, it's a country mile away from the plot of the Stephen King novel it was based on. In King's version, the contestant has the free run of the country, but must elude capture for 30 days from bounty hunters and ordinary citizens who get a cash prize if they off him or provide information leading to same. They also have to send in videos regularly which will keep the studio and viewers updated on his whereabouts. Prize: a billion dollars. With a B. Show record, leading into the events of the book: nine days.
But second, the movie's version is too far away from the format of the Hunger Games. It's one guy (okay, eventually four) against a series of 'stalkers', recurring opponents employed by the show. It's not one entire cast fighting to be the last one standing.
We can do better.
There is. at this time, one fiction novel on my shelf. Just the one. But its concept just happens to be a reality-show-to-the-death as well. It's called 24/7, by Jim Brown, written in 2002. This game's premise is as follows:
Your standard set of 12 reality-show types are placed on an island with your standard hammy awful punchable reality show host. The TV and audience votes them out, one by one, but the players can thwart the audience through the use of 'Safety Stones', which is 24/7's immunity mechanic. You win Safety Stones either through challenges or by finding them strewn around the island- including one 'personal challenge' per contestant, tailored to each contestant's personal fear; that one's worth five stones if you come across it and beat it. Each Safety Stone allows you to remove 10% of the audience vote against you in a given round (obviously, you use them before you know the vote totals). Use ten and you're immune. The contestant with the most votes after Safety Stones used are taken into account is eliminated. Prize for the last one standing: two million bucks, plus "your heart's desire", a personal prize that each contestant would individually be playing for. Name something you want that a TV network could feasibly arrange. You're playing for that.
Personally, I'm actually pretty surprised nobody has used the Safety Stone concept in an actual reality show; it's a very neat mechanic. Ten used stones makes you immune, but then, that's a lot of stones you just used up; could you have gotten the job done with fewer? How many is it going to take? Will the guy next to you use enough to push you into elimination territory? How do you respond to that? Or not respond? And how much do you budget for later on? Someone, get on that.
But that aside, cut to the season premiere when the hammy punchable host is explaining the rules while being hammy and punchable, and one of the contestants is being annoying, and all of a sudden the hammy punchable host dies horribly from some sort of virus I'll spare you the description of because ick. That's right: a terrorist has taken over the show. He goes by the name 'Control', and he announces that the game is still on, but the stakes are kicked up a bit. For starters, the challenges have been made a tad more terribly deadly. Also, more to the point, the cast is infected with the same virus the host died from, and will die from it if they don't get an inoculation every 24 hours. Luckily, Control has some for everyone... except the person who gets eliminated each day. Along with the announced prizes- which Control will still honor- the winner gets cured. Good luck.
Spoiler alert: the annoying guy immediately transforms into the 'we're all gonna die' guy. He's the very first one out the door. Or turned into a screaming puddle of bones on the floor. Either way.
I have some experience with this game concept. Like I said, I liked the concept, and way back in the days of Yahoo Groups and Geocities, I decided to use it myself, in an online reality game based on the book. I, of course, took the role of Control, as some of my readers will actually recall, because a couple of you were my former contestants. It lasted three seasons.
But the 24/7 plotline also veers too far from the Hunger Games plotline. The cast applied for the show; none of them were forced onto the island or the game. They were only forced into the final format the game ultimately took. Also, it was in fact a game, not a straight-up battle to the death.
We can do better.
There's another online reality game- a roleplaying one, yet- titled Survival of the Fittest. It's looking to be gearing up for Season 5. What we have here as a concept is, the contents of a high school class- and I don't mean 'classroom', I mean as in 'class of 2008'- gets kidnapped during an end-of-year trip by another terrorist organization, this one led by one Victor Danya. He hits them with knockout gas, they wake up on an otherwise-deserted island and are told to kill each other until only one is left standing.
For television, of course. Cameras all over the island, as usual. Some people even think it's not actually people actually killing each other.
To aid in this task, each of them is given a randomly-assigned weapon. Perhaps you're given a hatchet. Perhaps you're given an AK-47. Perhaps you're given a cookie. Whatever you get, you take that weapon and bash someone's brains in with it. In addition, each student (never mind the faculty; they all get unceremoniously offed in the pregame) is fitted with a collar around their neck. Do not remove this collar. If you try, collar goes boom. Boom might rip your head clean off your shoulders. Also, do not destroy a camera, or collar goes boom. Do not piss off Danya, or collar goes boom. Do not attempt to escape the island, or collar goes boom. And also, every so often, Danya will announce the presence of 'danger zones' around the island in order to keep things moving. If you're in a danger zone, get out of it pronto, or collar goes boom.
Needless to say, most of any given class sees their grip on sanity and basic decency go out the window right quick, to say nothing of the student that gets to the end alive (on the knowledge that the winner of an unaired test season was actually brought back by Danya for Season 1 because he didn't directly kill anyone). Which is all good TV, after all.
We're getting pretty close to the Hunger Games now, but there is one little improvement we can make: how did we get to terrorists running the game? The Hunger Games are run by the government. Can we return to that?
Yes. We can do better.
Survival of the Fittest is based off a movie from 2000 called Battle Royale, which in turn was based off a 1999 book by Koushun Takami; this one's Japanese in origin. The game format of Battle Royale is, naturally, pretty much the same as Survival of the Fittest, right down to the randomly-assigned weapons. However, instead of a terrorist, it's the military of an alternate-history fascist Japan, who began what they call "The Program". Every six months since 1947, the military swipes a high school class, sticks them on the island, and tells them to get to work.
I see nothing to suggest that this is televised; even if it were in the Battle Royale universe, it likely wouldn't get high ratings, as nobody's under any illusion that this is for entertainment purposes. The only reason nobody does anything is that it's gone on for so long that apathy and the sense of being used to it have taken hold.
Obviously, the lack of TV makes for a difference, but otherwise, you've now got things really close to The Hunger Games. In fact, it's actually a little more dramatic than The Hunger Games- while The Hunger Games (and 24/7) use a group of people from various disparate parts of the world, Battle Royale (and Survival of the Fittest) use a single group of high schoolers that know each other already. It's a coincidence, but it was close enough to where when Suzanne Collins was made aware of Battle Royale during her writing of The Hunger Games, her editor told her not to read or see Battle Royale, because "I don't want that world in your head." As of April 2011, Collins had yet to see the movie or read the book.
While a Japanese movie was created, things bogged down when it came time to think about importing Battle Royale to America. When it was created, it was a little too soon after the Columbine school shooting to be able to send it to America right away. Now, though, with The Hunger Games taking center stage, you'll probably never see Battle Royale in America at all.
After all, what a ripoff of The Hunger Games that would be.