Why the 'The Hunger Games's Snub of 'Battle Royale' Matters

March 22, 2012

Hollywood's next likely blockbuster, The Hunger Games, is set to open this Friday, March 23.  This work is unique from past remakes or adaptations of Asian stories in that its creator denies any knowledge of the classic Japanese book (1999) and movie Battle Royale (2000), with which it shares extraordinary parallels.

Both movies feature a corrupt totalitarian government that places children on an isolated island to fight brutally to the death using weapons packs, until one last winner emerges. They implant tracking devices into the children and fill the island with cameras, which are observed by a control room that airs the competition to the general population. A female protagonist ultimately triumphs with the help of a boy with whom she develops a relationship. Author Suzanne Collins claims she never heard of the Battle Royale book or movie prior to writing The Hunger Games in 2008, and claims that she came up with the ideas independently after watching late night television and clips of the Iraq War. Maybe, maybe not. Collins has already profited handsomely from her Hunger Games trilogy of books, which have been US bestsellers for the past few years. 

This isn't the first time Hollywood has made minor modifications on an Asian story and marketed it as a novel piece of art. Akira is currently being remade and re-set in neo-New York. The screenwriter for The Departed won an Oscar for basically translating the film Infernal Affairs into English, and changing the setting from Hong Kong to Boston. Aside from a few plot and character changes, many of the scenes in The Departed were direct scene-for-scene copies of the Asian film, including literal translations of some jokes. At least The Departed gave some credit to Infernal Affairs as a remake and has the excuse of paying homage. Though, a general question remains of the American public’s awareness of how many recent Hollywood films have been remakes of Asian movies, or how even a popular American television show like Wipeout is a remake of the popular decades-long Japanese show. Related to this, I found it interesting that a recent CNN teaser article had this to say about The Hunger Games:

Casting the right actors is imperative when adapting a novel for the big screen ... It's no secret fans want popular characters to look a certain way, specifically how they envisioned them while they were reading the book.

Wow, you couldn't make this stuff up. There's an irony in their emphasis on staying true to
the original characters while so many whitewashing casting practices and remakes persist.

Suzanne Collins's claims that Battle Royale had no influence on her books and its film adaptation is a major step back from recent remakes of Asian stories because, in those cases, at least there was a minor acknowledgement to the original characters or stories from which they were adapted. Even in recent whitewashing cases like 21 or The Last Airbender, at least the fans had some knowledge that the original characters in the films were Asian. Collins' claims sound even more hollow when comparisons can be made in exact movie scenes between the two films. The film review community has also done a disservice by downplaying this issue. Most mainstream reviews I have read do not acknowledge any Battle Royale influence in The Hunger Games, and those who do mention the film deliberately bundle it with other movies like Running Man in order to gloss over the striking similarities to Battle Royale. Other reviews strain unconvincingly to explain how dissimilar the two films are. I find the coverage especially hypocritical given the same film community's heavy criticism of Justin Lin's previous Annapolis movie release, which critics blasted for its similarities with past works.  

Now, art and innovation do certainly build on top of other works, and influence of past works on future creations occurs all over the world. The reason the downplaying of any credit to past Asian creations matters, is because a stereotype and perception exists that Asian cultures (and Asians and Asian Americans) are not creative, and that Western civilizations have been the main drivers of innovation through history. 

And in case you're wondering, that's a myth. Brilliant Asian and Asian Americans in the creative arts include a long list of notable icons like Haruki Marakami, Ang Lee, Mira Nair, Chan Wook Park, Zhang Yimou, artists such as IM Pei and Maya Lin, and hundreds of other creative Asian Americans.

This myth extends beyond the arts to other areas such as historical commercialization and invention, which potentially share the same lack of attribution issues. Myths about innovation are widespread despite the fact that Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan (and others which have implemented intellectual property laws) currently lead the world in inventions and patents per capita. Additionally, the list of US inventions and innovations over the past 50 years is filled with Asian American inventors and co-inventors. The "independently invented" excuse that The Hunger Games claims has been used beyond the arts to include notable discoveries.

For example, to go back in time, calculus was invented in 14th century India and 10th century Persia hundreds of years before Newton and Leibniz claimed independent discoveries. Paper currencies and the printing press were invented in East Asia centuries before Europe claimed their independent invention. The list of discoveries and inventions from Asia prior to European "independent discovery" claims, is very long. Reputable publications like The Economist or the NY Times have asked in the past whether Columbus discovered the Americas first, and others have asked whether Columbus actually used Marco Polo's Chinese maps of the world (which now reside in the British Museum in London) when he bravely sailed thousands of miles off the flat Earth. Most Americans are only aware of the Euro-centric narrative from which they were taught, and this narrative contributes to the disrespectful treatment, and appropriation, of art and innovation from other cultures.

It's frustrating that works like The Hunger Games have already and will continue to make gobs of money without any attribution to the Asian book and film it arguably draws from, not to mention the countless remakes of other Asian stories or Asian characters that consumers simply think of as American originals. The snub by The Hunger Games over Battle Royale shares a history that goes beyond film. Persistent lack of attribution, or appropriation of past ideas, fuel inaccurate myths about creativity and innovation. On the other hand, none of this should be too surprising, given past repeat behaviors, the idealized Western civilizational narrative around historical creativity and innovation, and also since we still live in a society which regularly celebrates the legend of a European for "discovering" a continent that was already inhabited by hundreds of millions of people.

Here are some other articles worth checking out:

‘The Hunger Games,’ a Japanese Original? 

‘Hunger Games’ Vs. ‘Battle Royale’ 

Critical Analysis of the Striking Similarities

Battle Royale Was Well Known Before 2008

Is ‘Battle Royale’ the Japanese ‘Hunger Games’ 


Alvin Lin


Alvin Lin was born in Taipei, Taiwan and hails from New England. He blogs about Asian American pop culture, film, music, literature and politics, as well as relevant news around the world. He also writes for Imprint Talk. Alvin has degrees from Cornell and MIT.



I can't believe for a second that the writer had no knowledge of Battle Royale. Nevertheless, it will never beat Battle Royale. Truly incredible film. http://greatestfilms.co.uk
http://blog.moviefone.com/2010/09/27/hunger-games-battle-royale-rip-off/ "As a intellectual property lawyer, and a fan of Battle Royale, I would be confident in arguing that the bearer of Battle Royale's rights has more than a significant case to make for plagiarism. The question is not so much one of disimilarity but of similarity. I would be more than willing to argue that although certain antecedents led up to the writing of "Battle Royale" (The Running Man, Logan's Run, 1984, The Lord of the Flies), Battle Royale re-articulates the central conceit that was already prevalent (the use of staterun lotteries for gladitorial contests to administer population control i.e. "the bread and circuses" concept) and makes it uniquely its own, through the 1) the elaborate back story, 2) the specific application of it to the youth culture, 3) as an examination of youth and status quo politics. Adapting that premise and westernizing it for a largely female demographic unaware of the Japanese original does not get the writer off the hook for lifting an idea. If it can be argued and proven that Hunger Games has the potential to hurt the profits and reputation, as well as further franchising opportunities of the bearer of Battle Royale's rights, I would be more than willing to encourage my client to pursue legal recourse in order to protect his/her right to develop future licensing agreements based on their intellectual property. If no immediate plans for future development were present, I'd still encourage my client to pursue legal recourse in order to receive a fair out-of-court settlement. Harlan Ellison is a famous case of an author, who with good reason, has successfully protected his ideas from plagiarism. People on this site might be surprised that arguing about the difference of the two products (e.g. this product isn't the same because it has black tiles instead of red) without regard to their inherent similarity (e.g. both products are bathtubs with the exact same form, design purpose, and consumer demographic) is a weak defense against claims of plagiarism."  
I read the Hunger Games books a while back and loved them. I thought the concept was ingenious. So, today I was searching for a movie to watch on Amazon.com and saw Battle Royale and interested right away because I do have a predilection for Japanese films ever since I saw my first Akira Kurosawa film ages ago. Anyway, the first thing that came to mind when I read the description of Battle Royale was that it sounded a lot like Hunger Games. So, found this article and while I've not watched Battle yet, find it a bit suspect that the author of Humger games was not familiar with the Japanese novel or film. But, we do know from history that the same invention can happen independently in places separated by large distances and time, ie the development of agriculture and the calculus so whose to know for sure but the author herself. Thanks for your post. A
I'm glad for this article. Not only is the film a blatant rip off of better Asian counterparts, the casting of actors, jeez, for a supposed "future" it looks hella white to me. For this reason alone the movie will never get my money.
Hollywood just didn't want to pay Toei's asking price for it.
This article relies on the false assumption that many people are making around the Internet- that Battle Royale was the first film of its type and that there were no other ways to be inspired towards the same idea. The conflation of war with reality tv reminds me of the gladiator bouts of ancient Rome where captured slaves were forced to fight to the death while cheering crowds watched. The independent movie Series 7: The Contenders had randomly selected civilians fight to the death on tv. The original Deathrace movie had a lot of the same themes. Just because Battle Royale and The Hunger Games both use children doesn't mean one had a direct relationship on the other. Until THG became popular, BR had a very small fanbase in the US and fans tended to gather in communities. But just because the entire community knew and loved the movie doesn't change that it's a very small and niche portion of the whole population.

Thanks for the comment. Would you say the same thing about Avatar? Similar excuses and reasons can be claimed in pointing out all the areas where Avatar is dissimilar and unique from Dancing with Wolves (time, setting, technology, certain characters, etc), but it is widely acknowledged that Avatar's core story is not original. I don't think you'd find many people who would argue that there was no absolutely influence from Dancing with Wolves on Avatar, while the creators of Hunger Games claim zero influence from Battle Royale which deserves skepticism. Why expend so much deliberate effort, on the part of the critics and film creators, to deny or downplay the credit to Battle Royale? Also, would you use similar excuses and reasoning about The Departed and defend that film? I guess it's an unfair question but Departed fans at the time were saying the same things (different setting, plot/character differences, etc) about how it was original and unique, even though the Departed creators themselves did make minor acknowledgements that it was a remake of Infernal Affairs.

David Poland gives Battle Royale its due: http://moviecitynews.com/2012/03/review-the-hunger-games/
I don't like whitewashing anymore than you do: The Last Airbender, 21, Akira, those were all wrong and blatant. But the Hunger Games series is not of the same ilk in terms of taking an Asian movie, making them white, and selling to a new audience. It is not at all an adaptation of Battle Royale. The semblance is only cosmetic in that it is a gladatorial battle in a dystopian future featuring young people as the competitor. That story has been told over and over again in stories like The Running Man, Logan's Run, Rollerball, Death Race, A Prize for Peril, and to a lesser extent but with children "Ender's Game". Those type of stories have become a subgenre unto themselves. Battle Royale is only one of many. The only extra similarity is the "young people" part, but come on, man, that could easily be thought up independently. In your first paragraph, you even say yourself that "most Americans are unaware of Battle Royale since it was blocked from US distribution until recently", yet you hold Suzanne Collins to a higher standard of having to seek this out before she wrote the book. If it is difficult to come across except by word of mouth or being an Asian cinephile or manga fan, then why is it difficult to fathom that she has never heard of BR before? It is not as ubiquitous as one might think. It is neither a rip-off nor an adaptation, as past the surface of the premise, there is hardly any similarity in between the two books/movies. The book series only spends 1/3 actually focused on the games, as opposed to Battle Royale which spends its entirety focused on it. The scope, characters, and point of it is completely different. Hunger Games and its following books revolve around a working class vs oppressive upper class rebellion, while Battle Royale is focused on the psychology of teenage clique mentality and is analagous to survival in the teenage environment. The characters are completely different as is the rest of themes, perspective, and relationships. Dancing with Wolves vs Avatar is an unfair comparison, as Dancing is an Oscar winning American movie which certainly James Cameron has heard of (him being American, and the movie winning American movie accolades). Again, as you said, Battle Royale is not widely recognized by a large portion of the American audience, so it is highly probable that the author had never heard of the series. So in Suzanne Collins' case, she easily could have been influenced by any of the above referenced movies without having ever seen seen Battle Royale. It is not "deliberate" in that they are trying to distance themselves. They aren't out to stop the talk. They are only answering questions posed to them from interviewers, and they are being honest about it. If they've never seen it, they've never seen it. What would you expect them to say at this point? As for the internal whitewashing from THG book to THG movie, I agree with you there. Katniss and Gale's complexion was certainly changed for the movie, in what I understand from pressure by the studios to sell. It was wrong, but I doubt fault falls upon the creator of the series much more than you can blame the creators of A:TLA cartoon for the TLA movie. But this is completely separate from the THG vs BR issue. Not that it matters since I cannot prove it over the internet, but in case you are wondering what perspective I am writing this from: I am a Filipino American with a vested interest in Asian and Asian American pop media. I get mad when I think that wrongdoing has been done in Hollywood against Asian casting, or any miscasted ethnicity really. It's just that I don't see the same thing happening in this particular instance.

In response to the poster... No need for me to go into the full details as this writer below does a great job explaining, in depth, why in both the US and in global markets, Battle Royale was highly publicized and well known despite not ever having a wide US distribution. 


Battle Royale is not only Quentin Tarantino's long publicly stated favorite movie, it was not only covered by major US and global press, not only well known and rated on popular sites like Amazon, IMDB, or RottenTomatoes, but Collins' former background as a TV writer, as well as her international background, make it even more interesting that she claims to have never been exposed to Battle Royale either in book or screen format despite the striking similarities. Battle Royale may not have been well known among the casual American moviegoer due to lack of wide US distribution, but it was certainly well known within the industry that Collins worked in for several years prior to writing THG. The Hunger Games creators may have severely underestimated how well known BR was when making independent invention claims. Of course, since she claims ignorance the book author is innocent until proven guilty. It will be interesting to see what the Japanese company does legally once they have properly compared both films (the company said they would withhold comment until they made a comparison). 

You didn't seem to challenge the fact that despite cosmetic and other movie changes, Avatar clearly draws from Dancing with Wolves. Avatar was changed enough to stand on its own, but nobody disputes the influences from Dancing. The same can be argued for Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Why are you so insistent that there is absolutely no influence? You bring up the Oscar awareness for Dancing, but Battle Royale was nominated for almost every Japanese film award the year it was released. It was known. I've read additional comparisons today for THG to Greek methodology, to further add to the bundling and to create more distance. That would be like arguing that Avatar did not draw whatsoever from Dances with Wolves but rather drew from Pocahontas. One could go back as many thousands of years to try to draw a comparison with a past Western work with children or any other single artistic element, but it would arguably still not come as close to the combined parallels and similarities between Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Why try so hard to give credit to all these other Western works (no matter how weak the comparisons) and downplay the similarities with the Japanese book and film? Why expend so much effort to deny or downplay homage to one specific work?

THG clearly has a devoted fan base and it's been interesting to observe the back and forth on the blogosphere for these films as well as others. 

Obviously there are a lot of similarities between HG and BR. There are also a lot of differences. Collins says that she hadn't heard of BR until her editor mentioned the resemblance, and was advised not to look at it. If that's false, then it's substantially worse than a "snub" - it would be lying and plagiarism. But... if her claim is true, then your entire controversy is null and void. It's not a "snub" if there's no connection. It's just two creative people using similar cultural references (reality TV contests and desensitizing violence) to arrive at similar works of fiction. In either case, your conflation about racebending is a completely separate issue. Oddly enough, it applies to HG in the *opposite* direction: Katniss in the book is olive skinned (unspecified Hispanic, Semitic, Asian or mix), which Jennifer Lawrence is not.

Thanks for chiming in.  The whitewashing mention was meant more specifically for real life or fictional stories based on Asian characters, which were remade into Hollywood films starring white actors (21, Last Airbender, Dragonball, Akira, The Ring, Departed, Extraordinary Measures, etc etc). In these cases many American consumers don't realize the whitewashing and consider the films to be American originals or do not realize the race-bending which took place... but at least there is some acknowledgement to the original Asian characters by the Hollywood creators. The Hunger Games in unique in that its author denies any knowledge or exposure to an earlier book and film with which it shares multiple striking parallels. The irony is that this takes place so often for Asian characters and stories, and then we have a quote from THG about the importance of staying true to the characters that fans enjoyed.



Twitter has some interesting reactions: http://twitter.com/#!/search/realtime/hunger%20royale
Alvin, First off, I want to say that I wholeheartedly agree with your general points about everything relating to the idealization of western civilization. The more I read the more I realize that the brain-washing of sorts that was bestowed on me in grade school was wildly inaccurate, ethnocentric, and only helps promote the white man's image. However, I did notice one little bit of what seems to me like hypocrisy. When you mentioned paper money and the printing press, you mentioned that it was invented in "East Asian Countries", instead of specifically crediting China. While you gave credit to India, Persia, and other countries specifically, you decided to wash over China's accomplishment in this area. It seemed like a very deliberate move to skip any mention of China, despite the link even being a book about China's accomplishments. My first reaction is that it was a very peculiar way of structuring that sentence, and it seemed very deliberate. Not knowing your background, I decided to take a look at your profile here. It seems that you were born in Taiwan, and that only raised my suspicions. Could this be an intentional snub, hidden cleverly to subtly wash over the accomplishments of a country that you may hold some animosity over? I am a Chinese American, if you couldn't tell, but I am first and foremost an Asian American, and I believe that one of the obstacles in the way of greater Asian American unity is the issue that I am addressing. This is not, by any means, a China-Taiwan debate. When I see old Asian animosities diluting Asian American unity in this country, I can't help but speak up. Another example I've seen is recent news articles about China or Taiwan claiming Jeremy Lin. While it is certainly commercially profitable and, I guess, natural, for them to do so, Jeremy Lin is first and foremost an Asian American. He faced discrimination and was looked over because of his race, not any specific culture. It's not like he would have been given a bundle of new opportunities if he had been Korean or Japanese. And yet, I see Asian Americans also claiming him to a specific nationality, turning what is a inspiring story for all into a petty and unimportant dispute. Now, I may have read too much into one little thing, but I do believe the way you structured that sentence was a subtle and intentional snub.

Thanks for the comment.

[Now, I may have read too much into one little thing]

The short of it is yes, you read too much into that :)

Whether borrowed from or not, I think Collins' and Takami's books are dissimilar to warrant both existing. Do romance novelists credit the progenitor of their genre, even though they share liberally in theme and sometime scenario? In terms of the films, Collins' has a depth that surpasses the original "Battle Royale" film. We don't know these characters in Royale enough to develop a relationship with them. And the sometimes campy way in which they die, while perhaps all right for the time, seems dated. It was a great movie when I saw it, but that doesn't mean it couldn't have been better or more roundly developed. While "Battle Royale" relishes the blood bath on screen, "The Hunger Games" takes a different, softer approach to the situation. This isn't "Dancing With Wolves." No white person is showing the "savages" how it's done. These are two films that stand alone and shouldn't be compared as being the same thing.

[books are dissimilar to warrant both existing]

Agreed. As mentioned before, art and innovation builds on top of others usually with proper attribution. It isn't about whether Hunger Games stands on its own, it does. But it's more of an issue, and has generated more anger from a fan base, because of its denial of any knowledge from the earlier work that seems most similar to it, especially in a larger context of so many other past Asian stories and characters being remade with minor acknowledgement.

[This isn't "Dancing With Wolves." No white person is showing the "savages" how it's done]

I don't think you understood the point there. The point there was that Avatar and Dances with Wolves both stand on their own as movies, but the similarities are clear where one movie drew from the earlier one. One can point out all the differences as well to try to differentiate the two, but no one is trying to claim that Dances with Wolves had zero influence (as is the case with Hunger Games-Battle Royale).  I remember reactions and excuses when fans were staunchly defending The Departed as completely original and different from any other film, even after its director and producers clarified that it was a remake. 

[In terms of the films, Collins' has a depth that surpasses the original "Battle Royale" film. ]

Debating which one is better really goes down a path that deflects from the main question of whether The Hunger Games, as claimed, was created without any knowledge of the 1999 book and film Battle Royale.

I feel rather vindicated-- I've been telling my friends this is basically Battle Royale since they started talking about THG, haha. I'll have to read it before I make any assumptions, but I'm rather leery of the films too. I'm a bit of a media buff, so maybe my POV is biased, but frankly, I'd be quite surprised to hear that somebody else who enjoys media, as most authors do, wouldn't have heard of Battle Royale. I've watched very few foreign films (although BR is on my list) and I'm much younger than BR's target audience (closer to the age of the protagonists, to give you an idea) yet I've known of its existence for at least three, four years. Although it certainly isn't the only one of its type, it seems like the ultimate example of the trope, if that makes sense to anybody, which IMO is why these questions are being raised in regards to BR as opposed to Running Man and other films and books. I mean it's practically a meme-- I would use an expression like "that test felt like Battle Royale" but certainly wouldn't say anything like that about Running Man. (Also, much obliged for the cites about the calculus thing. My calc teacher seems to find an excuse every day to claim that Europeans were somehow way more advanced than everybody else because of calculus. I knew there was something off about that.)
@Justin McCraw "In terms of the films, Collins' has a depth that surpasses the original "Battle Royale" film. We don't know these characters in Royale enough to develop a relationship with them. And the sometimes campy way in which they die, while perhaps all right for the time, seems dated. It was a great movie when I saw it, but that doesn't mean it couldn't have been better or more roundly developed." Um, if you think that The Hunger Games has more depth than Battle Royale you must be young or were just unable to understand Battle Royale properly. The only point I can give you any credit for is the campy deaths which I admit are ridiculous and perhaps the only flaw of the film, but given that Battle Royale uses a lot of dark humor, I don't find it as bad I normally would. To this day I still have never figured out if the campy deaths were intentional or not.
It's quite common for American films to be based on Japanese films; Hunger Games is only the latest example. The Ring was based on Ringu, Those who made the Kill Bill movies were more honest about it than those who made The Hunger Games, as it acknowledged that Kill Bill was a tribute to the old Japanese and Chinese martial Arts films. In Kill Bill Vol II there are direct references to Kato, Game of Death and Shogun Assassin.
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